Ortega and the Myth of the Mass

Ortega and the Myth of the Mass

Mini Teaser: Many are inclined to give José Ortega y Gasset credit for prescience that he does not deserve.

by Author(s): Neil McInnes

When H.G. Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in 1933 he
dedicated it to "José Ortega y Gasset, Explorador." Wells had been an
explorer of that other country, the future, since The Time Machine in
1895, and more seriously since Anticipations in 1901, and he
recognized a kindred speculator in Ortega, whose Revolt of the Masses
had appeared in English translation the year before.

The future that was forecast there would not have surprised Wells in
his more somber moments. Europe, said Ortega, was "suffering from the
greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations and civilizations",
namely "the accession of the masses to complete social power." He
explained, with "a shudder of horror" (Ortega's colorful Castilian
can sound embarrassingly overdone in English): "The element of terror
in the destiny of our time is furnished by the overwhelming and
violent moral upheaval of the masses; imposing, invincible and
treacherous, as is destiny in every case." And he prophesied: "If
that human type [mass-man] continues to be master in Europe, thirty
years will suffice to send our continent back to barbarism."

Wells, who could be quite bloodthirsty about what should be done with
populations surplus to his requirements, would have relished another
prophecy in an earlier work of Ortega's: before things could get
better, the masses must fail completely in their audacious attempt to
rule society, "so that they may learn in their own lacerated flesh
that which they do not wish to hear"; only then would their hatred of
their betters be exhausted, and the mass and the select minority
would once again be integrated into a functioning society.

Looking back, many are inclined to give Ortega credit for prescience
that he does not deserve. It is quite true that in his 1930 Spanish
text he pointed to the mass movements of fascism, Bolshevism, and
Nazism to prove his point about a revolt against civilization, and
true that these movements went on to send Europe back to barbarism.
True, too, that his own country, which he scorned as a "pueblo"
nation, a land without elites, would soon sink into atrocious
confusion followed by nearly forty years of dictatorship. But none of
these things happened for the reasons Ortega imagined; and even when
he was right about European mass movements, he was fixed on the least
important things about them, things they shared with social movements
elsewhere that evolved quite differently. Worse than that, several of
the most disastrous of the mass movements he identified (notably
Nazism) were fed by ideologies to which Ortega was sympathetic, ideas
he caressed while calling to have mass-man put back in his place. All
the more curious, then, that his book should have had, after a
sensational success in the 1930s, a long history of sustained
interest on the right as well as on the left, among the intellectuals
as well as, mirabile dictu, among the masses.

That latter paradox is worth considering. By his own super-elitist
standards, a philosophical essay that begins life in a
mass-circulation Madrid daily newspaper and then becomes a
bestselling book must be suspect. And if it denounces the masses, how
is it that so many of them buy it? Do they enjoy being insulted, or
is it rather that each reader approves while making the reservation
that he is not part of the masses? Adding up all these reservations
we get the conclusion that, however many approve, no one believes it.
Horkheimer and Adorno (in their Soziologische Exkurse) tell an
apposite Teutonic joke:

"A huge political demonstration, the terrace packed full to the very
last place, an enormous carpet of men and faces right up to the top,
the orator in full flight. He cries, "The cause of all that's wrong
is massification." Hurricane of applause.

So if no one thinks he is mass-man, do we have to believe
philosophers and sociologists who talk about the masses? As I hope to
show, that was a question Ortega's book helped bring to a head and,
after thirty years' debate, to a conclusion.

First, though, what was the vantage point from which Ortega y Gasset
made his observations? Madrid, where he was born in 1883 into an
influential publishing family, was hardly the best place to study the
modern masses (although its urban hypertrophy had been swift and
devastating). After a first degree in Madrid, Ortega had spent five
years in universities in Berlin, Leipzig, and Marburg, emerging a
disciple of the neo-Kantian philosopher, Hermann Cohen. He returned
to Spain to found the Revista de Occidente, a magazine and publishing
house that set out to "level the Pyrenees", that is, to bring Spain
into the modern European, especially German, cultural sphere. That
sounds ambitious, and it was even harder than it sounds, but
eventually it was accomplished and Ortega was the pioneer. It meant,
firstly, working from the University of Madrid chair in Metaphysics
(which he held until the Civil War in 1936) to naturalize philosophy
in a land that had for centuries rejected it as either a foreign
affectation or a threat to religion and good order. Secondly, it
meant creating in Castilian a philosophical style and a technical
vocabulary that were quite lacking. In this, Ortega succeeded
magnificently, inventing a bold masculine prose iridescent with
striking metaphor (while sometimes settling for literary brilliance
where argument was needed).

