The Revolt of the Masses (1930)
José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)
the accession of the masses to complete social power … means Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilizations. (11)This dire warning appears in the opening lines of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s 1930 work The Revolt of the Masses. He goes on in that essay to describe the origins and characteristics of the revolt he feels has occurred, the masses that have prosecuted it, and the resulting crisis to civilization, both in Europe and world-wide.
To properly understand Ortega’s arguments and conclusions it is important to recognize how he uses particular words that can have existing, popular meanings. Early on in his essay, for example, he makes clear that the revolt to which he refers is not the violent overthrow of a governing regime but rather an upending of the social order.
Ortega argues that this revolt has resulted from the masses inserting themselves into, and asserting their sovereignty over, all aspects of society: “not solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious.” (11) The consequence of this “accession of the masses” has been, he argues, the loss of a “vital force,” one necessary for the maintenance and further development of civilization. Thus, his definition of what constitutes the masses --- or <i>mass-man</i> --- becomes fundamental to his thesis.
Not surprisingly, such a discussion is fraught with dangers, as simply using the words <i>masses</i> or <i>mass-man</i> fairly invites charges of elitism and prejudice. And, in fact, there are those who argue that Ortega's views on the topic were extreme. Thus, for example, Sebastiaan Faber (a professor of Hispanic Studies) opens his review of a biography of Ortega by asking: "What percentage of nonsense can the work of a philosopher contain that would cause us to stop taking him seriously?", before going on to quote from published works and private correspondence statements that he argues make clear Ortega's powerful prejudice against the common man. Faber writes later in the review that
It is perhaps the most persistent concept throughout a life full of twists and turns: the idea that there are basically two types of human beings. Those whose talents and disposition destine them to lead, and those inferior, at heart contemptible, destined to follow and difficult to govern. ... [He saw this] binary division ... as natural.
In what follows, however, I will set aside this discussion over Ortega's personal views. Even granting Ortega's "binary division" of human kind, and his apparent prejudice, one can choose to not simply discount out-right his observations and conclusions in The Revolt of the Masses, and instead take a more nuanced --- non-binary --- view of his arguments. By taking them at face value, we can examine whether they contain some sensible implications for our understanding of the development of civilization.
Ortega labels those that have for centuries been responsible for providing the critical vital force for maintaining and developing civilization as “aristocrats.” These were the scientists, philosophers, politicians and other intellectuals who took responsibility for the enrichment and governing of civilization, and guided the progress of human society in all spheres of development. Critically, the masses had also historically ceded power to these aristocrats, allowing them to determine the distribution and access to the benefits thus created. Without the leadership of these aristocrats, Ortega argues, civilization as we know it could not have developed, and in fact, cannot now be maintained:
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. (20)
By aristocrat, Ortega makes clear that he refers not simply to someone with money, power or prestige, “not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest.” Instead, he writes of the select minority, “the man who demands more of himself than the rest”, and is thus capable of supporting and advancing humankind’s social development. He differentiates this select minority from the masses,
who demand nothing special of themselves, [and] for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; more buoys that float on the waves. (15)
Ortega notes that though such select minorities may be more likely to be found in the upper classes relative to the lower classes, “within both these social classes, there are to be found masses and genuine minority.” (16) The distinguishing feature of someone in the masses is not based on income or job description, but rather represents a more subtle deficiency: an inability to recognize the efforts required by our forebearers to achieve the benefits of current day civilization, and consequently an unwillingness to struggle to improve oneself and society.
Over several chapters, Ortega describes how the revolt of the masses to wrest control of the structures of civilization has occurred, as well as the reasons for the apparent unwillingness of the masses, once in power, to take responsibility for civilization’s maintenance and further development. The striking central claim of his analysis is that the very advances that have improved life for so many have also inevitably led to the accession of the masses that now threatens civilization’s future.
Ortega does acknowledge the significant improvements that have occurred in the lives of a vast majority of people as civilization has developed. He ascribes them as due in large part to the deepening interconnections of the world that have resulted from the on-going communication and transportation revolutions that began in the late 19th century, and have resulted in a dramatically increased reach of information, products and opportunities.
But, he goes on to argue, these same advances have led to a widespread feeling that a pinnacle in development has been reached, resulting in a sense of superiority about the progress achieved. He sees this sentiment reflected, for example, in the common use over the past century of the term “modern culture” (32) --- a phrase that fairly necessitates that whatever comes next must oddly take on the label of ‘post-modern’. He also notes the end-of-history feeling inherent in “progressive Liberalism and in Socialism,” that “what is desired by them as the best of possible futures will necessarily be realized, with necessity similar to that of astronomy.” (45) Together, he claims, these feelings have left a broad swath of humankind “empty of purposes, anticipations [and] ideals” (46) for the future.
