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.
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:
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.