Why charlatans and demagogues are flourishing

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset knew a thing or two about the modern world, and the shallow populism that seduces it. Modern Europe should re-read his penetrating analysis on how democracy dies

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José Ortega y Gasset
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Tom Gallagher
On 12 February 2015 05:41

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset has languished in obscurity since his death in 1955. No friend of the iron-fisted dictator Franco, he was nevertheless clear-eyed about the shortcomings of democracy, still the least bad system of government for humankind.

Committed to a modern, well-run and integrated Spain, he observed that the talent displayed by politicians for winning votes was so often simply not matched by an ability or a commitment to govern well. (Andrew Dobson, An Introduction to the Politics and Philosophy of Jose Ortega y Gasset, , Cambridge University Press,  1989, p. 66.)

He believed that democracy would fare much better if politicians were required to show competence in discharging major responsibilities.

With the voting age being reduced to 16 in my country (scotland) and popular culture and educational norms encouraging the belief that standards evaluating professional competence are arrogant if not oppressive, Ortega will be viewed by many young Westerners who encounter him as a hopeless reactionary. 

In his first major book, Invertebrate Spain, Ortega argued that for a long time, the Spaniards  had been disinclined to recognise and reward excellence in leadership.

In a country which had competitive elections from the 1830s, the mediocre challenger, able to offer short-term inducement at the expense of long-term progress, usually benefited over the more serious believer in genuine reform.

During the long periods of civilian rule, Spain was ruled by local fixers or caciques who grew powerful and wealth by delivering  votes to central politicians and later parties. Many historians have argued that such a system  was imposed against the will of the people.

But Ortega provocatively argued that there were simply too many people ready to ensure its survival. His view has been reinforced by the story of Spain over the last forty years. Greatly aided by a very bureaucratic and extensive form of decentralisation, the caciques have returned with a vengeance.

They have not only intimidated British residents in Spain by seizing their property on flimsy pretexts, but have drained resources and blocked development in sometimes gigantic scams involving the multi-tiered state, the property sector and other powerful interests.

Spain slid into a deep financial and now political crisis due to such kleptocratic politics becoming entrenched in some regions and central institutions. Variations have been seen in the Italy of Berlusconi and the Greece of Andreas Papendreou from 1981 to 1996.

Ortega, a believer in European cooperation , would have been disappointed  in the  failure of the European Union to curb these backward features of Mediterranean politics on both right and left.

But probably he wouldn’t have been surprised if he had possibly known the suffocatingly bureaucratic approach to European integration adopted by EU decision-makers.

Huge programmes have been rolled out creating dependent populations and venal interests ready to plunder them. The Mediterannean model of politics based around patron-client relations irrigated by central EU budgets has become the order of business for much of the rest of Euroland.

Ortega’s more famous book is The Revolt of the Masses, published in 1929. Civil-war and a harsh dictatorship in his own country,  and deadly struggles against fascism and communism in Europe as a whole for several generations, perhaps concealed its importance as a prophetic work.

He argued that shifts in education, the mass media, and popular culture in general were encouraging the rise of a banal, self referential culture. He was writing long before the rise of cultural relativism and post-modernism created an intellectual void in which objective truth and a hierarchy of values were dismissed as bourgeois, reactionary and Western impositions.

Encouraged by demagogic forces in the media, higher education and indeed politics, more and more people grew scornful of accepting any standards against which their behaviour and attitudes could be judged. This is one of the most frequently quoted passages from his 1929 work:

‘If from the viewpoint of what concerns public life, the psychological structure of this new type of mass-man be studied, what we find is as follows: (1) An inborn, root-impression that life is easy, plentiful, without any grave limitations; consequently, each average man finds within himself a sensation of power and  triumph which, (2) invites him to stand up for himself as he is, to  look upon his moral and intellectual endowment as excellent, complete.

"This contentment with himself leads him to shut himself off from any external court of appeal; not to listen, not to submit his opinion to judgment, not to consider others’ existence. His intimate feeling of power urges him always to exercise predominance. He will act then as if he and his like were the only being existing in the world; and, consequently, (3) will intervene in all matters, imposing his own vulgar views without respect or regard for others, without limit or reserve, that is to say, in accordance with a system of “direct action.”

To conclude, I will  briefly refer to two emblematic figures who sum up this culture of narcissism.

One is Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister.  He is a kind of dashing highwayman, a type who, in the Balkans, are known as haiduks. He wishes tax-payers in other European states to eliminate the debt owed to them by Greece without his country doing anything in return.

He is not interested in the fate of Greeks in the private sector who have borne the brunt of the long recession.

Instead, he wishes to build up the state and make it the central player in everything, despite a daunting track-record of failure.  A new system of patronage, vulnerable to runaway corruption is already being erected by his far-left colleagues.

Lessons from Venezuela, South Africa and Scotland suggest that where a populist left movement rides to power by promising the masses the sun, the moon and the stars, an economic abyss opens up.

Yet though few know very much of his ideas or how viable they are, Varoufakis has become a legend in a fortnight. His swagger, open-necked short and leather jacket have made him a symbol of revolt against class domination and imperialism.

This is perhaps nowhere truer than some of Britain’s university campuses. Which is perhaps only to be expected since this middle-class Athenian, after going to an exclusive private school, got his Phd in economics from the University of Essex.

This charmer even asked his British counterpart George Osborne to give him Wolfgang Schäuble’s mobile phone number.

My other example of  a budding  public figure who benefited from the replacement of a culture of common sense in different corners of the West driven on by resentment and virulent emotion is 20-year-old student Mhairi Black.

Her militancy and fervour as a speaker and organiser marked her out in last year’s far-left-driven movement for Scottish independence . It persuaded numerous lower-income voters on Clydeside to vote en masse for a  project bound to wreak economic havoc for them.

If elected for the SNP in the Paisley and East Renfrewshire constituency, she will be the youngest member of the British parliament in almost the last 200 years.

I doubt if she has encountered the thinking of Ortega y Gasset at the otherwise estimable Glasgow university where she is a politics student. I even fear  the Spanish philosopher would today be unable to deliver a lecture on the shortcomings of the masses in western democracy free of heckling if she was in the audience.

She admitted openly that she had wanted to headbutt Labour opponents when she learned the her side had lost the referendum. (Daily Record, 6 February 2015) and on social media she boasted about  her drinking exploits, expressing also her contempt for the supporters of Glasgow’s Celtic football side.

I doubt if these will be seen as lapses  even by many Celtic fans. Why? Mhairi Black encapsulates the culture of negation that is assailing Western civilization thanks to huge cultural missteps.

Her leader Alex Salmond promises to pursue a course of non-stop disruption in the House of Commons if he arrives there with a phalanx of MPs this May. Perhaps it is appropriate if, under the eyes of an indulgent Commons speaker, John Bercow,  the British Parliament itself restores its credibility with the masses by becoming a channel for such a spirit of aimless revolt.

Professor Tom Gallagher’s latest book, ‘Europe’s Path to Crisis’ was  published in paperback by Manchester University Press last October

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