Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Revolt of the Massess:II


For Gasset, the decline in European Civilisation is attributed to the rise in the influence of a new type of man in history: mass-man.  According to Gasset, mass-man gains his influence in European History firstly, by sheer numerical supremacy. Secondly, by the enormous increase in wealth bought about by technical advances in European society. This wealth insulates him to a degree from the effects of his own stupidity (imagine what he would have thought of the modern social welfare state) and finally be a sense of self-satisfaction and mastery caused by his technical prowess.

Gasset is at pains to stress that his notion of mass-man does not reflect a social station or political orientation in life. Mass-man is not synonymous with the poor or the working class, rather, mass-man refers to cognitive-psychological state of being. For Gasset,  "noble men" can exist amongst the workers and  mass-men amongst the aristocracy. Mass-man lives without serious reflection, thought or notion that he has to conform to some sort of standard. Mass-man man is an intuitive thinker,  but what's worse, is that mass man does not recognise the limitations of his thought. Mass man feels himself complete, he takes the modern liberal society he lives in granted and lacks total insight into the paucity of his intellect. 
Contrariwise, it never occurs to the mediocre man of our days, to the New Adam, to doubt of his own plenitude. His self-confidence is, like Adam's, paradisiacal. The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for his discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go out of himself for a moment and to transfer himself to his neighbour. But the mediocre soul is incapable of transmigrations the supreme form of sport. 

We find ourselves, then, met with the same difference that eternally exists between the fool and the man of sense. The latter is constantly catching himself within an inch of being a fool; hence he makes an effort to escape from the imminent folly, and in that effort lies his intelligence. The fool, on the other hand, does not suspect himself; he thinks himself the most prudent of men, hence the enviable tranquility with which the fool settles down, instals himself in his own folly. Like those insects  which it is impossible to extract from the orifice they inhabit, there is no way of dislodging the fool from his folly, to take him away for a while from his blind state and to force him to contrast his own dull vision with other keener forms of sight. The fool is a fool for life; he is devoid of pores. This is why Anatole France said that the fool is much worse than the knave, for the knave does take a rest sometimes, the fool never. 

It is not a question of the mass-man being a fool. On the contrary, to-day he is more clever, has more capacity of understanding than his fellow of any previous period. But that capacity is of no use to him; in reality, the vague feeling that he possesses it seems only to shut him up more within himself and keep him from using it. Once for all, he accepts the stock of commonplaces, prejudices, fag-ends of ideas or simply empty words which chance has piled up within his mind, and with a boldness only explicable by his ingenuousness, is prepared to impose them everywhere. This is what in my first chapter I laid down as the characteristic of our time; not that the vulgar believes itself super-excellent and not vulgar, but that the vulgar proclaims and imposes the rights of vulgarity or vulgarity as a right.
Think of the university literature professor who feels confident enough to pronounce stridently on economic issues or military affairs, or the feminist who "knows" that all men are rapists. Everyone, after all  has a right to an opinion, no matter how uneducated.

For Gasset this is not so. Gasset argues that the right to have an opinion comes only after some mastery or familiarity with the subject. The only opinion that has any rights is one that has been judged by some kind of standard. The idea that Racheal Jeantel's opinion on economics has just as much validity as, let's, say your standard economics professor would be ludicrous to Gasset, as it would for most normal people. Notice, that Gasset is not arguing against the poor or lower social classes, only the stupid; those who's opinions have no regard to reality.
The command over public life exercised to-day by the intellectually vulgar is perhaps the factor of the present situation which is most novel, least assimilable to anything in the past. At least in European history up to the present, the vulgar had never believed itself to have "ideas" on things. It had beliefs, traditions, experiences, proverbs, mental habits, but it never imagined itself in possession of  theoretical opinions on what things are or ought to be -for example, on politics or literature What the  politician planned or carried out seemed good or bad to it, it granted or withheld its support, but its action was limited to being an echo, positive or negative, of the creative activity of others. It never occurred to it to oppose to the "ideas" of the politician others of its own, nor even to judge the politician's "ideas" from the tribunal of other "ideas" which it believed itself to possess.
Similarly in art and in other aspects of public life. An innate consciousness of its limitation, of its not being qualified to "theorise '' effectively prevented it doing so. The necessary consequence of this was that the vulgar never thought, even remotely, of making a decision on any one of the public activities, which in their greater part are theoretical in character. To-day, on the other hand, the average man has the most mathematical "ideas" on all that happens or ought to happen in the universe. Hence he has lost the use of his hearing. Why should he listen if he has within him all that is necessary? There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which he does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his "opinions."
But, is this not an advantage? Is it not a sign of immense progress that the masses should have "ideas," that is to say, should be cultured? By no means. The "ideas" of the average man are not genuine ideas, nor is their possession culture. An idea is a putting truth in checkmate. Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. It is no use speaking of ideas when there is no acceptance of a higher authority to regulate them a series of standards to which it is possible to appeal in a discussion. These standards are the principles on which culture rests. I am not concerned with the form they take. 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. There is no culture where economic relations are not subject to a regulating principle to protect interests involved. There is no culture where aesthetic controversy does not recognise the necessity of justifying the work of art.

