The Market and the Masses
Sep24
Culture & Current Events6

The Market and the Masses

The market is the most humane solution so far devised to the perennial problem: what do we do about the masses?

It is the fashion today, of course, to deny that the masses are a problem at all. Leon Trotsky famously argued that after the rationalization of life following the revolution, “the average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx; and above this ridge new peaks will rise.” Even those who do not associate rationalization with communism have such faith in the educability and perfectibility of the masses that the problem is only dimly seen. If indeed the masses are mostly mentally inert, this is a situation which clever engineering and persistent effort can eventually overcome.

test-scores To be sure, great strides have been made; for example the near-total literacy rate in the West. And yet, we seem to have run into a brick wall. It is often counted as a strike against government education that a 375% increase in per-student spending has resulted in essentially no change in student performance since 1970. Surely an institution which would allow spending to continue on such a trajectory should be strongly reproached. But what if – perish the thought – an institution charged with educating everybody simply cannot improve average student performance at any cost?

If we are forced to give up the prospect of raising test scores to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx, then the conflict between the cognoscenti and the masses – far from being a temporary condition requiring only more education – is likely to be permanently intractable. The masses must be accepted for who they are; the attempt to mold them in the image of the elite must ultimately fail.

So, any society which is not inherently egalitarian – which is to say any society which has progressed beyond the hunter-gatherer stage so that it actually has masses – must face the original question: what to do about them? More specifically, if we must accept that ‘the unsophisticated you will always have with you’, the unsophisticated must be accorded a permanent place in society. History provides three broad answers as to that place:

  1. Mass oppression has been the organizing structure of societies for most of human history. To a greater or lesser extent, hereditary caste and occupation has been the organizing principle supporting the division of labor. This entails a rather rigid society, and to the extent that social mores don’t inculcate passive acceptance, active oppression will be required.
  2. Mass politics is the preferred answer today, and the answer implied by the denial that the masses are a problem at all. The ultimate aim of philosophy, in this view, is to be imbibed by the masses and to enlighten them or spur them to action. “Workers of the world unite!” Mass politics would have the inmates running the asylum, so to speak – at least in theory, for the most egalitarian ideologies in theory have tended to be the most stratified in practice, no doubt due to disappointed expectations regarding the initiative of the masses who were imagined to be their driving force.
  3. Mass culture arises from thick markets. It is the prevailing answer, but one that seems to have been settled into largely by accident; few would venture a defense of mass culture as such. In a sense it is true that, as Mises noted, “The fact that the masses prefer detective stories to poetry and that it therefore pays better to write the former than the latter, is not caused by the use of money and monetary accounting.” Producers are for the most part discoverers, and not architects, of taste. On the other hand, without a market, the masses have rather little outlet for their banal tastes. Nobody would have invented the detective novel if the masses were not in a position to reward it.

I won’t claim that these three are jointly exhaustive of possible answers to the question, but one gets a sense of their practical exhaustiveness from the fact that they map fairly well onto the three broad categories of modern ideologies: conservative (reactionary), socialist (populist), and liberal (classical). If mass energy is not repressed, it can be directed into either culture (consumption) or politics (coercion).

Mass culture, to be sure, is distasteful. Its distastefulness even resonates with the upper masses, who in turn build a mass counter-culture, signaling their rejection of mass consumer culture by making different consumption choices. In this way, “business is amassing great sums by charging admission to the ritual simulation of its own lynching.” The disingenuity of the mass revolt against consumer culture is now almost as commonplace as the original banality of consumer culture.

And yet, of the three answers, mass culture seems to be the most preferable. Socialists and populists contend that mass politics will end the supposed exploitation of the masses by rapacious advertisers. Conservatives and reactionaries contend that the glut of advertising has drowned out the nobler aesthetic of more ancient pursuits. Consumer culture is lurid, vapid, and quite simply, stupid; this much is agreed. The question is: what’s the alternative?

Monetary accounting, as Mises put it, allows for a division of labor of such fineness and such extensive social mobility as would plunge a more rigid society back into the Hobbesian jungle. For this reason caste societies and aristocracies – which tend to characterize rural societies with rather thin markets – debar the option of improving one’s status entirely. To the extent that this entails oppression of the lower classes or the propagation of self-serving myths, Frederick Douglass’ critique of slavery applies: not only is the oppression of the masses inherently objectionable (at least from our modern vantage point), but the elites are degraded for the effort as well. Such is the price of order in the caste society.

