By Eugène E.
No one knows exactly how many books that have appeared in print were intended to be prophetic, but the number of books that actually turned out to be so is surely far more modest. The Revolt of the Masses by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset is just one such book and, although the very parsimonious praise on the back of my copy does reference the outsized influence that this essay has had since its appearance, one can’t help but feel that the work has been consigned to the distant suburbs of political thought. This relative obscurity is all the more surprising as, despite its vatic insights, the text contains only scant interest in oracular commerce; its author was less a gifted prophet than a brilliant diagnostician. The Revolt of the Masses is first and foremost a work of diagnosis, and the diagnosis of European society that it delivers is as relevant now as it was when the book was first published almost a century ago. In fact, the malady that Ortega y Gasset describes, with sovereign detachment, is more acute today; the patient, in greater danger.
The essay itself is slim; Ortega y Gasset needed less than two hundred pages to make his case. What they say is true: the best ideas are easily communicated, even if not so easily developed. European society (this is equally, if not more, true of American society, but it is with Europe that Ortega y Gasset concerns himself) has succumbed – culturally, intellectually, and politically – to the rule of the “mass-man”. In all aspects of life, the minority groups that had given society direction and purpose were supplanted by the majorities that had previously accepted the authority of said minority groups. This is the revolt of the masses evoked by the title. Rejecting all forms of authority, the society of the mass man is necessarily anti-hierarchical. As a result, it is barbaric. Civilization, Ortega y Gasset argues, requires the existence of a hierarchy, since a hierarchy begets standards and points of reference, without which we are left walking on our heads. A civilized man accepts a higher authority to which he is happy to defer when the need arises. In the jungle or on a deserted island, one has no authority to apply to and no fixed standards to rely on; one is no longer in a civilized land. Such a place is a bastion of barbarism; for Ortega y Gasset, the society of the mass man is consequently barbaric.
All this talk about superior minority groups that the masses need to refer to might suggest ingrained elitist attitudes. A paean to nebulous superior minorities – you don’t get more elitist than that. Yet in the case of Ortega y Gasset, all such charges would be wide off the mark and should be dropped immediately. While Ortega y Gasset divides society into superior men and the masses, being a superior man – the opposite of a mass man – is not a function of one’s lineage, wealth, or social status. For Ortega y Gasset, a superior man is an individual who continuously makes great demands on himself, while a common man is someone who is quite happy being what he is and asks nothing more of himself. Paradoxically, therefore, it is the superior man who lives a life of servitude, a truth that runs counter to the widely accepted idea of the subjugation of the common man by the superior one. By the author’s own definition, “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us – by obligations, not by rights”. As far as Ortega y Gasset is concerned, “nobility is synonymous with a life of effort”. It should be obvious, then, that a hereditary prince can easily be a mass man, while a farmhand might well be noble.
In fact, in his defense of and attachment to liberal values, Ortega y Gasset is the consummate anti-elitist. While the temptation to see the rise of the masses as being complementary to the growth of liberalism is strong, Ortega y Gasset rejects the idea; for him, the rise of the mass-man is a threat to the liberal ethos underwriting European culture. How is this so? As Ortega y Gasset writes, “Liberalism is that principle of political rights, according to which the public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room in the State over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does, that is to say as do the stronger, the majority”.
(This trenchant definition of liberalism clearly shows how it differs from ultraliberalism, or perhaps how classical liberalism differs from the modern strain of thought that it has become fashionable to call liberalism: true liberals support the right of those who are different to live in peace with the majority; ultraliberals believe that the rights of those who are different, no matter how absurd, can and should be imposed on the majority. Bearers of rainbow flags, take note.)
