José Ortega y Gasset's "The Revolt of the Masses" a Century Later
Sometimes crisis inspires the most penetrating social critiques. That was certainly the case in 1930 when José Ortega y Gasset published his famous essay The Revolt of the Masses. At the time, fascism was on the march in Europe, with Mussolini already running Italy and Hitler on the verge of taking control of Germany. In Ortega’s native Spain, the chaotic and messy nature of parliamentary democracy under the doomed Second Republic (1931-1939) would lead to a brutal civil war ending in General Franco’s victory. The trends on the left were equally disturbing. The Soviet Union’s apparent success (in retrospect, more mirage than reality) in the 1920s seemed to offer an alternative to the excesses of capitalism, a contrast that was all the more apparent after the stock market crash in 1929. In short, liberalism was under siege.
“The truth is that men are tired of liberty.” - Benito Mussolini.
Out of this bubbling chaos emerged one of the earliest and perhaps least recognized existentialists of the early 20th century. This was Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset. His essay, The Revolt of the Masses, made him famous, though he was a prolific philosopher before and after. His gift was an ability to write philosophy so that the average educated reader could understand. If you’ve read much modern philosophy (Hegel, Heidegger, Sartre, Wittgenstein, to cite only a few exemplars of famously opaque prose), you’ll know that this gift is the exception, not the rule.
However, after he died in 1955, Ortega was quickly forgotten, perhaps because the social milieu in which he wrote no longer resonated in the post-war era. After all, fascism was by then a defeated ideology and communism had retreated from dreams of world revolution to the stumbling stupor of asphyxiating statism. Or perhaps his version of meritocratic liberalism went from seeming the obvious way to run a free society in the 1940s and 1950s (and therefore no longer trendy) to being viewed with an ever-increasing hostility that has continued to this day.
Arguing for a complex liberal society managed by a meritocracy of elites is not something that’s aged well in a world where everyone’s a cynic, a pessimist, a know-it-all, or some combination of the three. Elites, or skilled minorities as Ortega vaguely called them, are viewed with suspicion, often referred to as the so-called “Deep State” by those on the right or associated with corrupt corporate CEOs as seen from the left. Either way, today the public looks askance at authority, assuming it's corrupt, incompetent, or both.
Though a lot has happened since Ortega’s time, history continues its ebbs and flows in ways that we cannot foresee. Recurring themes tend to reemerge when the conditions are right. One of those is that liberal democracies are too weak and chaotic to survive against authoritarian challengers. That was true when Ortega wrote The Revolt of the Masses and it's increasingly true today. I think it's fair to say now in the early 2020s that the health of liberal democracy is once again in doubt, just as it was a century ago. Authoritarian movements worldwide are emerging that use populism’s ill-defined discontent and sense of grievance and convert them into political capital, often to consolidate power in a more autocratic direction. Ortega saw it all before, which makes The Revolt of the Masses again relevant to our time.
Therefore, Ortega’s century-old argument from The Revolt of the Masses deserves another look. If anything, the conditions he described a century ago are even more applicable today in free and open societies worldwide. Ortega’s clear about one thing: there is a mass mentality that transcends class and even education. It’s a proudly vulgar worldview that can be held by university graduates and truck drivers alike. Social media and online culture have given this new “vulgaristocracy” a voice and power never seen before. But not wisdom. Opinions about facts all too often become dogmatic beliefs immune to challenge. Common sense and intuitions carry far greater weight than science. These are the battle cries of the revolting masses.
Ortega’s Mass Man – The Spoiled Child of History
Who were these revolting masses? This was not a literal revolt in the sense of pitchfork-wielding mobs descending on royal palaces. Nor were these hordes of disenfranchised and dim-witted workers pushing for revolution. This was not a class revolt but a metaphysical one. The mass mind is a feature of modernity, a mentality accustomed to the comforts of modern civilization, and it takes for granted a society backed by personal rights and liberties. After all, that’s the world we were born into, and our parents too. Especially today in the 2020s, though perhaps less so during Ortega’s time, the masses understand no other life than one under some form of liberalism.
