"The Coming of the Masses" - Ch. 1 of "The Revolt of the Masses" by Jose Ortega y Gasset
The Coming of the Masses
I had been putting off reading Gasset's most famous work, The Revolt of the Masses, in favor of some of his lesser known works on metaphysics. But, finally, I have picked it up and ... wow! The first chapter did not disappoint, and if this is an indication of the rest of the work, it will certainly live up to its hype.
There has been a lot of discussion (on my blog and other places) about "mass formation psychosis" in relationship to the present day. But Gasset was witnessing the same phenomena in the 1930's after the First World War and leading up to the Second. I think that the world-wide response to COVID-19 awoke people to the reality that government control, narratives, money, and restructuring society were really inextricably entwined with the virus itself. But these agendas could only be successful if there was conformity and obedience, hence the necessity for a mass mentality/agreement about COVID. Just like in the early 20th century, there are hidden forces which desire a wholescale change of the nature of Western society, and are using many methods to implement "mass formation."
Historical Growth of Populations into "Mass Communities"
Gasset begins his book by pointing out a concerning movement of the time, written in 1932, which he referred to as "the accession of the masses to complete social power." Here, by the masses, he is referring to the conglomerate of people which we might associate with a mob, a large group of people who have not been part of the traditional educated structure of society. This accession is not just political, but involves every aspect of society from entertainment and dress to economics, religion, and academic. He offers a very simple example which everyone can basically see with their own eyes to make this point. "I shall call it the fact of agglomeration, of 'plentitude.' Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travelers, cafes full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting-rooms of famous doctors full of patients, theatres full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers." 1
And so there is a natural problem of finding room for these tasks amongst the crowds of others doing the same. In reflecting on this basic observation, Gasset points out that its now clear that the masses run almost all aspects of modern society. And this would seem ideal of course. (Here Gasset goes on a bit of a tangent about "wonder" and how even taking such a basic observation and stepping back to actually ponder it leads to wonder, yet your average "football fan" does not do so. Rather, it often falls to the academic man to question these things. "...leads the intellectual man through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary. His special attribute is the wonder of the eyes. Hence it was that the ancients gave Minerva her owl, the bird with ever-dazzled eyes.") 2 When did this change occur? Gasset mentions that after the First World War that people began to flock to the cities, leaving their rural and local lives for ones that involved bigger populations. Not only have they taken up the physical and social space, but the drama of civilization that in the past would have focused on a few key players has now changed to focus on these large masses and their role in politics and economics.
The Process of "Mass Formation"
On a negative note, though, this movement towards large populations living life together also gave birth likewise to the man "formed" solely by the generic group, or the man that in no real way stands out from any other average person. It is one who has all the same basic conceptions and qualities as everyone else. 3As Gasset puts it, a man who has "...coincidence of desires, ideas, [and] ways of life..." 4 "We then meet with the notion of the 'social mass.' Society is always a dynamic unity of two component factors: minorities and masses. The minorities are individuals or groups of individuals which are specially qualified. The mass is the assemblage of persons not specially qualified. By masses, then, is not to be understood, solely or mainly, 'the working masses.' The mass is the average man. ... the common social quality, man as undifferentiated from other men, but as repeating in himself a generic type." 5
What's the difference, though, between this "mass-man" and any other group of people that forms? Gasset says that the mass formed man is one who becomes undifferentiated from the population through indifference, by having no desire to set himself apart. A "minority," the opposite of the mass man, is formed by groups of people who specifically unite based on a certain desire, idea, commonality. They consciously come together in some shared common good which excludes all of those who do not pursue such goals. "Their coincidence with the others who form the minority is, then, secondary, posterior to their having each adopted an attitude of singularity, and is consequently, to a large extent, a coincidence in not coinciding."
Thus, there is a psychological component which Gasset identifies in the mass-man. Someone is subject to mass-formation when they have chosen nothing which has set them apart, but rather been "created," so to speak, by the popular culture. "Strictly speaking, the mass, as a psychological fact, can be defined without waiting for individuals to appear in mass formation. In the presence of one individual we can decide whether he is 'mass' or not. The mass is all that which sets no value on itself - good or ill - based on specific grounds, but which feels itself 'just like everybody,' and nevertheless is not concerned about it; is, in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else." 6
As a caveat, he mentions that he is not talking about the man who tries to set himself apart with some interest or skill, and fails to master that endeavor. The non mass-man is not, the positive minority, is not defined by being upper class in some traditional sense of being wealthy, or nobility, etc. Rather, it is the man who chooses to challenge himself to greatness. The one who pursues perfection in his own way by testing himself, by subjecting himself to difficulty and suffering, rather than taking the easy way out, of just flowing down stream with the rest of humanity. "For their is no doubt that the most radical division that it is possible to make of humanity is that which splits it into two classes of creatures: those who make great demands on themselves, piling up difficulties and duties; and those who demand nothing special of themselves, but for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves." 7
The Mass and the Minority Mentality in Society Today (1930's)
And so, today, (1930's) it is true that this fundamental division between mass and minority transcends traditional social classes, the nobility may fall into the category of mass, while the average man may be considered minority, especially as he now has access to skills and education which was previously reserved for the higher classes in the past. And likewise a sense of entitlement to access these minority positions is present in the population which was not there before, as people recognized in the past that if they did not have the skills they obviously could not enjoy and hold such minority positions. 8
A dark side emerges, though, along with the rise of the mass man into all forms of political, social, economic life. Namely, that they these positions cannot be executed properly if those in charge have no skill or proper training which sets them a part for this service. The person who is only formed by the culture, who just goes with the flow, who has nothing which sets himself apart, will revert towards the goal of pleasure and enjoyment. And if the whole of the key systems of society are filled by these men, then the society is in danger. "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."
And so society falls to the influence and whims of the lowest common denominators of the crowd. The philosophical and political structures which the sustained the Western world are being cast aside for a type of rule by the mob. "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." 9 Likewise, Gasset identifies a problem in the evaluation of information. The mass-man may read a work of deep intellectual rigor, and yet only use the work as a excuse to pass judgment on the work based on the reader's already preconceived ideas. "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." 10
1 - Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses. (New York. Norton & Norton Co., 1930). Pg. 11.
2 - 12
3 - 13
4 - 14
5 - 13
6 - 14
7 - 15
8 - 16
9 - 17
10 - 18