The mass man, according to Ortega y Gasset, has no time for such niceties. “Civilization is, before all the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, barbarian in the degree in which he does not take others into account.” The will to live in common, however, requires effort. The mass man does not enjoy effort since he sets no requirements upon himself. Instead, the mass man tolerates only homogeneity, and homogeneity does not tend to leave much room to those who are different. This might seem like an unnecessarily dark view of humans, but consider the background: in the early 1930s, when The Revolt of the Masses appeared, the Bolsheviks were hard at work building their own version of paradise here on earth, while the Nazis were about to seize power (via democratic procedures) in Germany. The tolerance that the Bolsheviks and the Nazis showed to those who were different has been well documented. And while I normally deplore posthumous force-feeding, I suspect that much of what goes on in Western societies today would be viewed by Ortega y Gasset, if he were alive, as the very revolt of the masses that he charts in his work.
Ortega y Gasset argues that Western societies are no longer democracies. Democracy is a system in which the masses outsource administration to specially qualified people. A system where specially qualified people are not recognized and where society is governed by “notions born in the café”, as Ortega y Gasset elegantly puts it, is not a democracy; it is a hyperdemocracy. Any modern reader of the text should have little difficulty relating to the concept of hyperdemocracy, once the proper adjustments are made – replace the word “cafés” with “Twitter” and you’re all set.
Ortega y Gasset contends that the revolt of the masses is not a positive development (if it were, it would be in little need of commentary). Yet he is not someone content to observe the world apathetically from the hammock of passéism. For him there are two positive aspects of the revolt of the masses. One is something Ortega y Gasset calls the rise of the historical level. The quality of life enjoyed today by the average person, even one with a modest income, is vastly superior to the quality of life enjoyed by a feudal lord a few centuries ago, who would have been stupefied by the modern toilet or an air conditioner. Life has, on the whole, improved significantly for people in Western societies, and no one would seriously deny that that is a good thing. It is also one that is correlated with the triumph of the masses.
Another is the height of the times. Although the thesis of The Revolt of the Masses lends itself to the idea that European societies are in Spenglerian decline, the great paradox is that this is not so. Ortega y Gasset tells us that it’s easy to determine whether or not we are in a period of decadence by asking ourselves if there’s another time in the past that we would prefer to the current one. If there isn’t – that is, if there’s no other period that we find more attractive than the one that we inhabit right now – then our time cannot in any seriousness be considered as a time of decadence. With that in mind, how many people people today would say no to modern plumbing, the Internet, or antibiotics? Not many, I’d guess, and so decadence is probably as inappropriate a word to describe our times as Ortega y Gasset felt it was to describe his. A decadent time is a time of plenitude, when people feel that they have arrived at the end of history, that tomorrow and the day that follows tomorrow will be much like today – essentially, it’s a Fukuyama moment (for Fukuyama, history ended – briefly – with the end of communism in the early 1990s). It is a time when man feels there is not much else left to accomplish; man feels confined, restricted. But if life feels more pregnant with opportunities and potentialities than ever, as it surely does even more today than it did a century ago, how can one talk about decadence?
The revolt of the masses is not all bad, then. But there’s a problem. By dint of being anti-hierarchical, the society of the mass man lacks a sense of direction. Ortega y Gasset puts his finger on the condition of contemporary society: “We live at a time when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create. Lord of all things, he is not lord of himself. He feels lost amid his own abundance”. This is an arresting analysis of our own times. We have gadgets our ancestors could have hardly imagined, yet the way we tend to use them indicates that we are very much adrift in the seas of plenty. A glance at the most popular videos on Youtube would corroborate that. Having forsaken authority – the superior minorities that steered society – European societies appoint as their rulers the mass man, who knows not where to take that great vessel of the state. In such a system, things by their very nature tend to be provisional and false; the activities of public authorities are consumed with daily crisis management and not with construction of anything long-term. Even if they do become adept at putting out fires, this kind of administration will not be propitious to greatness. A cursory review of today’s administrators should be sufficient to drive the point home.
