The Revolt of the Masses
Part I: The scary stuff
I have an unquenchable thirst for philosophical discussions that offer insight into communications: how we communicate, why we bother and (moreover) 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 in my collection are well worn. Others I have read once, ponder at a distance where I can hide my bewilderment (O-o, my secret is out).
Philosophical discussions of this sort that really catch my attention scare the crap out of me; the scarier the better. It’s more fun than any horror story or vampire flick because this stuff isn’t fantasy – it’s real. Here’s one, La rebelión de las masas, translated The Revolt of the Masses, written by 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 college classes. 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 then and after a very long ponder – about 30-odd years – and a reread of the book, I laughed because he was so very right.
“Masses” is primarily a discussion about the volatility of 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.
Let’s open with one of the most serious criticisms, that Ortega is an elitist. Sure enough, he points to his definition of “mass thinking”: a system of social order that is openly opposed to excellence and inclined toward conformity; as 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 thinking. In Ortega’s defense, he also paints a very accurate picture of the potential consequences of economic trends and social dynamics between the classes that are evident in today’s struggles.
The fact is, Ortega makes a lot of people uncomfortable. His 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