Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Reason of Unreason" - José Ortega y Gasset and the Revolt of the Masses

In 1930, as Spain teetered on the cusp of fascism, José Ortega y Gasset penned one of his most famous works, The Revolt of the Masses. In approaching this work, we must be mindful of the historical context in which it was born. Spain, at this stage, was mired in an internal struggle for power that would culminate in civil war and the eventual triumph of fascist General Franco, who - with Nazi support - assumed power in 1939. When Ortega wrote this book, the horrors of Franco's regime still lay in the future, but the seeds of this regime - like all such fascisms, predicated on fear, ignorance and a rank form of nationalism - were already being sowed. The nation was crippled by divisions, with the population split into a wide plurality of irreconcilable factions. There were, on one side, the monarchists and Catholics. On the other, the socialists and communists. Many more were caught somewhere in the middle. I do not know for sure, but I imagine that the work in question was to a large extent a reaction to - and warning against - precisely these divisive, popularly led movements.

Reading the book now, we may be taken aback by the disdain Ortega heaps upon "masses", itself a term that even the most shamelessly haughty of us today would baulk at using. For Ortega, the "mass-man" emerges for the first time in the 20th century as a fulcrum of political power, and - as a consequence of his ignorance and his critical lack of preparedness to govern - threatens the very basis of civilization. This "mass-man" fails to understand the lessons of history - forever facing forwards, as he inevitably must, because he believes himself to be the apex of history - and he rejects the possibility of there existing an authority any higher than himself. The culmination of the mass-man's ascent to power lies in the emergence of what Ortega terms "hyperdemocracy", "in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material pressure". Mass-man, however, lacks the competence to run a state - such a job is presumably best left with the "artisans", as Ortega puts it - and this was the source of Ortega's angst: how could civilization persist in such unworthy hands?

In the largely egalitarian democracies in which we live today ("one man, one vote") such thoughts must strike us as repugnantly conceited, if not outright dangerous. Such open disdain for quotidian folk (I struggle to find a better euphemism for "masses") runs against our modern democratic principles, and one might find it quite easy to draw a direct line from such disdainful views to the eugenic mania of various mid 20th century ideologies. If we start isolating swathes of the population as being somehow below our contempt, then what logical reason do we retain to defend them from persecution or extermination? However, I must defend this work against such charges, since in referring to the "masses" Ortega makes it clear that he has in mind no specific race, class or creed: the overwhelming majority of us comprise this gormless, faceless "mass", so I take Ortega's work predominantly as a warning against "falling in with the herd" (to invoke an unsuitably trite idiom) rather than as the disparaging identification of an inherently defective class of people. To the extent that Ortega has a specific group in mind, it appears to the burgeoning bourgeoisie class, a group - then as now - that scarcely requires our dolorous coddling. 

Nonetheless, we exist in a political environment that - quite rightly, for the most part - discourages the gradation of human being into superior or inferior classes. That way, as the crimes of the 20th century still show us, leads to the greatest realisations of misery. The political zeitgeist of the current age is increasingly one of toleration, mutual respect and individual sovereignty - once again, we can count our blessings that it should be so. However, for all the unquestionable benefits of such politics, it also runs the risk of mistaking equality for crass undifferentiation: that, in a system where all should be granted equal political rights, that all political or social claims - and those who espouse them - deserve to be treated with completely undifferentiated and uncritical respect. Even in America - a supposed meritocracy of almost Darwinian degrees - the idea that every political opinion is as valid as the next one, has led to a kind of intellectual morass where the possibility of an honest, intellectual inquiry into the fitness of a given idea - particularly in the domain of mass media - has completely vanished.

Ortega puts it like this:

"The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will. As they say in the United States: "to be different is to be indecent." The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated."

Now many Americans may baulk at the suggestion that "to be different is to be indecent" in the avowedly individualistic context of American politics, but I believe it rings true. The peculiarities of the US electoral system renders the possibility of a sizeable third-party presence completely moot, with the entire political dialogue in the country consequently entirely confined to that which is most electorally convenient to the two major parties. Issues that do not carry a clear electoral advantage to either of these parties are simply ignored or glossed over. I'm certainly not one to suggest that the two parties lack clear ideological differences as others might, but however unique they may be in constitution, the presence of only two major political voices clearly dilutes the potential for open and honest political dialogue.

