Understanding street power

C. Gopinath | Updated on: Mar 09, 2018

Crowd logic appears in several ways and when it gathers momentum, it brings down decades-old regimes as in Tunisia and Egypt. Now, governments elsewhere are being forced to sit up and take notice.

Who would have thought that a vegetable seller's self-immolation on the streets of Tunisia would start a global revolution? Yet, his mother's protest against police harassment (which had driven the young man to his end) was picked up by news channels, Facebook and so on, and caught the ire of the public at large. A small random protest grew because a lot of people felt the same way and toppled a 23-year regime. The crowd did it.

The virus then jumped to Egypt. Here was a President, who in almost every previous election for three decades was re-elected with over 85 per cent of his people voting for him. Now they wanted him out? Perhaps those elections were the problem. It was difficult for him to believe what he saw outside his window — the crowds were tearing down his posters (and those of his son), waving shoes when his speech was broadcast, and so on.

President Ben Ali of Tunisia clearly heard the crowd and ran. The reporters of Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based news channel, seemed to understand what the Egyptian crowd wanted. They regularly told us that the crowd wanted President Hosni Mubarak to go. Were they selective in whom they were interviewing? The individuals they picked seemed to know what everyone else wanted. Reporters from other news organisations were interpreting what the people wanted by talking to those who either knew the language of the interviewer, or were the most articulate (or loudest).


How do we understand what a crowd wants? James Surowiecki's book Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations (Doubleday Publishing, 2004) tries to give an answer. He says “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them”. Statisticians rely on this principle when they believe the mean (or average) is representative.

Collective intelligence can be brought to bear on a wide variety of problems. Of course, there are conditions under which this happens. Individuals in the group must be able to consult each other and rules must exist to maintain order and coherence. After all, as Surowiecki reminds us, both a riot and a stock market bubble are caused by groups.

But how do you ask a crowd when you cannot poll everyone? The crowds weaving in and out of Tahrir Square in Egypt may not exactly be in the mood to complete a questionnaire. President Mubarak seemed to have a hard time understanding the crowd. World leaders were telling him to listen to the people. He first said he was appointing a vice-president. The crowds remained. He then said he would not run for election in September. The crowds grew. He cut off the Internet, but that didn't help. Surowiecki says, “Diversity and independence (in the crowd) are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.”

Mubarak took the advice seriously and sent in his supporters into Tahrir Square for some disagreement. The result was violence. He sent his defence minister into the crowd. They cheered and protected him. Hmm. Mubarak couldn't figure that the logic of this crowd. He finally went to his palace in the resort town of Sharm el Shaikh to reflect and then it struck him. He quit!

Even with a diverse sense of purpose, crowd logic appears in several ways. When the riot police vanished from the streets, members of the crowd took it upon themselves to direct traffic. Even when army tanks appeared, individuals in civilian clothes were directing them into roads and the convoys were moving obediently! Crowds formed gangs to protect residences in parts of the city. Some gangs began looting. Then the crowd began checking the id of those who wanted to join the crowd!


Democracies, it is said, brings the principle of the crowd into the halls of parliament. Not true. France, a democratic nation, has for long had an active ‘crowd logic.' No matter whether the parliament is debating the revision of social benefits or changing the retirement age. The French, with an experience of revolutions that dates back to 1789, believe in going out into the streets. A few cars may get torched along the way, but street power is highly demonstrative.

Even staid England, which believed that it was above all this riff raff, has seen a taste of street power recently. When the British government last year announced budget cuts in education that would result in fees almost tripling, crowds of students started weaving through the streets of London, expressing their outrage. Prince Charles, whose motorcade inadvertently waded into this, saw what it felt like when the angry populace bangs on your car's windows.


Others are listening to crowds, too. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen announced that neither will he run for re-election, nor will he hand over power to his son. Whew. King Abdullah of Jordan dismissed his cabinet. The President of Algiers is talking of reform. And China censored any Web searches about Egypt's crowds.

I cannot help but finish with this sign that was reportedly held up by one person in the crowd gathered to welcome back an opposition Islamist leader from exile into Tunisia, “No Islamism, no theocracy, no Sharia and no stupidity!” Clearly, there are sane voices in every crowd.

(The author is Professor of International Business and Strategic Management at Suffolk University, Boston, US. >blfeedback@thehindu.co.in )

Published on February 13, 2011
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