Research unveils brain activity associated with intergroup conflicts
by Ingrid Fadelli  /  June 1 2020

“Researchers at Beijing Normal university and Leiden University have recently carried out a study investigating patterns in neural activity that could be observed in humans during intergroup conflicts (i.e., conflicts between different groups of individuals). Their paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, draws inspiration from “The crowd: A study of the popular mind,” a book by Gustave Le Bon that describes the unusual and sometimes extreme ways in which individuals can behave when they become part of a crowd.

“To understand the ‘group mind’ and intergroup conflict, especially the underlying neural mechanisms, we combined functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) hyperscanning and behavioral paradigms from previous studies on intergroup conflict carried out by my group and a group led by our collaborator Carsten De Dreu,” Yina Ma, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told Medical Xpress. The recent study carried out by Ma and her colleagues was based on past observations suggesting that members of a group who are not genetically related can sometimes behave cooperatively, yet in other cases, groups of individuals who are generally fairly reasonable can behave in a hostile manner towards other groups. Two examples of these intergroup conflicts are political debates and fights between football fans.

In some cases, these polarized conflicts can seriously deteriorate relationships between groups, sometimes with highly destructive and undesirable consequences. “While social scientists (Le Bon, 1895; Durkheim, 1915) and economists (Hayek, 1945; Smith, 1988) have long investigated the origins and dynamics involved in such ‘madding crowds’, surprisingly little is known about the neurobiological underpinnings and the neural markers for group cooperation and intergroup conflict,” Ma said. “In our study, we used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to track individual brain activity and, in particular, neural synchronization among group members in relation to behavioral hostility during intergroup conflict…”

The contagious power of fear: why some believe that panic is a virus
by Robert Peckham / 11 March 2020

“…By the 17th century, panic was defined as a sudden state of terror that produced irrational behaviours in people. In the aftermath of the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720 – the last major episode of bubonic plague in Europe – the physician François de Chicoyneau argued that “panic fear” had been responsible for the epidemic. He traced a causal relationship in which fear had created a mental imbalance that subsequently caused plague. While de Chicoyneau’s ideas about “pestilential panic” gained little traction at the time, the notion that fear could have physical effects, and that panic could be as fast-spreading and dangerous as epidemics themselves, was revived in the 19th century. During the Industrial Revolution new ways of living with technology created novel forms of frenetic behaviour. In the 1890s, the French physician Gustave Le Bon noted that when people congregated in crowds “all emotions are very rapidly contagious, which explains the suddenness of panics”. Drawing on breakthroughs in bacteriology that attributed specific diseases to specific micro-organisms, Le Bon wrote: “Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.”

Panic was now understood as a form of contagion: it could spread; it was communicable in much the same ways as disease. The crowded spaces of the modern city were thought to be super-incubators of both disease-germs and contagious terror. When an influenza epidemic spread across Russia to Europe in 1889, circumventing the globe in four months, it became clear that panic could be stoked in new ways. Newspapers published sensational stories as they tracked the disease’s spread via the telegraph. The postal system came in for particular scrutiny, since it was feared that the flu attached itself to letters – a risk to both their recipients and to postal workers.


The occurrence of simultaneous panics in different parts of the world raised the question as to whether panic was universal, as well as why some events triggered panic and others did not. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, for example, produced little panic in India, where more than 12 million people are estimated to have died from it, as opposed to the bubonic plague pandemic at the end of the 19th century, which caused widespread alarm throughout the region. As the historian David Arnold has suggested, during the influenza pandemic the British colonial state did not overreact in its response. During the Third Plague crisis, however, draconian public health interventions produced panic in the population.

Twenty-first century epidemics have shown that panic may be shaped by local histories and traditions. In Hong Kong during the Sars outbreak in 2003, buildings where confirmed Sars victims lived were circulated online, leading to concerns about privacy and stigmatisation. These Sars lists were reminiscent of the “haunted houses” lists that feature on property market websites, warning buyers about inauspicious houses and apartments where residents had died from accident, murder or suicide. Economic concerns, beliefs and fears of infection may intersect to produce distinctive local moral panics.

The cultural dimension of panic was recognised as a feature of the Ebola outbreak across West Africa between 2014 and 2016. As international agencies struggled to contain the epidemic, fear and mistrust sparked local rumours, including claims that health workers were responsible for spreading the disease, or that Ebola was the work of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Ebola panic in the US during this period amplified inherited cultural and racial prejudices, drawing on an othering of disease that recalled the racial prejudices of the HIV panic in the 1980s.

Panic evokes the past, as well as offering nightmarish visions of the future. During the US swine flu panic of 1976, the 1918 influenza pandemic was cited by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a worst-case scenario, prompting a rush to produce a vaccine that ended up causing more harm from side effects than the virus itself. (Several hundred people who received the shot reportedly suffered from the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome.) But panic may also be induced by the prospect of an impending catastrophe. This was the case in 2005, when the world appeared to be on the cusp of an avian influenza pandemic that never materialised.

