by: Okky Madasari
Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega Gassett, in his seminal work Revolt of the Masses (1930) since the very beginning has raised awareness on and criticism against the power of masses in the public life. Ortega developed his argument by observing the situation in Europe in late 1920s during which it was suffering from the great crisis - such a crisis repeatedly recurred along the history, and always created a situation called “a rebellion of the masses”. The term here should not necessarily be seen from political perspective, rather should be treated as a visual fact in which people – big number of people – try to show themselves up by becoming football fans or art audiences, by occupying cafes or staying at hotels, by making themselves feel “rebel”.
Ortega illustrates how such people appear as an agglomeration, and looking in any direction, or to say precisely in the best places. The multitude has instantly become visible, installing itself in the preferential positions within society. Before, if it existed, it passed unnoticed, occupying the background of the social stage; now it has advanced to the spotlights, and it is it’s the principal character.
Ortega describes how the concept of multitude is always quantitative and visual. And here is the first characteristic of the mass. The mass is the assemblage of persons who not specially qualified. The mass is the average man. The mass is mere quantity. But then, the quantity is converted into a qualitative determination and becomes the common social quality. In this situation, there is no individual anymore in the mass. Every individual adopts and attitude in singularity, repeating in himself a generic type.
As a psychological fact, Ortega argues that a mass 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, but which feels itself “just like everybody,” and nevertheless is not concerned about it. They are in fact, quite happy to feel itself as one with everybody else.
Opposite of the masses, there are individuals called select minorities or select men. Though these select men pose the opposite characteristic of the mass, the division of society into masses and select minorities is not a division into social classes, but into classes of men. It can not coincide with the hierarchic separation of “upper” and “lower” classes. Both mass and select men are to be found within any social classes.
Ortega offers example how in intellectual life we can differentiate one as the progressive intellectual from that of the pseudo-intellectual and the unqualified. On the other hand, it is very possible to find amongst working men, those who might be considered as the best example of “mass”, nobly disciplined minds.
The development of society into democratic system also provide the opportunity for the masses to have more power in public life. Ortega believes that no one will regret enjoying themselves in greater measure and numbers than before, since they have now both the desire and the means of satisfying it. The fact is in the democratic system the decision was taken by the masses – by relying merely on quantity, non quality. For this, Ortega believes that political innovations are nothing less than political domination of the masses. Ortega calls this phenomenon as hyperdemocracy in which the mass acts directly, outside the law, imposing its aspirations and its desires by means of material or physical pressure.
Violence and Barbarism
Ortega defines another important characteristic of the masses by stressing that they intervene in everything and their intervention is solely by violence. This situation can not be separated with the origin of the mass that has been explained by Ortega with the term of “rebel mass”. Here the word “rebel” is associated with the situation when individual’s soul obliterated, or rather closed. The individual finds themselves already with a stock of ideas, they feel the lack of nothing outside of themselves, settling down definitely amid his mental furniture. The mass-man regards himself as perfect.
Ortega describes how the mediocre soul is incapable of transmigrations – eternally being a fool, normalizing the foolishness. The fool does not suspect themselves, they think themselves the most prudent of men.
The consequence of this is the average man has lost the use of their hearing. There is no reason for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. They blind and deaf and just want to impose their “opinions” – that is not really mean opinion as the masses have no ideas. The “ideas” of the average man are not genuine ones, nor in the possession of a culture, implying the absence of principles or standards to refer to. There is no culture where there are no standards. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal.
Ortega argues if anyone is only concerned with adjusting himself to truth, if they have no wish to find the truth, if they have no wish to find the truth, they are intellectually barbarian. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.
Concrete example of the barbarism of the masses can be found in political movements, such as Syndicalism and Fascism. Under Syndicalism and Fascism, average men do not want to give reasons, but simply show themselves resolved to impose their opinions.