As cities burn across a divided United States of America, it is worth considering some of the conditions that foment the country’s increasingly radical politics. During the past few years, the United States has experienced a series of cultural shifts in which the public’s perception of numerous—primarily social—issues has been abruptly and dramatically altered. In a matter of months, the minority views of political activists become normalised while views which were previously tolerated in mainstream discussions are suddenly impossible to hold in public life. Though one would expect such shifts to occur gradually over many years and feature prominently in fierce public debate, the change always arises suddenly, at once a surprise to many who pride themselves on being informed about—and having a stake in—public life, and yet succeeding overwhelmingly against virtually no formal organised opposition. Moreover, these shifts are supported by private and public institutions which become, without warning, part of the vortex of mass opinion.
Writing between the two world wars that would shape the rest of his century and the beginning of our own, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset set himself the task of describing the qualities of the dominant character type of his age, what he would term the “mass man.” Ortega was one of the first to consider the psychology of the mass movements of his day, which he believed proceeded axiomatically from the breakdown of traditional institutions of cultural authority and the rise of a self-satisfied, intellectually proletarian mass. The resulting profile in his work The Revolt of the Masses is timeless and offers greater psychological insight into contemporary Americans than they would be able to provide themselves.
Despite our squeamishness at the term, Ortega does not use “mass” to imply any distinction based on class.1 Regardless of his socio-economic status, the mass man is always the same, self-satisfied man, who “has withdrawn into himself” and “tend[s] to consider and affirm as good everything he finds within himself: opinions, appetites, preferences, tastes” and will not listen or “submit himself to higher courts of appeal.”2 For Ortega, the antithesis of the mass man, the rare man of excellence, “is urged, by interior necessity, to appeal from himself to some standard beyond himself, superior to himself, whose service he freely accepts.”3
Ortega viewed the mass man as an interloper in technically advanced, liberal democracies he had played no part in building. He was spoiled, expecting the freedoms he enjoyed under liberal democracy to continue indefinitely, and he was ignorant of the sheer effort and human ingenuity necessary to maintain a civilisation as prosperous as his own: “…[t]he very perfection with which the 19th century gave an organisation to certain orders of existence has caused the masses benefited thereby to consider it, not as an organised, but as a natural system.”4 The increase in socio-economic complexity also brought with it the rise of a new and influential class of specialists, often ignorant and dismissive of other disciplines outside their expertise and lacking the intellectual humility and wisdom to recognise when they were out of their depth.5
In the realm of politics, Ortega argued that the mass man’s independence from traditional authority made him unpredictable as well as unrealistic about his destiny within society. He “is characterised by his ‘knowing’ that certain things cannot be, and nevertheless, for that very reason, pretending in act and word to be convinced of the opposite.” So, “the Fascist will take his stand against political liberty, precisely because he knows in the long run this can never fail… and will be returned to when its presence is truly required, in the hour of grave crisis.” Ortega was insistent upon this inauthenticity—“a hurricane of farcicality,” he warned, is “everywhere and in every form… raging over the lands of Europe.”6 And yet he harboured no illusions, as many did in the wake of the Great War, that this farcicality was no more than bluff when it turned to threats of violence. Without some force governing the lives of the masses, without roots, without order and meaning, Ortega argued that authentic public opinion was impossible, and farcical mass movements, mass hysteria, and “brute force” would fill the vacuum left by institutional and societal apathy.7
The American philosopher Allan Bloom echoed this point in The Closing of the American Mind when he discussed the inauthenticity of the student protests in support of nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. Though the shrill rhetoric of the day suggested otherwise, the issues lacked an organic connection to students’ lives and their passion for the cause was by and large affected. As Bloom saw it, modern students were primarily concerned with “making it” in society; the political issues were mere distractions, entertainments, for politics was no longer about duty or tradition—we now “live comfortably within the administrative state that has replaced politics,” he wrote.8
Although Ortega’s book was esteemed by early American conservatives for its insights into the psychology of mass politics, today it is read and discussed only seldomly. As the United States became increasingly divided on cultural and moral issues in the latter half of the 20th century, objective, utilitarian standards came to dominate our political discourse. When all else failed, it was found that consensus could still be built around increasing the standard of living and expanding consumer choice, and there were many who believed—perhaps hoped—that this would be sufficient to paper over the cracks that had formed in civic life. As these cracks have widened, bringing about additional social and economic problems, the unfortunate trend of viewing economic conditions as the source rather than a symptom of societal malaise has continued.