Ortega y Gasset writes that European society has been suffering from demoralization. The reasons for that are numerous; one of them is that Europe has lost its ability to rule. That this has happened is understandable. The European man is demoralized; he is demoralized because he is left without a project; there needs to be a project, a goal. Specifically, Ortega y Gasset says, “The European cannot live unless embarked upon some great unifying enterprise”. In the absence of one, his soul becomes paralyzed; he decays. This is the malaise of an anti-hierarchical society. Without laws, rules, and commandments passed down by a higher authority, the existence of man becomes that of the “unemployed”, which, as Ortega y Gasset says, is a “worse negation of life than death itself”. Ortega y Gasset saw it a hundred years ago; we see it today – in accelerated form. Economic difficulties, stagnation, a demographic decline – the signs are clear.
What is this great unifying enterprise of which Ortega y Gasset speaks? It is the organic expansion of the European state. A state, Ortega y Gasset reminds us, is never fixed; it is forever moving. It is either expanding or contracting, but it is never static. That’s one of the reasons why Ortega y Gasset is so hostile towards nationalism: a nationalist interpretation of the state presupposes the state’s immutability. But this is an illusion. Today’s Germany, as I have written before, is not the Germany of 1800s, when it was an untidy collection of smaller states. Nationalism in Bavaria or Prussia, especially if applied rigidly, would have been inimical to further consolidation, with the result that modern Germany would have been impossible. This was obvious to Ortega y Gasset, who presciently writes: “There is now coming for Europeans the time when Europe can convert itself into a national idea”. He was correct. It took a destructive war, but Europe got there.
The current state of the European Union is a different story and, in light of its recent troubles, some readers might be moved to mark down the intrinsic value of this great unifying enterprise. For a skeptical reader, Ortega y Gasset has an answer. Commenting on the virulent criticism of parliamentary democracy rampant in his day, Ortega y Gasset explains that the so-called inefficiency of which parliaments are accused has little to do with the institutions themselves. Rather, it is because “the European does not know in what to utilise them”. For something to be designated as efficient or inefficient, you need to identify first what it is that this something needs to achieve. Only then is it possible to gauge the efficiency of the tool in question. Is the problem of the European Union that it is truly inefficient? Or is it that the European is simply not sure what to do with it, since there are no commandments to guide him along? And whatever defects might exist, would it perhaps not be more efficient to reform it instead of dismantling it altogether? For Ortega y Gasset there’s little doubt as to the answer. One does not go back to the buggy just because the automobile is faulty. The trouble is not with a European Union; it is with the European Union.
As the gimlet-eyed Ortega y Gasset sees it, nationalist forces are blind alleys, while communism and fascism are nothing more than false dawns. The past has a logic of its own; the only way to overcome the past is to swallow it, but certainly not to resuscitate it. A false-dawn movement wants to return to an anterior state; however, as the past is a “revenant”, there were reasons why that anterior state became anterior. A restoration of such an anterior state is therefore futile: it will result in either the return of the environment that made the restored state anterior or in complete annihilation. At best, then, such movements are unhelpful; at worst, they are destructive. This is a reality that is forever in need of reminders.
Even the greatest works are never entirely free of flaws, and The Revolt of the Masses is no exception. Ortega y Gasset devotes a whole chapter to what he considers as the threat of the State – the continuous bureaucratization of the government apparatus. In a searing indictment of statism, Ortega y Gasset blames the encroachment of the State for sapping the vital juices of society. At a certain point, the ceaseless expansion of the bureaucratic juggernaut becomes counterproductive and deleterious: instead of serving the people, it enslaves them. Not the State for the people, but the people for the State. This leads to the enfeeblement of the indigenous population, which is less and less capable of supporting the State; the men become weaker or less numerous, and the women barren. Increasingly, the State is forced to rely on foreigners to keep itself going. In such a situation, the original society becomes not a living organism but an artifact – there might be variations, but the general script will likely be more or less the same. Certainly, the present demographic situation of European societies, which are considered to be highly bureaucratized, suggests that the script is being followed rigorously.