This development of a feeling of purposelessness among the masses may have had less damaging impact, according to Ortega, but for a critical demographic change over the past two centuries: the sudden and rapid population growth in Europe and throughout the world. In a thesis similar to one examined in depth by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (my review here), Ortega notes that the extremely synergistic development in Europe of “liberal democracy and technical knowledge” (52) provided the infrastructure necessary to support radically larger populations. This then, led inherently to an increase in the numbers of the masses, and, coupled with the dramatic improvements that made people’s daily lives less singly focused on simple survival, led to an increased involvement of the masses in all manner of cultural activities --- such as social and entertainment opportunities --- that had previously been the exclusive domain of the select minority that had developed them.
In contrast to the select minorities, however, who labored diligently to provide these opportunities, Ortega argues that the masses have viewed the resulting benefits as a kind of outgrowth of the natural world, and so essentially a birthright. Failing to recognize the effort required to maintain and grow civilization, the masses have thus narrowed their focus onto themselves, and have found no reason to exert effort in “pushing themselves to excel, [and] have little feeling of ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’.” (65) They exhibit a self-satisfied nature, he claims, enjoying the inheritance of civilization without feeling any obligation to engage in the struggle necessary to maintain and advance it:
[We should] not be surprised if [mass-man] 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. (24)
Ortega illustrates this mindset by describing a scene that we seemingly see replicated in so many riots over the years when society has not provide mass-man with what they feel is their rightful due:
In the disturbance 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 to-day towards the civilization by which they are supported. (60)
Critically, he argues, while abdicating the responsibility for improving society, the masses have also become unwilling to take direction from the select minorities who have historically driven progress. The masses now, in fact, consider themselves as masters over the governing of and access to these benefits. Ortega defines this newly grasped power of the masses as having originated out of a kind of perversion of democracy, what he refers to as “hyperdemocracy”:
The mass [previously] took it for granted that after all, in spite of their defects and weaknesses, the [select] minorities understood a little more of public problems than it did itself. Now, on the other hand, the mass believes it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the café. (17)
Indeed, now having come to regard their ideas as perfect, members of the masses take on new ideas and beliefs without making any effort to develop the rationale and reasons for them. This leaves them unwilling, then, to put up with contrary opinions, because to do so would subject their own ideas to uncomfortable discussion and consideration.
As civilization has become more complex, however, it has become ever more important to its proper maintenance and progress to have a broad education --- to understand the sweep of history and the impact of one’s life and work on the growth of civilization. Mass-man, unwilling, and in fact simply uninterested in engaging in the study and understanding of history and society, is not in a position to support the civilization that he has been born into. Worse, this lack of historical understanding leads them to be easily captured by movements such as Fascism and Bolshevism. The susceptibility to mass movements that Ortega describes parallels points Eric Hoffer made in his essay The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (my review here), in which Hoffer noted that:
The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but form holy writ. … To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. (Hoffer, 79)
Pointing out again that his concern is not to be simply associated with the working class, Ortega notes that even many current-day, well-educated scientists and engineers fall within his definition of mass-man. The very “technicism” that enabled the rapid expansion of Europe eventually led to a point that scientists and engineers have tended to develop a high degree of specialization, and so, unlike the best of the multidisciplinary aristocrats of the past who had a broad knowledge not only of their field but also of other areas such as philosophy and history, many researchers now do their specialized work while preferring to ignore the broader concerns of civilization. Thus, whatever their contributions to science or technology, they epitomize the defects of the mass-man: one who enjoys the fruits of civilization, but remains fundamentally unwilling to put effort into the fundamental contributions necessary to its maintenance and advancement.
Ortega’s view that the fundamental problem lies not with educational opportunities distinguishes him, for example, from historians Will and Ariel Durant, who in their book The Lessons of History (my review here) also express concerns about the future development of civilization, but point specifically to the importance of education to overcome the ignorance threatening it. As challenging as governments have found improving educational opportunities to be, for Ortega those difficulties pale in comparison to his concern that the masses do not accept responsibility for the need to educated themselves, and so are not motivated to put the effort into pursuing the education necessary to maintain and develop civilization.
Having established how mass-man has ascended to social and political power, Ortega examines the impact of their leadership. One aspect of this is in the relationship between mass-man and the State. Ortega notes that from the end of the Roman Empire until recent centuries, the State was weak and small, run by nobles who felt it their duty to lead. These nobles generally lacked the ability to create a responsive, administrative state, and so became unable to meet the demands placed on them as the numbers of people rapidly increased.
As a result, social rebellions became more frequent, and in response a new kind of State has developed since the mid-1800’s, one that has grown rapidly in power and reach, both to meet the increasing expectations of the masses, as well as to provide the security forces needed to keep them in check. Ortega warns that mass-man has now grown dependent on the structure of an all-powerful State, expecting it to provide the benefits they feel are their due. The significant expectations of mass-man, and the resulting need for States to exercise controlling power, have led, he argues, to a situation in which evolutionary improvements to the State have become impossible.
