Stock market crashes and depressions are not ordinarily caused by floods, droughts, transportation failures, earthquakes or other such tangible problems.  The most important reasons for economic crises are psychological.  Buying and selling stock reflects people’s views and hopes. One sudden drop leads to many others. Mass hysteria follows.

Mass hysteria has never been understood. We have seen murderous reactions to the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed in countries as far from each other as Pakistan and Nigeria. Violence has taken place between Hamas and Fatah in the Gaza Strip. For years we have seen  destructive violence in Iraq, where Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims killed each other. There is a long history of conflict between Shiites and Sunnis, and there is added hostility concerning issues of power under Iraq’s new constitution and the al-Maliki government, but the intensity of their emotions seemed to be connected to an unrelated issue: many radical Iraqis feel hatred towards America and Israel.  Hatred is hatred. If you feel you have to kill somebody and if the somebody is not there waiting to be killed, you kill whoever is available.

Eugene Ionesco explores the question of mass hysteria in his 1959 play Rhinoceros. He apparently was inspired by the rise and spread of Nazi sentiment before World War II, but the play is not realistic and not overtly political.  Every character in the play except one decides to turn into a rhinoceros. It is the thing to do. The characters cannot resist the temptation to change into rough, rampaging animals. Ionesco gives us no answers, but he recognizes that sometimes a whole community becomes psychotic. He named this phenomenon “rhinoceritis.”

The rise of the Nazi Party, the inspiration for Ionesco’s play, may have been the result of the fusion between two different but irrational movements: anti-Semitism and fascism. The word “anti-Semitism” was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, who wanted a movement that would continue to hate Jews even if they had lost their religion or converted to Christianity. Before Marr, the words used to justify hating Jews—whatever the underlying motives might have been—were based on interpretations of the Bible, in particular Matthew 27:25, where we read the following verse about the Jews: “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”  Marr wanted Jews to be hated because of their genes, not their religion. His movement grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It had no connection, at first, with fascism, an irrationally nationalist party that Mussolini created in 1919 and which took power in 1922. Hatreds apparently seek other hatreds and unite with them, creating new hatreds exponentially more powerful than either hatred was alone.

Selling stock is very different from hatred. Economics is very different from prejudice. Nevertheless, mass hysteria can occur in all sorts of different situations. Why did the Dow-Jones average drop?  Rhinoceritis.

Literature may point to a psychological problem before it has been recognized as such. That’s what Ionesco’s Rhinoceros did. Today people are choosing to turn into rhinoceroses all over the world. We have to fight them, of course. We also have to try to learn what made them go crazy.

A somewhat different version of this, which does not mention the Dow Jones average at all, was published in Volume 22, No. 1 (2008) of the New Zealand-based journal Mentalities/Mentalités.