“The Revolt of the Masses”
Around the turn of the last century, prior to and after the First World War, sociologists began to take great interest in the growing political power of “the masses”. The classic work by Gustave Le Bon entitled The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) was followed later by another classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930) by José Ortega y Gasset. Others followed, soon to become classics in sociological literature themselves, such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) or the writings of Marshall McLuhan, as in The Medium is the Massage (1967) with its pun on the “message” and the “mass-age”.
The recent unrest in Turkey brought some of these themes concerning the politics of mass action to mind again.
The flashpoint for the days of protest in Turkey reportedly began as a public protest (allegedly by Turkish “environmentalists”) against the privatisation of Taksim Gezi Park and its planned conversion into a shopping mall. The protesters by and large even thought of themselves as a part of the global “Occupy” movement in their defense of Gezi Park, indicating the broader global context for their protest against neo-liberalism — that is to say, a revolt against the annexation and dissolution of the commonwealth (or public space) by private powers and interests.
In broader, global terms the “revolt of the masses”, which is represented in the “Occupy” movement, represents a growing refusal to participate in, or cooperate with, the public’s disenfranchisement of their political rights or to surrender up more public or social space to private interests. The inherent tendency of neo-liberal ideology was well-expressed by Margaret Thatcher — “there is no such thing as society”. Consequently, there are no such thing, either, as collective, public, or community rights. And a large part of the mass propaganda and ideology of neo-liberalism is aimed precisely at getting people accustomed to the idea that their political rights are a chimera, have no reality, and are of no importance or consequence — are even null and void — compared to economic rights and the basest motives of self-interest.
This attitude is what has come to be expressed in the term “economism“, and this economism, as it is presently known, was the target of the playwright Oscar Wilde’s earlier and now famous definition of a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.
This economistic ideology is, in essence and politically-speaking, a reactionary formation which, in the Western context at least, has as its goal the restoration of social relations as they existed prior to the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which gave birth to the notion of all human beings having universal political rights. Rejection of this doctrine of universality is a very common theme in all reactionary or ultra-conservative ideology. It is still part of a counter-revolutionary attitude, which includes fascism, which sees in the French Revolution — with its emphasis on public or universal values and political rights of liberty, equality, and fraternity — the cause of all society’s subsequent perceived anarchy or “ungovernability” (erosion of hierarchical power relations) and which was the spur for the gradual development of propaganda and other technologies of social control.
The counter-revolutionary and reactionary character of neo-liberal ideology or economism is evinced in the counter-slogan “work, family, nation”, which is designed to cancel out the motto of the French (liberal) Revolution — “liberty, equality, fraternity” — which endowed the disenfranchised classes and socially alienated masses — le peuple of the ancien regime — with political rights. With “work, family, nation”, the emphasis shifts back to values of loyalty, duty, and obedience.
If we wanted to summarise the struggle of the last few generations in succinct terms, it would be the principle of “the free development of the personality” (or self-realisation) versus “the cog in the machine,” for ultimately economism, which prescribes everyone’s specific role in the system of supply and demand, and relationships of production and consumption, negates the former through a process of economistic rationalisation.
There is a world revolution in process of formation — the revolt of the masses — simply because this economistic rationalisation of the World Machine called “Global Economy” has ceased to be identified with life. Instead, you get “the cog in the machine”, the “zombie”, the “living dead”, and the automaton. Ultimately, this “revolt of the masses” is the revolt of Life itself against its own reduction and enslavement to mechanism, of biology against its reduction to a mere additional resource for processing by the World Machine.