The text of The Revolt of the Masses
is largely a meditation upon the the famous first paragraph with which it opens:
THERE is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilisation. Such a crisis has occurred more than once in history. Its characteristics and its consequences are well known. So also is its name. It is called the rebellion of the masses.
This initial paragraph, so bluntly and succinctly antidemocratic, seems to violate everything the Western world holds dear to. It also seems to conflict with the basic biographical details I outlined above: why should so essentially liberal a man, a teacher so outraged with the brutalities of a fascist regime that he left his post rather than swear fealty to the State, come out militantly against 'the masses'?
y Gasset clarifies his meaning in the same paragraph. "Public life is not", he says, "solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious; it comprises all our collective habits, including our fashions both of dress and of amusement." This said, we see that, unlike the narrow republicanism of the post-war age, y Gasset is considering democratic life in its aggregate
: those activities which occur outside of and beyond the sphere of politics proper. In an era when the old New Left expression that "the personal is political" has become the mantra and motto of political organizations on both sides of the great divide, y Gasset writes for an epoch in which politics had yet to become as personalized and commodified as any product in the marketplace of ideas.
The author thus intends to examine what we consider to be 'public life' in total. He continues in this fashion after having posited the initial question:
What is it that we see, and the sight of which causes us so much surprise? We see the multitude, as such, in possession of the places and the instruments created by civilisation. The slightest reflection will then make us surprised at our own surprise. What about it? Is this not the ideal state of things? The theatre has seats to be occupied- in other words, so that the house may be full- and now they are overflowing; people anxious to use them are left standing outside.
What y Ortega refers to is well-known among those of us in the Anglosphere: in England it is the sentiment which David Cameron and the Conservatives targeted so long ago in a now-forgotten campaign calling for the 'Big Society'. In America the idea is less politicized, but still lies at the essential core of identity politics in this nation. It is called the 'American dream'.
But what could objection could a Spanish philosopher have towards that particular feeling of community which lay outside political life? ya Gasset begins by contextualizing his statements
Agglomeration, fullness, was not frequent before. Why then is it now? The components of the multitudes around us have not sprung from nothing. Approximately the same number of people existed fifteen years ago. Indeed, after the war it might seem natural that their number should be less.
The immediate context of that 'democratization' of society which y Gasset here mentions is that process which David Brooks called a movement "from an aristocratic political economy to a democratic, industrial one" in a recent piece
, waxing lugubriously on the differences between American and British political life (and which pretends that a similar transition is being made by the Cameron government today). A profound
change overtook Europe in the years between the World Wars, and that change was not limited by any means to the rise of socialism and nationalism in the political sphere. The industrial revolution of an earlier age had found its counterpart in the social
revolution of the Normalcy.
It is this context that shapes and focuses y Gasset's critique of contemporary society. He continues:
Each individual or small group occupied a place, its own, in country, village, town, or quarter of the great city. Now, suddenly, they appear as an agglomeration, and looking in any direction our eyes meet with the multitudes. Not only in any direction, but precisely in the best places, the relatively refined creation of human culture, previously reserved to lesser groups, in a word, to minorities. The multitude has suddenly become visible, installing itself in the preferential positions in society. Before, if it existed, it passed unnoticed, occupying the background of the social stage; now it has advanced to the footlights and is the principal character. There are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus.
The sentiment y Gasset makes public here seems, at first glance, to be even more highly reactionary than those expressed in the opening paragraph. The 'publicization' of the mass correlates, to him, with the first great rush of multiculturalism in the modern world. This deeply 'conservative' feeling seems bolstered by his Wagnerian metaphor of the chorus: suddenly, the liberal mind is sent reeling, calling up images of moonlit marches by torchlight and the operatic nature of anti-multicultural politics. But y Gasset's mind is too nimble for such base conservatism.
Society is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses. The minorities are individuals or groups of individuals which are specially qualified. The mass is the assemblage of persons not specially qualified... In this way what was mere quantity- the multitude- is converted into a qualitative determination: it becomes the common social quality, man as undifferentiated from other men, but as repeating in himself a generic type. What have we gained by this conversion of quantity into quality? Simply this: by means of the latter we understand the genesis of the former.
of y Gasset's complaint about the modern world is, thus, not about the conglomeration of mere national or ethnic or religious minorities into 'the mass', into a conglomerate. y Gasset is not a conservative. His overriding concern is with the man in the main
: the man who, while he may not be qualitatively superior to any other of his peers, is nevertheless lessened further when he is combined with them.
The point is made. Now the author must define the terms which he is using, and he does so:
To form a minority, of whatever kind, it is necessary beforehand that each member separate himself from the multitude for special, relatively personal, reasons. Their coincidence with the others who form the minority is, then, secondary, posterior to their having each adopted an attitude of singularity, and is consequently, to a large extent, a coincidence in not coinciding.
There are cases in which this singularising character of the group appears in the light of day: those English groups, which style themselves "nonconformists," where we have the grouping together of those who agree only in their disagreement in regard to the limitless multitude. This coming together of the minority precisely in order to separate themselves from the majority is a necessary ingredient in the formation of every minority.
We today are well aware of those to whom y Gasset refers; they have multiplied in their number since his time. These are they of whom Nietzsche wrote: "He who thinks a great deal is not suited to be a party man: he thinks his way through the party and out the other side too soon." Or, rather, those who try
to "think (their) way through" to the other side and fail. The only point of contact they share with their fellows is the conformity of a narrow non-conformity.
y Gasset does not find the "mass man" much superior. They are, in his consideration, worse:
Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is "mass" or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself- good or ill- based on specific grounds, but which feels itself "just like everybody," and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.
We know this kind, too, especially in America, where they have been thoroughly politicized. "The mass" is the man who knows
he is "mass"; what's more, he wants you
to be "mass", too, and will go to great lengths to ensure that you will be
But y Gasset is aware that he may sound like a 'Babbit', a man who wants to think himself better than his neighbor because he wants to belong to the "mass" which actually is
better. He denies this:
When one speaks of "select minorities" it is usual for the evil-minded to twist the sense of this expression, pretending to be unaware that the select man is not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest, but the man who demands more of himself than the rest, even though he may not fulfil in his person those higher exigencies.... As we shal see, a characteristic of our times is the predominance, even in groups traditionally selective, of the mass and the vulgar. Thus, in the intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual, unqualified, unqualifiable, and, by their very mental texture, disqualified. Similarly, in the surviving groups of the "nobility", male and female. On the other hand, it is not rare to find to-day amongst working men, who before might be taken as the best example of what we are calling "mass," nobly disciplined minds.
y Ortega will make this point time and again in The Revolt of the Masses
: that many who feel themselves as being validated by the holding of an opinion not held by the rest of men, or of being of unique characteristics and thus 'better than' their fellow men, fall into a trap more subtle but no less damning than those in which the more common form of the "mass man" sets for himself.
y Ortega has made his diagnosis of society. What in it does he find objectionable?