Liberalism’s pillars: respect for the individual, consent to be governed by elected officials, and class-defying equality before the law became seen as our default birthrights. They were viewed as part of the natural order of things and not some precarious historical aberration. This was a world of technological abundance, one where effort was optional. Today, the average person is fortunate beyond imagination compared to the ignorance and misery of prior human existence. A minimum of effort suffices to provide all the food and shelter that one could ever wish for. And as an added bonus, we need not search long to find a never-ending supply of ubiquitous, saturating, mass entertainment available at little cost beyond our attention.
“A world superabundant in possibilities automatically produces deformities, vicious types of human life, which may be brought under the general class, the ‘heir-man,’ of which the ‘aristocrat’ is only one particular case, the spoiled child another, and the mass-man of our time, more fully, more radically, a third.”
Interestingly, Ortega saw the same spiritual debilitation in modern mass minds that had afflicted the landed aristocracies of yesteryear. This is true, even though the mass enjoys all the fruits of modernity and the liberties of liberalism. Purposeful work is optional, a life of discipline too. The easier path of lazy consumption and leisure-seeking becomes the default for the masses.
The Nature of the Mass Man According to Ortega
He has many names for them: the average, everyday, mediocre, inert, and vegetative, to name a few. Ortega divided society into two camps: “For there 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.”
He adds that the mass mind is not solely a matter of quantity but quality as well. Mass minds are generic, cut-and-paste people who strive or yearn for nothing beyond sating their appetites; they have few goals other than to get through the week and on to the weekend where they vegetate in front of a screen. They define themselves wholly by the comfort they get from being just like everyone else. To be different, especially to have ideas that might be unconventional or unpopular, is an anxiety-inducing situation mass minds will try to avoid at all costs. Blending into the crowd, thinking like the crowd, speaking the ironic, quippy language of the pop culture mob they spend their lives immersed in, all this comes naturally to the mass individual.
“beware the average man
the average woman beware their love,
their love is average seeks average”
The Genius of the Crowd
- Charles Bukowski
In the spiritual realm, mass minds lack the potential for transcendence because they acknowledge no higher authority than themselves. Even the God of the masses has become a servant of self-help, a holy therapist, or an ethereal Santa Claus to appeal to when something is wanted.
Also, you can spot a mass mind by its embrace of a few simple ideas that never change and by avoiding any nuance that might challenge an otherwise meme-deep, sugar-coated view of the world.
“The [mass] individual finds himself already with a stock of ideas. He decides to content himself with them and to consider himself intellectually complete. As he feels the lack of nothing outside himself, he settles down definitely amid his mental furniture. Such is the mechanism of self-obliteration.”
That “mental furniture” may be rickety and worn, but it’ll do for a lifetime. The mass holds opinions based on little more than intuitions and won’t be convinced otherwise, no matter how compelling the counterargument is. They know better. Such people can’t change because they’re perfectly fine with who they are (“love yourself for who you are!”). And thus, they waste the boon of our cornucopian age by choosing a life of hedonistic lassitude over purposeful effort. That’s the mechanism of self-obliteration Ortega is talking about; i.e., the ego seeing itself as intellectually self-sufficient in a world of infinite complexity. However, there’s a cultural cost to all this egoism.
“What I affirm is that there is no culture where there are no standards to which our fellow-men can have recourse. There is no culture where there are no principles of legality to which to appeal. There is no culture where there is no acceptance of certain final intellectual positions to which a dispute may be referred.”
In other words, without any agreed-upon standards to appeal to, we cannot have a common culture. Without shared perspectives, culture devolves into the narcissism of a billion prancing and preening little egos, each deeming itself the final arbiter on everything. This is the world we know today, one where people have opinions about facts. You have your facts, and I have my alternative facts. Who is to say who is right or wrong?
“The average man finds himself with ‘ideas’ in his head, but he lacks the faculty of ideation. He has no conception even of the rare atmosphere in which ideas live. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinions.”
