The Revolt of the Masses (1930)
National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century
[T]he new social fact here analysed is this: European
history reveals itself, for the first time, as handed over to the decisions
of the ordinary
The great tragedy of the 20th Century is that the Left's critique of liberal democratic capitalism was taken seriously and acted upon, with disastrous results ranging from the New Deal/Great Society, here in America, to socialism/communism/fascism in Europe, though this critique was later proven quite wrong; while the Right's critique (1), which was to prove quite true, was largely ignored. Among the most brilliant conservative critics was the Spaniard Jose Ortega y Gasset, whose most famous exposition of his ideas is contained in The Revolt of the Masses.
The first and one of the most important differences to note between the critics of Right and Left is that those on the Right understood the strengths of liberal democratic capitalism far better than did those on the Left. Where Marxists and fellow travelers thought capitalism was so inherently flawed that it could not succeed in the long term, Ortega y Gasset took it as a given that liberal democratic capitalism was destined to succeed in providing unprecedented affluence to the citizens who lived in societies where such a system obtained :
The civilisation of the XIXth Century is, then, of
such a character that it allows the average man to take his place in a
Ortega y Gasset's critique of the system proceeds not from the fear that it will necessarily fail in economic terms but from the observation that it is a system that was created by the cultural elite of Western Civilization, which it was increasingly falling to the undifferentiated masses to maintain :
My thesis...is this: the very perfection with which
the XIXth Century gave an organisation to certain orders of existence has
Just to finish off our first point; think of democratic capitalism as a car : the Left did not believe that the car would work; the Right, for example Ortega y Gasset, was certain it would work, but unsure of the driver.
The driver--with the rise of democracy and the extension of suffrage within democracies--was, of course, the entire mass of humanity, and Ortega y Gasset, like many conservatives, doubted that they were fit to govern :
No one, I believe, will regret that people are to-day
enjoying themselves in greater measure and numbers than before, since they
The main point here, one which is almost entirely forgotten in our time, is that it is possible to advocate a more limited form of democracy in which the matter of who will rule is subject to the consent of the governed, yet those governed are not then entitled to have their will carried out on every issue. In what Ortega y Gasset refers to as hyperdemocracy, but which is now nearly the only form of democracy we recognize as such, it is taken for granted that the people, all of the people, should have a say in every action of government.
The problem with this is that the great run of people have little or no understanding of how we are arrived at the level of civilization which makes liberal democratic capitalism possible, nor of the principles which support it, nor of the sacrifices required to maintain it. Civilization, as Ortega y Gasset writes is a very tenuous thing and not at all natural ;
NATURE is always with us. It is self-supporting.
In the forests of Nature we can be savages with impunity. We can likewise
This is what happens in the world which is mere Nature.
But it does not happen in the world of civilisation which is ours. Civilisation
Western Civilization is the creation of the elites not of the masses who have merely been handed a politico-economic system which Ortega y Gasset does not doubt will, at least temporarily, make them quite wealthy. However, if they do not preserve the civilization which begat that system, then surely it must eventually fail. Yet the masses appear to have little or no interest in the fact that it is the Judeo-Christian traditions of Western Civilization, ideas like absolute morality and natural law, that have made the system possible. Their minds are, predictably, focussed on the material, not the spiritual :
WE take it, then, that there has happened something
supremely paradoxical, but which was in truth most natural; from the very
Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses
should have "ideas," that is to say, should be cultured? By no means. The
"ideas" of the
When all these things are lacking there is no culture;
there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not
Modern democracy, in making the mass of men all powerful, becomes a kind of egalitarian, demoralized, materialistic enterprise, never lifting its head to see beyond Man's physical desires. There is no other measure of the good than the desire of the majority for a thing. Yet what we desire, what we will demand that our government provide, will generally be nothing but to fulfill our own selfish wants, by whatever means necessary :
Restrictions, standards, courtesy, indirect methods,
justice, reason! Why were all these invented, why all these complications
The political doctrine which has represented the
loftiest endeavour towards common life is liberal democracy. It carries
to the extreme the
Ortega y Gasset is here speaking of classical Liberalism, which today we call conservatism. It has made a comeback since the hyperdemocracy of which he warned drove the West to the verge of bankruptcy in the 70s, but even today its emphasis on limited government, on self-limitation, on social standards, on consideration for others, is met with horror by many, who insist on extreme individualism and a government that will provide for the every desire of every citizen.
If we can take some comfort in the fact that--though men like Ortega y Gasset were not listened to at the time when their criticisms of mass democracy might have saved the West almost a century of anguish--the conservative critique was vindicated by events and revived (by folks like Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley, Jr., Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan, to name a few) in time to salvage liberal capitalist democracy before it failed completely, we must also be aware that much of the damage that Ortega y Gasset foresaw has yet to be repaired. Chief among the injuries is the way in which the rise of the State strangled private initiative and community :
The contemporary State is the easiest seen and best-known
product of civilisation. And it is an interesting revelation when one takes
This is the gravest danger that to-day threatens
civilisation: State intervention; the absorption of all spontaneous social
effort by the State,
The result of this tendency will be fatal. Spontaneous
social action will be broken up over and over again by State intervention;
This prediction proved all too prescient, as we yielded up nearly every facet of our lives to government "solutions." The effect has been to leave civil society in a parlous state. The process of restoring life to private institutions will require us to do things like return education and welfare to the private sphere, even if we continue to use public monies to pay for them, so that churches and community organizations and other private institutions return to a central role in society.
