Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Revolt of the Masses

Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote an incredible and somewhat prophetic essay in the late 1920’s entitled “The Revolt of the Masses.” Being an historian and a philosopher, he chronicles the progression and development of European culture through the years (particularly the Nineteenth Century) and predicted that the course Europe was on in the 1920s would lead to chaos and barbarism. It was a matter of months after his work was published that fascism was on the rise in Europe.

The gist of his thought was this: western culture has tended toward the creation of the “Mass Man,” large groups of people who in spite of no great qualification or intellectual ability feel the right and need to determine the direction of a society’s progress. In the past, he argued, democracy meant people choosing qualified and gifted people to run government. Instead, in the Twentieth Century the masses felt that they should make the decisions themselves.

The scary thing about reading Ortega y Gasset today (and this is a reflection on the culture and not just the leaders in power) is that we are in much the same situation, especially in America. The latest election was not about who was best qualified to handle the situation the world is encountering (admittedly neither was), but who would do what the people wanted. Who was going to bring about the indefinable and multifaceted change that the masses of the world were demanding? Have a gander at “The Revolt of the Masses” and see if it isn’t a fair warning.


For those who are less inclined to read translations of 1920’s philosophy, here is a bit more detail to whet your appetite:

“The old democracy was tempered by a generous dose of liberalism and of enthusiasm for law. By serving these principles the individual bound himself to maintain a severe discipline over himself. Under the shelter of liberal principles and the rule of law, minorities could live and act. Democracy and law—life in common under the law—were synonymous. Today we are witnessing the triumphs of a hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure.”
(Note: classic European liberalism means the opposite of what, in the States, is meant by the term.)

“In our time it is the mass-man who dominates, it is he who decides. It will not do to say that this is what happened in the period of democracy, of universal suffrage. Under universal suffrage, the masses do not decide, their role consists in supporting the decision of one minority or other.”

“The “ideas” of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them.”

“This is the gravest danger that to-day threatens civilization: State intervention.”


Finally: It seems that English translations of the book are missing some very helpful appendixes, so if you have the opportunity to read a Spanish copy of the book, by all means do so.

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