“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.

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10 responses to ““The Revolt of the Masses””

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I’ve more or less stated here that much of the present global unrest arises as a titanic battle between “transcendental” powers of the biological and the mechanical, and that is as much as to say that it is a life and death struggle. This is often the theme of much sci-fi, and it is not far from the truth of things either. At another level of interpretation, I’ve framed this as the ideal of “the free development of the personality” versus “the cog in the machine” condition of present human existence. This reflects the present situation in which social institutions and economic processes have become dis-identified with life processes and the requirements of life.

    Here, for example, is an article I read a couple of days ago in The Guardian about “the island of long life” — a Greek island called “Ikaria”. The Ikarians have, unfortunately perhaps, aroused quite a bit of attention and interest because of their longevity and health, with the curious flooding into the little island to discover their special secret. So you have proposals like “the Mediterranean Diet” to promote health and longevity, for example. Here’s the article,

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/31/ikaria-greece-longevity-secrets-age

    The more astute will notice that focussing on diet as a cure-all for what ails us is absurd, and that one has to take into consideration the whole Mediterranean “life-style”, which is now under severe stress today from the forces of globalisation and neo-liberalism, so that human scale and human pace locales like Ikaria may soon be overwhelmed completely. The “slow food” movement, for example, originates from this region, and to focus on only the qualities of the diet is myopic — it’s the pace and the outlook that matters as much, or more than, the diet. Simply plopping this “Mediterranean Diet” on stressed and distressed people elsewhere without an adjustment of pace or lifestyle is useless. This is what needs to be learned from places like Ikaria.

    In the broader historical context, though, what distinguishes the Mediterranean attitude and lifestyle from Northern Europe or North America dates back to the parting of the ways brought about by the Lutheran Revolution/Protestant Reformation. In some ways, neo-liberalism is a continuation of the religious dynamic of the Protestant Reformation now exerting assimilationist pressure on areas of Southern Europe that were not absorbed into the domain created by the Reformation — Germany, England, Northern France, Switzerland. Neo-liberalism has roots in the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, as Max Weber once wrote about it, and so neo-liberalism is the continuation of a 500 year old historical process and an accompanying metaphysical outlook that is disguised as being “secular” and “rational”. There are old institutional and even theological influences now become unconsciously pursued aims still at work here.

  2. Stephen Gregor says :

    As a footnote to this blog post, which might be of interest with regards to the complexities of the situation in Turkey, some insight from a former British ambassador: http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2013/06/talking-turkey/

    I wish I could share the optimism of the author of The Chrysalis. The revolt of the masses may well be the revolt of life itself. But in Turkey, it seems. the photogenic “masses” are being used as PR by a resurgent reactionary fascism. Yes, life wants to be life. But death also wants to be life. Human beings may have gone too far down the wrong path.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for the comment. Thanks for the link to Craig Murray’s interesting piece. Your judgment that “human beings may have gone too far down the wrong path” may well be correct, if by “wrong path” is the path towards catastrophe and self-negation, as this is the razor blade edge that all humanity currently sits upon.

      The ambiguity of the situation is not too different from the situation here. The Green movement in the West has many of the same characters in play, and I’m pretty confident that the fascist-types will eventually self-destruct on their own self-contradictions. They always do. There was some truth in Hermann Rauschning’s view (of Nazi Germany in his time) that fascism is “the revolution of nihilism” and contains the seed-germ of even its own eventual self-negation, however momentarily triumphalist it may seem. I’m watching the same process occurring here in Canada with the self-destruction of the Conservative Party.

      By the events of the day, I’m constantly reminded of the knife edge humanity currently sits upon, as was expressed some 40 years ago in a quote from the “Seth material” that I’ve reproduced often,

      https://longsworde.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/seth-speaks-on-nihilism/

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    What’s happening in Turkey is truly important and the Turks are truly on the edge of a major change in their country.

    If the Turkish people, or those who are demonstrating on the streets, are too militant in the face of all the corruption that has expanded in their country, or too aggressive in claiming the rights they feel they are losing, then they will risk losing the very hard-earned stability of their country, potentially even plunging it into the chaos that the rest of the region seems to be in.

    On the other hand, if the masses stay quiet at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons, they will risk losing their once again hard-earned individual freedoms. Everyone — authorities as well as the people pouring onto the streets — will have to watch themselves very carefully or else all the gains Turkey has made during the past few decades will quickly vanish. My hope is that, proximity to Europe, and especially the cultural exchanges and relations that have taken place between Turkey and an intelligent nation like Germany since the end of WWII, have taught the Turks a few lessons about when to act and in what way.

    “There are old institutional and even theological influences now become unconsciously pursued aims still at work here.”

    Quite brilliant and profound. That single statement speaks a library of volumes to what’s going on in Turkey at the present.

    The Guardian article on the Ikaria was wonderful. Thank you, Scott, for linking to it. I got the impression that most Ikarians live pretty much “in the now,” because they are poor. That sort of ‘worry-less’ lifestyle always helps promote health. Also, because they eat plants that are wildly grown, they get to eat them while the plants have accumulated maximum load of antioxidants and nutrients possible in their produce. Compare that with what we eat here in the West, where the produce are picked, frozen, and shipped to supermarkets weeks before they are ripened, and therefore lack most nutrients (I read somewhere that they actually contain 10% of the total nutrients they should contain in the ripened state) that the produce should possess.

    So, you are exactly right. It’s no one thing that is the secret of a healthy long life. It’s the entire lifestyle that counts.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I got the impression that most Ikarians live pretty much “in the now,” because they are poor.

