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The Spanish Philosopher Who Best Understood Populism

(Cordon Press)

For Ortega y Gasset, the elite has nothing to do with class or any other kind sociocultural factors. The elite are simply those who make great demands of themselves.”

Does anyone really like the modern world—or believe that things are going in the right direction?  Statistically speaking, the answer is that in the majority of countries surveyed in a recent Ipsos poll, most, “think that their nation is on the wrong track.” So it is an increasingly small minority who believes things are going well. Furthermore, that minority seems to be largely comprised of those who actively advocated for and helped bring about the current neoliberal order. This is especially true when it comes to the opinion-makers and commentators present in our public discourse. In any case, what is clear is that those on both the Left and the Right seem increasingly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. This poses a problem for the Left because critiques of modernity and liberalism can easily acquire a reactionary flavor. This should not be surprising; when modernity becomes unbearable, it is much easier to look to the past than to the future. After all, the past offers concrete and real models of social organizations that have worked before and can serve as examples for how to fix present problems. The future, on the other hand, is uncertain. I think it is understandable, then, that the current populist mood has primarily benefited the Right. Yet, the Left needs an effective critique of modernity. That is not to say that there are none. My intention here is simply to present one that, I believe, should receive more attention than it has, given how relevant it seems to our time.

José Ortega y Gasset was an early 20th century Spanish philosopher, known for his interest in the philosophy of history, as well as for drawing from both Kant and Nietzsche in his works.  The Revolt of the Masses is perhaps his best-known work, but it is also his least explicitly political work. During his early years, before World War I, José Ortega y Gasset wrote many essays defending both liberal democracy and non-Marxist forms of socialism. Most of these essays have a very optimistic tone. However, by the time of the publication of The Revolt of the Masses in 1930, the tone of writings had changed considerably. This was no doubt influenced by the wave of nationalism and totalitarian governments that were ascendant during this time, particularly it Italy. While comparisons should be kept within appropriate proportions, the parallels between the interwar period and the late 2010’s are what make this comparison interesting.

Ortega y Gasset remained a socialist, even if only in his very particular understanding of socialism, even after The Revolt of the Masses was published. In 1931, he was even elected as a representative of the newly established Second Republic, as part of a group of candidates supporting the socialist platform. The socialists went on to become part of the broad left-wing coalition that became the dominant force in the Republic’s short history. The Second Republic was the government that lasted from 1931, when elections were held after dictator Primo de Rivera was ousted, until the failed coup by Francisco Franco in 1936, which led to a bloody civil war. Now, the book, taken in isolation, does not have a particularly left-wing viewpoint. It can only be interpreted as such when it is analyzed in context with his other more explicitly political writing, and his direct involvement in Spanish politics. In fact, this book is often somewhat elitist (as will be explained later). This is just one of the several aspects of the book that could be seen as objectionable from a more orthodox left-wing position. What I believe is valuable, however, is not the critique of modernity in itself. There is no solution either, but rather there is a kind of blueprint for how one might arrive at an appropriate solution: one that avoids the pitfalls of reactionary politics. But first, a few words on the problem should be said.

The revolt that the title of the book alludes to is not an organized mass movement (such as the labor movement)—nor is such described as a particularly good thing. The revolt is essentially an unfortunate effect of the expansion of liberal democracy, which puts the common man, or to use Ortega y Gasset’s own term, the “mass-man” at the forefront of society. The mass-man is the opposite of the elite, or the select, or those who excel. While this is certainly elitist, it is important to note that it is far from the traditional definition of what an “elite” is. For Ortega y Gasset, the elite has nothing to do with class or any other kind sociocultural factors. The elite are simply those who make great demands of themselves, such as those who take it upon themselves to serve society. So he makes it explicit that the humblest laborer can be, in fact, excellent, while it was not uncommon for many European aristocrats to be part of the mass.

