José Ortega y Gasset, despite being one of the most renowned Spanish academics of the twentieth century, is an author whose corpus is unfortunately overlooked by modern anglophone right-wing circles. Ortega’s writings are of particular interest to a rightist analysis, given his substantial critique of the emergent “mass-man” of early the twentieth century, and his subsequent interpretation that European decadence was a derivative of this largely self-satisfied socio-political atmosphere.

Whilst one may perceive Ortega y Gasset’s self-professed romantic-liberal political affiliations as both peculiar to right-wing discourse and problematic to European society, subsequently detaching himself from the authors ideas on the basis of political labels, he neglects to understand the value of Ortega’s critique of European democracy and his genuine concern for the encroaching mass-sovereignty of the twentieth century.

European chauvinism maintains a continuous presence throughout Ortega’s works, in which the author not only tacitly endorses European racialism, but also founds his allegiance to liberal meritocratic elitism on the belief that it may safeguard civilised European society from the impending “vertical invasion of the barbarians.” Ortega’s comparison of philosophy with the disciplines of anthropological study gives the reader an understanding of the author’s attitude towards the development of civilisations and the distinctions between them.

“One may formulate, as follows, a law confirmed by palaeontology and biogeography: human life has arisen and progressed only when the resources it could count on were balanced by the problems it met with. This is true, as much in the spiritual order as in the physical. Thus, to refer to a very concrete aspect of corporal existence, I may recall that the human species has flourished in zones of our planet where the hot season is compensated by a season of intense cold. In the tropics the animal-man degenerates, and vice versa, inferior races the pygmies, for example, have been pushed back towards the tropics by races born after them and superior in the scale of evolution.”

—José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

Ortega y Gasset would further suggest a form of European nationalism, or “United States of Europe” as a solution to the problems brought about by the decadence that had become characteristic of national politics at that time. However, Ortega’s support for European unity must be understood as an ideal held in tandem with his endorsement of  nationalist sentiment, which in his 1929 book, The Revolt of the Masses, Ortega would defend on the basis that “[i]f the nation consisted only in past and present, no one would be concerned with defending it against an attack. Those who maintain the contrary are either hypocrites or lunatics. But what happens is that the national past projects its attractions—real or imaginary—into the future. A future in which our nation continues to exist seems desirable. That is why we mobilise in its defence, not on account of blood or language or common past. In defending the nation we are defending our to-morrows, not our yesterdays.”

Ortega would later be motivated by his rightist sensibilities to pledge his initial support of Primo de Rivera’s Falange Española and, like his colleague Miguel de Unamuno, General Franco’s nationalist faction in the Spanish Civil War. 

Though as a result of his personal idiosyncrasies and liberal sympathies, Ortega would subsequently become disillusioned with both organisations and remain silent on matters of Spanish politics throughout both the Civil War and Francoist dictatorship.

The Rebellion of the Masses

When considering the political vista of the early twentieth century, in which The Revolt of the Masses was written, the reader may draw comparison between the ignorant, complacent lifestyles of the masses in Ortega’s time and our own. The “mass-man” of which Ortega refers throughout the text, is a representation of the average man, of which the masses are composed of. With the use of psychological and philosophical distinctions, Ortega distinguishes between two groups within a society—the masses and the minority.

Ortega specifies that generally, this minority is not of any specific ethnic, religious, cultural, or economic background, but is rather composed of individuals who do not agree with the modern political consensus of the masses. 

That is to say, they have retained the ability to think critically about the political realities facing their nations. This minority can be working-class proletarian types or even aristocratic nobles, so long as they are divorced from the sways of the masses. It is these groups of individuals, which, in Gasset’s idealised liberal state, preserve order within a society through a meritocratic system of governance, in which the minority may rule independent from the, often incorrect, wishes of the masses.

“…the type of man dominant to-day is a primitive one, a Naturmensch rising up in the midst of a civilised world. The world is a civilised one, its inhabitant is not: he does not see the civilisation of the world around him, but he uses it as if it were a natural force. The new man wants his motor-car, and enjoys it, but he believes that it is the spontaneous fruit of an Edenic tree. In the depths of his soul he is unaware of the artificial, almost incredible, character of civilisation, and does not extend his enthusiasm for the instruments to the principles which make them possible.”

