The 20th Century & Mass Society

Political arguments that started in the classical era remained relevant in the 20th century. For example, how much political power should we give to ordinary citizens? Whilst it is generally accepted that people should have a say in how they are governed, events of the 20th century only added to concerns over what citizens can do when inflamed by ideology and bamboozled by demagogues. The old question of whether we need politics at all remained relevant. After a politically radical and violent first half of the century, many believed that a post World War II political consensus had arrived. What people wanted was benign and competent management, not politics. The unglamorous role of politicians was the intelligent management of a capitalist welfare state, with policy being nudged a little one way or another. This was Tocqueville’s fear of modern democracy: that individuals turn away from politics and society and look inwards, leading them at risk of being led like sheep by a shepherd. This section explores the idea of mass society, and how the masses can be mobilised or tranquilised by elites.

Fears of Mass Society

During the classical and medieval eras the term ‘democracy’ had negative connotations and was associated with political chaos. By the 20th century it was being used by dictators to lend credibility to their regimes. For most Western people democracy meant republican representative democracy, also referred to as liberal democracy. One form of fear of a mass society is that rather than people being independent, knowledgeable, self-motivated citizens with a real stake in society, they would be an element in a mere mass. The mass would be politically inert, but content as long as the political elite did a good job of managing their affairs. If things went badly, the masses might become prey to the wiles of a demagogue on the left or right. This is a liberal fear, in that it is about people losing their individuality – their ability to exercise their own taste and judgement without being unduly influenced by ‘public opinion’. To what extent has that fear been realised in liberal democracies? Freedom of speech remains entrenched, and public opinion is far from uniform. Some individuals are able to use wealth and power to have an undue influence on public opinion, but the significance of their impact on public opinion is debatable.

In Marxist terms the masses are the industrial proletariat. The Marxist fear of mass society is that it prevents the masses acting as they ‘ought’ to, i.e. participating in revolution. Marx believed that the proletarian revolution was inevitable, but only if the workers understood their own interests and pursued them with vigour. Marxists battled with two issues: why were the working class so often not interested in politics, and when they were why were they so often conservative? On the conservatism question, many point to the fact the urban proletariat was created from workers wrenched out of their traditional rural communities, who lost the support of small close-knit societies. The conservative fear of change and desire to go back to the way things were is a natural result. Others point to the influence of the prevailing culture in liberal democracies which causes people’s political views to be subconsciously moderated. On the politically inert nature of the masses, some argue that 20th century mass entertainment has helped to distract the masses from their discontent. While this view is convenient for Marxists, it is questionable that mass entertainment can have such an influence. Another thought borrows for Marxist purposes the liberal concern of individuals being unable to exercise individual judgement. When combined with the monotony of working routine, this could sap the ability of the proletariat to re-imagine society in a post revolutionary world.

A third fear is based on the aristocratic critique of mass society, and is best articulated in Ortega y Gasset’s ‘Revolt of the Masses’, published in 1930. It was animated by nostalgia for the age when European high culture set the standard for the world. Ortega believed that the masses were fundamentally resentful and disliked excellence. The result of mass society would be to reduce the quality of culture within society, as well as a desire of the masses to dramatically improve their power and prosperity at the expense of the elites, even if that meant through violent and direct actions.

The Political Elite

Another question on the subject of mass society is whether there is a political elite, and to what extent this elite does or should run matters unimpeded. Writing after World War I, Max Weber believed it was natural and inevitable that a modern democracy would be directed by a small group of charismatic people with a particular talent and taste for politics. Determining the best policy to meet a given goal can be done by anyone with sufficient experience. Determining the ultimate goals of society (and securing mass agreement to those goals) is not merely a question of being rational but requires charismatic political leaders. A key objective of good party systems and electoral processes should be to ensure good political leaders arise. Some object to this view and believe that political goals can be derived through rational argument. Those who advocate participatory democracy find Weber’s views bleak, but Weber believed the size and complexity of modern nation states requires a level of centralised authority that does not allow wide participation beyond simply voting in elections.

A less optimistic understanding of the politics of mass society is provided by Robert Michels theory that he called ‘the iron law of oligarchy’. The argument is that organisation is required to sustain the energy and cohesiveness of a mass movement, and organisation can only be held together by leaders. Unfortunately, once there is organisation, its preservation and the preservation of its leaders’ privileges could readily supplant the official goals of the organisation. Even Lenin’s radical revolutionary Bolshevik party could become over time Stalin’s conservative Communist Party of the Soviet Union, concerned mainly with maintaining the status quo. Another view on the subject of mass society comes from C. Wright Mills’ ‘Power Elite’. Where Marxists felt the working class had failed the task that history set it, Mills felt the same about elites. Writing about post World War II America, the most obvious failure of the elites was to fail to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. When Mills refers to elites he is talking about those at the top of every element of society, including military, business and entertainment. He believed that the political system had fragmented the power of the collective elites so much that they are virtually powerless to solve the major issues within society. An American President could incinerate much of humanity, but could not setup a national health service, or have much influence on popular culture. To the question of ‘who is in charge?’ Mills said often it depends on the issue, but sometimes the answer is no-one. Whether this is reassuring or not depends on your point of view.

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, I strongly recommend getting a copy of Alan Ryan’s ‘On Politics’, which this blog is predominantly based on. Here are a few links you can use to find it:

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