Despite this distinction, however, it is not difficult to see how a critique of modernity based on these premises could go in a reactionary direction. The mass has been unexpectedly thrown into the leading role of public life, but the mass remains mass, at least for the time. As such it is not prepared for this role. Because of this lack of competence, says Ortega y Gasset, the mass’s way of intervening is always through violence. Now, this does not have to be physical violence, and that being the case, is it that difficult to see contemporary examples of this? A facile example would be online mob justice. It fits the description. After all, it is a kind of justice done through mass action, but this is also not the most interesting example. A better example would be targeted uses of state authority sanctioned through popular support, which has started to creep into certain nations, whether in the form of family separation in the United States, extrajudicial killings of drug addicts in the Philippines, or the growing concentration of power and increased censorship in Xi Jinping’s China. This is a clearer parallel, especially since Ortega y Gasset’s own examples of intervention through violence are not physical ones; he focuses, instead, on the two ascendant mass movements of the time: Italian fascism and Soviet bolshevism. A better way to understand the way he uses the term “violence” is as a forceful disruption of the established political processes. Now, again, it is important to keep things in proportion when making these comparisons, but at the same time, Ortega y Gasset was writing at a time when the worst of totalitarianism was not even in the works. The Nazis were not even in power, and the Italians, who were the ones Ortega y Gasset had in mind, never committed the degree of atrocities that would compare to those that would take place in in Germany. The notion of action through violence, however, does not require anything to the degree of extermination camps.

But Ortega y Gasset also denies the purely optimistic view of a constant march towards progress: what we could call “Whig history.” His is a more common-sense view: there are periods of progress and periods of decline…

But, if as Ortega y Gasset says himself, these mass movements can be attributed to the masses being thrown into a leading role as a consequence of liberalization and democratization, then surely liberalism would need to be dispensed with. Here, the more reactionary-minded individual would answer in the affirmative. But Ortega y Gasset’s own answer is, so to speak, both affirmative and negative. Here, a few words on his conception of history are in order. In a way, it is quite simple. He speaks both against Golden Age thinking that sees the progression of history as constant decline. This would be the conception of the reactionary. But Ortega y Gasset also denies the purely optimistic view of a constant march towards progress: what we could call “Whig history.” His is a more common-sense view: there are periods of progress and periods of decline, so it is natural that some epochs will view past eras as classical or golden ages, while others will see themselves as having reached a kind of culmination point. The key aspect, however, is that it is a process in which the events of one epoch give rise to the next one. Again, it is not a rather common-sense view. It is linear, and it does not have any built-in assumptions that make it deterministic, like a Marxist or Hegelian conception of history. It accepts that neither progress, nor regression are necessary—and that the direction of history is influenced by preceding events.

This rather simple view of history, however, is fundamental because it explains why anti-liberal impulses can never be the answer to the problems of liberalism. Anti-liberalism, Ortega y Gasset says, is naturally the complete negation of liberalism. But the negation of a thing is simply affirming a world in which that thing does not exist, which is identical to the world that existed before it. So the problem with anti-liberalism is not only that “golden age thinking” is an incorrect view of history; it is also that a world in which liberalism is denied and successfully rolled back is a pre-liberal world and, therefore, the same world that led to liberalism. Essentially it is a kind of self-defeating proposition. Ortega y Gasset certainly has plenty of good things to say about liberal democracy. Particularly, he sees it as the purest expression of community life devised yet. In such a regime, everything is geared towards indirect action: the opposition is governed, rather than stamped out, and state authority—despite being the ultimate power—attempts to limit itself. Yet, he is clear that society has to leave liberalism behind. But if its negation is not how it ought to be done, then what comes next must assimilate liberalism and make something new. So, while the past may be appealing because of its certainty, it is a dead-end.

