The rise of crowd culture – a generation scared to do anything alone

Individualism is dead: we have succumbed to the lure of the crowd

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

2 August 2014

9:00 AM

Hell, as one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s characters said, is other people. Unless, that is, you happen to be British and born after about 1980, in which case hell is the opposite: being alone for more than about five minutes. As for the absolute pit, the eighth circle or however else you describe the geography of Beelzebub’s kingdom, that is being left alone without a 3G mobile phone signal.

Of all changes in British life over the past generation, nothing has been quite so as stark as the strange death of individualism. When in 1995 the then transport secretary Steven Norris told the Commons transport committee that the reason why many people preferred to travel by car than by bus was that they saw an advantage in ‘not having to put up with dreadful human beings sitting next to you’, he was of course barked at by the left for being a heartless Tory bastard who cared nothing for the poor. But even his critics acknowleged, as the Independent did in an editorial at the time, that he was nevertheless speaking for the misanthrope who lurks within us all.

Such a comment no longer really makes any sense; not when you hear of as  many as 200,000 people eschewing their home sound systems to squash together at Glastonbury, leaving aside all the other wannabe Glastos; not when you see every last pebble of Brighton beach covered with the backsides of day-trippers who could have gone to any beach in the South East — many of which actually have some sand — and yet chose here, where they must have known they would be unable to move. The inner misanthrope wasn’t much in evidence, either, among the six million people who last month lined the streets eight deep to watch the Tour de France. It can’t have been the sport they were after; a more unsatisfactory spectator experience could scarcely be imagined; a real fan would watch on the television so as to see the race develop; not stand for hours with the sweaty masses to catch a glimpse. The popularity of the event can only be described in terms of a un-Norrisite desire to be part of a large crowd.

You can see this yearning to be part of a crowd in the housing market, too. Until the mid-1990s everyone seemed to want to leave smoky, rotten old London. Yet there has been a snap-back, with people choosing to live piled on top of each other in overpriced broom cupboards, while rural property struggles to sell. (London’s population was under 7 million in 1995, and has now passed 8.5 million.) It shows up in restaurants which 30 years ago were full of couples and small groups, but which if you walk into now, even midweek, you find the tables have been shifted together for a vast girls’ night out. It shows, too, in our pubs, the backstreet ones of which have gone to be replaced by vast drinking factories catering for a thousand or more people at a time. You can see it in literary festivals, attending which seems to have become a substitute for reading books, and on Ben Nevis, which has become a four-lane motorway of sponsored walks while lovelier mountains nearby go unclimbed.

But there is no greater symptom of Britain’s newfound herd instinct than in the popularity of big screens showing sporting events and the like. A big screen is really just a huge telly. You don’t get to see a live sporting event. You just sit and watch a screen, as you could do in your own living room, but without your fridge close at hand — and in the company of a few hundred or thousand other human beings who each presumably have the same BO and irritating personal habits which inspired Mr Norris’s love for his car.

I started with a rather negative view of individualism because that is where the left would want me to start. For many, the death of individualism is to be celebrated. They would love to think of the yearning to be part of a crowd as the ultimate defeat of Mrs Thatcher’s brutal view of humanity. They would love to see the desire to share public spaces as an embrace of collectivist values. For them, the rise and rise of shared mass experiences among the young is the living embodiment of a generational divide, between an older, Ukip-friendly age group who live in fear of national over-crowding, and a younger mass for whom each extra person living on our shores merely serves to add more atmosphere to the great big street party that is modern Britain.

Yet here is the twist. The rise of the mass shared experience has not been accompanied by a revival of socialism, or anything approaching it. Quite the opposite. The generation of crowd-lovers shows little inclination to share its money. The divisions between the well-off and the less well-off grow sharper by the year, and the young, like Peter Mandelson, seem intensely relaxed about it. I stand to be corrected on this, but I don’t recall a campaign on the part of this year’s Glastonbury-goers, who had paid a minimum of £210 for their tickets, for the poor to be let in at a discount, still less for the festival to return to being free, as it was in 1971. You occasionally hear moans about the price of Premiership tickets excluding the working man from what was traditionally his game, but it is all rather mild, really. The crowds of which we like to be part are largely socioeconomic monocultures made up of people rather like ourselves.

There has to be some other explanation for the rise in herd behaviour. Some interpret it as a reaction to more solitary working environments. Where once we worked close together in factories, goes the argument, now more of us work from home, and so we get to the end of the day gagging for human company. Yet many factory workers laboured effectively alone, with any attempt to talk to their fellow strugglers drowned out by clanking machinery if not banned by the management.

