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The Revolt of the Masses ()

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
    man as such. Or to turn it into the active voice: the ordinary man, hitherto guided by others, has resolved to govern the world himself. This
    decision to advance to the social foreground has been brought about in him automatically, when the new type of man he represents had
    barely arrived at maturity. If from the view-point of what concerns public life, the psychological structure of this new type of mass-man be
    studied, what we find is as follows: (1) An inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations; consequently,
    each average man finds within himself a sensation of power and triumph which, (2) invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to look
    upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent, complete. This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any
    external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his opinions to judgment, not to consider others' existence. His intimate feeling of
    power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will act then as if he and his like were the only beings existing in the world and,
    consequently, (3) will intervene in all matters, imposing his own vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve,
    that is to say, in accordance with a system of 'direct action.'
           -Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses

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 world of

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 this: the very perfection with which the XIXth Century gave an organisation to certain orders of existence has caused the
    masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organised, 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. As they do not see, behind the benefits of civilisation, 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 to-day towards the
    civilisation by which they are supported.

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 have now
    both the desire and the means of satisfying it. The evil lies in the fact that this decision taken by the masses to assume the activities proper
    to the minorities is not, and cannot be, manifested solely in the domain of pleasure, but that it is a general feature of our time. Thus- to
    anticipate what we shall see later- I believe that the political innovations of recent times signify nothing less than the political domination of
    the masses. 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. It is
    a false interpretation of the new situation to say that the mass has grown tired of politics and handed over the exercise of it to specialised
    persons. Quite the contrary. That was what happened previously; that was democracy. The mass took it for granted that after all, in spite of
    their defects and weaknesses, the minorities understood a little more of public problems than it did itself. Now, on the other hand, the mass
    believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the cafe. I doubt whether there have been other periods of
    history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own. That is why I speak of hyperdemocracy.

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 resolve never
    to cease being so, without further risk than the coming of other peoples who are not savages. But, in principle, it is possible to have peoples
    who are perennially primitive. Breyssig has called these "the peoples of perpetual dawn," those who have remained in a motionless, frozen
    twilight, which never progresses towards midday.

    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 is not
    "just there," it is not self-supporting. It is artificial and requires the artist or the artisan. If you want to make use of the advantages of
    civilisation, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilisation- you are done. In a trice you find yourself left
    without civilisation. Just a slip, and when you look around everything has vanished into air. The primitive forest appears in its native state,
    just as if curtains covering pure Nature had been drawn back. The jungle is always primitive and, vice versa, everything primitive is mere

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 opening-out
    of the world and of life for the average man, his soul has shut up within him. Well, then, I maintain that it is in this obliteration of the
    average soul that the rebellion of the masses consists, and in this in its turn lies the gigantic problem set before humanity to-day.

    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
    average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. An idea is a putting truth in checkmate. 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, a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are
    the principles on which culture rests. I am not concerned with the form they take. What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are
    no standards to which our fellow-men can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal.
    There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred.  There is no
    culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic
    controversy does not recognise the necessity of justifying the work of art.

    When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not deceive ourselves,
    this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveller who arrives in a barbarous country
    knows that in that territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal. Properly speaking, there are no barbarian
    standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.

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 created? They
    are all summed up in the word civilisation, which, through the underlying notion of civis, the citizen, reveals its real origin. By means of all
    these there is an attempt to make possible the city, the community, common life. Hence, if we look into all these constituents of civilisation
    just enumerated, we shall find the same common basis. All, in fact, presuppose the radical progressive desire on the part of each individual
    to take others into consideration. Civilisation is before all, the will to live in common. A man is uncivilised, barbarian in the degree in
    which he does not take others into account. Barbarism is the tendency to disassociation. Accordingly, all barbarous epochs have been times
    of human scattering, of the pullulation of tiny groups, separate from and hostile to one another.

    The political doctrine which has represented the loftiest endeavour towards common life is liberal democracy. It carries to the extreme the
    determination to have consideration for one's neighbour and is the prototype of "indirect action." Liberalism is that principle of political
    rights, according to which the public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave
    room in the State over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does, that is to say as do the stronger, the majority.
    Liberalism- it is well to recall this to-day- is the supreme form of generosity; it is the right which the majority concedes to minorities and
    hence it is the noblest cry that has ever resounded in this planet. It announces the determination to share existence with the enemy; more
    than that, with an enemy which is weak. It was incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so
    paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so anti-natural. Hence, it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious
    to get rid of it. It is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth.

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 note of
    the attitude that mass-man adopts before it. He sees it, admires it, knows that there it is, safeguarding his existence; but he is not conscious
    of the fact that it is a human creation invented by certain men and upheld by certain virtues and fundamental qualities which the men of
    yesterday had and which may vanish into air to-morrow. Furthermore, the mass-man sees in the State an anonymous power, and feeling
    himself, like it, anonymous, he believes that the State is something of his own.  Suppose that in the public life of a country some difficulty,
    conflict, or problem presents itself, the mass-man will tend to demand that the State intervene immediately and undertake a solution directly
    with its immense and unassailable resources.

    This is the gravest danger that to-day threatens civilisation: 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 machine in motion. The mass says to itself,
    'L'Etat, c'est moi,' which is a complete mistake. The State is the mass only in the sense in which it can be said of two men that they are
    identical because neither of them is named John. The contemporary State and the mass coincide only in being anonymous. But 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 whatsoever pretext, to
    crush beneath it any creative minority which disturbs it- disturbs it in any order of things: in politics, in ideas, in industry.

    The result of this 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. And as, after all, it is only a
    machine whose existence and maintenance depend on the vital supports around it, the State, after sucking out the very marrow of society,
    will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more gruesome than the death of a living organism.

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.


Grade: (A+)


Jose Ortega y Gasset Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: José Ortega y Gasset
    -REVIEW: of Revolt of the Masses (Pierre Lemieux, Cato Unbound)

Book-related and General Links:
    -José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1956)  (kirjasto)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Ortega y Gasset, José
    -ETEXT : The Revolt of the Masses
    -ETEXT : The Revolt of the Masses (Epopteia)
    -ETEXT : The Revolt of the Masses
    -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

    -REVIEW : of Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch (Scott London)
    -REVIEW: of The Crowd by Gustave Le Bon (Daria Fedotova, European Conservative)
    -INTERVIEW: Cultivating Moderation in an Age of Extremism: Aurelian Craiutu joins Ben Klutsey to discuss the state of liberalism today and the neglected virtue of moderation (BEN KLUTSEY, MAY 31, 2024, Discourse)