Jose Ortega y Gasset (The Revolt of the Masses) when writing in the 1920’s made some acute observations about society that are more relevant for today’s society than when he made them then. He bemoans the rise of what he calls mass man, a man of limited vision who because of the material wealth and plentitude in developed western societies has become self satisfied, sees no need for change. This vision less man he compares to primitive man who accepts the natural environment in which he lives as a given, one that he is incapable of changing. What mass man never sees is that society is not a permanent construct that will be there for ever yielding a plethora of material goods, but that it is a fragile human construct that needs to undergo a constant process of renewal and change if it is to deliver for its members. The danger of mass man society is that the complacency of vision will lead to an ossified society one that is incapable of change or adjusting to the challenges that it faces. Societies leaders now having discovered what believe is the perfect society in Neo-Liberalism see no change to the model, failing to recognise the dangers inherent in this very human fallible human construct.
If he lived today Ortega y Gasset would recognise in the political class the dominance of the mass man, a man incapable of seeing any threat to their current beneficent existence from either the natural or made made environment. Despite the obvious threat of climate change because the current society delivers in terms of material wealth and human comfort, they see no urgency to act. Last year the London barrage was raised so many times to prevent flooding that engineers were unable to conduct essential maintenance, so that if this year and following years continue in the same pattern the barrage will eventually fail and London will flood. No matter what the evidence politicians will never conceive of a situation in which the economy they manage never delivers for them. Their time frame is limited to the present, they cannot consider a time when the present parameters no longer apply and because of their inaction the circumstances which were benign will then turn malign. Climate change will not stop with producing warm winters and hot summers but will instead cause food shortages and with concomitant threat of mass starvation.
One of the guiltiest groups of mass men are the economists. Ortega y Gasset claims that scientists are exemplars of mass men, they know just one thing, their science and for them it is sufficient. Scientists have succeeded by specialising in ever narrower and narrower fields disregarding the wider realm of human knowledge philosophy and history for instance. Having succeeded in one very limited field of human endeavour they assume they know all. Of all groups in contemporary society economists are the most guilty of this arrogance. They as with the medieval theologians see their’s as the queen of sciences, politics, ethics philosophy must all bend their knee to the greater realism that is economics. Bill Clinton’s aides comment that when asked what will determine the result of the election said ‘it’s the economy stupid’ has become the accepted political truth of our times. All politics has become as a consequence a branch of economics, particularly in the Neo-Liberal Anglo Saxon economies. Here politician’s have outsourced decision making to the free market. However this free market does not exist except in the imagination of economists and politicians, what does exist is the large business corporations that dominate the energy market and an are becoming increasingly dominant in the health care market. Blindness to reality, they see only the imagined world of beneficent free markets.
Only a contemporary Jonathan Swift could describe the contemporary political leadership.in the country of Lilliput the chief ministers are chosen by their according to their ability to skip and dance on a rope, this being the primary qualification for managing the affairs of state. In the age of mass man the skills needed for high office in the UK are similarly irrelevant to the skills needed to manage the current troubled society. Just as with his sky city of Laputa floating above the earth, where the scientists try to capture moon beams in cucumbers, the debates are actions of our parliamentarians cocooned within the Westminster bubble are equally fruitless.
What Ortega y Gasset failed to see that mass man would predominate amongst the political classes, while outside that class there would be many who defied that category. Only in the Westminster/Whitehall village could the screening process be effective in only selecting mass men for positions of power and influence. There number of candidates are so small that it is easy to screen out exceptional men. Outside the privileged environs of power the influences on men are so diverse and the gene pool so wide that mass men don’t predominate to the same extent. Exceptional men and women rise to the top in institutions that are remote from Westminster or marginalised by the Westminster power bloc. In trade unions now marginalised and emasculated, exceptional men and women occupy leadership roles. People such as Francis O’ Grady (General Secretary of the TUC), the late Bob Crow of the railway union, Natalie Bennet leader of the Green Party. However such people are remote from the seats of real power and lack the influence and power of mass men.
