José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) was the preeminent Spanish philosopher of the first half of the Twentieth Century. A complex figure, he was at the same time an elitist, a classical liberal, and a republican. He was born into a wealthy bourgeois family, became the Chair in Metaphysics at Complutense University in Madrid in 1910, and he was the deputy for the province of León until the Spanish Civil War. After the outbreak of the war, he lived in self-imposed exile in Argentina until 1945. Ortega, as a witness to both the First and Second World Wars, was an ardent critic of the modern state. In The Revolt of the Masses (La rebelión de las masas) (1930), he predicted that the forces of statism would inevitably lead to ever-increasing levels of violence. The state, he wrote, was “the gravest danger now threatening European civilization.”
What set Ortega apart from other critics of the modern state was his concise social and psychological analysis of the origins of statism. Rather than frame the evolution of the modern state in simple philosophical, religious, or economic terms, he sought to explain its rise as the logical outcome of a revolt of the common man, or the “masses.” By “masses,” Ortega was referring not to a class of people but a type of person who by his or her nature constitutes a numerical majority. This majority is made up of unexceptional people, people who toiled for thousands of years in relative anonymity. Their sudden awakening was made possible by the unprecedented growth of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages.
The state, such as it existed during the Middle Ages and throughout most of recorded history, was as Ortega put it, “quite a small affair.” By the 1700s, however, society, in the form of a middle class, outgrew those rudimentary structures of government. Where the old Noble class excelled in leadership, “historic responsibility,” and sheer bravado, the new bourgeois class excelled in rationalization and technique. The state, Ortega argued, is not a thing in and of itself, but a technique; a technique that is utilized for public administration and for preserving public order. Therefore the bourgeoisie naturally agitated for an increasingly larger role in state affairs.
This agitation created an “enormous disproportion between social strength and the strength of public power,” which allowed for the revolutions of the late 1700s and early 1800s (see Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval for an excellent transnational history of those events). In those revolutions, the bourgeoisie seized political power and began to build the modern state so efficiently that it made any further genuine revolutions in Europe impossible (Ortega argued that all revolutions since 1848 were merely coup d’états in disguise). Ortega, of course, as a member of the bourgeoisie and a deputy in the Second Spanish Republic, realized that he was a part of that reality.
The state, according to Ortega, expresses itself in two ways: “anonymous power” and violence. Its anonymous power comes from the perception of the masses that the state is an omnipotent force; as anonymous as they yet able to exert unlimited resources to alleviate any problem or difficulty they might encounter. “Suppose that in the public life of a country some difficulty, conflict, or problem presents itself, the mass-man will tend to demand that the state intervene immediately and undertake a solution directly with its immense and unassailable resources,” Ortega explained in The Revolt of the Masses.
At long last, the state will become so powerful that society, as well as the independence of the individual, will be crushed beneath it, and social resources will be used up in the service of the state. The formerly vital bourgeoisie becomes de-facto enslaved: “the people are converted into fuel to feed the mere machine…” The whole of life is bureaucratized.
Because violence is the ultimate means through which the masses express their power, Ortega argued, “… it will come as less surprise, nowadays, when the masses triumph, that violence should triumph and be made the one ratio, the one doctrine.” Since violence is central to the state, the “militarization of society” becomes the second stage of bureaucratization, and because the mass-man demands security from the bureaucracy above all else, “the state’s most urgent need is its apparatus of war, its army.” This point must have seen obvious in the 1930s, with the rise of communism and fascism in Europe. In fact, Ortega pointed to Mussolini, with his squadristi and his 1922 March on Rome, as the culmination of the revolt of the masses.
While Ortega’s analysis of the state is thought-provoking and insightful, it is not without its flaws. Ortega ignored the history of violence among the ruling classes when he alleged that violence (“direct action”) has been the only means through which the masses intervene in social affairs. Concepts like justice, manners, and reason may have been invented by the Noble class, but the Nobles were no strangers to murderous intrigue. For instance, for about 250 years it was a common practice of the Ottoman sultan to murder his brothers when he ascended the throne. Clearly, the Nobility had no qualms about applying violence in state affairs.
Furthermore, Ortega failed to take into account (perhaps because Revolt was written in 1930) the development of the Therapeutic Managerial State, in which the state exerts control not through overt violence but through behavior modification, social engineering, and a massive bureaucracy that simply makes any genuine resistance impossible. Under this system, the kind of political violence and vigilantism perpetrated by the Jacobins, the Sturmabteilung, or the Ku Klux Klan to prop up the status quo has become obsolete.
As a modern European philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset’s critique of statism is unique in its defense of liberal democracy. Ortega sought to forge a middle ground between a monarchy governed by a hereditary elite and a dictatorship governed by the unfettered passions of the mob. While ultimately colored by his politics, his analysis of the modern state nevertheless adds to our understanding of the origins of statism, and accurately predicted many of the long-range trends apparent in politics today.