And yet it’s worth asking whether any developed society can be effectively managed with a small government apparatus. It’s a possibility, not a certainty. To illustrate the perils of the invasive nature of statism, Ortega y Gasset mentions a comparison made by a nineteenth-century British observer who, having visited France, opined that he preferred the relatively unpoliced England to the heavily policed France: crime might have been more of a problem in England than in France, but then one was also freer in Blighty. Ortega y Gasset quotes the observer approvingly: “I prefer to see, every three or four years, half a dozen people getting their throats cut in the Ratcliffe Road, than to have to submit to domiciliary visits, to spying, and to all the machinations of Fouché.” A legitimate preference, to be sure – as long as it’s someone else’s throat that gets cut. When it’s your own throat that’s at risk, Fouché and his spies look a lot more attractive.
Ortega y Gasset is right to criticize the crippling narrowness of nationalism and to rhapsodize over the impulse towards national integration of European societies. But further extrapolation raises a number of questions. European states cannot continue to consolidate and expand organically indefinitely; at one point or another, they will hit a wall, if for no other reasons than those of geography. What then? If Europe attempts to grow further, subsuming countries such as Turkey (assuming for a moment that a country such as Turkey might be willing to be subsumed), it will cease being European. If, on the other hand, Europe is unable to expand further, then it is doomed, since the European man will no longer have a great unifying enterprise in which to participate. In that case, the only other solution is military expansion – but such a solution would be unpalatable to someone who extols the virtues of classical liberalism and decries barbarism.
Additionally, recent events in Europe have demonstrated that even the unification that has already been accomplished is under threat: the UK is trying to find an exit door it likes, having voted to leave the EU in 2016; Scotland voted against leaving the UK in 2014, but the referendum was nonetheless held; and the future of Catalonia, insofar as that future includes being part of Spain, is up in the air. Clearly, secession and balkanization are in vogue – if they have ever gone out of fashion, that is. The battle of the hour is preventing the unified Europe from disintegrating. However virtuous further integration as a great edifying project might be, one wonders whether Ortega y Gasset wasn’t perhaps overly optimistic about human nature.
Ortega y Gasset explains that the problem of the absence of the rule of the European man is not that it’s the European man who’s absent, but that there’s no one to take his place. If another civilization offered a workable program, he would be quite content to accept it (at the time he was writing the book, he considered the USA too young a nation and still very much in its experimentative phase, while other civilizations did not offer anything that could be construed as workable). The problem, for Ortega y Gasset, was that he had surveyed the global landscape and saw no other projects or programs on offer. The situation is different today. The center of gravity has shifted from the West to the Rest. Non-Western societies are pursuing their own destinies unimpeded, and Western civilization has no projects of its own to offer them. Europeans already have a clear idea of the project offered by the US; the American experience has diverged from the European one, as the US has become a lot less Eurocentric (its elites were once inspired by European culture; increasingly, this is no longer the case).
There is, of course, the increasingly powerful China, for example, and rising India. There’s also the Islamic world, though it’s hardly monolithic in view of its sectarian conflicts. (There’s also Russia, but this is a complex case; any assessment of Russia rests on the degree of Europeanness that is imparted to Russia during the assessment). I cannot, however, muster much interest in China’s global leadership potential. As for the programs offered by the Islamic world, the less said of them, the better. If an epic project truly needs to be developed by the European man, as Ortega y Gasset suggests (and I agree with him), it needs to be a European project.
There is also the unanswered question of the superior minorities – the “specialized persons” – needed to administer society. The reader might well agree with Ortega y Gasset that power, whether political or cultural, should be vested in these superior minorities, but how is one to decide which people are truly excellent enough to lead society? How are they to be screened and selected? What filters and criteria are to be used? The question was easily, if not always effectively, settled before the revolt of the masses, when power was mostly hereditary, but such a system is no longer viable. How are we to apply the definitions proposed by Ortega y Gasset to reality today? We never find out.