However Ortega y Gasset does offer hope for society in the form of the exceptional men. These are a natural aristocracy, the men dissatisfied with society. Men such as Giuseppe Mazzini the Italian revolutionary thinker who spent his life largely in exile as he was thought to be a constant threat to socially conservative Italian governments. The exceptional men believe in a higher order, possibly a higher spiritual order, that of a God. These people are dissatisfied with the assumed natural order of things, they see the need for change and want to make it happen. Without them society ossifies into fixed model incapable of change. The USA demonstrates what happens when mass men dominate politics to the exclusion of exceptional men. In Washington there is legislative gridlock, a government that is unable to offer policies for change, only policies for a retreat into a safer imagined past.
When trying to think of exceptional men in the field of politics it is exceptional women that spring to mind, Elizabeth Warren (US Senator) or Wendy Davies who successfully filibustered the Texas Senate on abortion law. The mould breakers tend to be women, probably because they have been so long excluded from the seats of power that they have an innate dissatisfaction with the system that marginalises them and a desire for change. In the UK the existing power structures effectively exclude women from power. The exception being Nicola Sturgeon leader of the Scots Nationalists, a former marginalised party. Theresa May the current Home Secretary who is spoken of as a possible leader of the Conservative party, is a women who has positioned herself squarely in the mass man camp. If she becomes leader she will be no challenge to the dominant political complacency.
There is another writer Pareto who tried to understand why politics was dominated for long periods by clever mediocrities, men good at playing the political game but incapable of initiating or managing change. Such men were good at winning elections but they would leave society untouched or unchanged after their period of office, if was as if they had never held office. Gross inequities were never challenged and society remained in the hands of its corrupt rulers. He called such men foxes, however these men were unable to resist the challenge of the men he called lions, men of character and bold vision. These men only came to power when circumstances permitted, in times of revolutionary upheaval. One such man was Garibaldi the military leader of the Italian revolutionary forces. However these men of vision only remained in power for a short while as the would inevitably be ousted by the machinations of the cunning foxes.
Whatever the complexion of government politics in the Anglo-Saxon countries is dominated by the clever mediocrities, who have cleverly manipulated the political system to exclude any possible lions entering government and disturbing the current political complacency. In the UK the leaders of the opposition party, the Labour Party have the power to exclude unsuitable candidates from the process for choosing MP’s. Only people that subscribe to the current political complacency will be accepted as candidates. Similarly the corrupting power of money is effective at excluding able candidates (the exceptional men) from the political process. The demands of the large party funders mean that nobody who challenges the current orthodoxy can be selected as a potential MP or leader. Since so many of the exceptional men are able women, there is a further barrier which keeps them distant from the seats of power and that is institutionalised sexism. Demonstrated when a conservative MP asked the newly elected female MP for Walthamstow to get out of the MP’s lift, as she should be in the one reserved for secretaries and admin staff. He could not conceive of a young woman being an MP. One key factor preventing women politicians reaching the top of British politics is the sexism of Westminster and the media. Any female politician that puts her head above the parapet risks being in receipt of a torrent of sexist abuse from the media. Only female politicians that are not tainted with feminism can hope to avoid the worst of this abuse. The only way of ending the destructive complacency of the mass men is to open up politics to those who they currently exclude, the exceptional men and women. However that would require an act of imagination and boldness generally lacking in the mass man.
What is the USA and the UK need desperately if not to be pushed into a long period of decline through the follies of mass men, is a more open society one that allows exceptional men and women access to power. Unfortunately what is happening is the reverse both the Anglo-Saxon societies are becoming more and more closed societies. Both Anglo Saxon democracies are turning to an imagined past. Although they would be unwilling to admit it our current political leaders have a mindset not too different to the religious fundamentalists of Islam, they both want a return to a past untroubled by modernity.