The Revolt of the Masses
PART II: The Kinetics
Following Part I, my review of Jose Ortega‘s seminal book La rebelión de las masas, translated The Revolt of the Masses. Written during the naïve interval between the World Wars – truly the most tender of our years. Masses was written as a reaction to the rise of the fascistic and nationalistic tyrannies of pre-WWII.
Ortega delivers what many take as an elitist view of ‘masses’ as having great potential danger due to its general ignorance of finer aspects of society. Yet, he categorically slams fascism as the tyranny of the bourgeois – a thuggish and violent pretense to history and heritage – and admits that such tyranny is also found among socialists and communists. Therefore, Mass Man is as pervasive as his race.
Ortega maintains that Mass Man is an equal opportunity destroyer. Mass Man is both parent and preserver of the illusion of purity. I found this quote from an anonymous Amazon reviewer that puts a bull’s eye on a key aspect of Ortega’s Mass Man dynamic:
Mass man is a principal character of the modern superstate; an inert, unthinking being hostile to the finer creations of aristocratic culture and easy prey for demagogues of every political persuasion. He is characterized by passivity, an appetite for entertainment and spectacles, and a hostility toward the sensitivity, discipline and training that are necessary prerequisites to aristocratic culture.
What strikes me is the way Ortega defines the ignorance and profound ineptitude of Mass Man. A film quote from Men in Black comes to mind:
A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals…
As Ortega describes it, this dangerous animal is in constant struggle to come to terms with the next “modern world” and blinded by non-stop bewilderment of never ending levels of socio-economic complexity. We are most certainly aware of this struggle, and instinctively we know how dangerous Mass Man truly is. And we appease this creature in tides of de-constructionism, de-historicizing, de-genderizing, de-humanizing – we call it “political correctness” for short. It is one of the greatest social engineering projects ever undertaken. To quiet mass man, to ease his pain, we are willing to strangle every shred of uniqueness from our culture. We fear what he can do so much that we will straighten all paths and clear all stumble stones so that he never stubs his toe.
If you are uncomfortable with that interpretation, consider Ortega’s blunt description of the psychological and sociological constructs; how he describes social transitions from extremes of public order to disorder and his grasp of the latent impetus that Mass Man has for extremist politics. Were Ortega here with us now, he might write about the new uncertain age – one that could unify our energies toward something transformational (like world peace) or set us blundering into yet another epoch of tragic waste.
That leads me to what I believe is Ortega’s most chilling vision: Mass Man as a kinetic object manipulated by politicians and other de facto ‘rulers’ (think “corporations” and “special interests”). Here is where the ontological question of “plentitude” enters the discussion. Ortega categorizes plentitude in several ways: in terms of technology, humanity, moral sense, reality and of practical aspects of daily life like water, energy, well-stocked grocery stores, and so forth. Now imagine a decline of plentitude – either artificial or real – and the struggles that will follow.
We witnessed the power of those kinetics in the so-called Arab Spring; how, after years being denied various forms of plentitude, Mass Man rose up and swept aside the former rulers of Egypt, Yemen, Libya (and soon to be Syria). In some cases (Kaddafi’s Libya), I believe the kinetics were triggered accidentally by pure blundering. In other cases (Mubarak’s Egypt), there is evidence of deliberate manipulation. There are governments – the autocratic ones in particular – that are in clear danger . China, for one, may have the kinetics and the plentitude factors in place to make a spectacular fall.
You’ll find plenty of opinion on how Ortega somehow foretells the fall of western civilization – but Ortega’s visions are based on philosophical observation, not empirical evidence. His lessons are, on the first order, warnings to the aristocracies of the day. He envisioned profound change – and he was right. However any extrapolation beyond historical application – to say that he foretells the fall of all governments, for example – is a rush to judgment and a stretch of logic (at best). To be sure, there are warnings for today’s governments – present and future, democratic and autocratic – but does Ortega have the power to peer through the thick fog of time and circumstance, which grows thicker with every passing day, and predict our future with any kind of accuracy? He is a great philosopher from his time – but he is not a futurist, not a soothsayer or a prophet.
We are enduring some tough times these days, but American society is not so fragile as to tumble into a Mass Man situation that easily. The same goes for most of the established industrialized nations. We may tease the kinetics a bit, but most countries tend to give Mass Man plenty of room to blow off his frustrations. From time to time, he may even riot or burn down a neighborhood, but are these separate acts rage the opening measures of rebellion? Were that the case, then rebellions would be far far more frequent.
Ortega offers us a picture of our human condition based on some pretty subjective observations – one might even say, Euro-centric. I chose to use his observations to gain a clearer vision of how I fit into this whole mess – after all, Mass Man exists wherever we live, and WE have control. -HP