Ortega and the Myth of the Mass

By McInnes, Neil | The National Interest, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Ortega and the Myth of the Mass


McInnes, Neil, The National Interest


When H.G. Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in 1933 he dedicated it to "Jose 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(1) 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. …

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