The Revolt of the Masses
By Jose Ortega y Ortega
This amazing book was printed in Spanish in 1930. An English translation became available in 1932 and the book has been continuously published ever since. This reviewer first read it so long ago that only the sketchiest recollections remained, but enough to realize its relevance today and to reread it.
Jose Ortega y Gasset was one of the intellectual leaders of the Spanish Republican government, a member of Parliament, a philosopher and a keen observer of human nature. It is not possible for a brief review to do justice to the depth and breadth of this book. The (very) abbreviated version is that the success of liberal democracy and industrialization has within it the seeds of its own destruction. Others have drawn similar conclusions, but Ortega’s analysis speaks so clearly to our time, that it compelled this review of a book written 84 years ago.
Liberal (in the old sense) democracy and technicism –Ortega’s word to describe scientific experimentation and industrialization–produced improvements in daily life beyond anything ever before experienced. In the abundance bequeathed to succeeding generations birth rates rose, populations expanded and mass-man emerged.
The new plenitude affected man’s view of himself and of the past. The majority of historical periods did not look upon their own times as superior to preceding ages. On the contrary, the most usual thing has been for men to dream of better times in a vague past, of a fuller existence; of a “golden age…
Mass-man no longer sees himself as standing on the shoulders of giants nor does he derive his values from them. So taken is he with his material benefits that “all respect and consideration for the past has been lost.” In fact he “recognizes in nothing that is past any possible model or standard.”
Mass-man, according to Ortega, does not represent any particular social class. He exists in all social classes. The author contrasts mass-man with what he calls “creative minorities:”
Societies advance…when the creative minority is allowed to govern. Mass- man is without direction, self-satisfied, and preoccupied with his own well-being…(he) is identifiable by an attitude opposite of the dynamic man of excellence… (who)…exerts his will in service to values and goals that are larger than himself…
Ortega witnessed the rise of mass-man under Fascism and Communism in Europe. He foresaw the cataclysm of WWII and warned that if this mass-man, who has not only forsaken what history can teach but is dismissively ignorant of it, “continues to be master in Europe, thirty years will suffice to send our continent back to barbarism.”
At his writing, concentration camps had not yet turned people into cinders and the bodies from the Soviet-made famine in the Ukraine were still uncounted. But barbarism is an accurate description and it didn’t take 30 years.
The political elevation of mass-man predicted for Europe has now reached American shores.
Progressive liberalism and Marxist socialism presume that what is desired by them, as the best of possible futures, will be necessarily realized with necessities similar to that of astronomy. With consciences lulled by this idea, they have cast away the rudder of history, have ceased to keep their watch, have lost their agility and their efficiency…. Under his mask of generous futurism, the progressive no longer concerns himself with the future; convinced that it holds in store for him, neither surprises nor secrets, nothing adventurous, nothing essentially new; assured that the world will now proceed on a straight course, neither turning aside nor dropping back, he puts away from him all anxiety about the future and takes his stand in the definite present….
When such a government seeks to justify itself it says, ”I am an abnormal form of government imposed by circumstances.” Hence its activities are reduced to dodging the difficulties of the hour not solving them, but escaping from them for the time being, employing any methods whatsoever, even at the cost of accumulating thereby still greater difficulties for the hour which follows.
The resemblance is stunning: A president who began by blaming his predecessor for the nation’s problems then used the claim of extraordinary circumstances to justify his unconstitutional usurpations of power. But as time revealed his dangerous unfitness for the presidency, the question arose: “How did a man so devoid of professional accomplishment beguile so many into thinking he could manage the world’s largest economy, direct the world’s most powerful military, execute the world’s most consequential job?”1.A similar query could be made regarding the ascendency of the Biden, Pelosi and Reid troika. Ortega’s answer: Mass-man elects his kind.
Mass-man is not appreciative for being the recipient of fortune’s gifts. Instead “he considers them a matter of right, not to be grateful for, but to be insisted upon.”
”…Still less will he admit that notion that all these facilities still require the support of certain difficult human virtues, the least failure of which would cause the rapid disappearance of the whole magnificent edifice.”
John Adams understood the importance of those virtues as well:
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Ortega explained what happens in their absence:
My thesis, therefore, is this: the very perfection with which the 19th Century gave an organization to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organized, but as a natural system. Thus is explained and defined the absurd state of mind revealed by these masses; they are only concerned with their own well-being, and at the same time they remain alien to the cause of that well-being. And they do not see, behind the benefits of civilization, marvels of invention and construction which can only be maintained by great effort and foresight, they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights. In the disturbances caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread, and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries. This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses of today toward the civilization by which they are supported.
Attempts to persuade mass-man of these realities are futile as Ortega’s excruciatingly accurate analysis explains.
It Is not a question of the mass-man being a fool on the contrary, today he is more clever, has more capacity of understanding than his fellow of any previous period. But that capacity is of no use to him; in reality, the vague feeling that he possesses seems only to shut him up more within himself and keep him from using it. Once for all, he accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, tag ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with the boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them everywhere. This is what in my first chapter I lay down as the characteristic of our time; not that the vulgar believes itself super-excellent and not vulgar, but that the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarity, or vulgarity as a right.