Panic has a long history and close association with epidemics. As populations across the world begin to stockpile food and disappear from public spaces, identifying common and distinguishing characteristics of past panics could be helpful as a first step in thinking more systematically about the nature of contagious fear, the forces that produce it, and the multiple forms of its global transmission.”

The power of crowds
by Dan Hancox / 2 Jun 2020

“…For most of us, a crowd can be an alluring thing, because the desire to be among the throng seems to be innate. Gathering together for ritualistic celebrations – dancing, chanting, festivalling, costuming, singing, marching – goes back almost as far as we have any record of human behaviour. In 2003, 13,000-year-old cave paintings were discovered in Nottinghamshire that seemed to show “conga lines” of dancing women. According to the archeologist Paul Pettitt, the paintings matched others across Europe, indicating that they were part of a continent-wide Paleolithic culture of collective singing and dancing.

In Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2007 book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, she draws on the work of anthropologists including Robin Dunbar to argue that dancing and music-making was a social glue that helped stone-age families join together in groups larger than the family unit, to hunt and protect themselves from predators. For Ehrenreich, rituals of collective joy are as intrinsic to human development as speech. More recent experiments by Dunbar and his colleagues have suggested that the capacity of singing together to bond groups of strangers shows it “may have played a role in the evolutionary success of modern humans over their early relatives”.

The power of crowds has long fixated religious and secular leaders alike, who have sought to harness communal energy for their own glorification, or to tame mass gatherings when they start to take on a momentum of their own. Ehrenreich records the medieval Christian church’s long battle to eradicate unruly, ecstatic or immoderate dancing from the congregation. In later centuries, as the reformation and industrial revolution proceeded, festivals, feast days, sports, revels and ecstatic rituals of countless kinds were outlawed for their tendency to result in drunken, pagan or otherwise ungodly behaviour. Between the 17th and 20th centuries, there were “literally thousands of acts of legislation introduced which attempted to outlaw carnival and popular festivity from European life,” wrote Peter Stallybrass and Allon White in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, as industrialising cities exploded in size, that the formal study of crowd psychology and herd behaviour emerged. Reflecting on the French Revolution a century earlier, thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon helped promote the idea that a crowd is always on the verge of becoming a mob. Stirred up by agitators, crowds could quickly turn to violence, sweeping up even good, upstanding citizens in their collective madness. “By the mere fact that he forms part of an organised crowd,” Le Bon wrote, “a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilisation.”

While the discipline of crowd psychology has moved on considerably since the days of Le Bon, these early theories still retain their hold, says Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University. Much of the media coverage of the riots that broke out across England in 2011 echoed the explanations of the 19th-century pioneers of crowd psychology: they were a pathological intrusion into civilised society, a contagion, spread by agitators, of the normally stable and contented body politic. Focus fell, in particular, on ill-defined “criminal gangs” stirring things up, possibly coordinating things via BlackBerry Messenger. The foot soldiers – 30,000 people were thought to have participated – were depicted as feral thugs. Hordes. Animals. The frontpage headlines were clear: “Rule of the mob”, “Yob rule”, “Flaming morons”.

Purportedly liberal voices clamoured for David Cameron to send in the army. Shoot looters on sight. Wheel in the water cannon. “What we need to recognise is that from a scientific perspective, classical [crowd] theory has no validity,” says Stott. “It doesn’t explain or predict the behaviours it purports to explain and predict. And yet everywhere you look, the narrative is still there.” The reason, he argues, is straightforward: “It’s very, very convenient for dominant and powerful groups,” Stott says. “It pathologises, decontextualises and renders meaningless crowd violence, and therefore legitimises its repression.” As Stott notes, by shifting the blame to the madness of crowds, it also conveniently allows the powerful to avoid scrutinising their own responsibility for the violence. Last week, when the US attorney general blamed “outside agitators” for stirring up violence, and Donald Trump referred to “professionally managed” “thugs”, they were drawing on exactly the ideas that Le Bon sketched out in the 19th century.

In recent decades, detailed analytical research has produced ever-more sophisticated insights into crowd behaviour, many of which disprove these long-standing assumptions. “Crowds have an amazing ability to police themselves, self-regulate, and actually display a lot of pro-social behaviour, supporting others in their group,” says Anne Templeton, an academic at Edinburgh University who studies crowd psychology. She points to the 2017 Manchester Arena terrorist attack, in which CCTV footage showed members of the public performing first aid on the wounded before emergency services arrived, and Mancunians rushed to provide food, shelter, transport and emotional support for the victims. “People provide an amazing amount of help in emergencies to people they don’t know, especially when they’re part of an in-group.”

