AMAC Exclusive – By Barry Casselman
In 1930, a Spanish philosopher wrote a book with astonishing insights into the historical period humanity has been living through not only during our own lifetimes, but over the past several centuries. The book described an eventful epoch in human history—but today, with the advent of new technologies we are only beginning to comprehend, it is fair to ask whether the age the author described is finally ending, and if we are witnesses to a new era now beginning.
The book was The Revolt of the Masses, and the author was Jose Ortega y Gasset. The manuscript became at once a sensation and a success, and was soon considered a classic that was widely read, taught and discussed in Spain and throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere in translation for several decades.
Ortega was a highly educated and liberal Spaniard who, because of his class and the period he lived in, held certain cultural prejudices that eventually led to this work and his other extraordinary books and writings going out of fashion. He was, in today’s lingo, “cancelled.” Outside of the Spanish-speaking world and some philosophers and academics, he and his work are barely known today.
No one would defend some of his cultural biases and personal flaws now, but the astonishing primary insights of The Revolt of the Masses have remained valid up to the present time.
Ortega’s main argument was that, beginning with the Renaissance in Europe about 600 years ago, the masses of that continent’s populations gradually gained political and economic power over the centuries amidst the evolving feudal, monarchical, and aristocratic societies of Europe. Serfs moved from the farms and became tradesmen. The Industrial Revolution in Europe hastened this process as more people moved into the cities to become workers and laborers.
Ortega saw a 20th century culmination of this “revolt of the masses,” with his book focusing on the emerging totalitarian regimes. Writing in 1930, he presciently observed that the nascent communist regime in Russia, the early fascist regime in Italy, and, years before it took power, the Nazi regime in Germany, would employ, despite the different rhetorical rationales of the far right and far left, the same kinds of indoctrination, intimidation, surveillance, and brutal oppression and violence to impose their will on nations and societies.
Ortega noted that the revolt of the masses, especially in the early 20th century, took essentially two forms. The first of these was indirect action, that is, a revolt achieved through a political process, often elections and representative government. Feudal societies, he noted, had been replaced by absolute monarchs, who in turn were replaced by constitutional monarchs, prime ministers, and parliaments.
The revolt’s second form was direct action, that is, seizing power by military coup, insurrection, and by violence — which then created dictatorships that suppressed the masses while claiming to be acting in their interests.
As a European liberal, Ortega clearly favored indirect action, but it was the imminent threat of direct action that preoccupied his 1930 book.
Among his biases, Ortega was single-mindedly Eurocentric, barely noting or appreciating the constitutional model of indirect action of the American republic that channeled swirling social forces into peaceful and positive democratic outcomes, and he did not foresee the powerful role that the United States would soon play in the struggle and aftermath of the catastrophe he predicted.
Ortega’s other writings examined a broad range of western culture, including sports, metaphysics, art, literature, history and psychology. He also served as an elected deputy in the brief Spanish second republic before the Spanish civil war began in 1936. That conflict ironically became the opening salvo of the world war he predicted with the forces of communism and fascism engaged in mortal combat. Ortega left Spain, emigrating to Argentina before returning to Portugal in 1942, and after the war back to Spain where he died in 1950 at the age of 72.
At the present time, Ortega’s original insights into how specific and historic turbulent social forces led to a revolt of the masses are now contending with the rise of new and disruptive social, political, and economic forces that are affecting the human experience.
In a remarkably short period of time, the digital computer has appeared, and with it an exponential increase of data. Simultaneously, and linked to the computer, the earliest examples of artificial intelligence (AI), devices which can perceive, assess, and act, have also appeared. The development of AI is still in its early stages although it seems to be taking place rapidly.
Among scientific elites, however, there is already much discussion about it, with some expressing fears that mankind, by unleashing AI, is, in effect, replacing itself.
Indeed, AI can now perform tasks of calculation and assess quantities of data no human mind can do. But no AI device can yet “think” as humans do – using our inherited skills of intuition, creativity, imagination problem-solving, and compassion.
Those who fear the open-ended creation of artificial intelligence believe it is only a matter of time until the AI device will be created that can think — with the possibility such devices will regard human beings as we regarded Neanderthals millennia ago when we replaced them.
Already we are beginning to let our primitive AI devices take up much of the physical work we now do. But if we let AI do all or most of our chores, what will we do to occupy ourselves? With billions of persons now alive, and the number growing, how will we sustain ourselves, feed ourselves, protect ourselves from possible future pandemics and disasters — dangers which do not threaten AI devices?
Ortega’s revolt of the masses occurred over the course of many centuries, but the emerging economic and social developments of our historical era appear to be significant enough that we can begin to recognize that we are on a new, and as yet uncharted, course ourselves. With societal changes taking place much faster than they ever did in the past, we are clearly headed to an unknown place.