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Author Topic: José Ortega y Gasset's "The Revolt of the Masses" and the Crisis of Liberalism  (Read 3311 times)
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« on: June 05, 2011, 03:27:22 am »
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The interwar period of the 20th century is possibly the most singularly important of that century with respect to its literary output. The ruinous conflict in Europe destroyed much of the educated worlds faith in the dual powers of human progress and reason, and led many intellectuals of the day to despair for the future of mankind. Those few who thought that civilization could be salvaged rejected the liberal individualism that had earlier taken root in Germany and found solace in the collectivism of both the Left and Right. And fewer of the great ponderers of the day had considered the possibility that, out of the ashes of Europe, a new order would arise: one in which the public was politicized within an increasingly narrow spectrum of thought, shirking the radicalism of earlier days in favor of a tightly-controlled, managed democratic system which called a truce between the constant conflict between 'the private' and 'the public'.

One of those few who foresaw this shift in the political situation was a Spaniard, the object of our consideration. Born into a middle-class liberal family in Madrid in 1883, José Ortega y Gasset's life was similar to those of other existentialist authors of the 20th century: despite his education in a religious institution (in his case a Jesuitical school), y Gasset came to increasingly resent the Spanish monarchy, considering its support for the falangist dictatorship of Jose Primo de Rivera at loggerheads with his own personal individualism. He thus chose to abdicate his tenure as professor at the Royal Spanish Academy over continued allegiance to a government he did not support. It was in the period immediately following his retirement from teaching, and largely in reaction to the political circumstances surrounding its becoming necessary, that he wrote the book for which he is most well-known: La rebelión de las masas (The Revolt of the Masses).
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« Reply #1 on: June 05, 2011, 03:28:21 am »
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I.


The text of The Revolt of the Masses is largely a meditation upon the the famous first paragraph with which it opens:

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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:

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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

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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:

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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.

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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.

The point 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:

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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:

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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 "mass".

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:

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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?
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« Reply #2 on: June 05, 2011, 03:29:05 am »
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II.

y Ortega introduces a new term into political discourse: he calls it "hyperdemocracy". His definition of the word is contextualized as follows:

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Under the shelter of liberal principles and the rule of law, minorities could live and act. Democracy and law- life in common under the law- were synonymous. Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure. It is a false interpretation of the new situation to say that the mass has grown tired of politics and handed over the exercise of it to specialised persons. Quite the contrary. That was what happened previously; that was democracy. The mass took it for granted that after all, in spite of their defects and weaknesses, the minorities understood a little more of public problems than it did itself. Now, on the other hand, the mass believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the cafe. I doubt whether there have been other periods of history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own. That is why I speak of hyperdemocracy.

The immediate meaning of y Ortega's use of the term is made obvious by reference to "force of law born in the cafes". What he refers to is the 'café couture' most often associated with Paris after the war and the public interaction with the philosophies of Camus and Sartre, but which, even in the time he wrote, had already germinated in the Weimar Republic and which had spread throughout Europe. The source of his complaint is the lumpenintellectual, whom those of us who observe American politics see referred to derogatorily as the 'latte-liberal' and its culture as 'the hipster'. Both are commonly taken to be obnoxious twits, 'elitists' who are no more actually elite than the man who buys a vintage Cadillac with his welfare check. He is the very embodiment of those who are "unqualified, unqualifiable, and, by their very mental texture, disqualified."

However, y Gasset recognizes that such men are not the primary form of "the mass". There is another group on the other side of the social continuum that is far more threatening in its behavior:

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If the individuals who make up the mass believed themselves specially qualified, it would be a case merely of personal error, not a sociological subversion. The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent."... Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated. And it is clear, of course, that this "everybody" is not "everybody." "Everybody" was normally the complex unity of the mass and the divergent, specialised minorities. Nowadays, "everybody" is the mass alone.

To this author's mind, this first chapter of José Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses has captured perfectly the interplay of forces at work in the context of American social policy: a "mass" minority party, which feels itself superior to and hence capable of setting policy for the "mass" mass party, has aggravated and aggrieved that other "mass". The "mass" mass, motivated by no little amount of social envy and jealousy by mostly by the inertia that comes with total contentedness, are no longer content with this sort of elitism; they, too, must feel themselves 'elite', but by appealing to their commonness (and hence purity of character) rather than their difference (which would indicate their purity of thought). So arrayed, the two parties are engaged in a state of constant civil war.

y Gasset realized this, and set out attempting to lay down a basic history of the mass man in the second chapter of his book:

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The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place. Then, also, is produced the phenomenon of agglomeration, of "the full." For that reason, as Spengler has very well observed, it was necessary, just as in our day, to construct enormous buildings. The epoch of the masses is the epoch of the colossal.