Examples of that vulgarity are also “characteristic of our time:” sex drenched entertainments, gutter steeped language, debased art and music and the proclamation of “new” social norms – old as history – whose consequences are forgotten or worse, ignored.
During his daily radio broadcasts Dennis Prager often comments that the difficulty of conversing with individuals on the left is that they argue from emotion and good intentions and ignore what their policies actually do. Ortega wrote:
“Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game posed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests…Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.
He described the mass-man then appearing in Europe under Fascism and Syndicalism as …
a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply wants to impose his opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the “reason of unreason.” Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so…
Nothing indicates more clearly the characteristics of the day than the fact there are so few countries where an opposition exists. In almost all, a homogeneous mass weighs on public authority crushes down, annihilates every opposing group. The mass… does not wish to share life with those who are not of it. It has a deadly hatred of all that is not itself.
With the mass in charge, Ortega warned that the state presents the greatest danger.
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. When the mass suffers any ill-fortune or simply feels some strong appetite, its great temptation is that permanent, sure possibility of obtaining everything without effort, struggle, doubt or risk–merely by touching a button and setting the mighty machinery in motion…The mass-man does in fact believe that he is the state, and he will tend more and more to set its machinery working, on whatever pretext, to crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs –disturbs it in any order of things, in politics, in ideas, in industry.’
The result of that tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention; no new seed will be able to fructify. Society will have to live for the state, man for the governmental machine…
On May 6, 2013, the president told Ohio State University graduates “to reject voices warnings about government tyranny.” As if saying so would make his administration’s many abuses of power disappear. He said Americans are the government, but he is wrong. Government is force and he has amply demonstrated his willingness to use it against citizens who displease him.
Europe’s declining leadership after the First World War troubled Ortega.
Europe had created a system of standards whose efficiency and productiveness the centuries have proved. These standards are not the best possible; far from it. But they are, without a doubt, definite standards as long as no others exist or are visualized. Before supplanting them, it is essential to produce others. Now, the mass -peoples have decided to consider as bankrupt that system of standards which European civilization implies, but as they are incapable 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 program of life.
What Ortega meant by rule is a system of “opinions – ideas, preferences, aspirations, purposes – that predominate“ in the civilized world at a given period. After Europe’s decline, America has been the source of that system, until now.
Victor David Hanson explained in an interview posted by Martin.
History doesn’t start at A and then end at Z, it’s cyclical. So, we look at Asia before we got involved and we saw what Japan’s co-prosperity sphere was like and then we saw again in the 50’s what Mao and Stalin had envisioned for places as diverse as Korea or Vietnam – and we said, you know what? That’s not going to happen. We are going to let these countries decide their own futures and it will be consensual and they will be capitalist. And the result – you can’t criticize the result – I mean we created things, everything from South Korean KIAs to Japanese Hondas by allowing those people in Asia to be free and have their own destiny in their own hands. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to interfere, we’re just trying to say if countries want to be self-determining and free, the United States is going to promote that and we’re gonna do that because that’s our values and every time we didn’t do that, we get drawn in. Because as our president says, we’re a Pacific country.
Hanson contrasts the Obama administration’s foreign policy, if such it can be called, and it’s already pernicious results.
The Revolt of the Masses is not a long book, but its 190 pages belie a content so packed with insights, history, and observations that this reader was frequently forced to pause and regroup. It is a far richer vein of thought than has been mined here. Ortega foresaw the future we are living. Mass-man tears down the institutions that enabled his ascendance, and the culture created by his betters, and replaces them with the all-encompassing state. Ortega’s concern was Europe’s future. He dismissed America as young and untested.
…America is only starting its history. It is only now that its trials, its dissensions, its conflicts, are beginning. It has yet to be many things; amongst others, some things quite opposed to the technical and the practical…America has not yet suffered; it is an illusion to think it can possess the virtues of command.
Among the “many things” that distinguish America is that it is the only nation united by allegiance to a set of ideals, not be ethnicity or territory. It is a country of immigrants from colonial beginnings to today, home to people seeking political freedom to chart their own destinies, and economic freedom to prosper.
Now a concentrated effort is underway to emulate Europe. Daniel Hannan summarized that effort In The New Road to Serfdom:
The platform on which he (Obama) was elected, and the policies he is now implementing, are not a series of solitary initiatives lashed randomly together. They amount to a sustained effort of Europeanization; state health care, government day care, universal college education, carbon taxes support for supra-nationalism, bigger government, softer foreign policy.
Has so much damage been done to America’s ethos and institutions that the fate outlined by Ortega cannot be avoided?
Ortega provides reason for optimism … or despair:
(H)uman life has risen and progressed only when the resources it could count on were balanced by the problems it met with.
1. Matt Peterson in his The American Thinker post quoted by Harry Stein.