It’s one thing to have an opinion about something. But how to judge its value? Ortega says that having an opinion about something is to have a reason for having that opinion. To answer why you have an opinion demands an outside appeal to authority. "I believe X because of fact Y, and here is my defense. What say you in response?" And out of this kind of dialogue, opinions are honed, refined, and, when necessary, discarded.
Opinions have no value outside the self if they do not undergo the rigors of debate. This is the road to a shared culture where only the best views by the sharpest minds will win out. Here we get the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” one of the central tenets of a free and open society. Through the free flow of dialogue, better ideas will win out over worse ones.
Mass-minds short-circuit this liberal ideal because they reject discussion. In fact, they feel threatened by it. To do so would mean submitting dearly-held beliefs to cross-examination and possible annihilation. No, the mass mind says, “that’s just what I believe and you need to respect my opinion.”
In Ortega’s time, fascists best exemplified this way of thinking. They saw themselves as dynamic men of action, done with endless talking. In truth, these were little more than inarticulate mass-men who had found a primitive sign language of action that did not require a whole lot of thinking. Why mire oneself in eternal debates about opinions and facts and whether they’re reasonable or logical or not? Action, force, then power, and finally coercion can override discussion. “This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the ‘reason of unreason.” This leads to intellectual barbarism, which was the absence of standards upon which any appeal could be made.
And so here we are: No institutions to look up to; no leaders or role models either. Just Me, Myself, and I lost in a house of mirrors.
The Mass-Man is a Club Open to All Classes
It’s essential to clarify something about Ortega’s conception of the mass mentality. He wasn’t referring only to the workers or the poorly educated and unwashed masses. The mass-man did not belong to a social class but described a mentality; it could also be found among the so-called elite specialists. Advanced specialization does not automatically produce enlightened philosopher types fit to rule. No, it simply manufactures technical experts who know a lot about a tiny, narrow subject. That’s all. In every other field, they are just as ignorant and prone to mass thought as anyone else.
“The specialist ‘knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.”
And, “We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.”
Ortega believes this is something entirely new. Before now, you had clear divisions between the learned and the ignorant. But with today’s specialists, this doesn’t work because they don’t neatly fit in either category. They are trained and highly educated in one narrow field, it is true, but they are still not necessarily “learned” by Ortega’s definition. I’ll get into Ortega’s idea of the “learned” noble-type person below, but suffice it to say that it demands a broader range of knowledge, introspection, and self-discipline than most people are willing to acquire.
That means even the highly trained specialist can have a mass mind. Even a master’s degree does not exempt one from the vulgarity of this mindset. “By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty.”
These “learned ignoramuses” can be the most resistant to changing their minds or submitting to outside authority. They conflate narrow niche expertise with a blanket qualification to pontificate as presumed authorities on other topics completely unrelated. Once they do so, you can count them as trapped in the mass mentality, which, as you’ll recall, rejects outside authority and spurns any challenge to opinions they are convinced are correct. They also mistake expertise in one field and the authority and prestige that may come with expertise in one field only as an open door to opine about anything and everything else. In fact, they are incentivized to do so online by algorithms that reward emotionally-driven content.
Social media and YouTube are filled with podcaster-comedians who feel qualified to opine about epidemiology, lawyers who understand climate science better than climate scientists, and actors who are constitutional scholars. This is precisely what Ortega was talking about; i.e., that specialization doesn’t inoculate one from the mass mentality. On the contrary: it often reinforces it.
In short, mass-minds think they know better, though, in fact, they know little. They demand respect while doing little to earn it. Nonetheless, they are prone to taking offense when their leaders don’t pander to them. They bring nothing more to the table than platitudes, clichés, and what Ortega called shallow “café talk.”
