The Revolt of the Masses (1930) by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883 – 1955), like many books openly critical of modern trends, was once celebrated and judged to be something of a contemporary classic, but it has gradually, over the last four or five decades, vanished from awareness even among the supposedly educated. I read it for the first time in the early 1970s when I pursued (rather fitfully, I confess) my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles. The College Library possessed two copies, an indication of how widely the book circulated in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Were one to canvass today’s English or History faculties, familiarity with Ortega’s book would likely be non-existent; it would be a rare incident even if so much as the name Ortega registered with humanities professors in their thirties and early forties. The Revolt nevertheless speaks to the present moment with increasing pertinence, as do many similar books of its day, such as Oswald Spengler’s Hour of Decision (1934) and Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952), which likewise have lost all currency. The Revolt also describes those who know not of it and who think that knowledge is circumscribed by the syllabus of their graduate studies. The Revolt illuminates a remark made by Alain de Benoist and Charles Champetier in their Manifesto for a European Renaissance (2012): “Modernity has given birth to the most empty civilization mankind has ever known.” Two chapters of The Revolt offer themselves as especially relevant to the situation of the West in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century – “The Self-Satisfied Age” and “The Barbarism of Specialization.” First, however, a brief summary of Ortega’s general argument is in order.
The late-Nineteenth Century, according to Ortega, saw the sudden rise in Europe of economies of abundance. This mounting wealth resulted, in the first part of the Twentieth Century, in mass man, a social and cultural phenomenon that adapted itself, but in no positive way, to the advent of material ease and comfort. Mass man reaped the benefits of a civilization to which he had in no way contributed, which he failed to understand, and which he took entirely for granted, identifying it as the natural background to his existence. By the power of number alone, mass man, in Ortega’s phrase, intervenes everywhere, breaking down the hierarchical aspects of society and culture, while assimilating to himself – that is, to his limitation and incapacity – every institution. Mass man undertakes no projects, but contents himself with diversion. If he labored, it would be reluctantly, without commitment, and for the sake of diversion. Ortega defines mass man as “he whose life lacks any purpose, and simply goes drifting along.” This Homo novus has proliferated with such celerity that he overwhelmed any possibility of education. Thus, in Ortega’s words, “heap after heap of human beings have been dumped onto the historical scene at such an accelerated state, that it has been difficult to saturate them with traditional culture.” Mass man experiences a privative consciousness bereft of history, ignorant of the ancestors, and by tendency self-centered. He is egocentric in the extreme, in fact, but with the codicil that his ego remains at an infantile level of development.