What was true of the last great era of the masses is true both in y Gasset's time and in our own. The Spaniard wrote in the year before the then-tallest building of the world was under construction in New York City; the current tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, was completed the year before I sat down to write this. Government has reached a size unprecedented in the democratic age in the eighty-one years between the publication of The Revolt of the Masses. So, too, has economic centralization in the hands of business. The only thing that shrinks with every passing year is the world.

Religion, too, is becoming 'bigger', not only in the sense that it is becoming more homogenized with every passing year but in a more literal, spatial sense, as well: tiny denominations find themselves incapable of competing with the death of mainline Protestantism in the United States and the emergence of enormous and unifying monochurches. Their architectural preference for the large, the open, and the democratic is readily apparent as well, as anyone observant of trends in church building will note.

 In religion, in politics, in government, in industry: the old order has been annihilated; man has become 'larger'. But y Gasset does not call for the re-establishment of the old order. History is not, for him, 'aristocratic' in a narrow sense.

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If I were to leave the matter here and strangle off my present essay without more ado, the reader would be left thinking, and quite justly, that this fabulous uprising of the masses above the surface of history inspired me merely with a few petulant, disdainful words, a certain amount of hatred and a certain amount of disgust. This all the more in my case, when it is well known that I uphold a radically aristocratic interpretation of history. Radically, because I have
never said that human society ought to be aristocratic, but a great deal more than that. What I have said, and still believe with ever-increasing conviction, is that human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic. Of course I am speaking now of society and not of the State...

And what, in society, does the author quarrel with? y Ortega reveals the depths of both his political lucidity and his prowess with the pen in one of the most riveting sections of the book:

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In the XVIIIth Century, certain minority groups discovered that every human being, by the mere fact of birth, and without requiring any special qualification whatsoever, possessed certain fundamental political rights, the so-called rights of the man and the citizen and further that, strictly speaking, these rights, common to all, are the only ones that exist. Every other right attached to special gifts was condemned as being a
privilege.

This was at first a mere theory, the idea of a few men; then those few began to put the idea into practice, to impose it and insist upon it. Nevertheless, during the whole of the XIXth Century, the mass, while gradually becoming enthusiastic for those rights as an ideal, did not feel them as rights, did not exercise them or attempt to make them prevail, but, in fact, under democratic legislation, continued to feel itself just as under the old regime. The "people"- as it was then called- the "people" had learned that it was sovereign, but did not believe it. To-day the ideal has been changed into a reality; not only in legislation, which is the mere framework of public life, but in the heart of every individual, whatever his ideas may be, and even if he be a reactionary in his ideas, that is to say, even when he attacks and castigates institutions by which those rights are sanctioned. To my mind, anyone who does not realise this curious moral situation of the masses can understand nothing of what is to-day beginning to happen in the world...

 Now, the meaning of this proclamation of the rights of man was none other than to lift human souls from their interior servitude and to implant within them a certain consciousness of mastery and dignity. Was it not this that it was hoped to do, namely, that the average man should feel himself master, lord, and ruler of himself and of his life? Well, that is now accomplished. Why, then, these complaints of the liberals, the democrats, the progressives of thirty years ago? Or is it that, like children, they want something, but not the consequences of that something? You want the ordinary man to be master. Well, do not be surprised if he acts for himself, if he demands all  forms of enjoyment, if he firmly asserts his will, if he refuses all kinds of service, if he ceases to be docile to anyone, if he considers his own person and his own leisure, if he is careful as to dress: these are some of the attributes permanently attached to the consciousness of mastership. To-day we find them taking up their abode in the ordinary man, in the mass.

The problem, to wit, is this: in the 'age of liberalism', rights were granted as a concession to all of 'the people', and 'the people' were treated as a collective, as a fundamental unit, a building-block of society, the total and organic gestalt of civilization which cannot in any sense be reduced into its component pieces. 'Democracy' was given to the total: they are now beginning to act out upon it. And the results are not to the liking of the democrats of the Earth.


Conclusion.

I do not mean to go into a consideration of solutions for this problem. y Ortega offers none. I simply intend to report upon what he tells us. There is no reason to doubt his word; he has proven himself prescient in understanding our modern crisis better than some of us who are alive do. But I recommend that anyone concerned with the rise of an illiberal majoritarianism, fueled by the identity politics of the 'minority' but applied to the 'majority', at least consider the arguments y Gasset presents in his book.
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