The Creative Sterility of the Mass Mind
An impoverished intellect is often married to a lack of creativity. Mass minds want to create; they think they can, yet nothing but tropes and clichés come out when they try. Of course, the irony here is that modern society offers a multitude of resources to enhance and refine the mind and explore avenues of creativity, and yet the masses don't take advantage. Remember back in the early 2000s when tech optimists claimed the Internet would be the tool that democratized and enlightened the public? A new Golden Age of creativity was about to dawn. The truth would be available to all! All we had to do was look it up. Lies would be easily debunked and we'd all live happily ever after. Such dewy-eyed optimists did not realize that most people – i.e., the mass minds – don’t want to accept outside truths. They don't want to fact-check their assumptions. No, they want to confirm their own personal beliefs, to shop around until they find something that confirms them. And there’s something for everyone. Identities – race, gender, sexuality, political ideology, body type, etc. – all became warring factions for folks to join.
We have the time and resources to explore our creativity to our heart’s content, and yet again, that same choice to choose apathy, to serve as passive consumers of content instead. Ortega’s contention is that the majority are simply unequipped, both intellectually and temperamentally, to be anything other than average. The lie we tell ourselves is that anyone can do anything if only we believe in ourselves enough. What nonsense! Hence, there is a gap between the enormous potential available for self-actualization today - as never seen before - and how few are willing (or able) to put in the effort to get there. The gap between potential and practice has never been wider.
“The mass man is he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along. Consequently, though his possibilities and his powers be enormous, he constructs nothing.”
And yet, “…we live at a time when man believes himself the fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create. Lord of things, he is not lord of himself. He feels lost amid his own abundance. With more means at its disposal, more knowledge, more technique than ever, it turns out that the world today goes the same way as the worst worlds that have been; it simply drifts.”
The Political Threat of the Mass Man
Ortega’s thesis matters today because the mass mentality is alive and well, from the tippy-top pinnacle of power, down to the average person vegging out in front of a screen. This mentality works with Dunning-Kruger self-confidence to undermine the hard-won gains of the last two centuries. We find political institutions infiltrated by outrageously self-confident mediocrities who prefer antics on social media over the work of doing anything substantive. They churn up a never-ending stream of half-baked conspiracies, platitudes, and clichés, rather than doing the hard job of formulating policies that address real needs. How could they? They don’t know how to. Here's Donald Trump answering a question about who he consults for advice on foreign policy.
"I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things... I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are. But I speak to a lot of people. My primary consultant is myself, and I have, you know, I have a good instinct for this stuff"
Donald Trump in an interview on MSNBC's Morning Joe, March 2016
Indeed, look no further, here is the mass-man personified!
In power, mass minds become empowered to further outrages. How hard can it be, after all, to run a democracy? The only political talent the masses need to hold office is the ability to get elected by fellow mass minds. And then everything becomes a spectacle – masses appealing to masses from the heights of power, trying to prove to one another that the hard job of running a massive technocracy can be accomplished with no deeper thoughts than those found on the average Twitter feed. They pluck from their tiny arsenal of stock ideas simple solutions to all the world’s problems.
Here lies the big weakness of democracy: that clowns can also win elections and rule if they are entertaining enough, while more qualified candidates are repelled by the carnival aspect of modern politics.
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
- W.B. Yeats
Clowns entertain, but they can’t solve complex problems. Ortega makes the very valid point that every society has a hierarchy, no matter the ideology. "We the People" doesn't count. The mass mind’s mistake is to believe it has the qualities to stand competently at the top of that hierarchy. This gets to a basic democratic premise: if hierarchies are inescapable, we need to make sure the most qualified are calling the shots. If this sounds elitist, it shouldn’t.
Ortega breaks it into an either-or: “either I rule or obey. By obedience I do not mean mere submission – this is degradation - but on the contrary, respect for the ruler and acceptance of his leadership, solidarity with him, an enthusiastic enrolment under his banner.”
Healthy Democracy and the Noble-Man
That’s what it means to live in a healthy liberal democracy, and it’s worth restating what used to be an obvious truth. Knowing themselves ill-equipped to rule, average citizens pick the best among them who will govern on their behalf. People don’t have time to dive into the intricacies of public policy – they have lives to lead, after all - and those who do often vastly overestimate their abilities to come to well-reasoned conclusions. That’s why we elect representatives to do it for us. We trust them to make the best decisions on issues and we vote them out if they fail.
