THE MADNESS OF CROWDS
When God is dethroned by the people, the throne does not remain empty for long. Two of today’s pretenders are nationalism and the market.
The economic crash of 2007-08 feels a long time ago now, but we are still feeling its effects, like a tsunami whose waves continue to surge around the world many days after the initial disaster. Most of these play out in the extended era of austerity, where the impact falls harder on some than on others. But behind this lies a deeper question still: what happens to democracy when the market fails?
When the economic crash struck in 1929, it stoked aggrieved populism, most disturbingly in Germany, where the far right had already found cause in the country’s perceived humiliation in the Treaty of Versailles. Market failure often produces a populist revolt, unleashing volatile forces which are hard to contain. Some of these find democratic form. Brexit and Trump were the products of free elections. But what if further elections in Europe and elsewhere were to give power to the far right and the extreme nationalist policies it embodies? We have casually joined together the nouns liberal and democracy without thinking there might be illiberal democracy too.
In Exodus 32, Moses lingered on Mount Sinai in the presence of God and the people grew impatient. While Moses learned slowly of God’s character and purpose, the people tired of his absence and, in an early recorded form of populism, lobbied Aaron – second in command. It says ‘the people gathered around’ him. Aaron had nowhere to go; he was trapped by their bodies and their impetuosity. ‘Come, make gods for us’ they cried. And so Aaron crumbled before their power and the latent threat of violence, making for them a golden calf out of the earrings they wore.
The calf looks crude and unsophisticated to us, but the worship of images of animals was common enough in the Bronze Age as people used new tools to shape meaning from their environment. The calf became a unifying focus, forged from the shared possessions of the Israelites. Aaron consolidates this new god by building an altar, symbolising the people’s willingness to sacrifice for it, and by creating a feast day where the people could shape their new unity in food, drink and celebration. As his creation takes form, Aaron proclaims the calf to be the god ‘who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’. There is a new salvation story and God is supplanted by the image of a calf.
Ugly and credulous, isn’t it? And yet there are echoes of it our common life today. When God is dethroned by the people, the throne does not remain empty for long; indeed, several pretenders are found to it at any one time. Today, the market and nationalism are two such. While the market has delivered much, it has also failed periodically, producing deep political instability and has also enshrined inequality, disrupting human relationships. For many years, a succession of commentators have lauded its power and resisted human control of the mechanism, as if Man were made for the Market; and not the Market for Man. The crisis of 2008 took everyone by surprise, not least the high priests of the Market, like Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. An inevitable response has been a rise in assertive populism as people search for an alternative source of power. And right now, that looks like nationalism.
It says in Exodus that the people ‘rose up to revel’ as their new god took the throne. Nietzsche coined the phrase, the madness of crowds. Some might think it an apposite description of contemporary democratic outcomes; others might see this as elitist sneering at the will of the people. Both sides might benefit from accepting that neither the market nor nationalism belong on the throne as an ultimate source and arbiter of value. Understanding who rightly belongs there is the beginning of wisdom.
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