Ortega gave the neo-Kantianism he learned in Germany a curious
hidalgo twist. Principles imposed by the mind, he agreed, must
everywhere overrule empirical intuition. But that required mental
effort, which most people shirked, lazily remaining content with
"sensualism" (as Ortega called reliance on the senses) and "common
sense", that is, vulgar prejudice. Empiricism was the archetypal mob
belief; it was "idiot", "plebeian", "demagogic", "the criteriology of
Sancho Panza." He declared: "Faith in the senses is a traditional
dogma, a public institution established by the irresponsible and
anonymous opinion of the People, the collectivity." In contrast,
philosophy, science, and mathematics are imposed on the given by
energetic, aristocratic intellectual elites. He pushed this so far as
to aver that logic itself and all science were games played under
strict but arbitrary rules by a minority seeking to escape from the
tedium and deadly seriousness of popular beliefs. Therefore Ortega's
anti-egalitarianism was not political (he dismissed politics as "that
second-class occupation") but cultural, philosophic, and even (oh
paradox!) logical.

What Ortega said (with more care for rhetorical effect than for
consistent argument) was that masses of average people had taken
power, not only in politics but in matters intellectual, moral,
religious, and economic, including all collective habits such as
dress and amusements. This phenomenon had political, psychological,
and cultural aspects. In politics, the attempt by the unqualified and
incompetent to rule without the leadership of the select minority
would lead to a political disaster, beginning with "direct action" in
fascist style and ending with the use of an oppressive and violent
state machine to crush the independence of individuals and groups.

Psychologically, the event was marked by the appearance of mass-man,
half spoiled child and half barbarian, content to be like everyone
else, envious of his betters and ignorant of what he owed to them,
ungrateful, complacent, capricious, lazy, obsessed with politics,
vulgar--the epithets pile up, not all of them mutually compatible.
The main point was that the masses were loathsome not just in and
because of their numbers; one specimen was enough to show what was
wrong with them all, and Ortega could recognize him at first glance.
The masses had been around in the plural since St. Augustine's massa
but individual mass-man, el hombre masa, Ortega claimed
as a discovery. Finally, the cultural revolt meant the end of high
culture, the rejection of all standards of excellence and rationality
in favor of caprice, sentimentality, human interest, and vulgarity.
Quite flatly, culture could not work on a mass basis.

The tone was shrill, and it got worse. In 1937 Ortega added a
"Prólogo para Franceses" in which, curiously, he did not even mention
Nazism while complaining that mass-man had created "a stifling
monotony" all over the continent, converting Europe into an ant-hill,
an overcrowded prison, because of mass-man's vulgarity and
soullessness. Congratulating himself on the anti-Americanism of his
1930 text, he scoffed at the idea that America, that "paradise of the
masses", could ever succor Europe. The only external event that might
stimulate Europeans to something worthwhile, like European union,
would be "a Chinaman's pigtail appearing over the Urals or a tremor
of the great Islamic magma." Or maybe it would all end in a gigantic
famine after which, he added in a sinister Hitlerite note, "Quedarían
muchos menos hombres, que lo serían un poco más" (There would be
many fewer men left, but they would be a bit more like men) (Obras
Completas IV, pp. 113-9).

The Educated Mass-Man

Grim warnings about what came to be called (after Karl Mannheim)
"mass society" go back to J.S. Mill and Tocqueville (dubbed by J.P.
Mayer the "Prophet of the Mass Age"). Denunciations of what came to
be called "mass culture" go back much further, to Juvenal (panem et
circenses) and Horace (Odi profanum vulgus et arceo). So Ortega was
not innovating there. His supposed natural law of oligarchy--that
only elites can rule--had been familiar since Pareto and Mosca, but
the two Italians had been interested only in the elites, not the
masses. For them, the mass was defined negatively; it lacked wealth
or education or military skill or whatever it was the elite had and
used to hold power. Le Bon had studied the psychology of la foule,
but a crowd is an event, whereas the mass is a perduring category,
and to transfer the apocalyptic views of Le Bon from crowds to masses
gave absurd results; which did not prevent Freud following Le Bon
uncritically in Massenpsychologie und Ichanalyse (Group Psychology
and the Analysis of the Ego).

Essay Types: Book Review