The Study of Man:
The Theory of Mass Society
The sense of a radical dehumanization of life which has accompanied events of the past several decades has given rise to the theory of “mass society.” One can say that, Marxism apart, it is probably the most influential social theory in the Western world today. While no single individual has stamped his name on it—to the extent that Marx is associated with the transformation of personal relations under capitalism into commodity values, or Freud with the role of the irrational and unconscious in behavior—the theory is central to the thinking of the principal aristocratic, Catholic, or Existentialist critics of bourgeois society today. These critics—Ortega y Gasset, Karl Mannheim, Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel, Emil Lederer, and others—have been concerned, less with the general conditions of freedom, than with the freedom of the person, and with the possibility for some few persons of achieving a sense of individual self in our mechanized society.
The conception of “mass society” can be summarized as follows: The revolutions in transport and communications have brought men into closer contact with each other and bound them in new ways; the division of labor has made them more interdependent; tremors in one part of society affect all others. Despite this greater interdependence, however, individuals have grown more estranged from one another. The old primary group ties of family and local community have been shattered; ancient parochial faiths are questioned; few unifying values have taken their place. Most important, the critical standards of an educated elite no longer shape opinion or taste. As a result, mores and morals are in constant flux, relations between individuals are tangential or compartmentalized rather than organic. At the same time greater mobility, spatial and social, intensifies concern over status. Instead of a fixed or known status symbolized by dress or title, each person assumes a multiplicity of roles and constantly has to prove himself in a succession of new situations. Because of all this, the individual loses a coherent sense of self. His anxieties increase. There ensues a search for new faiths. The stage is thus set for the charismatic leader, the secular messiah, who, by bestowing upon each person the semblance of necessary grace, and of fullness of personality, supplies a substitute for the older unifying belief that the mass society has destroyed.
In a world of lonely crowds seeking individual distinction, where values are constantly translated into economic calculabilities, where in extreme situations shame and conscience can no longer restrain the most dreadful excesses of terror, the theory of the mass society seems a forceful, realistic description of contemporary society, an accurate reflection of the quality and feeling of modern life. But when one seeks to apply the theory of mass society analytically, it becomes very slippery. Ideal types, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, generally never give us more than a silhouette. So, too, with the theory of “mass society.” Each of the statements making up the theory, as set forth in the second paragraph above, might be true, but they do not follow necessarily from one another. Nor can we say that all the conditions described are present at any one time or place. More than that, there is no organizing principle—other than the general concept of a “breakdown of values”—which puts the individual elements of theory together in a logical, meaningful—let alone historical—manner. And when we examine the way the “theory” is used by those who employ it, we find ourselves even more at a loss.
As commonly used in the term “mass media,” . “mass” implies that standardized material is transmitted to “all groups of the population uniformly.” As understood generally by sociologists, a mass is a heterogeneous and undifferentiated audience as opposed to a class, or any parochial and relatively homogeneous segment. Some sociologists have been tempted to go further and make “mass” a rather pejorative term. Because the mass media subject a diverse audience to a common set of cultural materials, it is argued that these experiences must necessarily lie outside the personal—and therefore meaningful—experiences to which the individual responds directly. A movie audience, for example, is a “mass” because the individuals looking at the screen are, in the words of the American sociologist Herbert Blumer, “separate, detached, and anonymous.” The “mass” divorces—or “alienates”—the individual from himself.
As first introduced by the late Ortega y Gasset, however, in his Revolt of the Masses, the word “mass” does not designate a group of persons—for Ortega, workers do not constitute the “masses”—but calls attention to the low quality of modern civilization resulting from the loss of commanding position by an elite. Modern taste, for Ortega, represents the judgment of the unqualified. Modern culture, since it disowns the past, seeks a “free expression of its vital desires”; it becomes, therefore, an unrestrained “spoiled child,” with no controlling standards, “no limit to its caprice.”
Still another meaning is given to the concept by some German writers, for whom mass society is mechanized society. Ernst Jünger asserts that society has become an “apparatus.” The machine impresses its style on man, making life calculable, mathematical, and precise; existence takes on a mask-like character: the steel helmet and the welder’s face-guard symbolize the individual’s disappearance into his technical function. The “regulated man” emerges as a new type, hard and ruthless, a cog in the technological process.