In any case, the golden age for individualism fell some time after the decline of manufacturing industry. The desire to plough one’s own social furrow was strongest in the 1980s and 1990s when many of us already worked in atomised, de-unionised industries. I see something quite different: that individualism sowed the seeds of its own demise, by denying its children the time and space to develop as individuals.


Until the 1970s it was normal for parents, even middle-class ones, to leave their children to make their own entertainment. That might mean going out and forming mini-gangs — life as a child in the middle-class suburbs where I was brought up in the 1970s had its Moss Side moments. But quite often it meant spending time alone. Yet from around the early 1980s onwards laissez-faire parenting no longer seemed good enough for successful people who wanted to give their own children an advantage in life. For many, childhood became much more organised. Children became ferried around from one activity to another.

The result is a generation which has never spent time by itself and has no idea how to entertain itself without some external input. The positive side of the individualism we have lost was self-reliance and resilience. Being alone — or even just being cut off the greater mass of humanity — has become something to be feared. My eye was recently caught by the story of a ‘cliff rescue’. A party of five had gone for a walk onto the sands near Weston-super-Mare. The tide had come in, they clambered a little way up a cliff, made frantic calls and were rescued by helicopter. A narrow squeak, as it was reported. Except that the photographs showed something quite different: of people sitting on a grassy bank which quite clearly was not going to be engulfed by the high tide. Moreover, it was the middle of summer. All they had to do was to wait for the water to recede and then to walk back to their car. For an earlier generation it might have been considered a minor adventure, but for this one it was an experience of sheer terror: being cut off from external sources of entertainment for a few hours.

There is a fashionable theory that creativity results from gathering large numbers of people in the same place like Silicon Valley or indeed the less-pastoral Silicon Roundabout in east London. By this theory large cities thrive because they have a critical mass of brains, while small towns become culturally moribund. But then it rather depends what you are trying to create. If it is a social media start-up I don’t doubt you are better off in a space — as they like to call their offices — with lots of other men with ponytails. But would Gustav Mahler really have composed better music had he worked in a roomful of composers and an organic coffee machine than in his lonely hut on the Wörthersee?

Social media is the sheepdog of the new, crowd-loving Britain. It is the beast which manipulates minds and concentrates attention on a few favoured places, ideas, products and cultural works at the expense of others. No one discovers anything any more; it is all discovered for us. Social media works on the latest obsessive-compulsive disorder in us; the voice in us telling us we must do or see something because everyone else is telling us to. What has happened to the publishing industry is instructive. Social media has not quite killed off books; but they have killed off browsing while inflating sales of a few titles for which the only recommendation required is that 10 million people have already bought them. Whether these lucky books are actually read, as opposed to discussed in 140 characters, is another matter.

I don’t want to sound too much like an old grandad. Indeed, there is something inside me which welcomes the rise in herd mentality. It is the compulsion to pile into crowded places, thereby making them even more crowded, which keeps other places quiet for the country’s remaining few misanthropes like me. Keep on going to your festivals, I say, keep on piling on to Brighton beach and into Wetherspoon’s. It is thanks to you, the herded, that I could find last weekend, on a hot day in the middle of summer, a beach in highly populated southern England deserted enough for nude bathing.

I am not telling you where it is in case some jerk with 10 million Twitter followers thinks: what a great place for a festival.

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Show comments
  • Terry Field

    The media info culture and the homogenised industrial education system, acting together, have cretinised the generation – they think as they are directed, believe as they are allowed, buy as they are instructed, shag in a pc manner, breed as required, and will die in Switzerland in a compliant manner.
    They are no longer human.
    The rise of intelligent machines is with us – formed from what used to be human beings.

    • pearlsandoysters

      That’s undeniably the way things are, though there’s some space to escape. My take is that not everyone is so compliant, they just don’t fill in newspaper inches, that’s it.

      • Terry Field

        There are always free spirits – and in the consumerate, there are always the Winston Smiths – but just as he was destroyed and no hope remained, I fear that is the future of humanity.
        Western thought concerning liberties is evaporating before our eyes – a dreadful time to live, if one is not a barbarian.

        • pearlsandoysters

          I’d say that a certain paradox is that people are not prompted by fear of let’s say hell, but lured by promise of paradise here and now. Western thought about liberties is nigh impossible without particulars, namely individual persons, who enjoy liberties. However, it’s the shift towards abstract liberty that played the trick. The modern day liberty on offer is a liberty from simply being oneself with all the quddities.