Strange things happen to our brains when we’re in a crowd we’ve chosen to be part of, says Templeton. We don’t just feel happier and more confident, we also have a lower threshold of disgust. This is why festivalgoers will happily share drinks (and by dint of their proximity, sweat) with strangers, or Hajj pilgrims will share the sometimes bloody razors used to shave their heads. In a crowd, we feel safer from harm. If we now have a better grasp of the complexity of crowd dynamics, the core truth about them is relatively simple: they have the potential to magnify both the good and bad in us. The loss of self in a crowd can lead to unthinkable violence, just as it can ecstatic transcendence. What is striking is that, in recent decades, the latter has troubled the British establishment every bit as much as the former.


‘The open crowd is the true crowd,” wrote Elias Canetti in his 1960 book Crowds and Power – “the crowd abandoning itself freely to its natural urge for growth”, rather than those hemmed in by authorities, limited in shape and size. The Sermon on the Mount, he writes, was delivered to an open crowd. The obsequious flock, the brainwashed cult, the army marching in lock-step, is a world away from a fluid, democratic, sometimes anarchic congregation of the people. These open crowds have become harder to find, and harder to keep open…”


The Man Who Predicted Twitter Mobs
by Mitchell Abidor / July 10, 2020

“…so I turned to the great classic of crowd psychology, Gustave Le Bon’s La Psychologie des foules — in English, The Psychology of Crowds. Published in 1895, this volume, along with some of Le Bon’s other works, read like the writings of a seer. A century before his full meaning would be clear and long before the virtual world and its threats were even science fiction, Le Bon would warn in a 1911 volume that “mental contagion does not solely take place through direct contact of individuals. Books, newspapers, telegraphic wire services, even simple rumors can produce it. The more the means of communication are multiplied, the more people’s will is touched and infected. We daily become more connected to those around us. Individual mentality is receding easily to its primitive collective form.”

In The Psychology of Crowds, I could even discern an explanation for the formation of Twitter mobs. “Thousands of separated individuals can,” Le Bon wrote, “at a given moment, under the influence of certain violent emotions . . . acquire the characteristic of a psychological crowd. Some chance event uniting them then suffices for their behavior to take on the special form of the acts of crowds.” This made perfect sense. In my case, in their separate homes, having no direct physical contact, a Twitter mob had formed in a similar way. “A crowd in the process of formation does not always imply the simultaneous presence of several individuals in one place. Thousands of separate individuals can, at a given moment . . . under the influence of violent emotions, acquire the characteristics of a psychological crowd.” That the Twitter mob contained the educated should not have surprised me, for, as Le Bon informed me, “from the time they are part of a crowd, the ignorant and the learned become equally incapable of observation.” And that journalists would respond in as vulgar ways as anonymous trolls was also not a surprise: “A gathering of scholars and artists, by the sole fact that they are gathered together,” Le Bon explained, “does not render judgments on general subjects markedly different from those of an assembly of bricklayers or grocers.”

Gustave Le Bon was born in 1841, died in 1931, and wrote on a dizzying array of subjects. A capacious intellect, he would have loved the Internet. Le Bon studied, but never practiced, medicine, so we find among his published books a treatise on illnesses of the genitourinary organs; a volume called Apparent Deaths and Premature Burials; and a collection of slides for a conference on anatomy and histology. He was also the author of volumes on smoking, Annamite archaeology, travels to Nepal, and equestrianism and its principles. But politics and society were the heart of his oeuvre. Le Bon was very much a conservative of his time and place, with a profoundly pessimistic vision of the life span of civilizations, much of it based on notions of race and racial hierarchy. Hatred of socialism, democracy, and education for all feature prominently in his works. All of this no doubt serves to explain why he has been banished to the sidelines of social thought.


And yet there is no denying that despite — or perhaps more accurately, because of — his unblinkered vision, Gustave Le Bon saw mass society with a gimlet eye. His works, intended descriptively, were used prescriptively by politicians, particularly fascists. Mussolini read him closely; Goebbels and Hitler are said to have done so, as well. But Le Bon also had broad appeal: Sigmund Freud and his nephew, Edward Bernays, the father of American advertising, were also admirers. Le Bon’s central insight was that once he becomes a member of a crowd, the individual ceases to exist. He is as if “hypnotized” and is “no longer conscious of his acts.” With the fading of the conscious personality, the unconscious personality predominates, “orient[ed] through suggestion and the contagion of feelings and ideas in the same direction” as those around him. The result is that while “isolated he was perhaps a cultivated individual; in a crowd he become someone driven by instincts, consequently a barbarian.” Any act becomes possible.

Le Bon’s theories grounded in over a century of French politics driven by the masses. The bloodiest events of the French Revolution (which Le Bon despised), like the September Massacres of 1792, when prisoners of the Revolution were slaughtered in prisons all over Paris based on groundless rumors, were the result of a murderous madness that converted ordinary individuals into a criminal crowd. “The crimes of crowds generally have a powerful suggestion as their motive,” Le Bon theorized about this transformation, “and the individuals who took part are afterwards persuaded that they obeyed an obligation.”

