ochlocracy

To my eyes, this word tumbles forward like a landslide of eggs and eggshells, of eyes and calling mouths, biting mouths, with the repetition of letter forms o o c c c: “Oh! Oh! See! See! See!” as the various busy bodies spot, point, call others, gather the forces, tumble down on the object…

Tumble? Perhaps more like tweet. You recognize the –cracy, of course: you’ve seen it in democracy and autocracy and theocracy and so on. It’s from Greek κρατία kratia ‘rule’. But ochlocracy is not a form of government any more than a fever is a durable state of health. Ochlocracy is a stampede, an avalanche, a corybantic frenzy; the very leaders of the group may be ripped to pieces as though by Bacchae. Ochlocracy is a Twitter-pile, when a strident voice calls out an infraction, gathers the censure, and within hours thousands or even millions have ridden the group emotion focused on the destruction of the miscreant. In a slightly less acute way, ochlocracy is demagoguery that loses control of its hounds.

Most basically, ochlocracy is mob rule. The ochlo comes from ὄχλος okhlos ‘mob, crowd’. Mob, by the way, is a clipping of Latin mobile vulgus, where vulgus – yes, the source of our vulgar – refers to the common people, and mobile is the same as in “La donna è mobile”: it means ‘changeable, fickle’. So a mob was originally a fickle crowd; now it’s just any crowd – but, then, any crowd is fickle, so the sense hasn’t really changed, has it…

Crowds may be fickle, but they are fickle en masse. Change races through them like divine fire, as though by echolocation or a psychopathic telepathy. A mob may be ridden or directed for a time, but if it does not finish the fast-burning fuel available before the rider has achieved his or her end, the rider too will be consumed. Mobs may serve noble goals, to be sure, and in fact members of any ochlocratic caucus will almost always feel certain of their moral rightness. The ideal of the collective good and the rights of workers are beautiful goals and yet they fuelled some of the worse ochlocratic catastrophes of the world’s various communist revolutions – and gave way to authoritarianism, as all those who had lost their minds in pursuit of a cause gladly accepted a head to lead them.

Which leads me to the other thing ochlocracy makes me think of: Okhlopkov. Nikolai Pavlovich Ohlopkov was a Russian theatre director of the 1930s. He was a very good, thoughtful, innovative director. In his aim to make theatre more direct, he pulled it away from the thoroughly detailed realism that had been prevailing, stripped down the stage, highlighted the theatricality. It was involving and engaging, and at the same time it made the magic of theatre obvious, put frost on the window that is the signifier, pulled back the curtain on Oz. He wanted to serve socialism, but in some ways he helped people notice the glasses they had been wearing – and so he was forced to be less “formalist.” I wrote a paper on him, still one of my favourites from my academic theatre career: “Okhlopkov and the Nascence of the Postmodern.” (That link is to a PDF.)

His name has no relation to ochlocracy. But the connection is heuristically useful. Those staring eyes o o in the ochlocracy: they are not wide-open eyes but rather goggles, focusing, colouring, and distorting your vision. They are uninspected metanarratives: overarching stories and schemas that guide the construction and interpretation of the stories you use to justify diving into the mob. You put them on to keep the blood out of your eyes, and then take them off when they are too spattered. But if you can get enough frost or dust on them first, you may take them off and then see more clearly before there is any blood flying.

Every mob, after all, is an Emerald City, so appealing just because each member has chosen to put on emerald glasses made of his or her own justifications. “To make an omelet you have to break a few eggs!” they say. But if you are not cool and chary enough, you will find yourself surrounded by empty shells, with egg on your face.

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