          • Terry Field

            Freedom to do and ‘be’ (?) whatever an ‘individual’ wishes to do or be is valueless where purpose and measures of value to give meaning are absent.
            Welcome to the black hole of materialist, gene-replicating, atheistic hell.
            The Dawkins non existence – no dark night of the soul, since no soul.
            Just Bonkey singing about shagging, and showing her nipples.

          • pearlsandoysters

            That’s what I meant actually, the propagated “more freedom for individual” means absence of freedom and leaves us with a very strange definition of “individual” as a mere “collection of identities” for social engineers to tamper with. My take is that humans are more resilient than they suppose and all sorts of narrow minded scientists can indulge in their shallow and dubious theories till their thoughts and ideas vanish as useless, worthless and groundless. May be I am too optimistic, yet the artificial, mindless stuff that poises as modern social sciences will crush under their own weight being unable to sustain the complexities of the nature. There have been hushed whispers and clear voices in academia saying in no uneven terms that the current scientific paradigm is out dated and worn out, sooner or later the current antihuman times will change.

  • Gwangi

    Social media is a success because the insecure young are desperate to show how many ‘friends’ they have, and hate being left out. Yes, it is a sheepdog. But then, most people are sheep and always have been. Only around 3% are tiger cats who walk alone!

    As a long-time individualist, I see that most people do prefer the company and security of the flock or mob, and frankly, always have. I have always known people who have been frightened to be alone – who could never do anything alone or live alone. That is especially true of people brought up in large families, I find. Nothing new there.

    And yes, I too poo on the fashionable theory that deifies ‘working as part of a team’ and blags on about ‘critical mass’. ALL creativity is an individual achievement. The marketing and business side that comes from that creativity is essentially business, NOT creativity – most in London creative jobs have about as much creativity as photocopier…

    • Kennybhoy

      They do not seek safety in a crowd they seek an audience. They are narcissists.

      I am special! I am special!
      Look at me! And you’ll see!
      Someone very special! Very very special!
      LOOK at me! LOOK at me!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Never take refuge in the majority.

    • M P Jones

      How do you even pause to find out who you are if you never experience solitude?

    • Charles Hammond Jr

      And the form of governance in the recent age is reflecting this trend.

      The smallest, most hated, least liked, oft ignored, hardly hearkened, most persecuted and most maligned minority in this or ANY other age is the human individual.

  • Amir

    Read my article with Norman Lamont on individua
    Ism, Thatcher years, immigration, europe and scotland:


    I’ll be grateful to you if you click on the advert on underneath of the page (no virus), each click will bring me 45 p which will contribute to keep my website open.

    • Nick

      Could you please stop using the Spectator as a free source of advertising and asking for money.

    • Matthew Stevens

      Oh why the hell not?!

      Good for you having the initiative to start your own website!

      Funny how these Speccie readers object to being politely requested to help you generate revenue even in the most voluntary way imaginable and at no expense to themselves!

      • Nick

        I’d happily support it if it wasn’t littered with glaring grammatical, stylistic and spelling errors.

        • Matthew Stevens

          Oh give him a break! He’s an enterprising kid trying to see his way to earning a buck or two. (and no, I don’t know him or write for his website)

    • global city

      Do something along these lines?


  • Atticus

    The people are divinised, while the person is ostracised.

    This is one of the issues I have with left-wing politics: the desire to push us into acceptable groups and shout down the ‘heretics’ who wish to remain different.

    • Jack

      Unlike the right who want everyone to return to an imagined 1940s utopia where everyone worships the same invisible sky wizard and no one speaks loudly on a train

      • Kennybhoy

        Touche! lol

      • Liberal

        Please be quiet on the train.

      • justejudexultionis

        I fear the ‘invisible sky wizard’ is no more than a straw man of your own imagination. Did you spend a long time thinking that one up?

    • pearlsandoysters

      Right to the point! I guess it’s much more difficult nowadays to hold independent opinions or express non-conformist views. There’s an immense pressure to conform and very little room for individuality left. The more there are laudable words about “individuality, creativity and originality” the more homogenized everything becomes. This was exactly what Alexis de Tocqueville predicted would happen. The real problem is that such situation stalls progress or more generally movement when there are so many “think alike” minds on the ground, pretty incapable of doing things on their own.

  • Damaris Tighe

    You forgot the crowd after Diana’s death which heaped flowers on pavement shrines while at the same time baying for the Queen to share in the hysteria.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      On that occasion the Queen came within an ace of being publicly booed. Now that really would have been prime time television, except no UK media channel would have aired it.