— José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

To contextualise the period from which Ortega’s ideas were born, the sunken state of Spanish politics throughout the “long nineteenth century” fostered a general sentiment of dissatisfaction throughout the general public. In this period, dissatisfaction became the common denominator of all Spanish political factions, both left, and right, which, in the early twentieth century, would come to mobilise all aspects of Spanish political life to establish their own competing visions for a political system which may become Spain’s guiding light against barbarism.

“I persist then, at the risk of boring the reader, in making the point that this man full of uncivilised ten- dencies, this newest of the barbarians, is. an automatic product of modem civilisation, especially of the form taken by this civilisation in the XIXth Century. He has not burst in on the civilised world from outside like the “great white barbarians” of the Vth Century; neither has he been produced within it by spontaneous, mysterious generation… he is its natural fruit… The civilisation of the XIXth Century is, then, of such a character that it allows the average man to take his place in a world of superabundance, of which he perceives only the lavishness of the means at his disposal, nothing of the pains involved. He finds himself surrounded by marvellous instruments, healing medicines, watchful governments, comfortable privileges. On the other hand, he is ignorant how difficult it is to invent those medicines and those instruments and to assure their production in the future; he does not realise how unstable is the organisation of the State and is scarcely conscious to himself of any obligations. This lack of balance falsifies his nature, vitiates it in its very roots, causing him to lose contact with the very substance of life, which is made up of absolute danger, is radically problematic.”

—José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

Ortega y Gasset surmises the feeling of decadence throughout the European continent as a matter of fact that must be contented with by modern political movements, which in its origins may be derived from the belief that “…for three centuries Europe has been the ruler in the world, and now Europe is no longer sure that she is, or will continue to be, the ruler. To reduce to such a simple formula the historic reality of the present time is doubtless, at the best, and exaggeration, and hence the need I was in recalling that to think is, whether you want or not, to exaggerate. If you prefer not to exaggerate, you must remain silent; or, rather, you must paralyse your intellect and find some way of becoming an idiot… I have not said that Europe has ceased to rule, but that in these times, Europe feels grave doubts as to whether she does rule or not, as to whether she will rule to-morrow. Corresponding to this, there is in the other peoples of the world a related sense of mind, a doubt as to whether they are at present ruled by anyone. They also are not sure of it.”

This same characterisation of twentieth century European doubts may be applied to modern America, in which the post-Cold War apex, and subsequent decline of American hegemony has fostered a new doubt amongst the nations of the twenty-first century.

Ortega places emphasis on the need for a philosophy to motivate European nations and control the masses, which in his time did not exist outside the advent of Fascism—a predominantly national phenomenon. 

For Ortega, philosophy was a discipline necessary for a civilisations will to exist, and as every nation belongs to a civilisation, a kind of intellectual unity amidst the nations of Europe was his desire.

In this regard, the following quote can not only be taken in its literal meaning , defining Ortega’s theory of the masses, but also as an allegory as to how the philosopher interprets the relationship between a nation and a civilisation.

“The day when a genuine philosophy once more holds sway in Europe—it is the one thing that can save her—that day she will once again realise that man, whether he like it or not, is a being forced by his nature to seek some higher authority. If he succeeds in finding it of himself, he is a superior man; if not, he is a mass-man and must receive it from his superiors. For the mass to claim the right to act of itself is then a rebellion against its own destiny, and because that is what it is doing at present, I speak of the rebellion of the masses. For, after all, the one thing that can substantially and truthfully be called rebellion is that which consists in not accepting one’s own destiny, in rebelling against one’s self.”

— José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

The concept of the revolt of the masses is derived from Ortega’s belief that in all civilised societies the masses must, not ought to be governed by a kind of aristocracy, but that they are; to violate this principle is to defy the very concept of civility.

The Decline of the West & Defining Decadence.

“There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the decadence of Europe. I would ask people not to be so simple-minded as to think of Spengler immediately the decadence of Europe or of the West is mentioned. Before his book appeared, everyone was talking of this matter, and as is well known, the success of his book was due to the fact that the suspicion was already existing in people’s minds, in ways and for reasons of the most heterogeneous.”

—José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

Whilst discussing Ortega’s perception of Western decadence, his critiques of Spengler must be simultaneously explicated, not only for contextualisation of Ortega’s theory, but also because of the substantial arguments Ortega levies against him. Ortega believed that Spengler wrongly projected his pessimistic determinism onto Western Civilisation as a whole, and neglected to acknowledge the misgovernance of national political organisations and the ills of partisan politics as avoidable occurrences in a civilised, meritocratic elitist state.