Ortega also examines the larger implications that he feels this revolt of the masses has had on the state of civilization, and his expectations for the future. He describes the world as having been led by Europe from the time that an integrated global civilization developed. In his view, however, the accession of mass-man to a position of power, and their unwillingness to exert the effort required to advance, or even maintain, civilization’s complex infrastructure, have diminished Europe’s ability to maintain its leadership role in the world. As a consequence, from his viewpoint in 1930, a vacuum in leadership had developed, one that left countries and regions of the world drifting in dangerously divergent directions; thus his claim of civilization in crisis.
One can argue that just two decades later, in the wake of World War II, the United States took over that leadership role from Europe. Clearly the US has for decades exerted technical and economic leadership, resulting in a tendency to homogenize around US cultural icons. The US has also generally led the expansion in human rights for minorities, even acknowledging the significant shortcomings and failings that clearly remain both domestically and abroad. Also, the US openly took on responsibility for world stability, investing in a rapid and expansive military growth to maintain an open trading regime --- if admittedly in large part due to the economic benefits it returns for the US itself.
It seems likely, however, that based on Ortega’s line of reasoning in the book, he would not qualify US primacy in these areas as resolving his concerns about the future course of civilization, and the decadence that he saw setting in. The dominance of the US in science and business has been led by a highly educated and capable elite, but one that, it must be acknowledged, for the most part has epitomized Ortega’s description of the specialist type of mass-man, those focused narrowly on their own personal goals (whether in a scientific, technology or economic sense), and not only unwilling to invest the effort in the broader education (in say, history, philosophy and civics) necessary to contribute to the maintenance and development of civilization, but often actively disdainful of such education as a waste of time.
Thus, it seems most likely that he would lament the US leadership over the past half century as having only been a consolidation of the power of mass-man, one that has perhaps temporarily held at bay the crisis he foresaw, but certainly not stemmed its inevitability. And, with the recent shift by some leaders in the US to question the desirability of continuing the investments necessary to maintain global leadership, and the push by several other countries to take on that leadership role in their regions and beyond, Ortega’s predicted dissolution of a coherent global civilization certainly is not beyond imagination.
Indeed, I would argue that Ortega’s broad thesis resonates today, some ninety years after his essay was first published; for all of the scientific advancements that have continued to improve living standards and led to an ever growing number of technical wonders, for all of the undeniable, if admittedly fitful, improvements in living conditions and human rights, the broad impression of civilization in crisis seems at the very least plausible.
States world-wide struggle to cope as stagnating economic growth, limited resources, growing flows of refugees and increasing environmental problems make it ever more difficult to satisfy the growing expectations of ever larger populations. As a result, social and political institutions in many, if not most, countries of the world now appear strained, and in many places under siege from nativist and populist mass movements.
These movements arise out of a mixture of genuine concerns and invented fears. But they have tended to be more focused on demonstrating their frustration and anger than on supporting progress to workable solutions --- more apt simply "to wreck the bakeries" as Ortega put it. To quote a more recent Spaniard, Eduardo Mendoza, from his book What is Happening in Catalonia,
The political position of the contra movements is a characteristic of an age in which has disappeared any form of opposition to a social-economic system that is dismantling with impunity the welfare state and any hint of distributive justice. A considerable sector of the electorate exercises their vote as a punishment --- a castigation. This is understandable, but the result can be noxious. In the best cases it leads to instability; in the worst, to situations worse than those against which those contra movements sprang up. (83)However justified the anger, the approach taken has generally stifled the possibility of progress on global, or even national issues.
José Ortega y Gasset's essay The Revolt of the Masses, provides a bracing critique on the state of civilization, and the decadence that he claims threatens its future. Examining the developments, particularly since the early 1800’s, that overturned the social order responsible advancing the state of civilization, he describes a sequence of events in which the very benefits provided by modern-day civilization have led to what he views as its present decline. Despite the great strides that have been made in living conditions across the globe, Ortega's implications for a potential slide of civilization into a dystopian future seem hard to ignore.
Other reviews / information:
Read more quotes from this book here.
The concept of imagined orders that historian Yuval Noah Harari describes as a fundamental human ability in his work Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind has strong parallels to a statement Ortega makes in his discussion on the development of the State:
The State begins by being absolutely a work of imagination. Imagination is the liberating power possessed by man. A people is capable of becoming a State in the degree in which it is able to imagine. (155)
In an interview with Sam Harris on his Waking Up podcast, the physicist David Deutsch expressed a concern that echos Ortega's, saying that he perceives a loss among those in the West of “the knowledge of what it takes to maintain our civilization.” For more of his comments, and a link to that podcast, see my post here.
Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf