Resisting “Mass”: Intellect, Courage and Human Survival

By Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University

March 27, 2023

Perpetually self-destructive, humankind continues to embrace war, genocide, and terrorism almost routinely. Plausibly, this lethal embrace is today even more worrisome than in the past. What are the pertinent particulars?

To begin, the lead engines of human destructiveness remain constant. They are still war, genocide and terrorism. An underlying “tribalism” still lays bare individual human needs. And in these always-primal matters, the personal and political continue to be darkly interwoven. 

There is more. Though not readily apparent to scholars or policy-makers, visceral human needs represent the principal driving force of world politics and international law. More than anything else, sometimes more than the “normally” overriding will to avoid personal death, human beings need to belong. This typically desperate need can be manifested harmlessly, as at any large sporting event or rock concert, or perniciously, as in recurrent eruptions of war, genocide and terrorism. 

At its core, one underlying dynamic of belonging never really varies. This incentive is always compelling, always the same. From the start, each individual human has likely carried forward in his or her own memory a bygone collective moment. This “carry” is an indelible marker of membership, one that over time has lost none of its hideously virulent private satisfactions. For the most part, such feelings signify reassuring membership in the “mass.”

To be sure, mass is a difficult concept to identify or decipher. Widely overlooked, its most binding source of comfort is an allegedly sacred complicity, a tacit sharing with some and against “others,” a collaboration which (inter alia) sanctifies the original forfeiture of microcosm against macrocosm, of self against mass. When, at long last, this bitter transformation is apparently complete – when certain lethal differentiations based on “us” versus “them” have already become de rigueur – entire civilizations could bring themselves to explosive disappearance. 

It has happened before,

Such “happening” defines the very meaning of human history. 

There is more. Ongoing world politics continuously express human isolation, alienation, or “aloneness.” Recounted earlier by Homer and Aristotle, each individual person ordinarily feels empty and insignificant apart from some recognizable membership in a mass or crowd. Sometimes, that sustaining mass is the State. Sometimes it is the Tribe. Sometimes it is the Faith (always, of course, the “one true faith”). Sometimes, though openly terroristic, it is even the “liberation” or “revolutionary” movement.  

Whatever the particular aggrandizing group of the moment, it is always the persistent craving for membership that threatens to bring forth a catastrophic downfall of individual responsibility. The intolerable result, as we have witnessed so often from time immemorial, is a convulsive and plausibly irreversible triumph of collective will. As modern examples of what can ultimately happen, the most evidently alarming are Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia. While any point by point comparisons here could seem specious or contrived, there is literally nothing supportable about Vladimir Putin’s ongoing barbarisms. Prima facie, these indecencies rival any monstrous behaviors in modern times.

A practical conclusion presents itself. Unless we humans can finally learn how to temper our overwhelming desire to be members, to belong to mass, all currently prevailing military and diplomatic schemes to deal with war, genocide and terrorism will eventually fail. Without more expressly protean human transformations, these assorted and generally well-intentioned schemes for a balance of power, collective security (United Nations) or collective defense (e.g., alliances such as NATO), will remain effectively beside the point. Made manifest in more properly social-scientific terms, these ineffectual arrangements will remain peripheral and epiphenomenal.

There is more. To finally succeed in its planetary search for peace and justice, humankind would benefit from greater commitments to intellectual understanding, of Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, Emerson, Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Ionesco, Beckett, Kierkegaard, etc.  “The crowd is untruth,” summarized the 19th century Danish philosopher, and in his unique summary lies the only plausible path to species liberation and survival. To survive and to prosper, Freud later noted in a similar vein, every civilization will need to harness Eros, that is, to help unite each single human life with all others. 

Alternatively, as Freud had also understood, individuals, in the name of some sort or other of ritualized mass loyalty, will continuously flee their own inwardness. They will flee “normally,” in expectation of some desperately needed freedom from “repression.” Facing even a conclusive death of self, these mass-struck individuals will refuse to be resuscitated. Steadfastly. Then, at long last, they will have succumbed in self-defiling union to the suffocating mass, herd or (recalling Kierkegaard) crowd.

In this discussion, Friedrich Nietzsche also deserves some pride of place. He had longed for a world “beyond Good and Evil.” Freud, who preferred the term “primal horde” to Nietzsche’s “herd” or Kierkegaard’s “crowd,” sought dispassionately to identify a world in which this longed-for transcendence might already have applied. Unsurprisingly, his discovery turned out to be our extant world, one wherein Eros remains unable to play its indispensable world-unifying role. Instead, in this world, Eros merely reinforces baneful or narcissistic identifications with each particular individual’s amalgam of choice.

Today, for easily determinable reasons, the evening news is often about “disease” manifestations, but almost never about any underlying pathologies. Our most pressing dangers of war, genocide and terrorism continue to stem from the combining of more-or-less susceptible individuals into crowd-centered collectivities. Not every herd is violent, of course, but war, genocide and terrorism can never take place in the absence of herds. This is a point well worth keeping in mind when thinking about current global crises, especially Russia’s staggering crimes against Ukraine.

In his own writings, Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung noted that whenever individuals crowd together and form a herd, the latently destructive dynamics of mass may be released like the mythical Furies. As we have seen throughout a biter human history, these dynamics lower each person’s moral and intellectual level to a point where every conceivable horror can be judged acceptable. This includes the mass killings associated with war, genocide and terrorism. 

All this should bring us back to current events, to symptoms, to “epiphenomena.” At their core, most ongoing conflicts across the world represent specific expressions of armed struggles between warring herds. Often, though the tribal contenders would have us believe that “God’s will” is the gold standard of their policy decisions, the inevitable end to their blind fury of Realpolitik is anything but divine. 

We require a consciously far-reaching detachment of individual human meaning from membership in destructive herds and a corresponding awareness that war, genocide and terrorism have mercilessly decimated the herds of centuries. Whether such detachment and awareness are still within our remediating grasp is deeply problematic. Nonetheless, there is no other way 

We require a determined end to proliferating cultures of anti-reason. This necessary cessation will demand resistance to “mass” and the complementary encouragement of more authenticity-based civilizations. To actually achieve these more enlightened cultures of intellect and courage, macrocosm (world politics and international law) will first have to follow microcosm (the individual human being). In matters of world political and legal reform, the former should never be detached from the latter.

This article was authored by Louis René Beres, Emeritus Professor of International Law, Purdue University