In the first place, each party knows that it need only discredit the other party in order to win power - it needn't trouble itself selecting the best policies from a wide plurality of options, for example, which would be necessary if their primary objective were to govern effectively on behalf of the American people. Rather, it need only seek to scandalise the positions of the opposing party: if the other party finds itself discredited, the populace is left, after all, with only one alternative. The result is a ongoing process of acrimonious gainsaying, in which neither side is truly prepared to commit itself to any policies that might benefit the other electorally, completely irrespective of their merits. This process leads not to a confluence of positions between the two parties as many have suggested, but rather an increasing dichotomisation. For the first time, the most conservative Democratic congressman is more liberal than the most liberal Republican congressman, and this makes the possibility of compromise on any number of important issues increasingly low. There are several flow-on effects to this.

The first is that electoral politics is increasingly portrayed as a two-horse race, and that all media narratives must inevitably cohere to such a portrayal. This leads to an endless and evermore tedious cycle of promiscuous politicisation, where literally every event - no matter how insignificant - is pitched as yet another battle waged in the ongoing war between the blue and red teams. This leads us to further polarisation, where the supporters of each side believe quite sincerely that all the nation's woes can be attributed to the glaring sins of the opposite side. For their part, the media - fearful of losing 50% of their market - are increasingly apprehensive about reporting unambiguous facts that may be detrimental to one side, and therefore muddy every issue by unthinkingly - yet somehow meticulously - presenting the deliberately obfuscatory "spin" of both sides on every issue. The public are therefore starved of quality information, and - with the lack of any third party to keep the two major parties honest - the Republicans and Democrats find themselves receding further and further from reality into the safe, hermetically sealed discourse of partisan politics.

The increasing polarisation of American politics presents a second problem. With each party virtually guaranteed around 40% of the vote1, that leaves both with the need to target their message with increasing specificity to the remaining 20%. Now despite what they might like to think about themselves, these unaffiliated 20% are generally not independent-minded people, heroically guarding their vote until a full, rational analysis of the respective party platforms has been completed, but rather low-information dolts who are capable of being swung to one side or the other for the most trivial of reasons. Since these are the people who decide elections one way or another, the level of political discourse is severely downgraded and the micro-targeting strategies of each of the major parties lead us to policies which yield nothing beyond the most asinine, populist pap. Now populism in itself is not necessarily something that should concern us (sometimes the best ideas also happen to be the most popular), but when the entire political process tends inexorably towards rank populism (because neither party can win power without this middling 20%) then we start to have the kind of problems that Ortega has warned us about.

Until now I have spoken as though both of the major parties deserve their share of blame for the current malaise in US political discourse, but I think such a portrayal would be disingenuous and just another example of the insidious need to render US politics as a two-horse race. Rather, when it comes to leading political discourse down into the sewers of rank, unthinking populism, the Republicans must clearly accept the lion's share of the blame. It has long been recognised that conservatives in the US have hitched their wagon to the forces of anti-intellectualism, forgoing open and honest policy debates in favour of the much more poisonous methods of the deliberately eristic and paranoid. Once you have completely abandoned the pretence of "facts" and "reason", your only justification now lies in the realm of the instinctive and the popular. To protect these justifications from the harsh light of reality, it becomes necessary to sacralise instinctive, populist politics by placing them beyond any possibility of rational reproach. This is achieved via the advancement of the notion that to reproach the political opinions of the "common man" on rational or empirical grounds is to engage in "elitism": the views of each man must be considered inherently valid and to dispute this claim is to violate the very basis of democracy. I think such a view - in and of itself - is rather cynical, but not necessarily pernicious. The trouble arises when "the masses" adopt it as a pseudo-religious mantra.

What we have now in the American populace is the idea that to simply have a political opinion carries with it its own justification, and that it needn't be justified any further to anyone. To believe in something, in a principled way, is inherently meritorious and that no-one has the right to disabuse one of that notion. This process culminates with Ortega's notion that "the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will": namely, everyone has the obligation to respect the intrusion of my "commonplace" opinion, no matter how ignorant or inapt it may be. All views are inherently valid, every man a qualified authority on that which he happens to be passionate.