Even disinterested acts of legislators, whom Le Bon understood as another form of crowd, along with juries, criminals, and voters, could adopt this mentality. Again citing the French Revolution, Le Bon pointed out that among the “most ferocious members of the Convention could be found inoffensive bourgeois who, in ordinary circumstances would have been peaceful notaries or virtuous magistrates.” But gathered as a crowd “they did not hesitate to approve the most ferocious proposals. . . . And, contrary to their own interests, renounced their inviolability and decimated themselves.”

Two centuries later, we do not usually face events as dramatic as the French Revolution, but lately, the crowd has not just assembled on Twitter. In June 2020, residents of the towns of Coquille and Klamath Falls, Oregon, became convinced that busloads of antifa “members” were headed their way to tear up their towns and attack white people led to armed mobs lining the streets. The mass delusion even went so far as lead residents to believe the failure of the non-existent buses to arrive was a result of their willingness to use their weaponry.

…Le Bon also speculated on the qualities of a successful leader, something that comes to mind when we think about how responsive these crowds are to Donald Trump’s tweets. A leader, he insisted, must have god-like qualities, and surely the Trump crowd’s devotion, with people lining up hours before the rally is to begin, bedecked in Trumpian attire, tells us something about why these tweets are so successful.

As Le Bon wrote, “We can’t succeed in understanding the philosophy of history even a little without having grasped this fundamental point in crowd psychology: one must be a god for them, or nothing. Pure and simple affirmation, freed of any reasoning or proof, constitutes a sure method to have an idea penetrate the mind of the crowd,” he observes. “The more concise and free of proof and demonstration it is, the more authority it has. [This affirmation] nevertheless only acquires real influence on condition it is constantly repeated and, insofar as possible, in the same terms.”

The Trumpian crowd, unswayed and unswayable, is also in Le Bon’s sights — as are my own left-wing Twitter trolls. All are driven by what they feel to be unshakably true. “Having no doubts about what it believes to be truth or error and possessing a clear idea of its strength, the crowd is as authoritarian as it is intolerant,” he writes. “An individual can accept contradiction and discussion; a crowd, never.” The futility of arguing with members of any crowd is clear, for in the psychology of crowds what matters is “the impotence of reason upon them. The ideas capable of influencing crowds are not rational ideas but feelings expressed in the form of ideas.”

Our current political divisions are also already limned in Le Bon’s pages, as well as the ways online controversies characterize the moral worth of individuals by a single expressed opinion. “One moment of conversation with an individual suffices for one to know what he reads, is usual occupations, and the environment in which he lives,” Le Bon wrote. The political split we now experience over scientific matters — in everything from evolution to climate change to Covid-19 — simply updates Le Bon’s observation that mass opinion is “derived from the adoption of some fundamental belief,” Le Bon wrote. “A monarchist knew for certain that man did not descend from monkeys, and a republican knew just as certainly that he did.”

But ideas are not what really matter to crowds. “People who seem to be fighting for ideas are really fighting for feelings from which the ideas are derived,” Le Bon explained, and feelings are impervious to reason. In fact, he insists, all debate is useless in the realms of religion, politics, and morals. It’s not only useless, it’s counter-productive, for “to debate rationally a mystical or affective belief serves only to exalt it…”

On the Rudeness of Mobs
by James Pogue / September 2020

“In October of 1769, a conservative Boston printer broadsided a bunch of the day’s leading activists. The colonies were in a furor at the time. Rioters and looters, often backwoods settlers angry about the power of gentlemanly land speculators, had grown in number and motive and became fixtures of American political life. Coastal cities were seeing new waves of migrants who’d been disfigured or dislocated in the wake of the French and Indian War, and a postwar depression in trade had brought the first period of economic hardship that many white colonists had ever known. “Mob rule” prevailed as the basic political condition in some cities, where the wealthy aimed to contain the popular energy or to channel it for their own ends—a tension that would dominate the framing of the Constitution.

By the end of the 1760s, a large part of Boston’s merchant class had discovered in the mob an expedient political tool: they spent half a decade recasting Parliamentary taxation as an assault on the “liberty” of impecunious colonists, though most moderate Britons (and colonists) were aware that white people in colonial America were governed as liberally as anywhere in the European world. A superheated rhetoric won out; soon it became a patriotic duty to support boycotts of taxed goods. Those who spoke against the boycotts faced social banishment, economic ruin, assault, and humiliation from the fomented crowd.

John Mein, the Loyalist printer of the Boston Chronicle, thought that the gentlemen who whipped up the mob were hypocritical profiteers, and he set out to prove it. He published the manifests of ships owned by leading members of Boston’s merchant circle, showing that some of the loudest mouths rallying popular support for boycotts and anger against British taxes were violating the boycott themselves, using their low-priced, smuggled goods to put smaller merchants who abided by the boycotts out of business. But Mein misunderstood the temper of Boston at the time. He thought that exposing the hypocrisy of men like John Hancock, whom he called the “milch-cow of the well-disposed,” would chasten the men whipping up riots and writing inflamed pamphlets.