This kind of common-sense linear view of history ends up inverting many seemingly also common-sense concepts, by shifting the view from the past towards the future. The first case is the one just discussed about liberal democracy. The second relevant one I want to discuss is related to nationalism. Ortega y Gasset takes Ernest Renan’s classic definition of the nation as a “daily plebiscite” and inverts its traditional interpretation, which is that it’s a plebiscite based on a shared past history. The problem with this view, for Ortega y Gasset, is twofold. First, the idea of a shared past is a kind of ahistorical backwards projection. The only reason why we can think of a people in the present as having a shared past is because there is a socially constructed geographical area demarcated by a set of boundaries, which coincides with an area inhabited by a group of people at some point in the past. But those people, if they existed in a time in which the geographical demarcation was different, might not have any more of a shared history with their neighbors that today fall inside the current boundary than the neighbors that fall outside of it. So, he says, it does not make much sense to consider El Cid Campeador as a Spanish national hero, or Vercingetorix as a French national hero. While it is true that both historical characters were part of some form of proto-national struggle against foreign powers, El Cid fought for the Kingdom of Castille, without having any notion of a shared identity with many of the other regional kingdoms that eventually merged into the Kingdom of Spain. In the same way, Vercingetorix fought for a particular set of Gaulish tribes without having any notion of France or Frenchness.

This brings us back to Renan’s concept of the nation and to the solution—or at least the conclusion—to the problem of nationalism. The notion of daily plebiscite based on the past is a sort of false consciousness. Instead, the far more sensible interpretation of Renan’s definition is a desire for a shared future. The modern state, Ortega y Gasset says, is chiefly a vehicle for a shared enterprise: it is naturally geared towards tomorrow. So the problem of nationalism must then be interpreted in this light. The interwar period in which The Revolt of the Masses was written—we should not forget—was a period of resurgent nationalist sentiment, not unlike our own. Yet, this very fact led Ortega y Gasset to predict that something like the European Union was the next logical development. The reasoning is straightforward enough. It is a fact that the conflicts among the various communities that eventually come to form part of the state is part of this “shared national history.” The process of state formation is described in three stages, which begin with the consolidation of certain groups, the identification of those outside as rivals of enemies which aids in the process of unification, and finally, the possibility of restarting the process by including those once considered as enemies. In this sense, nationalist fervor is simply a natural step of the process. The European conflicts were among the building blocks of the beginning of the notion of Europe as a national idea, something that goes beyond just a geographical region.

These two aspects of Ortega y Gasset’s critique perfectly showcase the value of his work as a roadmap for an effective leftist take on the real problems of modernity. It acknowledges, in a sense, that the reactionary is right to identify democracy and liberalism as the two major culprits of the issues of the present, like the decline in trust in institutions, and the general perception that political systems no longer serve their intended purpose. But it also clearly lays out why the reactionary solution cannot be the correct one, which is the key aspect to consider. As I said earlier, it is not the case that the Left has no effective critiques of the problems that flow from liberalism. Often, however, the kinds of criticism coming from the Left and the Right end up hitting many similar notes, so the avenue always remains open to go from a solidly left-wing critique to a reactionary conclusion, at least in principle.  As I have discussed previously, serious thinkers on the Right are embracing arguments that share much with Marxist dissections of capitalism. This is precisely why the Left must become post-liberal, rather than anti-liberal. The progress made by liberal democracy is not to be destroyed; rather, it should be but assimilated and improved upon. This does not even mean that reform is to be preferred over revolution—only that whatever comes next has to have certain characteristics. If one were to reinterpret that famous phrase about democracy, attributed to Winston Churchill, in the light of these ideas, rather than calling democracy, “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried,” one would say democracy is the best form of government there is, except for all the other ones that have not yet been tried.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be reached at or on Twitter @nestor_d

One thought on “The Spanish Philosopher Who Best Understood Populism

  1. Thanks for referencing Ortega y Gasset who I believe is a greatly neglected and relevant thinker. His analysis of Europe’s inablity to form a viable union is as relevant today as it was in 1930.

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