The Age of The Masses



Within this short essay I endeavour to take a look at how our mottled political history has helped foster liberal democracy. It will be a study of some of the pitfalls, the criticisms as well as the potential strengths of what has come to be the dominant political ideology of our age, liberal democracy, and more broadly, the age of the masses.

The Pathology of the Mass
To understand how it is we got ourselves into our contemporary position we need to first delve into history to begin to comprehend the complex issues at hand (Ferguson, 2012). Governments within the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty first century have directly incorporated the masses. They have done so through the growth and application of the ideals of liberalism or more broadly the Enlightenment; that of all men being created equal, and the dominant concern being that of the liberty of the individual (Losurdo, 2011). The major ideals of liberalism grew so fervently over the course of the last century, due in large part to the global consequences of decolonisation, industrialisation, democratisation, urbanisation and universal suffrage, among other things (The Struggle Over Democracy, 2012). This growth and the marrying of the factors contributing to it lead to the point whereby the founding principles of liberalism were reinterpreted, or even misinterpreted and in turn transmogrified into a mishmash of distinguishable and not so easily defined political entities.

One of the notable functions of liberalism was that it proclaimed to see all humans as equal. This in itself can be seen as one of the primary determiners of the major forms of government throughout the twentieth century, as it gave most political thinkers the idea that a widening of the vote would inevitably benefit democracy and equality at large (Paxton, 1998, p. 2). This meant that if humans as a collective wished to create any far reaching change they could do so by acting together as a group (Hobbhouse 1911). Though to be truly effective it would need to be done with more precision and with a common understanding and a common object (Hobbhouse 1911). This however gave birth to the “accession of the masses” (Ortega y Gasset, 1964, para. 1), which saw the public rule. This became a major formative issue. The manner in which this became deleterious is best expressed by the highly influential French psychologist and sociologist Gustave Le Bon;

“However great or true an idea may have been to begin with, it is deprived of almost all of its greatness by the mere fact that it has come within the intellectual range of crowds and exerts and influence upon them” (1896, p. 37).

This observation by Le Bon goes a long way to explaining some of the political phenomena over the last one hundred years. Fascism being, as noted by Robert Paxton, “an authentic mass popular enthusiasm and not merely a clever manipulation of populist emotions” (1998, p. 3). Or more succinctly referred to by Furet as a “pathology of the national” (1999, p. 29). While communism, the pseudoscience which was converted into a pseudo-religion manifest in a rigid political regime (Pipes, 2001), is more a “pathology of the universal” (Furet, 1999, p. 29). After World War I, or The Great War, it became clear what could result from the national spirit (Furet, 1999), yet it appeared not to be wholly heeded as less that 20 years later the masses again came to dominate.

As is noted by Ortega y Gasset (1964) “The mass is the average man”, and when the masses come to rule the dominant ideology becomes that of the average man. This in turn often lays waste to any minority or divergent thinking, resulting in the amalgamation of individuals into a homogeneous mass (The Struggle Over Democracy, 2012). Whether it be in fascism, nationalism, communism or even modern liberal democracy this is where the validation of some of the philosophies of Walter Lippmann (1930) take root in regards to the inability of the masses to determine their own fate beneficially. This issue becomes particularly irksome when coupled with Foucault’s notion of panopticism (1991), and the application of the mode of propaganda espoused by Edward Bernays (1928) both which can be said to give explicit explanations of the implications of mass control.

Modern propaganda can be seen as an elaborate ritual used to forge a semblance of oneness among disparate people (Migdal, 2001). In this sense it is often seen as an integral part to any democratic society (Bernays, 1928), though as with any great power, when it falls into the wrong hands its effects can lead to an oppressive hegemony. Yet in liberal democracy it is the public which needs to be held responsible, if we can all cast a vote and are autonomous then we are all complicit, we cannot simply blame public relations. It is indeed deeper than that. It has been noted that, “the type of temperament belonging to the dominant ethnic element in any community, will go far to decide what will be the scope and form of expression of the communities habitual life process” (Veblen, 1899, pp. 66-67).

This creation of community is addressed by theoreticians Benedict Anderson and Partha Chatterjee (1993) who account the growth of mass media, education and more loosely propaganda as major tools with which nationalism and its particular ideals have been able to spread. Benedict Anderson’s hypothesis on print-capitalism accords nationalism with a “spontaneous distillation” and complex melding of distinct historical factors which create the “imagined community”. Once these factors had set in within a given society they had a tendency to become “modular”, or separate entities compounded by the use of a particular language, that of the home country. He even goes so far as to say that nationalism would be better understood if was to be associated more with the ideas of kinship and religion than with the prevailing ideas of liberalism or fascism (2006, pp.48-9).

The failings of fascism as represented in both Italy and Germany specifically, were seen in a new light following the end of World War II, with only Western liberal democracy and communism left standing as the major forms of governmental power in the Western hemisphere. Towards the end of the twentieth century the Soviet Union fell, for numerous reasons, including it’s unwillingness to adjust theory to experience (Pipes, 2001), and left the USA as the sole global power. This resulted in Francis Fukuyama’s now famous lecture proclaiming it to be “the end of history”, in the sense that now that communism had faltered there was to be no more dominant ideological clashes, and that Western liberal democracy would become the “final form of human government” (1989, p. 4). This final form of ideological evolution would set in motion an irreversible and irresistible globalization of our economy and our culture (Hardt & Negri, 2000). Which leads me to a succinct study of the pros and cons of liberal democracy and all that comes with it.

