The Banality of the Crowd

The crowd is always wrong:

In “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” one of the most poignant and important works of 20th-century philosophy, Hannah Arendt made an observation about what she called “the banality of evil.” One interpretation of this holds that it was not an observation about what a regular guy Adolph Eichmann seemed to be, but rather a statement about what happens when people play their “proper” roles within a system, following prescribed conduct with respect to that system, while remaining blind to the moral consequences of what the system was doing — or at least compartmentalizing and ignoring those consequences.

A good illustration of this phenomenon appears in “Moral Mazes,” a book by the sociologist Robert Jackall that explored the ethics of decision making within several corporate bureaucracies. In it, Jackall made several observations that dovetailed with those of Arendt. The mid-level managers that he spoke with were not “evil” people in their everyday lives, but in the context of their jobs, they had a separate moral code altogether, what Jackall calls the “fundamental rules of corporate life”:

(1) You never go around your boss. (2) You tell your boss what he wants to hear, even when your boss claims that he wants dissenting views. (3) If your boss wants something dropped, you drop it. (4) You are sensitive to your boss’s wishes so that you anticipate what he wants; you don’t force him, in other words, to act as a boss. (5) Your job is not to report something that your boss does not want reported, but rather to cover it up. You do your job and you keep your mouth shut.

The Banality of Evil

This is the reason why ethics is not the same as morality:  because it entails subordinating the individual to the crowd. A standard of behavior is imposed on the will, not because it is right, but because the individual is needy. This is necessary for the lawbreaker, but not for the individual of conscience.

This is also the reason why anarchism is a necessary perspective:  because the crowd is always wrong, but especially when it is organized, purposefully driven, rule-bound, amoral, and political. Anarchism is not necessarily a political program or a way of life; it may be a perspective that recognizes the evil of banal complacency, of relinquishing moral judgment to party platforms and corporate identity.

Politics can be perfectly moral so long as it never involves compromising for emotional or social reasons; in other words, so long as it is enacted robotically, ruthlessly, and tyrannically, or else deceitfully, ruthlessly, and criminally. In such cases, the moral objective remains pure and idealistic, but only because the method is inhumane or unethical. If the method is humane, then the moral objective will be compromised by pluralism. If the method is ethical, then the moral objective will be compromised by the need to please the crowd, which is necessarily less rational than the individual.

A moral method, on the other hand, cannot achieve an arbitrary objective, such as a political purpose. The objective must be embodied in an ideal that transcends the existing system, one that will outlast it; otherwise the method will be compromised by the ethics of the crowd. Therefore, a moral method is implicitly anarchic and apolitical, and so may seem to be purposeless.

Attempts to reconcile this dichotomy force the individual to perfectly reflect the will of the crowd, or force the crowd to perfectly reflect the will of the individual. But since the crowd is less rational and less spiritual than the individual can be, the crowd is always wrong.

The obvious fact that the crowd is always wrong may lead one to the conclusion that a “superior” individual (that is, an “overcomer man”, an “ultimate man”, or a “man that comes after”) is obligated to control the crowd in some way. Thus, a radically egocentric moral position suggests that the crowd must be manipulated, coerced, dominated, herded, prodded, brainwashed, stunned, hogtied, slaughtered, sterilized, aborted, corralled, deceived, segregated, whipped, beaten, drugged, euthanized, cannibalized, sodomized, re-educated, imprisoned, crushed, purged, massacred, or otherwise civilized.

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