The Patriot press and its supportive public didn’t care. They attacked Mein, calling him one of those “who have audaciously counteracted the united sentiments of the body of Merchants throughout North-America,” which was to say, basically, that talking about wealthy Patriots violating the boycott was more of an attack on the unity of the colonies than wantonly violating the anti-British boycotts that the unity was supposed to be in service of. Soon a throng of a thousand came for Mein, who had his head beaten with a shovel before he absconded to England by disguising himself as a British soldier. Hancock bought up Mein’s debts and shuttered his troublesome paper. The Patriots of pre-Revolutionary America did not believe in free speech or reasoned discourse.

A quarter of a millennium later, a cadre of mostly older liberalish intellectuals and younger conservatives ignited one of our periodic internet wildfires with an open letter in Harper’s, attempting to defend cultural life against the same forces that led us into the American Revolution. “Censoriousness,” they wrote, is a spreading force in our lives—“an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The writers of the letter took pains to avoid using the phrase “cancel culture,” though that is what they were writing about, possibly because this censoriousness has become so pervasive that it already feels pointless and passé to even rail against it using the common phrase. For the right’s part, the term-of-choice for this force is “mob rule,” a timeworn expression Tucker Carlson has recently taken to using almost every night as he portrays our ritual online denunciations of the living and the destruction of monuments of our once-hallowed dead as vilely un-American. But mob rule and cancel culture are what made our Revolution, which is to say that they made the America we still, for now, live in.

It has always been hard for Americans to deal squarely with the fact that we had a revolution. The right has trouble admitting that the United States, and a soon-to-form national and social consciousness, were born out of the convulsive and bloody overturning of a social and political order. The left has always had trouble believing that the ouster of that order deserves to count as a proper revolution, since it didn’t look anything like the revolutions that leftists would later celebrate or yearn for: it had no pronounced class basis, didn’t change the basic economic structures of the country, and its leaders were never interested much in pushing the logic of freedom and the equality of humankind to their rightful conclusions. “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Samuel Johnson famously wondered, long before anyone on this continent was seriously hoping for a split with the British crown. Even before most people fully understood that a revolution was beginning, observers were pointing out the duplicity in the rhetoric that birthed it.

Conservatives, in the moment before revolution, were terrified to speak out. Patriots began exposing private correspondences, leading one tremulous merchant to warn a friend to watch his language because “the temper of the people is such that misconstructions are put on the most innocent expressions,” as he put it, by “those who call themselves the Assertors of American Freedom.” Mob rule, or cancel culture, was among the forces that drove the formation of America. But it did not, for all that the papers spoke of liberty, birth an egalitarian or even an avowedly democratic America—which can hardly be a surprise, given that financial interests were what produced Revolutionary zeal; by the time George Washington, a slave-owner riding in a chariot with polished silver fittings, took up the presidency, the narrative of the new Revolutionary aristocracy as liberators and champions of the people was almost impossible to challenge. It was with this language that the Federalists soon set about tamping down popular energies and reasserting elite rule. It is a trick that elites would come to use many times in American history. And it is a trick they are using now.

Everyone, of course, has their pet example of recent corporate hypocrisy — Popeye’s Chicken tweeting out “Popeyes is nothing without Black Lives,” or Jamie Dimon taking a knee in front of an open bank vault to show Chase Bank’s support for equality and justice in America. But anyone, of any political persuasion, looking honestly at this moment can admit that it has been disorienting to watch so many companies, from Uber to Exxon to Rag & Bone, tripping to align themselves with a movement that began as an extralegal and sometimes violent revolt against the system that these companies administer. For their part, conservatives now seem genuinely shell-shocked by how quickly corporate establishments have accommodated themselves to the idea that looting and burning stores can be a legitimate form of protest—or at least to how quickly they’ve turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, the liberal punditry showed itself to be outlandishly terrified by the armed anti-lockdown protests that spread after the arrival of quarantine this spring, and horrified, too, at the way that conservative politicians and media embraced them. But these are both examples of the riotous tendency in American politics, a force that the powerful have only found dangerous when it couldn’t be brought in line with their own interests.

Yet riots were an accepted, or at least tolerated, part of British society in the eighteenth century. Britons prided themselves on having a constitutional order that provided “liberty” far greater than any of the benighted and priest-ridden societies of mainland Europe, and they took for granted that this liberty had been in part won by the threat of violence from common people. “Tho’ innocent Persons may sometimes suffer in popular Tumults,” one observer wrote in 1768, “the general Resentment of the People is principally directed according to Justice and the greatest Delinquent feels it most.” The unwritten British Constitution, a tripartite agreement between King, Parliament, and the common people, made it possible to believe that “extralegal” armed politics could, in fact, be legal when a fair point was being made and the powers-that-be weren’t unduly threatened.