Yet, to the extent he believes himself to lie beyond any possibility of reproach (what politician, after all, has ever won votes by telling him otherwise?), the "mass-man" can accept the authority of no-one beyond himself. The rejection of scientific and political authorities - under the banner of "freedom" - is a particular feature of modern Republicanism, though it happens to be one presaged by Ortega in the "mass-man" some 80 years ago:

"...the modern mass finds complete freedom as its natural, established condition, without any special cause for it. Nothing from outside incites it to recognise limits to itself and, consequently, to refer at all times to other authorities higher than itself... He is satisfied with himself exactly as he is. Ingenuously, without any need of being vain, as the most natural thing in the world, he will tend to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes. Why not, if, as we have seen, nothing and nobody force him to realise that he is... subject to many limitations..."

This arrogance, obdurate certainty and complete disdain for authority beyond himself leads the "mass-man" to a sickening degree of self-congratulatory selfishness. To the extent that he has found himself born into a comfortable position, he sees no need to protect and maintain the kind of structures - including strong government - that allowed him to be born into such privilege in the first place. The plight of future generations - or present generations born into quite different circumstances - should be left entirely to chance. The government - or any other organisation which challenges the quite gratuitous autonomy of the "mass-man" - must be challenged and rejected at every step. Consequently, the "mass-man" is "incapable of creating or conserving that very organisation [namely, the civilised state] which gives his life the fullness and contentedness on which he bases this assertion of his personality". Ortega continues:

"...the new masses find themselves in the presence of a prospect full of possibilities, and furthermore, quite secure, with everything ready to their hands, independent of any previous efforts on their part, just as we find the sun in the heavens without our hoisting it up on our shoulders. No human being thanks another for the air he breathes, for no one has produced the air for him; it belongs to the sum-total of what "is there," of which we say "it is natural," because it never fails. And these spoiled masses are unintelligent enough to believe that the material and social organisation, placed at their disposition like the air, is of the same origin., since apparently it never fails them, and is almost as perfect as the natural scheme of things."

It is for this reason - the complete lack of respect for or appreciation of social structures that took centuries to erect - that Ortega feels the "mass-man" threatens civilisation. The Republicans would be his modern-day equivalent. The demure capitulation of at least one of the major US political parties to this new "mass-man" and his abhorrent politics has left the entire political system impoverished, with all discourse now conducted in thrall of the lowest common denominator. The possibility of sensible, rational debate has been completely exhausted by a climate in which the populace have been pandered to and indulged to such a degree that they no longer have the capacity to recognise the limits of their wisdom. A child who is not used to being told "no" will not grow-up into a mature, thoughtful and considerate adult and that is the dilemma facing us today. The genie of simply untethered freedom (i.e. that which has been granted without any corresponding responsibilities) and entitlement has been taken from the bottle, and we may find it difficult to replace him. How can a child who has grown up to respect no authority beyond itself ever be told otherwise?

 So, what to do? What lessons can we draw from Ortega? I think that the most sage advice we can take from  Revolt of the Masses is the idea that there are such things as legitimate authority, and that we shouldn't be so hasty in sacrificing the need for such authority on the altar of democratic liberalism and tolerance. The events of the mid-20th century rightly made us wary of the dangers of unchecked political authority, but that doesn't mean we should race as far as possible in the other direction. There are people who understand the world far better than we, and we should have no qualms about ceding them at least some power to do what is right for us. If they are unsuccessful to this end, we retain the hard-won right to vote them out.

 Ultimately, mass populist movements, who respect no perspective beyond their own, need to be challenged, no matter how electorally inconvenient this might be. We need to abandon the idea that all opinions are equally valid and that all deserve to be listened to. We already do this when we marginalise those at the fringes of political discourse (the 9/11 Truthers, the Birthers etc.), we just need to be a little more discriminating. As far as the Republican Party is concerned, we can take some solace from the fact that the unthinking and unfeeling crassness of its electoral strategy is teetering, and has been rejected at the last two presidential elections. The reports of its impending death are surely exaggerated, though it is clear that they must start listening to the voices of a much more diverse electorate if they are to enjoy any future success. Perhaps they might start by reading this book, and recognising the inherent dangers of their current strategy of populist pandering and reactionary anti-statism.


1) This partly has to do with brand recognition, and partly has to do with tribal politics. The "brand recognition" of the parties means, for instance, that the GOP is forever seen as the party of small government, despite all evidence to the contrary. So people will vote for the GOP as the small government party despite the massive debts run up by recent GOP administrations, their appalling records on civil liberties and so on. Petty tribalism is also a factor now. There are many people who will never vote for one of the parties - regardless of what policies they espouse - simply because they have been conditioned to hate that party in the current electoral climate. It is here that US politics, as much as anywhere else, begins to resemble a sport.

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