Revolt at the Masses

I must have signed up for the wrong book club, because in the same week that everyone was discussing Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites (1994), I was reading José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (1930). It’s an extended philosophical essay about the threat posed by the governance of what the author terms the “mass man.” The title in the original Spanish was La Rebelión de las Masas — but somehow the Revolt of the English is an improvement, capturing both the upheavals of the historical era and the author’s own unease at the prospect of rule by those he found lacking:

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.

Ortega y Gasset begins with an analysis of the “mass man” as an ascendant personality and political being, elaborating on this “type” and the meaning and consequence of its appearance on the world stage. It would be easy to misread his overall argument by reading “workers” into where he says “masses,” but in several places he points out his concept of the “mass” isn’t bounded by class and includes those in upper strata. Ortega y Gasset does have his finger on the pulse of something important in this book — as historical events show — but his method is less empirical research and more a descriptive and probing phenomenological exercise.

As he moves along, he laments the decline of elite rule and the replacement of intellectual debate by “direct action,” offering a bit of horseshoe theory and a critique of cancel culture that would be right at home in today’s Harper’s Magazine. The book then evolves into a defense of liberal democracy as the highest form of government, where his concerns over the decline of European world rule buttress an argument in favor of the creation of a European union as a strategy of managing said decline.

To his credit, Ortega y Gasset doesn’t think liberal democracy has it all figured out: not only did it produce the phenomena he is describing, but it also built institutions that could easily be transferred to a more repressive regime. “Mussolini,” he notes, “found a State admirably built up — not by him, but precisely by the ideas and the forces he is combating: by liberal democracy.” From our vantage point — having witnessed the Obama administration hand over the car keys to Trump on everything from Supreme Court appointments to military drone strikes — this starts to sound like a familiar tale. So does Ortega y Gasset’s warning about the “alarming” rise of police power due to “the enormous increase in the police force of all countries.” It is, he writes:

…foolishness for the party of “law and order” to imagine that these “forces of public authority” created to preserve order are always going to be content to preserve the order that that party desires. Inevitably they will end by themselves defining and deciding on the order they are going to impose — which, naturally, will be that which suits them best.

This is of course premonitory and relevant, but a closer examination of European colonialism might have inspired a modification in his verb tense: fascism’s brutality, Cesaire would later argue, was colonialism turned inwards. Yet for Ortega y Gasset, even as Europe decayed, the rest of the world had little to teach it:

…[The] mass-peoples have decided to consider as bankrupt that system of standards which European civilisation implies, but as they are incapable of creating others, they do not know what to do, and to pass the time they kick up their heels and stand on their heads. Such is the first consequence which follows when there ceases to be in the world anyone who rules; the rest, when they break into rebellion, are left without a task to perform, without a programme of life.

For Ortega y Gasset, the solution seems to be that people need to be given a direction to row in, but that it doesn’t really matter which direction — so long as they’re taking direction from and not giving direction to someone with more pedigree. And yet he also takes the ascension of the “mass man” to political power as a given. Such tensions still haunt much of modern liberal political thought (e.g. Chris Hayes’ 2012 Twlight of the Elites, which offers its own critique of The Revolt of the Masses).

If ruling elites are discredited, who can appropriately replace them? What is the place of “ordinary people” in democracy? What can be done if the people demand — or are led to demand — something illiberal? Though his work is useful in describing the zeitgeist of his moment, Ortega y Gasset doesen’t have much to offer in considering how to respond. Reasserting elite governance — to steer the masses back within the guardrails — has not prevented the rise of right-wing populist movements; nay, it has induced them.

I have to wonder if part of the problem is that liberal democracy fails to recognize its own illiberalisms — like racial authoritarianism or an unwavering (but unreciprocated) fealty to capitalism — which reproduce a set of degraded social relations and reveal just how hollow its promises can be. We may confidently chant in the streets that “This is what democracy looks like!”, but I always cringe a little. There’s so much work left to do to make that statement even close to true.