“The Sons of Liberty‘s secret gatherings under the “Liberty Tree” to plan their next protest against the British government”

This was especially true in pre-Revolutionary America, which lacked the standing military force needed to quash riots. As colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson, in what now sounds like an uncanny echo of how corporations and establishment politicians have embraced contemporary protest movements, wrote in 1768: “Mobs, a sort of them at least, are constitutional.” This produced an effect that was as obvious in the founding days of the republic as it is now: in an unruly and dissatisfied country, mob politics are unavoidable. Which is to say that the people can have a little rioting, in the right circumstances, so long as they don’t unduly threaten the aims of the powerful.

“Bostonians Reading the Stamp Act” 

The best indication of how two decades of mob politics in America would look came with the passage of the Stamp Act, which placed duties on printed matter, and more importantly sought to establish a precedent for Parliament’s right to tax Britain’s American colonies. It was passed in 1765, to go into effect on November 1 of that year. On August 14, an effigy of Andrew Oliver, who was supposed to act as the stamp distributor in Massachusetts, was discovered hanging on an elm that would later come to be known as Boston’s “liberty tree.” That evening, a crowd torched the effigy, attacked Oliver’s home, and tore down his office—this opening salvo amounted to the first short burst of the Stamp Act Riots. The mainstream media celebrated them. “Our Brethren in Boston have indeared themselves more than ever to all the colonies in America,” a letter in the New York Gazette declared, wishful that this “Noble example . . . will be unanimously followed by all the colonies.” It was.

“Cartoon depicts the repeal of the Stamp Act as a funeral, with Grenville carrying a child’s coffin marked “born 1765, died 1766”

These were not spontaneous uprisings. The August 14 “riots” were planned by the Loyal Nine, a club of well-off merchants and tradesmen who would soon morph into Boston’s chapter of the Sons of Liberty. British officials noted “respectable people” looking “decently-dressed”—sounding much like Tucker Carlson accusing Black Lives Matter protesters of being well-off liberal arts grads—and complained that the mob did not appear as a proper mobile vulgaris—which would have included the unemployed, unpropertied, and free blacks comprising the truly dispossessed of the city.

“Rioters attack the house of lieutenant governor Thomas Hutchinson”

British officials, at the same time, sought to convince the mobs they’d been heard. “You have no need to have recourse to violent methods any longer,” Hutchinson wrote. “The channel is now open to the ear and heart of the best of kings: rely upon it and he will hear you.” Even the English took a kindly view: the protests were “highly approved,” one Briton wrote, “except the acts of violence—the destruction and plunder of private property.”

But the still-forming intra-continental associations of Sons of Liberty found it advantageous to their mercantile interests to keep passions on medium-high, while preserving the threat of simmering violence. By November 1 of 1765, the rich were firmly in control of the rebellion: “Two Gentlemen . . . the richest merchants in the town” called the leaders of North Side and South Side mobs and hired the proto-mobster Ebenezer Mackintosh, “with his corps to keep the Peace and prevent mischief,” as Governor Francis Bernard was quoted describing the scene in Pauline Maier’s classic study From Resistance to Revolution. Mackintosh “presided in a blue and gold uniform, wearing a gold-laced hat and carrying a rattan cane,” maintaining a crowd of two thousand, while “allegedly disorder-prone Negroes” were excluded.


After exhausting his usefulness, Mackintosh was himself cast aside by his gentlemen friends and placed in debtors’ prison. Soon enough these same patricians discovered a safer tool than riots, but one that proved just as effective at channeling a species of popular anger that traditional politics couldn’t: social ostracism and public shaming. On October 25, the freemen of Essex County, New Jersey, proclaimed that anyone who adhered to the Stamp Act should be cast out of polite society, that decent people should have “no Communication with any such Person, nor speak with them on any Occasion unless it be to inform them of their Vileness.”

This was not an isolated view. One writer to a Pennsylvania paper suggested, in language typical of the time, that a man paying stamp duties should be “branded with eternal infamy and reproach,” and cast out. “Let him be alone in the world—let him wish to associate with the wild beasts of some dark loathsome cave.” This invitation to shaming wasn’t a social affliction in the eyes of the people who encouraged it—it was deliberate and sound politics, a more controllable, pantomimed violence that placated the mob while containing the energy that led it to burn the homes of rich merchants and loot storehouses. “The central preoccupation of the Sons of Liberty and later the revolutionary movement,” Maier wrote, “was then with winning a mass base, with converting the population at large into Sons of Liberty.”

Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering John Malcolm at the Liberty Tree”

What this meant, in practice, was that while Sons of Liberty groupings were springing up all along the Atlantic Seaboard, the patriotic zeal they embodied was able to appear radical without ever slipping beyond the grip of the merchants who inspired it. Again, it was highly effective: “So universal has been the resentment of the people,” John Adams wrote gleefully, “that every man who has dared to speak in favour of the stamps . . . how great soever his Abilities and Virtues had been esteemed before, or whatever his fortune, Connections, and Influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal Contempt and Ignominy.”

It was more than a decade from the passage of the Stamp Act before the flames broke out in earnest. In retrospect the path looks inexorable, but it needn’t have been. British officials and many conservatives, finding themselves suddenly part of a confused and embattled minority, struggled to assuage or even understand the anger of the mob. In 1772, the royal governor of North Carolina took action to free backcountry farmers from the yoke of corrupt if well-connected land speculators, like George Washington, who used their connections to buy up land at cut rates and rent it out in an early form of sharecropping peonage. But this shift toward the interest of the poor and landless never fully took hold—partly because conservatives did not have much genuine care for the poor or the landless, and otherwise because the poor and landless were in many places already firmly in the Patriot camp. The disenfranchised had stopped believing in the capacity of the older order to hear their protests, and the Patriot elite took full advantage.

This period was not a time of earnest appeals or reasoned discourse. Personal vituperation and baroque hyperbole became more or less the rhetorical standard for political speech. Riots and disorder calmed for a while in the early 1770s, after the repeal of the Stamp Act and the subsequent Townshend Duties led to boycotts and smuggling of the sort that lined the pockets of men like John Hancock. But a new colonial sub-elite, an entire class born, like John Adams, with an “enormous chip on his round shoulders,” as Alan Taylor put it in his American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, was not appeased by this power structure.

Engaged in a fight over control of the colonial system, they wanted a respect that had long eluded them. And so the colonies became a zone of contest between rich men, with the mob serving as a weapon, or at least an instrument. “Rather than denounce all of the rich as a predatory class,” Taylor wrote, “Patriots encouraged laboring people to focus their animus more narrowly on a few gentlemen who seemed especially menacing because of their imperial connections.”

The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, but the politics it inaugurated had been institutionalized. The inter-colonial Continental Association was formed, and the tactics its leaders used to enforce its boycotts and political conformity now look positively Maoist. Long before the war began, the “mobs singled out suspected Loyalists, subjected them to elaborate interrogations, and urged them to sign confessions of guilt and repentance,” wrote Gordon Wood. Americans who drank British tea or spoke out against the Continental Association were forced to sign oaths of “Fidelity” in elaborate ceremonies of contrition. One observer complained that their methods were “really infamous,” and put opponents of the Association in “real danger of their lives. Their property was actually unsafe, their Signs, Doors and Windows, were daub’d over in the Night time with every kind of Filth, and one of them particularly had his person treated in the same manner.”

By the mid-1770s, the traditional aristocratic order had not been upended, but it had been sundered. Rich men who avoided the ire of Patriot diehards were paid the usual deference, which bordered on worship, offered to gentlemen of the age. But those who crossed the line were subject to almost comical extremes of social opprobrium. A Connecticut doctor, Abner Bebe, was “stripped naked & hot Pitch was poured upon him,” one friend wrote, “which blistered his Skin. He was then carried to a Hog Sty & rubbed over with Hog’s Dung. They threw the Hog’s Dung in his Face, & rammed some of it down his Throat. . . . His house was attacked, his Windows broke.” Taylor added: “Going door-to-door, committeemen urged every man and woman to sign the association or suffer the consequences. Inviting everyone to spy on their neighbors, the committees ferreted out, seized, and burned stashes of tea and conservative books while a crowd gathered at the county courthouse to hoot at the culprits. After confessing, the suspects had to ignite the condemned items in festive bonfires that rallied public support for the new committees and intimidated the wavering.”

The Patriots called those who pleaded for freedom of speech traitors to liberty. The Philadelphia committee proclaimed that “no person has the right to the protection of a community or society he wishes to destroy” by writing or speaking in ways that “aid and assist our enemies.” A Maryland conservative plaintively asked a friend, “What think you of this land of liberty, where a man’s property is at the mercy of anyone that will lead the mob!” Though, to be clear, it was not just anyone who could lead the mob now. “Liberty,” as a concept, had gone from a vague good shared by the subjects of a modestly enlightened slaveholding Empire to a concrete force that happened to align neatly with the business interests of speculators and merchants, which is to say it had nothing at all to do with free speech, the liberation of the twenty percent of Americans who were then enslaved, or the rights of colonists to be free of the powerful planters whose land-degrading farming practices and corrupt speculations were forcing Americans into landlessness. The amorphous British ideal of liberty was being given a concrete American definition, one that equated freedom with economic rights.