The other lingering wound, one that was felt most acutely in the days after 9/11, is to our sense of ourselves as a species, as humankind rather than merely as individuals :
[S]uch is the simple truth. The whole world- nations and individuals- is demoralised. For a time this demoralisation rather amuses people, and even causes a vague illusion. The lower ranks think that a weight has been lifted off them. Decalogues retain from the time they were written on stone or bronze their character of heaviness. The etymology of command conveys the notion of putting a load into someone's hands. He who commands cannot help being a bore. Lower ranks the world over are tired of being ordered and commanded, and with holiday air take advantage of a period freed from burdensome imperatives. But the holiday does not last long. Without commandments, obliging us to live after a certain fashion, our existence is that of the "unemployed." This is the terrible spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds itself to-day. By dint of feeling itself free, exempt from restrictions, it feels itself empty. An "unemployed" existence is a worse negation of life than death itself. Because to live means to have something definite to do- a mission to fulfil- and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. Before long there will be heard throughout the planet a formidable cry, rising like the howling of innumerable dogs to the stars, asking for someone or something to take command, to impose an occupation, a duty. ... To command is to give people something to do, to fit them into their destiny, to prevent their wandering aimlessly about in an empty, desolate existence. Human life, by its very nature, has to be dedicated to something, an enterprise glorious or humble, a destiny illustrious or trivial. We are faced with a condition, strange but inexorable, involved in our very existence. On the one hand, to live is something which each one does of himself and for himself. On the other hand, if that life of mine, which only concerns myself, is not directed by me towards something, it will be disjointed, lacking in tension and in "form." In these years we are witnessing the gigantic spectacle of innumerable human lives wandering about lost in their own labyrinths, through not having anything to which to give themselves. All imperatives, all commands, are in a state of suspension. The situation might seem to be an ideal one, since every existence is left entirely free to do just as it pleases- to look after itself. The same with every nation. Europe has slackened its pressure on the world. But the result has been contrary to what might have been expected. Given over to itself, every life has been left empty, with nothing to do. And as it has to be filled with something, it invents frivolities for itself, gives itself to false occupations which impose nothing intimate, sincere. To-day it is one thing, to-morrow another, opposite to the first. Life is lost at finding itself all alone. Mere egoism is a labyrinth. This is quite understandable. Really to live is to be directed towards something, to progress towards a goal. The goal is not my motion, not my life, it is the something to which I put my life and which consequently is outside it, beyond it. If I decide to walk alone inside my own existence, egoistically, I make no progress. I arrive nowhere. I keep turning round and round in the one spot. That is the labyrinth, the road that leads nowhere, which loses itself, through being a mere turning round within itself.
Who among us did not feel some sense of exhilaration as the president summoned us to a war in which he made it clear we were seeking to vindicate the classical Western values that Ortega y Gasset celebrated : freedom; democracy; consideration of others; standards of behavior; the rule of law? Though the 90s had been a period of superabundance, there had developed a sense that we had become lost in that labyrinth of egoism, so consumed with ourselves that our lives had lost purpose, had become empty. The current war gives us a brief respite from these feelings of dread, a moment when we are forced to turn outward by events, to look beyond ourselves and to grasp a higher purpose. But the great challenge we face remains as Ortega y Gasset defined it over 70 years ago, "to be directed towards something." That something must, I think, be to maintain the foundations of Western Civilization, which has made possible the liberal democratic capitalism which provides us with such abundance. We, the masses, must recognize that our civilization is a precious inheritance, the product of great minds and great men who came before us, and not something which arose naturally. We must look beyond the self and "take others into consideration", in order that we may "live in common". We must accept the weight of the commandments and hold ourselves to objective standards that preserve our souls and give society life.
See also:Conservative Thought
Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Non-Fiction
National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century
-José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1956) (kirjasto)
-ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Ortega y Gasset, José
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-Jose Ortega y Gasset : Philosopher of Revolution
-Ortega y Gasset (History Guide)
-Jose Ortega y Gasset, escritor y filosofo espanol (in Spanish)
-World's Greatest Classic Books Feature: José Ortega y Gasset
-BIBLIO : Jose Ortega y Gasset: A Comprehensive Bibliography
-DAILY HERO : Jose Ortega y Gasset (The Daily Objectivist)
-ESSAY : Who is Ortega y Gasset? (Gregory R. Johnson, May 31, 2000, The Daily Objectivist)
-ESSAY : Ortega, Rand, and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Gregory R. Johnson, The Daily Objectivist, June 7, 2000)
-ESSAY : Ortega, Rand, and "Sense of Life" (Gregory R. Johnson, June 14, 2000, The Daily Objectivist)
-ESSAY : Against the Dehumanization of Art (Mark Helprin, September 1994, New Criterion)
-BOOK LIST : List of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century (National Review)
-BOOK LIST : Warren Farha's Eighth Day Books Top 100 of the Century
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