Elias Canetti’s Mass and Power may be the most insightful book ever written on collective dynamics. In the opening chapters, he describes how individuals, who show a natural tendency to avoid each other, come together to form what he calls ‘masses’.
“The most important process that occurs within a mass is discharge,” Canetti writes. “Before it occurs, the mass does not exist properly; only the discharge really constitutes it. Discharge is the moment when all those who belong to the mass get rid of their differences and feel equal.”
Our societies are intricate webs of differences, classes, ethnicities, customs, accents. Each of us has integrated gestures and phrases that assert our individual stance, and keep us distinct from others. These very distinctions determine our unique position and limit our freedom. They restrict our capacity to move anywhere, anytime, forming new connections at will. They weigh upon us.
The emotional moment of collective discharge that occurs in a mass blows away such limiting distinctions, and for a moment, redefines all participants as equals. For a moment, everything seems possible. This might occur during concerts, political demonstrations, religious ceremonies, or more banal rituals of collective production and consumption.
The relief experienced is high. These are desirable experiences. The danger, however, is that masses are inherently unstable. They break down easily, leaving a fleeting sense of loss behind them. Unless the one thing happens that will prevent their dissolution: to grow, to grow, to grow.