José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt Of The Masses

The Revolt Of The MassesOne of the surest measures of a book’s worth is its longevity in the public’s imagination. José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt Of The Masses is such a book, one whose worth has been continually reaffirmed since its serial publication in 1929. I would go even further: its warning note, cautionary in 1929, is of urgent importance to us today, living as we are in the death throes of Western civilization. The book’s title alludes to a populist uprising, but it is not, as I originally thought, celebratory of this revolution. Ortega y Gasset’s masses – created by Europe’s 19th century population boom, in which the continent roughly tripled its numbers – are eager to overthrow the established mores of the continent but wholly uncertain about what will replace them; they enjoy the benefits of living in an advanced civilization but have been totally shielded from the price so advanced a society imposes.

The result is a people without concrete ideas about history, religion or morality; their only creed is one of negation, their only certainty that they are uncertain. “The mass-man is he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting alone. Consequently, though his possibilities and his powers be enormous, he constructs nothing. And it is this type of man who decides in our time.” He goes on to qualify further this mass man, and I defy you not to recognize the dominant cultural trends of our time as being at least in part symptomatic of the ascendance of this archetype:

If from the viewpoint of what concerns public life, the psychological structure of this new type of mass-man be studied, what we find is as follows: (1) An inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations; consequently, each average man finds within himself a sensation of power and triumph which, (2) invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to look upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent, complete. This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his opinion to judgment, not to consider others’ existence. His intimate feeling of power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will act then as if he and his like were the only being existing in the world; and, consequently, (3) will intervene in all matters, imposing his own vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve, that is to say, in accordance with a system of “direct action.”

Charles Murray expresses a similar sentiment in Coming Apart, where he notes the growing comfort of the ruling class and how far removed they have become from the difficulties of life. For my part, I cannot help but think of the smug self-assurance of so many college students and professors, the same unthinking faith in their own moral infallibility that has transformed college campuses into places where dissent is not only unwanted but unwelcome. Our universities are, in fact, a perfect example of the “mass man” in action, as they have undergone a massive expansion in enrollment since World War II, motivated by a democratic spirit that believes (beyond all reason) that anyone can do anything, provided they have access to education.

The most damning judgment Ortega y Gasset levels at the mass man comes towards the book’s end: “feeling himself ‘common,’ he proclaims the right to be common, and refuses to accept any order superior to himself.” The revolt becomes not merely political but cultural, and after the mass man’s ascendency it is no longer deemed correct or acceptable to make distinctions of a qualitative nature. My hobby is as good as your hobby, by virtue of the fact that I am as good as you are. Or, as Isaac Asimov put it, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” This, I believe, gets at the very root of what I have come to detest about the modern study of art and literature, where aesthetics have been supplanted by politics. This is Schiller: “When we make aesthetic judgments, we focus far more on power than on its orientation and far more on freedom than on lawfulness” – how can we at once affirm what Ortega y Gasset calls “the leveling demands of a generous democratic inspiration” and answer Schiller’s imperatives about the power of art?

The most prophetic and frightening predictions Ortega y Gasset makes have to do with the mass man’s increasing faith in the State as the guarantor of his happiness.

The contemporary State is the easiest seen and best-known product of civilization. And it is an interesting revelation when one takes note of the attitude that mass man adopts before it. He sees it, admires it, knows that there it is, safeguarding his existence; but he is not conscious of the fact that it is a human creation invented by certain men and upheld by certain virtues and fundamental qualities which the men of yesterday had and which may vanish into air tomorrow.

Here, again, we have the mass man taking for granted his birthright into an advanced civilization, one which guarantees fundamental liberties, including the right to vote, and which knows little of the outside world’s daily battle with extreme poverty, crime and war. Born into comfort, the mass man makes comfort his highest value, and looks to the State as the supplier of his happiness. Unaccustomed to solving problems on his own, he demands the State tackle them. Could Ortega y Gasset have foreseen our present situation, where everything from going to college, to taking out a mortgage, to dying, requires some sanction from the State?

This is the gravest danger that today threatens civilization: State intervention; the absorption of all spontaneous social effort by the State, that is to say, of spontaneous historical action, which in the long run sustains, nourishes, and impels human destinies.

Here I find, in prophetic miniature, the argument of Mark Steyn in America Alone (incidentally a book that is similarly concerned with demography): in entrusting the State with life’s difficulties, we find ourselves not empowered but diminished, suspended in a state of perpetual adolescence. Ortega y Gasset, again:

Society begins to be enslaved, to be unable to live except in the service of the State. What results? The bureaucratization of life brings about its absolute decay in all orders. Wealth diminishes, births are few. Then the State, in order to attend to its own needs, forces on still more the bureaucratization of human existence.

This, I fear, is the situation in much of the developed world, where “quality of life,” comfort and entertainment are the highest virtues. Our wealth diminishes daily, our social programs borrow against future generations we no longer bother to birth, and hopelessness is the dominant ethos. (A majority of Europeans, when polled, evince no hope for the future, and when you consider their high levels of youth unemployment and crushing debt, who can blame them?)

Ortega y Gasset was perceptive enough to foresee these trends and fortunate enough to die before they could reach their apogee. I fear we will not be so lucky.