The Open Crowd & the Kettle

6a00d83451e1dc69e2017ee99f3ec0970dElias Canetti’s Crowds and Power provides a useful starting point for this project. In it, he identifies a wide number of different crowds. They are determined by the temporality of their aims, the space in which they manifest themselves, the orientation of their activity, the manner in which their togetherness is conceived. In fact, the axes of differentiation multiply to such an extent that what initially began as a simple taxonomy, fractures and multiplies to reveal crowds as always too complex and contradictory to explain or understand in their totality. As a beginning, then, Canetti underlines precisely the multiplicity of the crowd.

Despite this multiplicity, let me focus on two types of crowds, in Canetti’s eyes. The open crowd is ‘open’ in the sense that it is un-boundaried. It is open on all sides and throughout. There is no point of division where the crowd could repel new-comers, no boundary where a sovereign could exclude. It’s simple rule is growth, or at least the possibility of growth. The crowd has a mass, a density and a gravity, and this gravity draws people in. ‘The open crowd exists so long as it grows; it disintegrates as soon as it stops growing…. In its spontaneous form it is a sensitive thing. The openness which enables it to grow is, at the same times, its danger. A foreboding of threatening disintegration is always alive in the crowd.’1 It is to be distinguished, Canetti tells us, from the closed crowd which is determined by its boundary.

The closed crowd renounces growth and puts its stress on permanence. The first thing to be noticed about it is that it has a boundary. It establishes itself by accepting its limitation. It creates a space for itself which it will fill. This space can be compared to a vessel into which liquid is being poured and whose capacity is known. The entrances to this space are limited in number, and only these entrances can be used; the boundary is respected whether it consists of stone, of solid wall, or of some special act of acceptance, or entrance fee. Once the space is completely filled, no one else is allowed in.2

The boundary – usually a building – remains even when the crowd disperses. As such, the closed crowd maintains a different transcendence to that of its open variant. The open crowd’s transcendence happens in the sharing out of the equality of its happening. The building or walls of the closed crowd, however, allow the crowd to continue even when it is not actually taking-place. ‘The building is waiting for them; it exists for their sake and, so long as it is there, they will be able to meet in the same manner. The space is theirs, even during the ebb, and in its emptiness it reminds them of the flood.’3 Canetti imagines crowds in theatres, in stadia, in churches and each of these have their own dynamics which I do not have space to even begin to deal with. But the open crowd, as it flows through the streets or gathers in public squares, is never boundaried. There is no edifice which would stand in for it when the crowd dissipates. While the theatre or church stand for their audience-crowd in their absence, there is nothing to function like this for the open crowd. Instead its flow, its density and its discharge take place only in an immediate sense.

Canetti insists that even when commanded by a ‘leader’, transmission of orders in a crowd is always from one person to the next, and is thus always subject to reversal, refusal or alteration by those within the crowd. In other words this is absolutely not Le Bon’s idea of the crowd as the unified subconscious of the leader, where this unity meant that like entranced automatons the mass would simply follow his instructions. Le Bon’s is the model of full transcendence where the leader, the demagogue and the sovereign stand over the crowd and present its unity and truth. The transcendence of the open crowd is always partial. Within the immanence of the crowd, there is a reaching out for transcendence which is never completed.

Paradigmatic of the open crowd is the mass protest. This crowd, initially flowing through the streets, churning through the city, suddenly hits a barrier. ‘The urban space [as we know] has always expressed the inequality of social relations and offered a site of conflict.’4 The barrier can be anything, it might be the end point of the march, but more likely it is the police lines. In the UK recently, large protests have been kettled. That is the mass of people, first open and growing, are suddenly confined in a large area. They are penned in. The anti-globalization May Day protests of 2001 were penned in Oxford Circus, the G20 protests in 2009 were confined in Bishopsgate, or the student protests of November 2010 were kettled in Trafalgar Square and the following week in Parliament Square. The crowd, whose only law is of organic growth, is suddenly delimited. It now splits, with frenzy small groups of radicals, anarchists and agent provocateurs confront the police with violence. While the mass of people stand back. In Bishopsgate and Trafalgar Square there was song and dance. All the while people gather just outside the kettle, some seeking to watch this ever growing spectacle, others seeking to join. I saw the police kettle being itself kettled as further protestors outflanked the police’s cordon sanitaire.

Inside the kettle the open crowd is already gone. The kettle, as it detains those within, stealthily destroys the growth, movement and openness of the crowd. The kettle explicitly releases people in a ‘controlled’ manner.5 ECHR 459, at para 23] The police describe the kettle as a matter of ‘control’ and ‘protection’. The unruly mass must be controlled and the individuals and property within and without must be protected from its wrath. But the kettle itself is an apparatus of differentiation. In effect this means dividing the violent ‘elements’ from the peaceful – a nice chemistry metaphor. The kettle is a matter of purifying compounds, so that the violent are not mixed with the peaceful. The kettle seeks to get the crowd to a boiling point – at this point of frustration certain elements will be brought to violent action, thereby expressing their ‘truth’ as violent individuals. And with this the snatch-squads can go hunting. In this way the crowd can be refined, detaining the violent and releasing the non-violent. There is, of course then the problem of appearance and reality – it may be that those who did not violently respond to the increasing pressure within the kettle are nonetheless ‘violent’ or ‘dangerous’ individuals, wolves in sheep’s clothing who will go on to wreak havoc outside the containment, but there is surveillance for this. Thus the police constantly monitor and collect the identies of those who attend via video, identity and photographs, maintaining extensive databases of the ‘elements’ of the crowd.

This idea of a crowd as being made up of different elements which must be purified by intensive policing technique is entirely different to the logic of the open crowd. We might contrast an idea of a static essence or nature of these individuals with a shifting and mobile equality of the crowd. The crowd presents a collective equality in which one takes-part. This taking-part is never a possessive act, but a sharing in the equality (and the freedom of discharge) of the crowd itself. As such, when the police talk about splitting up crowds and dividing different elements, they demonstrate their very different sense of the crowd, as merely a collection of individuals.6

  1. Canetti, Crowds and Power, 16-7
  2. Canetti, Crowds and Power,  17
  3. Canetti,  Crowds and Power, 17
  4. Douzinas, Philosophy and Resistance in the Crisis, 138
  5. Austin and Others v The UK, [2012
  6. While not imediately relevant to this point about policing, it is worth noting Lord Justice Neuberger’s amazing discussion of the ‘imputed consent’ that those taking part in the protest gave to the police to confine them: ‘if imputed consent is an appropriate basis for justifying confinement for article 5 purposes, then it seems to me that the confinement in the present case could be justified on the basis that anyone on the streets, particularly on a demonstration with a well-known risk of serious violence, must be taken to be consenting to the possibility of being confined by the police, if it is a reasonable and proportionate way of preventing serious public disorder and violence.’ At para 61, (2009) UKHL 9.