Though they are often not specialists in most public policy spheres, these elected officials have the intellectual self-awareness to recognize their own limitations and seek out the best counsel they can from the most knowledgeable in that field. An informed leader will legislate on the relevant experts' inputs, not on the ideologically-driven prompts of talk radio hosts. All this is how it should work in theory, if not in practice; i.e., a reasonably well-informed citizenry selects its finest to represent them in government.
So who is fit to rule? What kind of person did Ortega have in mind?
Here Ortega is much less specific, but he has something to offer. He has many labels - the noble-man, the select-man, the excellent-man – but they all represent his ideal of the person of quality. They are not limited by specialization but are the kind of generalists who have a broad knowledge of the world. Ortega uses contrasts to flesh out the nobility’s traits, and by nobility, he doesn’t mean a hereditary caste of rulers who hold power for no other reason than their class. Nobility in this context describes an approach to the world and life in general.
“For me, then, nobility is synonymous with a life of effort, ever set on excelling oneself, in passing beyond what one is to what one sets up as a duty and an obligation. In this way, the noble life stands opposed to the common or inert life, which reclines statically upon itself.”
If the mass mentality is one of inertia, the noble one is about continuous effort. These types need a purpose to thrive and will search for something bigger and better than themselves to serve. Self-improvement for the noble mind is not an end in itself, servicing nothing more than the self, but an unending process of personal reflection that creates a better citizen, one who understands the contingency and complexity of the world. And one who doubts too. Humble wisdom exemplifies these types, who work toward goals that not only make themselves better but society as well.
Noble minds readily submit themselves to some higher standard, whereas the average see nothing higher than themselves. “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us – by obligations, not by rights.” They see things more clearly by not being blinded by ego, but this clarity comes at a cost.
Duty binds nobles and holds them accountable; the masses see this as a form of bondage and reject it outright. This is a point that Ortega repeatedly makes, that a life of duty and obligation to some higher ideal is more challenging but richer and more authentic nonetheless. Only those who see the problematic nature of human existence, with its many contradictions, tragedies, and limitations, will have the wisdom of the clear mind, one devoid of illusions and fantasies. Ortega describes these clear thinkers as “shipwrecked” because they’ll frantically look about for something, anything, better than themselves to cling to that can bring order out of the chaos.
Where does this leave us? Ortega was doing what philosophers and academics do best: zooming out and making grand generalizations about humanity. This is a helpful heuristic for diagnosing certain tendencies in a society. But it’s like writing a book about planet earth based on nothing more than satellite images. A lot of detail is lost. I’d argue that many today do not neatly fit into this either-or category but exist to some degree in both. What percentage? I can’t say. However, I believe that the degree to which a person lives online, feeding their minds with a constant stream of hot and steaming digital garbage, offers a clue to the “massness” of that mind. If I’m right about that, then the accelerating pace of our online engagement is breeding mass minds at an accelerating rate. The younger generation knows nothing but this way of being. Does anyone see this trend reversing?
Meanwhile, as I’ve composed this essay, I’ve looked around and quietly tried to categorize the people around me as one of Ortega’s two classes. Do they strive for more, yearn to serve something grander than themselves, and think for themselves even if they are humbled in the process? Or just go with the flow, settling for a life of dull inertia in front of a screen?
Many fit neatly into the mass-mind category described above - though I’d never tell them that. Suffice it to say, such mass minds are not the types to read long philosophical essays they stumble upon on the Internet. After all, sustained self-reflection is not something they do well. These are people that I can’t imagine ever pausing to reflect, to doubt, to impose upon themselves a life of self-discipline and service to some higher cause.
Maybe I’m wrong, though. I don’t have access to anyone else’s inner world, so I understand that judgments about my fellow humans are provisional at best. The same fraught calculus applies to me. My own snap judgment puts me in the noble class (if I may be so bold). I’ve been a member of the armed forces for over 28 years, so there’s something better beyond myself that I submit to and serve. I’ve always put the needs of the Army over my own; I still live a life of mental and physical discipline; I strive for excellence in whatever I do. As I've gotten older, that has not changed.