The mentality of the masses is one unappreciative of the benefits of civilisation and atomised by the individualistic society in which they live; they simultaneously reap the benefits of civilised society, and yet they are apathetic to the very concept.

“All the increased material possibilities which life has experienced run the risk of being annulled when they are faced with the staggering problem that has come upon the destiny of Europe, and which I once more formulate: the direction of society has been taken over by a type of man who is not interested in the principles of civilisation. Not of this or that civilisation but—from what we can judge to-day—of any civilisation. Of course, he is interested in aesthetics, motor-cars, and a few other things. But this fact merely confirms his fundamental lack of interest in civilisation. For those things are merely its products, and the fervour with which he greets them only brings into stronger relief his indifference to the principles from which they spring.”

— José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

Thus Ortega’s explanation of the psychology of the masses validates his diagnosis of European decadence to be one derived from a deracinating sentiment, in which not only the purpose of a society is lacking, but most importantly, the unwillingness of the individual to participate in society. The mass-man is static in his outlook on life, he feels no need to improve or a call to action, but is rather preoccupied by what society may provide for him—what he can take from society.

Ortega contrasts the masses, who find “complete freedom as [their] natural, established condition, without any special cause for it”, with those of the minority, who are compelled by an staunchly held ideal to serve causes larger than themselves. This distinction demonstrates not only the author’s contempt for mass-sovereignty, but reaffirmed his commitment to an elitist society by which the public is governed.

For Ortega y Gasset, the masses and the minority come to perceive the concept of servitude from radically different perspectives, for the masses there is a belief in freedom, but an ignorance from where it comes—an ultimately selfish outlook, whereas to the minority are motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige and social duty. Ortega deems the twentieth century the “self-satisfied age” on this basis, that the average European man feels no compulsion to achievement, but is solely preoccupied by his lifestyle choices and material well being.

It is through Ortega defining decadence and his psychoanalysis of the relationship between the mass-man and his civilisation, that he demonstrates his theory to be of greater substance than Spengler’s deterministic morphology of history. Oswald Spengler’s thesis suggests the decline of Western civilisation to be an ongoing and inevitable biological occurrence born in part from Western ignorance; José Ortega y Gasset clarifies that an epoch of Western decadence has only just begun and that the revolt of the masses is a political phenomenon that may be dealt with by a rejuvenating political philosophy for European civilisation.

Spengler’s analysis is valuable in an anecdotal or anthological sense, but his Decline of the West should not be considered dogmatic. Not only is the authors judgement clouded by pessimism, but his analysis is often demonstrably incorrect, as critiqued by Ortega, Spengler’s analysis of the Western and Classical worlds and the the belief that Graeco-Roman culture was devoid of the concept of time, neglected a foundational understanding of Ancient culture.

“It has been said (by Spengler) that the Graeco-Romans were incapable of the notion of time, of looking upon their existence as stretching out into time. They existed for the actual moment. I am inclined to think the diagnosis is inaccurate, or at least that it confuses two things. The Graeco-Roman does suffer an extraordinary blindness as to the future. He does not see it, just as the colourblind do not see red. But, on the other hand, he lives rooted in the past… He searches out in the past a model for the present situation, and accounted with this he plunges into the waves of actuality, protected and disguised by the diving-dress of the past. Hence all his living is, so to speak, a revival.”

— José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.

The mentality of classical cultures is of stark contrast to the time-perception of modern Europe, which appears transfixed towards the future in all outlooks. The rapid technological development of much of European history may serve as an example of the motives behind Western civilisation, which Ortega praises in its dedication to the future, on the belief that it is from this ideal that a civilisation may be best preserved. That is to say Western society maintains its traditions in tandem with its technological and political progresses, creating a dynamic relationship between the concepts of “traditionalism” and “progressivism.”

Understanding the progressive traditionalism of Western society, Ortega emphasises a political determinism towards the ideals of European liberalism, on the basis that throughout the “long nineteenth century”, and even to this day, European politics has in its inception been perplexed with the concept of the individual and political freedoms. Ortega posits that these root values of the modern world, when neglected, are inevitable factors which may emerge to displace a political regime with a more faithful parliamentary system. The question is, may this sentiment be detached from Ortega’s defence of parliamentary democracy, and acknowledged by an illiberal meritocratic elitism, in which the vehicle by which individual freedoms are preserved is through recognising their place within a unified political mass of a different kind—the nation?

Posted by Ryan Kiersey

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