      • Kennybhoy

        Big. Snowy. Rocks. Back. Under. Get.

        • Jackthesmilingblack

          What’s your original contribution to pointless insult ratio?

    • Terry Field

      It was group hysteria – a mob of weeping mindless acolytes-of-the-moment; creatures whose own lives were and are entirely devoid of value, love, self-worth and significant self-effacing achievement.
      Copycat behaviour of the martini and lemonade brigade.

  • Damaris Tighe

    I don’t know whether it’s chicken or egg, but another factor is that our culture now values extroversion over introversion. Workers are expected to be ‘team players’. They’re forced to work in open ‘spaces’ rather than private offices. ‘Learners’, aka schoolkids, are herded together around large tables facing each other, instead of sitting at individual desks facing the teacher. Trainers force their captive audiences to ‘share’ with each other & split into groups, rather than sharing information with individuals quietly taking notes

    • Kennybhoy


      • Damaris Tighe

        Indeed, I speak from experience! The extroverts are forcing their extroversion on all of us. Extroversion = crowds.

        • trotters1957

          Your contribution says you are a pot calling the kettle as are most of the attention seekers on here.

          • Damaris Tighe

            Socialist nutter who doesn’t like individualism.

  • Lockstein13

    BEWARE: it takes precious little
    to manipulate those with a
    “crowd mentality”
    into a

    • goatmince

      …mob rule even. Magna Carta elitists beware!

      • global city

        Indeed. The cultural Marxists are doing a grand job of getting their various herds on the march.

  • Jeeti Johal-Bhuller

    If Sartre stated hell as being other people then Baudillard* or Descartes may cite other people inside our head as a modern day demonic possession as being hell incarnate. A matter of perspective. Though entrepreneurial individualists thrive working as lone operatives, it nonetheless is a mark of character distinction and social standing to have a fellowship or following. Its incredibly confidence boosting to be able to stand alone without fear or need of substantiation yet there is a wondrous delight in being in the company of family or friends. As it has always been, a choice than a circumstantial state of being, or the inability to be in ones own company or fear of crowds is more worrisome than the dilemma you have highlighted I think.

  • We love crowds so much we’ll spend our life’s savings for a festival


  • James

    This article is terrible. I would argue there are stronger examples of herd mentality in the past, across the world, than currently exist today. You can cite any number of examples, Nazi Germany being the obvious, I guess. The 20th Century is particularly ripe with them?

    Surely social media is actually a good thing for strengthening a sense of individuality in the sense that people are now, more than ever, exposed to an incredible array of opinions on any one topic. The dissemination and communication of information ultimately leads to a reevaluation of dogmatism and an individual and social level, even if it doesn’t alter to a large degree.

    The writer comes from an age where his opinions were limited on a comparatively limited number of news sources. Think of all the different media outlets that exist today, through social media, it’s immense.

    Yes it’s true that people communicate in large numbers over a shared interest, but it doesn’t follow that this means people are fearful, less individualistic compared to this writer.

    • grutchyngfysch

      “…it’s immense.”

      Immensely boring, immensely derivative, immensely crass. An endless tide of narcissism masquerading as moral outrage, crested by inanities elevated to received wisdom.

      You cite the million media outlets – I often go hunting for alternative takes on news stories only to find over and over again the same re-hased AP/Reuters piece and the same opinions that will end up as single-image memes on Buzzfeed or HuffPo before the end of the day. It’s just simulacra.

      We’ve been sold choice at the cost of difference.

      • trotters1957

        You can’t be looking very far. have you tried something called a “search engine”.
        Reaction masquerading as intellectualism.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The O-bon holiday is just starting in this neck of the woods. When the peasants are let off the leash, the only sensible option is to go in the opposite direction, in my case stay home. But I’m already on vacation in a resort area year round, so I don’t resent the visitors, they bring in much needed funds. My area is the only place in Japan that doesn’t need a national government handout, so can spend its own money without Tokyo running interference. How else could our local government spend like there’s no tomorrow? The latest is a stadium for kendo, judo, karate … The curling centre’s going well, visitors say it’s the best in Japan.
    And as for enforced human contact, gimme a break. The postman twice a week is more than sufficient. Just so long as I can reach my favourite alcoholic beverage outlet by the back roads and avoid the tourist traffic.
    Jack, the Isolated Personality Brit, Japan Alps

    • Kennybhoy

      You in Sapporo loon?