And yet, the nagging doubt that this does not make me “noble” in the way Ortega meant. Not noble enough, anyway. It could very well be that I’m another vulgar mediocrity in a world already full of them, a wannabe intellectual with neither the mind nor the educational pedigrees to be anything more than a dabbler: a modern-day Jude the Obscure, if you will. I’ll have to leave unresolved the very real possibility that the writer of this essay is guilty of the same overestimation of his merit that he attributes to so many others.
In any case, I embrace Ortega’s notion that liberal democracies need to be governed by the best among us, even if that is not me. These are the broadly-educated generalists with the self-awareness to recognize when they don't know and to seek counsel accordingly. They have the intellectual humility to evolve their opinions when the evidence warrants it. In short, the best need to lead, and the rest need to obey, not as slaves but as citizens who see our leaders as extensions of our desire to build a better democratic society that promotes and protects individual liberties.
My own experience finds sense in this view. The Army I still serve today is a clearly-defined hierarchy, what I’ve called elsewhere a “socialist meritocracy.” Except at the very top and bottom, every service member becomes adept at leading and following. We understand that those two skills are equally important. Deference, mutual trust and respect, and humility exemplify military culture, as does a striving for excellence in everything we do. I don’t begrudge my superiors because they are in charge. I know that they earned that position and deserve my respect and obedience. They lead, and we follow, and I trust they have our best interests at heart and, even more so, those of the nation. After all these years, I can say that trust has never been betrayed. When it’s my turn to lead, I expect the same deference in return and give the same respect back to my subordinates. This is the crucial discipline that makes an organization like mine function well. It's why we have the best military in the world by far.
I’ve lived in a military culture that rewards excellence as much as it respects those who follow. If you ask anyone who has made a career out of the military, you’ll likely hear that they were proud to serve something larger than themselves. Service provided meaning and purpose, two things that are badly needed for the good life. I wonder if Russian soldiers feel a higher sense of belonging right now? I bet they don't. I think Ortega would have found much to admire in our way of running the military. But if the Army is a hierarchy of service that promotes excellence, it’s not a democracy. Here I drift back to the same pessimism that Ortega felt when he wrote about the revolt of the masses. The kind of healthy culture I’ve immersed myself in for almost three decades is declining. It's no longer the norm. Finding something larger than the self to serve is getting harder to do. Most have been brought up to live for Me, Myself, and I, and have never belonged to anything bigger than themselves. They are left adrift, alienated, and searching for meaning and purpose wherever those can be found, often only online. Many give up the search or settle for poisonous substitutes.
I believe it is no coincidence that the toxic rise of identity politics over the last 20 years is a symptom of this existential drift. There's something sadly narcissistic about passionately identifying oneself with groups that hold no other unifying premise beyond the tribal worship of some personal trait, whether that be race, gender, or sexual orientation. They're dead ends, limited by definition, and divisive by nature. Another symptom of the new mass-mentality is the turn to populist demagogues like Donald Trump and his spawn of grievance grifters. They remain popular because so many find their brand of stupidity intoxicating and relatable. They're dead ends too since mass minds cannot create, but only tear down.
This creates a society of cynics who view everything with suspicion. Institutions are widely distrusted. The Grand Old Christian Faiths of yesteryear have stopped preaching spiritual discipline in favor of what is rightly called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. After all, they also compete in the free market of ideas, and what people are buying is what makes them feel good. Mass faith for a mass mind. Ortega called the cynics the saboteurs of civilization; they did nothing and contributed nothing other than denying anything good. Like parasites, they feed off the host without giving anything in return. He went even further, actually calling them parasites. “The cynic, a parasite of civilization, lives by denying it, for the very reason he is convinced it will not fail.”
Indeed, if we look around, the signs are worrying. Cynicism is the norm, even in this golden age of abundance. Many are keen to tear down the system that created all this plenitude, though they have nothing to put in its place. This is the second age of the mass-mind - Ortega’s was the first – and we’re in for a bumpy ride over the next few years.
José Ortega y Gasset. The Revolt of the Masses. W.W. Norton, 1994.