The Revolt of the Masses
Part I: The scary stuff
I have a thirst for philosophical discussions about human communication: how we communicate, why we bother, and to what end. Sometimes my journey for information takes me on some pretty wide meanders (read “over thinking”) like John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Thomas More Utopia, J.B. Phillips’ Your God is too Small, Gertrude Himmelfarb On Looking into the Abyss. Some of these books are in my collection. A very small number are well worn. Most I have read once, ponder at a distance then conceal bewilderment at my utter ignorance.
The truly bewildering ones scare the crap out of me. I suppose I’m like any other ape – the scarier the thing, the more likely I am to stare. It’s probably more fun to sit back and watch my reaction than anything else.
The one book I have held on for years, the one that I have stared at the most, is titled La rebelión de las masas (trans: The Revolt of the Masses) written by the modern Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). I was first introduced to Masses when I was a smartass teen filled with faulty ideology and stumbling through my first PolySci class. There I met Dr. Cohen who insisted that I read the book – in his words – “as a primer for the rest of your life.” I cringed at a few passages back then and after a very very long ponder – about 30-odd years – I actually read it. My first reaction was to laugh because he was so very right. Not to go off topic here, but I really thought I was some kind of ‘true story’ genius. I had it all figured out. After all, I had read Wolk’s War and Remembrance at age 19 and survived! No kidding. I embarrass myself.
“Masses” is a collection of essays that Ortega delivered to his students and followers – concerns he had about social developments during pre-World War II. Retrospectively, the collection holds the clearest record of the rise of a worker rebellion that led to the Spanish Revolution in 1936. In this way, he delivers a deeply insightful (some may call elitist) description of volatility among large and disaffected bodies of people and the pressure they exert on government and society as a whole. Among Ortega’s prominent themes is the pervasiveness of mediocrity – not necessarily as an artifact of social order but as a potent political equalizer. Yeah. Let that one sink in.
Let’s open with one of the most serious and general criticism of Ortega. He writes like a pure intellectual elitist. I speak mainly to his description of socialized conformity, a.k.a. mass thinking: a system of order that is openly opposed to excellence and inclined toward conformity; a force that seeks the maintenance of the status quo by relegating original thinking as a clear threat to the best interests of the average person. Yet, as one of the intellectual leaders of the pre-WWII Spanish Republican government, he was a champion of anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian ideals. In Ortega’s defense, while he may seem to rise above the crowd, he dives deeply into the psyche of disenfranchisement – economic, political, and social. Suddenly, the elitist feels more and more like a warning bell before catastrophe.
There are other bits here that may feel uncomfortable at first, but after you peel away the initial sense of insult you reveal a man who is driven by deep concern. The fact is, Ortega makes a lot of people uncomfortable on their first read.Point after point, Ortega paints a clear-eyed picture of the consequences of economic trends and social dynamics between the classes that are evident in today’s struggles. The deeper observations are just as applicable to 21st century America as they were to Europe during the hopeful years between the World Wars.
I had trouble with the way he mocks rationality as a virtue and trivializes Utopian aspirations with completely elitist complaints (“Not in this time; not while the barbarian holds the reigns of control”). Yet, he accurately weaves a model of the masses as a quality, not just quantity, that gives fair warning to the governors (and elitists of all stripes) the dangers of rule by “direct action.” He focuses our attention on authoritarian leaders who, lacking an adequate understanding of the governed, tend to “rule by the sword, die by the sword.” Says Ortega, when direct action is employed, it often satisfies the hermetic rationale of mass thinking and quickly transforms into a weapon of “unreasoned reasoning” that tends to burn everything in its path.
Is Ortega an elitist or a realist when he lights up mediocrity as a blight that festers in our culture and that has, historically, create the sort of intellectual inertia that often erupts with great ugly consequence. Governance is incapable of overcoming that kind popular power, especially when it has no means to encourage the masses to better themselves through education and the arts (for instance). Left to their own devices, the masses become too self-absorbed for self-reflection and would rather while away their nights watching reality television. “Mass man,” Ortega claims, is basically lazy. In the context of the current American political trends, think of the reactionary “couch potato” who is inwardly happy with his obscurity and outwardly jealous of accomplishment. Anything that he believes will take him away from his well-upholstered comfort is a danger to society and, therefore, a menace to the common good.
In Ortega’s world, original ideas, meritorious achievement, the rich, the intellectual, and the avant garde are always the first victims of revolutions.
Now, doesn’t that just scare the crap right out of you? Continue on to Part II. – HP