When all these things are lacking there is no culture; there is in the strictest sense of the word, barbarism. And let us not deceive ourselves, this is what is beginning to appear in Europe under the progressive rebellion of the masses. The traveller who arrives in a barbarous country knows that in that territory there are no ruling principles to which it is possible to appeal. Properly speaking, there are no barbarian standards. Barbarism is the absence of standards to which appeal can be made.
This is an important passage. The psychology of mass-man sets up the pre-conditions for philosophies of moral relativism and ontological postmodernism. Mass man doesn't need standards as he already has them. Gasset writing in the 1920's could see where this was going to end up.
Anyone can observe that in Europe, for some years past, "strange things" have begun to happen. To give a concrete example of these "strange things" 1 shall name certain  political movements, such as Syndicalism and Fascism. We must not think that they seem strange simply because they are new. The enthusiasm for novelty is so innate in the  European that it has resulted in his producing the most  unsettled history of all known to us. The element of strangeness in these new facts is not to be  attributed to the element of novelty, but to the extraordinary form taken by these new things. Under the species of Syndicalism and Fascism there appears for the first time in Europe a type of man who does not want to give reasons or to be right, but simply shows himself resolved to impose his  opinions. This is the new thing: the right not to be reasonable, the "reason of  unreason." Here I see the most palpable manifestation of the new mentality of the  masses, due to their having decided to rule society without the capacity for doing so. In their political conduct the structure of the new mentality is revealed in the rawest, most convincing manner; but the key to it lies in intellectual hermetism. 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 thive. He wishes to have opinions, but is unwilling to accept the conditions and presuppositions that underlie all opinion. Hence his ideas are in effect nothing more than appetites in words[Ed], something like musical romanzas.
Gasset here strikes at the core of Mass-man. He lives according to the ideology of his feelings (and hence influenced by his genetics*).  His "gut" rules his head. If an argument "feels" right it is right from his perspective. If he feels he has a right to something then he will impose upon the community to get that right.  Sandra Fluke is a feature, not a bug of the system.

This inability to "see outside himself" is an intrinsic feature of mass-man. Prejudice is cognition. Theories which appeal to his cognitive insularity are adopted with ease as they affirm his own "analysis" and appeal to his gut. Appeals to the truth don't matter because he already knows what is true. Communism, Fascism, Socialism and Utilitarianism find an easy home in the mass-man who is unable to detect their errors. The theory chosen is the one most in accordance with his biology. Gasset regards the assertion of this type of man onto the social/political/cultural stage as the threat to European Civilisation.

Gasset also mentions that mass-man is to be found in both the Left and the Right. For Gasset it's not so much about political orientation as it is about intellectual hermetism and its associated political and cultural force which shapes culture. A man of the Right who fails to put his ideas to the test is just as contemptible as the man of the Left.

Gasset also makes mention of the Americanisation of Europe.  Gasset recognises that most commentators on the phenomenon have the mechanism all wrong. First of all, Gasset thinks that America is the "paradise of the masses", home of lynch law.
Gallantry here makes an attempt to suborn me into telling our brothers beyond the sea that, in fact; Europe has become Americanised, and that this is due to an influence of America on Europe. But no; truth comes into conflict with gallantry, and it must prevail. Europe has not been Americanised; it has received no great influence from America. Possibly both these things are beginning to happen just now; but they did not occur in the recent part of which the present is the flowering. There is floating around a bewildering mass of false ideas which blind the vision of both parties, Americans and Europeans. The triumph of the masses and the consequent magnificent uprising of the vital level have come about in Europe for internal reasons, after two centuries of education of the multitude towards progress and a parallel economic improvement in society. But it so happens that the result coincides with the most marked aspect of American life; and on account of this coincidence of the moral situation of the ordinary man in Europe and in America, it has come about that for the first time the European understands American life which was to him before an enigma and a mystery. There is no question, then, of an influence, which indeed would be a little strange, would be, in fact, a "refluence," but of something which is still less suspected, namely, of a levelling.
Gasset argues that Europe has become Americanised as a result of Europe's self destruction through the influence of mass-man.  The ideas of the French Revolution mature later but in doing so make Europe resemble America more closely. As the standards are whittled so does culture decay. Modern European political culture sets no standards; everyone's opinions are considered equally valid, no matter how informed or not. As Gasset argues the absence of standards is the hallmark of barbarism. If you disagree with him, look about you. Detroit is the Future.

*Modern Neurobiology and Psychology are begining to provide extraordinary insights into the cognitions of Joe Average. I plan to put up a post on this later.

*When I say European Civilisation I mean Europe as geographically understood and its cultural satellites. North and South America, Australia and New Zealand.

4 comments:

Bob Wallace said...

"Mass-man lives without serious reflection, thought"

That's about 90% of people. To me, the biggest red flag is that someone participates in a mass destruction. It's a way to bring excitement and meaning to their otherwise mostly meaningless lives.

Bob Wallace said...

I meant demonstration.

Anonymous said...

Time to thin out the hurd

ElectricAngel said...

Similarly in art and in other aspects of public life. An innate consciousness of its limitation, of its not being qualified to "theorise '' effectively prevented it doing so. The necessary consequence of this was that the vulgar never thought, even remotely, of making a decision on any one of the public activities, which in their greater part are theoretical in character.

I consider the greatest artist of the 19th Century to be Wagner, and his greatest individual composition to be Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg. Wagner in it grapples with the issue: is art to be for the people to decide, or for the elite? A group of Nuremburg burghers regularly meets to formulate the rules of art-song composition and performance; they are the Master Singers. A young man, unschooled in their methods, sings a song that one Master finds excellent, but the Masters generally riot. So ends act I.

In Act II, a Master sings a song, generally judged by the untrained ear of a young woman, standing in for the judgment of the Volk. Following all the rules of the Masters, his song nonetheless leads to a riot.

In Act 3, we get our resolution: a Master song must please the masters, and it must please the people. Art that receives critical acclaim without popular acceptance (see, e.g., anything modern in architecture, art, or art music) is not art. Neither are velvet paintings. If the standards are true, if they draw on underlying God-given pursuit of beauty, they will produce works of appeal to both masses and masters.