An early conservative thinker who avoided this error was the Austrian economist Wilhelm Röpke. Röpke spent the last two decades of his life following World War II writing about the causes of the mass movements that had come close to destroying Europe. The economic boom that followed the Second World War—a boom that Röpke helped bring about in Germany as an advisor to the Adenauer government—did much to unsettle him. As the world turned its attention to the Cold War and the incipient showdown between the two remaining global superpowers, Röpke could not help but feel that there remained fundamental unanswered questions about the nature of modern society.
In A Humane Economy, the most complete statement of his thoughts on this topic available in English, Röpke posited that the destruction of traditional structures of authority and social organisation had led to a Vermassung, or “enmassment,” in modern life in areas ranging from politics, to work, to popular culture and entertainment. The Vermassung consisted of displaced persons, refugees without a traditional society or traditional roles, whose isolation caused them to seek out mass spectacles and movements, as a way of integrating into something greater than themselves. This trend showed no signs of abating in the post-war years in which he wrote and, though an opponent of socialism, he could not help but notice that the extreme fealty shown to economic liberalism, or “economism,” by Western nations was acting as a powerful accelerant.
As traditional community life was slowly replaced by greater economic organisation and individuals began to identify more with the institutions for which they worked, Röpke argued that phenomena such as modern advertising and increased access to consumer credit were chipping away at the last vestiges of bourgeois values, values which Röpke believed were essential for the maintenance of economic liberalism and democracy: “Independence, ownership, individual reserves, saving, the sense of responsibility, rational planning of one’s own life—all that is alien, if not repulsive, to proletarianized mass society. Yet precisely that is the condition of a society which cherishes its liberty.”9
As an economist, Röpke understood that nations which gave primacy to the tenets of economic liberalism would become very wealthy, but he also realised as a learned, traditionally oriented liberal that it would be short-lived if other values did not curb liberalism’s excesses. If the values which had made possible economic and political liberalism were permitted to be eroded by these same forces, future generations would find themselves in wealthy but spiritually depleted societies without common beliefs or a common vision. Discontent with this purely materialistic life would surface and “spiritual mass epidemics”10 would arise, easily dominating masses of directionless people and their apathetic institutions.
Nowhere is the trend towards Röpke’s Vermassung in institutional life more apparent than in the American private sector. Large private institutions in the United States have more influence over the political and popular culture than ever before. Americans, who traditionally prided themselves on their independence from large institutions of any kind, now work at large firms at a much higher rate than in the past, and this trend has been accelerating since the 1980s. According to the Wall Street Journal, 39.2 percent of working Americans now work at firms with more than 2,500 employees; and, since the late 1990s, they are more likely to work at these large firms than at companies with fewer than 100 employees.
The most concerning contributing factor towards this trend is the marked decline in American entrepreneurialism and business formation. Though the “start-up” company enjoys greater prestige and press coverage than ever before (albeit chiefly in the field of technology), the percentage of American firms less than one year old has been steadily declining since the 1980s. In 1984, 13.1 percent of American firms met this criterium. In 2014, the last date for which census data are available, this number had declined to eight percent.11 The number of jobs created by recent start-ups has also been in decline. In 1999, 4.7 million jobs were created by start-ups less than one year old. Despite an increase in the population of roughly 50 million people over the next two decades, in 2019 this number was just over 3.1 million. These trends are especially concerning given the astonishing increase in service-sector jobs over the last 40 years. One would expect entrepreneurs and smaller businesses to be well positioned to meet new service-sector demand, but much of this growth has gone to chains; firms with more than 2,500 employees now account for 35 percent of service-sector employment, up from just 18.7 percent in 1980.12
Though difficult to quantify, the social consequences of this trend are alarming. In response to external and internal political pressures, large companies have, in recent years, adopted political stances on a variety of issues. As society has become more divided, traditional shareholder duty theory—i.e., that companies have only a duty to return higher profits to their shareholders—has come under attack. In a society without a common culture or values, all company decisions, from hiring to investment, effectively become partisan political issues. Political movements led by vocal factions have succeeded in securing institutional acceptance and having their views disseminated across society with the help of these organisations. If the trend towards larger, more politically active companies continues, these political movements will enjoy even greater influence on both industry and society.
The effects of this influence can already be seen within large companies. Employees who disagree with the increasing politicisation of working life are fearful of voicing their concerns. Moreover, the process of “making it” within large, increasingly diverse and political institutions requires one to conform, and there are strong incentives to join in the recital of the social catechism du jour.