This new and violently enforced consensus had effects that were to prove almost unfathomably disastrous for the lives of untold millions, and for the political future of the new republic: a perverse logic that equated political freedom with property-holding reached its reductio ad absurdum when, almost a century later, rich, Southern men went to war claiming they were fighting for personal liberty by defending a system of human bondage. And in a society where owning land was the ultimate expression of freedom, and where rich landholders had seized most of the good land east of the Appalachian Mountains, it was inevitable that the poor and landless would push across the Boundary Line and enter into generations of genocidal war in the West. The land had to be taken from someone, the thinking went, and the colonial baronets much preferred that it be taken from Natives than from the rich, lest the rapacious economic and population growth of the new nation be throttled. The histories of this period are curiously bereft of any discussion of broader egalitarian potential amid all this shallow rhetoric and coopted violence. It makes sense, given that anyone who spoke against the Patriotic vanguard could find themselves on a scaffold beneath the Liberty Tree. A rebellion had formed, and then it had been contained. Now a Revolution needed to be finished.

“Loyalist refugees on their way to the Canadas during the American Revolution. The loyalists helped establish the base of support for political cliques in the Canadas, locally referred to as Tories.”

Canceling the Tories
The Revolution took shape more quickly than its authors could have expected. A large part of all societies on the brink of political upheaval believes that such insurgencies are too radical to effect. It’s a basic mistake of any historical analysis to see events unfolding as part of an inevitable plan or process, but after a decade of charged political divisions and deranged hyperbole on the part of Patriot activists, it is difficult to see what else could have come of it all. In 1765, writers were already describing the Stamp Tax in language that could not be answered by reasoned politics, declaring that it would “occasion an entire stagnation of trade, discourage every kind of industry, and involve us in the most abject slavery.”

“Sons of Liberty burning the effigy of the tax collector Andrew Oliver”

“Slavery,” in a hemisphere with an economy that was deeply involved in the most literal form of abject slavery, was a watchword for Patriot activists during a decade in which they enjoyed many of the choicest liberties anywhere in the world. But the self-pitying paranoia trafficked by white colonists didn’t conform to any real-world threat, and therefore couldn’t be assuaged by any real-world compromise. It was only natural for the Patriot gentlemen to finally forget, in 1776, the kindly affection that only months early they’d expressed for King George. “As the symbol of British sovereignty the king had to become the great villain,” Alan Taylor wrote. “In a pivotal transmutation, the formerly beloved king became a despised tyrant.”

“A new way to pay the National Debt (1786), James Gillray caricatured King George III and Queen Charlotte awash with treasury funds to cover royal debts, with William Pitt handing him another money bag.”

And “revolution” is the proper word for what the war unleashed in the colonies. Conservatives and Loyalists had long observed the new Patriot consensus with an uneasy mix of sputtering confusion and acute understanding—a rising generation of Patriot gentlemen, brought up reading Locke and Cato’s Letters and other new radical theory, wanted to sweep away the old British aristocratic order and replace it with a new one that happened to be led by them, one where their interests on the frontier and at the customs house would be well-served. They didn’t care what values they swept aside. The Tories charged with putting the “community at variance, father against son”—leaving “no law, no friendship, no alliance, no ties of blood” left in the face of their “specious show of an exalted kind of virtue.” They were “indeed trying to destroy the ligaments of the older society,” Wood wrote, “and to reknit people together in a new way.”

The Patriots upended timeworn social hierarchies without making an egalitarian revolution, and that was the point. Later republican leaders, like Thomas Jefferson, did write with some passion about how democracy could not exist in the face of deep wealth inequality, but they merely wrung their hands over the “question” of slavery. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton won ratification for an unpopular constitution by using the press, which they largely controlled, to create what Taylor called a “useful fiction” that We the People, and not a set of new aristocrats, had authored it.

To this day, many Americans believe the Federalists saw that our system of checks and balances was designed to protect the people against the abuses of government, and not that the system was designed to prevent mob rule by an overly democratic legislature. The revolution had been made manifest—a social and political order had been overthrown, and the people who had made bitter noise about the values of social decency and reasoned debate had been forced to flee to Halifax and London, if they’d been lucky enough to survive the war. But the mob had been carefully controlled, and our long national story—the story of a nation where the rote language of popular liberty has almost always served to protect the interests of oligarchs and businessmen—had begun in earnest.

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation,” wrote the signatories to the Harper’s open letter against cancel culture. “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” This is a nice sentiment. But in sum it’s a radical misunderstanding of our moment—revolutions, whether peaceful or otherwise, create their own logic. They do not conform to societal values, they remake them.

Statues of the leaders of our founding Revolution are falling by the dozens. The popular myths inaugurated by our originary acts of mob rule have fallen out of currency, and millions upon millions of Americans no longer believe that this was ever truly a land of liberty. They are right. And now a new coterie of corporate gentlemen and aristocrats are circling, aiming to gain from a moment of popular revolt that began with demands for equality and challenges to the very system that enriched them in the first place. If we’re going to have another revolution, we should be careful to watch who is leading it.”