The frenzied, lawless “mob” was a favourite image of nineteenth-century European literature, and survived right down to the interwar novels of Céline. For more use by Flaubert of the theme, see the great curmudgeon’s letters to George Sand, sent from Croisset in March and April 1871:
[The] insurrection in Paris is, to my eyes, a very clear and almost simple thing. What retrogressions! What savages! How they resemble the people of the League and the men in armour! Poor France, who will never free herself from the Middle Ages! who labours along in the Gothic idea of the Commune, which is nothing else than the Roman municipality. Oh! I assure you that my heart is heavy over it!
“Ah! God be thanked, the Prussians are there!” is the universal cry of the bourgeois. I put messieurs the workmen into the same pack, and would have them all thrust together into the river!
I hate democracy (at least the kind that is understood in France), that is to say, the exaltation of mercy to the detriment of justice, the negation of right, in a word, antisociability…
The Commune rehabilitates murderers, quite as Jesus pardoned thieves, and they pillage the residences of the rich, because they have been taught to curse Lazarus, who was not a bad rich man, but simply a rich man…
The only reasonable thing (I always come back to that) is a government by mandarins, provided the mandarins know something and even that they know many things. The people is an eternal infant, and it will be (in the hierarchy of social elements) always in the last row, since it is number, mass, the unlimited. It is of little matter whether many peasants know how to read and listen no longer to the cure, but is is of great matter that many men like Renan or Littre should be able to live and be listened to! Our safety is now only in a LEGITIMATE ARISTOCRACY, I mean by that, a majority that is composed of more than mere numbers.
The spectre is revived by present-day media descriptions of looters and criminals in the disaster zones of New Orleans, Haiti and now cyclone-hit Queensland. As ever there is little evidentiary basis for such claims, and their origin lies mostly with anti-popular prejudice and sensationalism. Their “intellectual” source is the Hobbesian dictum that auctoritas, non veritas facit legem, and thus that morality and social order cannot survive without the enforcing role of Leviathan.
Thus we come to the ideological purpose of the trope, at least in contemporary settings:
- To build support for the domestic deployment of military forces, and rule by ministerial decree, to restore “order.”
- To distract from the contribution to “social breakdown”, where it occurs, of inadequate planning, evacuation or mitigation measures, public-service provision and emergency response by civilian authorities.
New Zealand’s Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010 confirms the broader purpose of “mob” commentary in the wake of natural disasters, protests etc. The aim is to extend the unchecked powers of the state’s executive branch, at the expense of other government agencies and, of course, the population itself.
The identification of “failed states” is used to legitimise military interventions across borders, in defiance of international law. Talk of mobs and looters, on the other hand, prepares ground for the use of military and other forces against “security threats” on home soil. Policing duties for colonial troops in East Timor and Solomon Islands shade readily into domestic operations in far-North Queensland, the Northern Territory or wherever emergencies arise.