Mass politics, on the other hand, tends toward the denial of all status and hierarchy. Philosophy is therefore burdened with a practical imperative: if its criterion of success is popular appeal and acceptance, then “truth for its own sake” is accordingly downgraded – even more insidiously by those who fail to realize the tension. Indeed, if social cooperation necessarily rests on a bed of non-rational norms, then mass politics will drive the rationalist philosopher either to self-deception or self-destruction.

In addition to the corruption of the intellectual life, mass politics will tend to corrupt the masses themselves. The philosophies which aimed most deliberately and systematically at a mass movement – communism and fascism – have been among the most destructive in the world’s history. Even those mass ideologies as apparently benign as democracy have given rise to a corrupting ratchet effect whereby success is bought by flattery of the masses, leading to the entrenchment of the politics of identity and an egalitarianism that would be more aptly called anti-elitism. These dynamics are common to all philosophies in proportion to the deliberateness with which they cultivate a mass ideology.

Only mass culture – the freedom of the masses to improve their own lot as they are able, and the freedom of producers to cater to their demands – appears to be an acceptable détente. To have one’s sensibilities occasionally (or even frequently) offended by a sea of neon, or a blaring pop hit, is a small price to pay to avoid the necessity of oppression or mutual corruption. Indeed, if consumer culture is itself corrupting at all – as it surely is, to some extent – it is just as surely less so than the other two options. We may lament the fact that the masses have no aptitude for systematic inquiry, and no inclination to good taste. But as long as this fact admits of no remedy, mass culture arising from the market economy – even quite apart from its most welcome effect of bringing prosperity to the masses – is by far the least of all possible evils.

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Institutional SubstitutionInstitutionsArthur MelzerLudwig Von Mises

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6 Comments

  • 1

    Jim Caton

    Sep 25, 2015 at 17:18 | Reply

    The “masses” comprise cultures that provide a variety of strategies not generally accepted by the ruling class and those aspiring.

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      Sep 25, 2015 at 17:37

      Strategies for… living, or what? Do you mean that “mass culture” is not so monolithic?

      (Also, funny you should put it that way, since the advocates of mass politics tend to equate “bourgeoise” and “mass culture” – which seems to be how they reconcile lionizing the masses with a disdain of mass culture, as if the “true” masses somehow remain untainted. One wonders if most Marxists have ever actually met a proletarian.)

    • 3

      Jim Caton

      Sep 25, 2015 at 18:11

      The masses are those outside of the professional and intellectual classes. They see the world differently, often failing to crowd it with the rules and structure that coordinate social interaction within the circles of the elite and those aspiring for similar influence.

    • 4

      Cameron Harwick

      Sep 25, 2015 at 18:17

      Yes, I think that’s right. Putting it that way makes it clearer why there’s a problem in the first place, which I’m not sure I did effectively.

  • 5

    Sean

    Oct 06, 2015 at 14:52 | Reply

    Hey Cameron,

    What would make of the mass culture of a place like Tokyo, where you have numerous subcultures and unique fads (like the square head poodle)? These subcultures do quite a bit to drive some of the trends seen in the larger culture of Japan (or at least perceptions of the larger culture). Could we consider this part of the mass culture, or would this be more a special case?

    • 6

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 06, 2015 at 15:41

      That’s actually one of the reasons this post is marked with low confidence – I don’t have a very precise definition of ‘the masses’ or ‘mass culture’. Intuitively it seems to me that there’s some quality of “massness” about culture relatively independent of its actual size (in which case your example would count as mass culture), but I’m willing to be convinced that that appearance is mainly just my own prejudice. In any case I don’t want to rule out subcultures. Maybe ‘the bottom 85% in g’ and ‘things whose clientele are predominantly made up of those bottom 85%’ is the best we can do.

      What David Chapman recently attributed to the ‘lower middle’ and ‘middle middle’ classes is close to what I had in mind by ‘massness’, though I don’t find his delineation of the classes to be quite convincing or precise enough. By his definition, massness consists in being “late” to the signaling game, in which case your example might not count as mass culture until its actual breakout.

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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