As greater portions of everyday life—from work, to consumption, to entertainment—have been channelled through institutional life, and the standard of living of millions of Americans has become more dependent on the wealth of these organisations, the government has tended to grow up around private industry, helping to entrench institutional life. As the modern economy and state grew together, liberal pluralism was transformed by what the late political scientist Howard J. Wiarda termed “neo-corporatism,” which, by the mid-to-late 20th century, had produced an emergent dual power structure, “On one side is the democratic structure… of political parties, regular elections, parliament, and prime minister. But on the other side is the structure of neo-corporatism: corporative groups, regulatory agencies, government offices, cabinet ministries, and the bureaucracy…”13
As representatives from various industries were brought into the fold of the administrative state to help ensure compliance with regulations, entrenched interests formed and the line between state and society became increasingly blurred.14 What began as an attempt to more efficaciously align the administrative state with the pluralistic private interests it was in theory supposed to be representing soon became a “corporatized group system” which dictated and “had effective veto power over reform,” so that “[t]eacher’s unions could block educational reforms… while the military-industrial complex could block Department of Defense budget reductions.”15
Though neo-corporatism implies corruption and unfair advantages for insiders, the combination of American capitalism and an administrative state born of a representative democracy ensures that lobbying and other corporatist activities often have as their ends the expansion (albeit the preferential expansion) of consumer choice and consumption or, in the case of defense spending or educational reform, the maintenance of thousands of well-paying jobs. Rather than simply being victims of “fat cat” insiders, large numbers of ordinary consumers and workers benefit from—and often owe their livelihoods to—the largesse of the neo-corporatist system. This reality calls into question much of our popular political rhetoric and illustrates the blurry dividing lines of modern American politics.
Indeed, in the United States national politics seems to exist along two parallel tracks. The first is made up of elected politicians’ interactions with the electorate on the campaign trail and now, virtually, on the Internet and on television—in short, the spectacle of political entertainment. The second, and far more consequential track, exists outside the consciousness of the majority of the American public and its media. Here, esoteric legislation and regulation are devised and drafted by aides, policy experts, and lobbyists, occasionally challenged in the courts, and then left to the administrative state to refine, implement, and update where necessary. Public opinion plays a role in this policy, but it is secondary to the incentives to preserve the existing structures of administrative government and the private industries around which it has grown.
While the administrative state is more resistant to the forces of mass movements and has played a role in maintaining stability under the current economic order, problems are beginning to arise as both tracks of the modern American political system struggle to cope with the multiplying demands of an increasingly discontented and divided public. The inflexibility of the system, with its special interest groups and the millions of Americans who depend on the industries they represent, is an intractable problem which frustrates attempts at substantive reform.
In his own day, Ortega hoped that a new politics would succeed in overcoming the limitations of the antiquated European state model to create a United States of Europe, underpinned by a common, European identity. The European Union is a noble, but flawed attempt to realise this ideal (nearly 30 years after Ortega wrote, Röpke was voicing his dismay at the homogenisation of Europe and the subjugation of traditional cultural life to the market), but Ortega, along with millions of other Europeans, knew that political organisation at the European level was inevitable. The scale of life had outstripped the traditional state structure and a new mode of socio-political life had become necessary. As Ortega was fond of writing, it was Europe’s “destiny.”
It is difficult today to imagine a “new politics” or to attempt to forecast the trajectory or “destiny” of the United States. However, it seems clear that modern institutional life is too intertwined with contemporary society to be scaled back. Almost every aspect of modern life is dependent upon institutional organisation, and the trend appears to be towards greater amounts of centralisation and institutional control. Moreover, the divisions and mass political movements in contemporary America will continue to exert internal and external pressure on public and private institutions. Thus far, institutions have been able to absorb the forces of contemporary mass movements while preserving their institutional functions. But this is changing: Without a cultural identity underpinning the existence of modern institutions, mass movements will succeed in dominating and, one day, refashioning institutional life to their own ends.
While it is popular to focus on institutional and economic solutions to the problems facing the United States, we would do well to reflect on the works of writers like Ortega and Röpke, who were willing to analyse the underlying cultural deficiencies they observed in modern mass society. These views are inherently subjective, and the validity or importance of cultural identity and authority in society can be denied, but time alone will determine whether institutions have the strength to preserve what remains of their independence, or if they will ultimately be overwhelmed by mass movements, like “so many Bastilles which have to be razed to the ground.”16
G. Gavin Collins is a professional based in London. He is interested in the intersection of literature, philosophy, and current events. You can follow him on Twitter @GGavinCollins.
1 José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, (first published 1930, Anon. tr, W.W. Norton & Company 1932) p 108.
2 ibid p 113.
3 ibid. p 63.
4 ibid pp 59-60.
5 ibid p 113.
6 ibid p 126.
7 ibid p 126.
8 Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster 1987) p 85.
9 Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy (Elizabeth Henderson tr, Henry Regnery Company 1960) p 99.
10 ibid p 57.
12 Francis (n11).
13 Howard J. Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics (first published 1997, Routledge 2015) p 121.
14 ibid. p 144.
15 ibid p 145.
16 Röpke (n9) p 227.
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