      Perhaps the inverse — they live in humble circumstances because they live in “the now”, and “take no thought for the morrow — what ye shall eat or what ye shall wear”, to cite the Gospels. It was, after all, Adam Smith that promoted the “necessary illusion” that happiness needed to be postponed to the future, even though (he confessed) it was available here and now. The pursuit of the illusion of a future happiness, he felt, and dissatisfaction with the present, was necessary for economic progress, whatever toll it may have taken on present contentment. That means that “the present” must always and forever be the site of a sense of lack, or unfulfilled and unsatisfactory existence — forever and ever, amen.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Just as an aside to that last comment. The interesting thing about Adam Smith’s remark is that Smith apparently knew that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” in the here and now, and yet he turned it away by his “necessary illusion” of a future happiness to be chased.

        Does that not make Adam Smith equivalent to the despised “Pharisees and scribes” that Jesus condemned as hypocrites? “”Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

  4. amothman33 says :

    They say lion walks alone ,sheep walks in group.No wonder the sufis insist on the lonely road.Graig Murray is right , one has to be very caerful in his assessment.As Huxely put it the only thing i can change is myself,but even this we can not accomplish without the help of the creator.No wonder the moslem ask for help in every prayer, the westren man laugh at that. we talk as if there is no rule for this universe, as if we donot die,as if the criminal and the good are equated,as if there is no purpose and no divine evaluation.What an ugly vision,no woder we live in a mess, but as we all know to every story there is an end.Life is not only an intellectual exercise ,but basically a moral exercise.Donot lie,and nothing around us but lie. listen to the adiverements and find how we are oriented to lie.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Personally, I’m quite suspicious of populism and mass politics. I guess I share that with Nietzsche and other critics of mass society like Rene Guenon, Gabriel Marcel, etc. Man in the mass isn’t a thinking being. But this has become, nonetheless, the alternating current of our lives in this time to swing between individuality and non-individuality (or, loss of self-consciousness). People are often attracted to mass events and actions for that reason. The loss of self-consciousness comes as a relief and a release. The polarity is formal and informal, form and inform, formality and informality. These are the 0 and 1 of social life. Man in the mass, for a time, escapes formal definition — even definition as “the rational animal”.

      Man in the mass is hypo-articulate and indefinite. It’s all shouting and yelling and a struggling to find its proper voice. But what he’s shouting and yelling and hurling slogans against is an old order that has become hyper-articulate and over-defined, and perhaps over-refined. An ordering of society that has become hyper-articulate does not permit the new and novel, which is a requirement of life. A hyper-articulate social order is a dead thing, by which I mean, all cliche, formula, cant, routine, dogma and dead ritualism. It is devitalised.

      The pundits in the press, I’ve noticed, are perplexed at the eruption of protests in Turkey even as the Turkish economy is booming — growing at 5% a year. But pundits almost always mistake problems of social life and social organisation as an economic problem. They don’t seem to see that, while an economy may be booming, the inner life of human beings and society may be withering. It’s somewhat akin to that quip: “the operation was a success. Unfortunately, the patient died.” The confusion of the technical and biological has reached such an extreme that many people do, in fact, complain that they feel like machines “just going through the motions”, as they say. They are “lived rather than living”, as Jung once put it.

      Two centuries ago William Blake forewarned us about this problem to come, which is now what Jean Gebser, in The Ever-Present Origin, calls our “deficient rationality”.

      “If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character, the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again…. He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only.”

      In other words — the narcissistic condition. As long as Narcissus was trapped in a closed feedback loop, no new life — or awakening — could enter this charmed circle and he eventually perished.

      • Scott Preston says :

        I might add to the above that the solution to the disease of “economism” is for businessmen to revalue themselves as artists. Instead, the present propaganda aims to persuade artists that they are businessmen. Economism is, then, a kind of social imperialism by which one faction or part of society attempts to dominate the whole. This, presently, is the problem of “plutocracy”.

        What is being confused in economism is creativity and productivity. They aren’t the same, and that is why there is a tendency for artists and businessmen (or arts and sciences) to be cast in an antagonistic relationship. If businessmen thought of themselves as artists, however, instead of trying to remake artists in their own image, it would go a long way to solve the problem that Blake foresaw, as I quoted him above.

        • LittleBigMan says :

          “Perhaps the inverse — they live in humble circumstances because they live in “the now”, and “take no thought for the morrow — what ye shall eat or what ye shall wear”, to cite the Gospels.”

          Indeed. Very insightful. Thank you.

          “Man in the mass isn’t a thinking being.”

          Quite true and illuminating, when I think about it.

          “What is being confused in economism is creativity and productivity.”

          A few weeks back I drove to a major toy store here in the Bay Area to see in what way do the corporations of today attempt to inspire the future generations. To my amazement, I found very little different than the toys my parents bought me when I was kid. The only new toys I saw were the new action figures that were based on the most recent Batman or Star Wars movies, and of course the videogames section where there were multiple racks of new videogames — of which I know absolutely nothing.

          My final take from my tour of the toy store was that today’s manufacturers of toys can fill a large building with toys — the vast majority of which were in existence decades ago — but they present very little to nothing in the way of inspiring the next generations. Honestly, I saw absolutely nothing that I could think of that could be inspiring to a child growing up.

          So, not only the current trend favors a great deal of production over creativity but also there seems to be a lack of will — at least on the part of toy-making corporations — to create and produce tools of play that would be inspiring to the future generations. By the same token, schools in America, from K-12 all the way through graduate schools nowadays measure their success by how many students they are able to retain and graduate rather than the quality of the graduates that come out at the other end. Hail to the metaphysics of economism.

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