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        The closest I get to Sapporo is the beer.
        Japan Alps, Sapporo? I can recommend “The Times” Atlas for those specelly challenged brethren.
        Jack, Japan Alps

        • Kennybhoy

          I prefer the old Reader’s Digest Atlas myself….

          I used to ski at Sapporo back in the day and my neice the curler mentioned that they have decent facilities there…

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            The recently opened curling centre here is considered by visitors, both national and international, to be the best in Japan.
            Jack, Japan Alps

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Face it Britisher pals, trash culture has become the mainstream culture. Dumbed-down to the point where Mr. Average is incapable of independent thought. But surely that was the cunning plan. Kept busy, fed banality, chav culture UK.
    For a real laugh, try “ON SET OF GRIMSBY IN TILBURY TOWN, ESSEX. STARRING SACHA BARON COHEN, MARK STRONG AND ISLA FISHER” on YouTube, only click for the clearer version.

  • evad666

    I prefer the company of Misanthropes to that of Narcissists.
    Employers prefer extroverts to introverts.
    Individuality is denigrated.

  • Bonkim

    Don’t subscribe to social media. Individualism lives – ignore the rest and do what you want.

  • James R Lewis

    Individualism has gone missing the way sexuality was missing for Queen Victoria. Reality does not go away because the public discourse changes. Individuality is alive and well in each of our minds. It’ll be back.

  • by denying its children the time and space to develop as individuals.
    Thank you for saying it. My husband is a teacher and I’ve forwarded your article. Schools these days care sod-all about developing the child as a person as an individual with an internal life that is about him, not how to be a cog in the machine.

    I spent a lot of time in my adolescence doing nothing much — reading my parents’ books, listening to their music, and dreaming and thinking on my own. I was considered precocious and particularly mature for my age. The time alone had a great deal to do with it.

  • 123db

    Individualism is a fashion and its currently not in. Wait for a while, it will soon be the next little black dress.

    I spent my teenage years in the 80s learning all those survivalist tips from the likes of Rambo and the whole self reliance movement that came out of the anti nuclear dystopia future ideas that were so fashionable.

    Its a mentality that isn’t a part of today’s kids lives. They are so used to being plugged in, and always being winners because there are no loser any more, that its an alien idea to them. Their films are all fantasy heroes and politics is all very ideological.

    Its the next generation who are going to make a stand. They will fight against the commodification of free time and rebel by not being a cog in the machine.

    But its not going to happen for a while. My grandson is only 2 – its going to take a while for him to learn what he’s rebelling against!

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Rambo III is a gem. Rambo fighting with the Northern Alliance against the Soviet invaders. Move on a decade and the US replaced the Soviets as the bad guys. I feel the muse upon me…
      “Oh bin Laden, oh bin Laden
      Though he’s dead and breathes no more
      Prop him up and take his picture
      Till the whole world goes to war”

      To the tune of Shenandoah

  • grimm

    I have always loathed teamwork, team players, cheery outgoing extravert personalities, camaraderie etc. Modern urban society has become an environment where only the extraverted are really comfortable. Their superficial personalities, their capacity for shallow, disposable friendship their love of showy sentiment passed off as emotional depth, their relentless small talk peppered with lame repetitive “humour” – all these are perfectly suited to modern city life.

    The trouble is that this wretched extraversion is becoming more and more widespread as the sacred virtues of group participation and team spirit are forced on the population by educators and employers alike.

    Incidentally, it was amusing to see the Glastonbury crowd, who had paid so much to be entertained, being ordered by performers to sing along, clap their hands, get up and dance etc.

  • Gixxerboy

    Quiet by Susan Cain makes interesting reading on this topic

  • trotters1957

    I don’t know how someone can get something so wrong, Mr Clark. Society is more atomised than it has ever been.
    The anecdotes that you claim make your point do the opposite. They show that more and more of us are living alone, sleeping alone, and working alone.
    Our society has never been so lonely.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    An individual is a person who really doesn’t care what others think of them. Which means there are very, very few real individuals.

    • George Smiley

      And that partly explains why you have never been able to hold onto a job ever since you returned back to your native Country that is Japan almost some 10 years ago!

  • Richard

    I think you’ll find that as Britain has greater influxes of people from the Third World, this trend will continue. There is almost no individualism in the Third World, everything is collectivist, and everybody behaves the same as everybody else.

  • Mike A’Doodle

    A brief compilation of Obama’s lies about healthcare: http://youtu.be/SyOrfrfMeOU?t=10s