Liberal Democracy: The Cons
Liberalism, when it was first conceived was ridiculed for it’s hypocrisy, some critics noting that those who espoused the ideas of equality the loudest were often the ones who owned the most slaves (Losurdo, 2011). Today, under neo-liberalism, hypocrisy is still very much evident. Furet uses the term “the bourgeoisie” as a synonym for modern society, a society which he says, “produces inequality unceasingly” all the while proclaiming the ideals of equality and the notion that this equality is an “inalienable right of man” (1999, p. 6). This point is made quite comically by Slavoj Žižek, “Today the old joke about a rich man telling his servant ‘Throw out this destitute beggar-I’m so sensitive that I can’t stand seeing people suffer!’ is more appropriate than ever” (2002, p. 206).

Our modern democracy is often simply defined by the existence of some form of a representative system, yet one of the major draw backs is that it too mutates a little like other forms of mass populism due to the fact that it “tends towards democracy only in the extent that moves nearer to the power of anyone and everyone” (Ranciere, 2006, p. 72). Within this modern society the economy has a tendency to rule, as a system of barter or exchange (in this case capitalism) takes a hold; he who wields the most items, or money, finds themselves in the position of wielding the most power which gives birth to the manipulation of democracy by oligarchs (Ranciere, 2006). The oligarchs and financial institutions at large have been granted a privileged status within this global system and their influence has seen them tilt policies of many governments in their favour thereby becoming an obstruction to liberty and genuine equality (Underhill, et al, 2010).

One of the greatest concerns about liberal democracy as it is now implemented is that of an ecological nature. Within some of the more critical groups about today it has been said that money becomes all that counts within a misconstrued liberal democracy, one that has been lead astray by the promises of the free-market and the misapplication of the term freedom in general, which leads to a structural violence inherent in capitalism (Leech, 2012). This misinterpretation will sacrifice species, entire continents “who add too little to the great march of surplus value” (Kovel, 2007, p, 152), and that any system that permits and perpetuates such atrocities does not deserve to survive (Angus, 2008).

Less intense vitriol about the nature of our our modern system is poured on by Hayek, who notes that it is part of the economic liberal attitude of capitalism to assume market forces will self-regulate and will themselves bring about the desired changes needed to address inequality, “although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance” (1978, p. 400). Others who draw our attention to the linkage between economy and liberalism suggest it is far more complex than modern democracy often affords it, and even go so far as to say that it is dangerous to assume that one will encourage the other (Ottaway, 2003). Yet there are elaborate studies which suggest that democracy itself does indeed bolster socioeconomic development, although it’s benefits are most felt within those countries higher on the OECD list, the ones that are literate, well fed and sheltered (Diamond, 1992). Which, sadly within our current climate immediately excludes about a sixth of the population or the “bottom billion” (Collier, 2008).

I think it appropriate to tie up the criticisms of our modern democratic state with a quote form one of, if not, the most famous critics of it, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guavera:

“In capitalist society individuals are controlled by a pitiless law usually beyond their comprehension. The alienated human specimen is tied to society as a whole by the invisible umbilical cord: the law of value. This law acts upon all aspects of one’s life, shaping its course and destiny” (1965).

On a Lighter Note
The advancement of liberal democracy has brought to the fore a myriad of issues, one of the more important may be those addressed by former Singaporian diplomat Kishore Mahbubani (2009). He notes that the West has a tendency to be Western-centric, or unaware of the impacts our deep-seated assumptions and decisions have on the world at large. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum notes that if we are to move forward in a positive and fruitful manner we need “global planning, global knowledge, and the recognition of a shared future” (1994, part III, para. 2). This idea of embracing global communication and interaction and seeing it as a positive can loosely be defined as cosmopolitanism, which is in many ways the up side to modern liberal democracy and globalisation.

Jurgen Habermas (2003), being the pragmatist that he is, laments that since the end of the World Wars advanced industrialist nations have not benefited our ecology, in fact their activities have worsened it. Yet Habermas has hope that if the liberal democracy espoused by the global North is to ever avoid the perpetuation of social and ecological pitfalls, a cosmopolitan approach is needed. If indeed we did implement liberal democracy universally and its documented goals were actually adhered to, it may bring about a world which is more in tune with what Nussbaum (1994) notes as a belief of the ancient Stoics. This belief ties in quite nicely with many of the modern concepts of cosmopolitanism, which was that we should not give our loyalty to a single government, or an earthly power, but “to the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings” (1994, part II, para. 2).

It has been found that through organised effort, groups of ordinary citizens have been able to steer global authorities in a direction that is more accountable and transparent, sometimes bringing to the fore issues faced not just within the West but more specifically that of the Rest who often face exclusion and silencing (Scholte, 2011). If we can do this, get organised, communicate effectively, and influence the implementation of a form of international governance that is empathic, accountable, transparent and even altruistic in its scope, it is likely that the global atrocities encountered in the last century may not repeat in this one. In conclusion, may I use the words of the late great British economist E.F. Schumacher:

“our most important task is to get off our present collision course. And who is there to tackle such a task? I think every one of us, whether old or young, powerful or powerless, rich or poor, influential or uninfluential. To talk about the future is useful only if it leads to action now” (1973, pp. 8-9)


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