Mass-Culture: People vs. the individual?

Et essay skrevet ved Lillestrøm videregående skole, fra året 2014

Rationale

In this essay – posing as a contribution to the literary magazine of America, New Criterion – I highlight and comment some of the most wholesome and deleterious aspects of the relationship between a dominant culture for the and masses the position of the individual. I mean to convey that mass-culture and mass-communication is not necessarily detrimental to a high culture cultivating ‘the individual’, but can be if a confounded intelligentsia no longer is capable of seeing the arts and literature as a fabric of meaning through which one communicates to the people – although there is an insuperable difference between the two groups.

This argument will be led on historic terms – analyzing the past to understand the present. My investigation embodies therefore mainly adumbrations on the roots of modern mass-culture, within the ambit of what we call the history of ideas.

Below I will resist the notion of class war, because I believe the malum discordiae to not lie in the very existence of classes, but in their (mutual) animosity – e.g. by class war-mentality. Hence, I adduce for the argument that the lower classes and the intelligentsia ought to see each other as complementary as adherence and membership to one’s own stratum of society has been to my mind negligible in this story, while ideology really has been the protagonist in the 20th century’s history of mass culture.

In this essay I intend to show that there exists a line of thought to be found between being in favor of culture for the masses and being an éltist.

 

People who have been of inspirational significance are mentioned and cited in the text below, except Roger Scruton, to whom I owe much for his intellectual capacity in understanding past and present so organically.

From the beginning of European history in the sixth century up to the 1800s, Europe had never seen her population exceed 180 million. In 1914 Europe was almost unrecognizable, as 460 million men walked the lands of Europe. But although the populations all over the continent bulged, the feeling of empowerment, even in democracies, did not follow. This created an asymmetrical development on the continent from the 19th to the 20th century: As the technological revolutions raged on, the people had an increasing multitude of choices of what to wear, but a decreasing say in how to be governed: Europe’s population possessed an unprecedented freedom to live ad libitum, but the political freedom did not follow, even in democracies, and social cohesion suffered as democracy made culture secondary to politics. The masses were looking for a fabric of meaning to once again unite them, instead of religion, and something to provide them with the ‘power of the people’, as understood by either Tocqueville or Stalin. In the 20th century ideologies they found the perfect substitute for religion and support for the people’s acquisition of power.

It was at the apex of this development in history, that is in 1930 that José Ortega y Gasset published his book The Revolt of the Masses—a well-thought reflection on the mood of the European intelligentsia at the time. He speaks of a ‘dictatorship of the mass’ – masses that believe in the state as a machine, simply for obtaining the material pleasures they desire, bringing about a state wherein the individual eventually must be crushed. Some will name Gasset a reactionary for this, but I don’t think he was completely off-track. Although he wasn’t categorically right about the uncivilizing nature of mass-culture and the state, he was in the right if one views his writings in the light of how the two ideologies at the time crushed the individual under the banner of the people’s supremacy. Culture for the masses, power of the people and ‘people’s rule’ comprised their ideological beachhead for both of these ideologies.

Nietzsche on the other hand may be seen as the more extreme case for intellectual resistance toward mass-culture, as he wrote through the mouth of Zarathustra ‘Where the ‘rabble’ drinks all fountains are poisoned’, and denounces the state as ‘the coldest of cold monsters’, wherein ‘universal slow suicide is called life’. That is a much too pessimistic view on mass-culture. To say that education only should be for the special/elected few, and that a biblical flood to relieve mankind of its excess stock should come every now and then, like Voltaire and Nietzche wished for, cannot, on the other hand, be understood in the same way as Ortega’s warnings can.

Gasset and Nietzche were not products of the same society. Gasset represented the old guard of which promoted civilization’s edifices as the goal to every means of society: elitism for the sake of civilization. Nietzsche however was one of the earliest products of mass-culture. That is to say, mass-culture generated Nietzsche’s person in opposition to itself; as its antagonism. The same printing press that made Nietzsche’s books so widely popular among Europe’s frightened intellectuals pressed out the masses of literature for the vulgus: the newspaper. This paradox is not devoid of meaning.

W.B. Yeats recommended Nietzsche as ‘counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity’, and George Bernard Shaw nominated Thus Spoke Zarathustra as ‘the first modern book that can be set above the Psalms of David’. But why did also the German and Soviet masses of Europe read Nietzsche as ideological provender? I believe that Nietzsche resonated with the masses’ new ‘belief’ and the European élite because the direction one directs one’s animosity in society is of secondary significance: Notwithstanding the direction of animosity it is a cry for uniform equality, by some given standard—the intellectuals in Nietzsche’s case and the proletariat for the communists. Animus against the élite or the masses expresses the same mentality: that one must perish and equality prevail.

 

 

Both Hegel and Alexis de Tocqueville believed in History’s unrelenting movement toward more power to the people. They saw History’s invisible hand behind Magna Carta, 1679, 1688, 1776, and 1789. But they believed this to be by the merit of the masses themselves. Conversely, Stalin saw History’s progress as pushed by the elected few, which had understood the course of history. Point being: the road to Western way of culture for the people, which prevailed and superseded the Nazi- and Communist way of mass-culture, was not uncontested.

The fallacy of equaling mass-culture and power to the people is a positivism stating that whatever is for the mass of people is for the good of all people. Hitler and Stalin propagated such positivism, which legitimized the dictatorship of the proletariat and Germanic millennialism. Regarding people simply as a uniform mass, as that of dough, one may infer the notion of a supreme herder – or leader – of this mass, as doubts about the interests of this mass have to be eradicated.

We see that there are ‘anti-mass-culture’ intellectuals in two styles, represented by Gasset and Nietzche, and we see that there are propagators of mass-culture of two types, represented by Tocqueville and Stalin.

I daresay that the victory of republicanism over the ‘dictatorship of the mass’ was not unequivocal, much less irrevocable. Reading Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise from the sixteen hundreds he makes it very clear to the reader that he is not aiming to convert the minds of that mass of men, regularly storming the streets to protest against this or that blasphemy, which they think is threatening the order and hierarchy of society. This sort of disparity or tension between the avant-garde intellectuals/artists and the larger mass of society will always exist to some extent. The attempt to eradicate this natural tension between the lower reaches of society and the higher reaches of society is the symptom of every ideological threat toward the individual.

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