Occasionally, Ortega y Gasset abandons his sun-dappled path and descends into some misty valleys. His assertions concerning Russia are contentious. There’s no question that, at the time of the writing of the essay, Russia was less mature than the European societies that, for Ortega y Gasset, were the beacons of the enlightened world, but the point concerning its inherent non-Europeanness should perhaps not be belabored without some qualifications. Readers allergic to colonialist sentiment, or those with a global outlook, might take exception to the author’s unmitigated Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that seems to have little confidence in societies outside of the Franco-Anglo-German troika. Occasionally, things seem to verge on the naive, as when Ortega y Gasset claims that societies have tended to flourish where they were challenged; in the tropics, “the animal-man degenerates”. This may have been true in the past, but the air conditioner has changed that game.
Still, given the stakes and the remarkable accuracy of the author’s general diagnosis, it would be petty to overemphasize any flaws that can be flagged by a pernickety reader. If Ortega y Gasset sins, his sins are highly pardonable. Even the misty valleys that sometimes lead Ortega y Gasset off course are not without their charm.
As mentioned, The Revolt of the Masses is concerned primarily with diagnostics, not fortune-telling. Yet Ortega y Gasset does not shy away from glimpses of the future. “The idea that the historian is on the reverse side a prophet, sums up the whole philosophy of history. It is true that it is only possible to anticipate the general structure of the future, but that is all that we in truth understand of the past or of the present.” If the future cannot be foretold, then, it can be anticipated. With what degree of accuracy? At the end of the book, Ortega y Gasset spells out the danger for the morally “unemployed” European man: weak and in need of inspiration, he might succumb to dangerous alien forces. For Ortega y Gasset, that dangerous force was Bolshevism. This might look naive to us today, but then consider our vantage point. If Ortega y Gasset was wrong about the threat of communism, this is largely because it was upstaged by Nazism; additionally, those who have experienced life in the Eastern Bloc might argue that Ortega y Gasset was spot on.
Either way, the point is not the specific threat, but the existence of one. The danger associated with the demoralized European man has not disappeared; on the contrary, it looms larger than before. The “unemployed” European man evoked by Ortega y Gasset was still fecund; this is no longer the case. The European peoples are becoming less numerous; to replenish their numbers, European societies are falling back on immigration, typically from non-European countries. At the same time, the Bolshevist bogeyman has been replaced with the danger of the spread of Islam on European soil. Bolshevism was a menace, but it was an ideology and therefore highly provisional; Islam is a religion, a way of life. Coupled with the demographic configuration, the existing situation does not augur well for European societies. They appear to be living on borrowed time, financed by dividends paid on the capital of the past.
Where there is danger, though, there is also hope. The idea that Europe – the Europe as we know it – is facing an existential threat is, for this writer, nearly a trope. The existential threat has less to do with exogenous factors than with the endogenous one – that of the unemployed European man. If Ortega y Gasset is right when he claims that “only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent would give new life to the pulses of Europe”, and if Russia can be considered to be a part of Europe, then the next great unifying project could conceivably be the forging of some kind of union between Russia and non-Orthodox Europe. At this juncture, this looks like a madman’s talk. Europe is struggling to maintain the national consolidation it has already achieved, and contemporary Russia does not seem to be ready for this sort of arrangement, either. But the urgency is there, and the reality of tomorrow, or perhaps that of next week, is often funded by the dreams of today.
But let us not venture into the realm of prognoses. For our purposes, it would be sufficient to confine ourselves to diagnostics. Effective treatment begins with getting the diagnosis right; if you identify the condition, you’re halfway there. This is possibly why the conclusion of The Revolt of the Masses is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The reader gets the impression that things could turn out either way; for the author, history is not a set of inevitabilities. But then one need not apply to Ortega y Gasset for forecasts. The Spanish intellectual had a perfect reading of the health of the society in which he lived; fortunately for the rest of us, he put it down on paper. It’s lamentable that the work is not sought out as much as it should be.
A company I was once involved with asked prospective candidates during their job interviews what one book the candidates would recommend to an alien who had just been catapulted to our planet and wanted to know everything there was to know about our world. Had I been asked that question, I would have directed the alien to the Bible. I would still default to that book today. But if I were asked to name a book that would give the reader the most comprehensive picture of modern society, I could not think of a better work than The Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset.
Happy New Year.