Less romantic, but equally critical, are those theorists who see extreme rationalization and bureaucratization—the over-organization of life—as the salient features of the mass society. The idea of “rationalization” goes back to Hegel and Marx, and along with it the notions of “estrangement” or “alienation,” “reification,” and the “fetishism of commodities”—all of which express the thought that in modern society man has become a “thing,” an object manipulated by society, rather than a subject who can remake life in accordance with his own desires. In our time, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Karl Mannheim have developed and elaborated these concepts. In Mannheim’s work—notably in his Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction—the diverse strands are all brought together. Mannheim’s argument, put schematically, runs as follows: modern large-scale organizations, oriented exclusively toward efficiency, withdraw all decisions from the shop floor and concentrate direction and planning at the top. This concentration of decision-making not only creates conformity, but stunts the initiative of subordinates and leaves them unsatisfied in their personal needs for gratification and esteem. Normally, the routinization of one’s job dulls the edge of frustration and provides some security. But when unemployment looms, one’s sense of helplessness becomes sharpened, and self-esteem is threatened. Since individuals cannot rationally locate the source of their frustration (i.e., the impersonal bureaucratic system itself), they will under these circumstances seek scapegoats and turn to fascism.
While for Mannheim mass society is equated with monolithic bureaucratization, for Emil Lederer and Hannah Arendt it is defined by the elimination of difference, by uniformity, aimlessness, alienation, and the failure of integration. In Lederer’s view, society is made up of many social groups which, so long as society is stratified, can exercise only partial control over the others. As long as this situation obtains, irrational emotions are thus kept within some bounds. But when the lines dividing social groups break down, then the people become volatile, febrile “masses” ready to be manipulated by a leader. Similarly, for Hannah Arendt, the revolt of the masses is a revolt against the “loss of social status along with which [is] lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense. . . . The masses [become] obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental incomprehensible aspects.” Because modern life sunders all social bonds, and because the techniques of modern communication have perfected the conditions under which propaganda can sway masses, the “age of the masses” is now upon us.
What strikes one first about these varied uses of the concept of mass society is how little they reflect or relate to the complex, richly striated social relations of the real world. Take Blumer’s example of the movie audience as “separate, detached, and anonymous.” Presumably a large number of individuals, because they have been subjected to similar experiences, now share some common psychological reality in which the differences between individual and individual become blurred; and accordingly we get the sociological assumption that each person is now of “equal weight,” and therefore a sampling of what such disparate individuals say they think constitutes “mass opinion.” But is this so? Individuals are not tabulae rasae. They bring varying social conceptions to the same experience, and go away with dissimilar responses. They may be silent, separate, detached, and anonymous while watching the movie, but afterward they talk about it with friends and exchange opinions and judgments. They are once again members of particular social groups. Would one say that several hundred or a thousand individuals home alone at night, but all reading the same book, constitute a “mass?”
One could argue, of course, that reading a book is a qualitatively different experience from going to a movie. But this leads precisely to the first damaging ambiguity in the theory of the mass society. Two things are mixed up in that theory: a judgment as to the quality of modern experience—with much of which any sensitive individual would agree—and a presumed scientific statement concerning the disorganization of society created by industrialization and by the demand of the masses for equality. It is the second of these statements with which this essay quarrels, not the first.
Behind the theory of social disorganization lies a romantic notion of the past that sees society as having once been made up of small “organic,” close-knit communities (called Gemeinschaften in the terminology of the sociologists) that were shattered by industrialism and modern life, and replaced by a large impersonal “atomistic” society (called Gesellschaft) which is unable to provide the basic gratifications and call forth the loyalties that the older communities knew.1 These distinctions are, however, completely riddled by value judgments. Everyone is against atomism and for “organic living.” But if we substitute, with good logic, the term “total” for “organic,” and “individualistic” for “atomistic,” the whole argument looks quite different. In any case, a great weakness in the theory is its lack of history-mindedness. The transition to a mass society, if it be such, was not effected suddenly, explosively, within a single lifetime, but took generations to mature. In its sociological determinism, the hypothesis overlooks the human capacity for adaptiveness and creativeness, for ingenuity in shaping new social forms. Such new forms may be trade unions whose leaders rise from the ranks—there are 50,000 trade union locals in this country that form little worlds of their own—or the persistence under new conditions of ethnic groups and solidarities.
Because romantic feeling colors critical judgment, the attacks on modern life often have an unduly strong emotional charge. The image of “facelessness,” for example, is given a metaphysical twist by Gabriel Marcel: “The individual, in order to belong to the mass . . . has had to . . . divest himself of that substantial reality which was linked to his initial individuality. . . . The incredibly sinister role of the press, the cinema, the radio has consisted in passing that original reality through a pair of flattening rollers to substitute for it a superimposed pattern of ideas, an image with no real roots in the deep being of the subject of this experiment.” Perhaps terms like “original reality” and “real roots in the deep being” have a meaning that escapes an empiricist temper, but without the press, the radio, etc., etc.—and they are not monolithic—in what way, short of being everywhere at once, can one learn of events that take place elsewhere? Or should one go back to the happy ignorance of earlier days?
Some of the images of life in the mass society as presented by its critics border on caricature. According to Ernst Jünger, traffic demands traffic regulations, and so the public becomes conditioned to automatism. Karl Jaspers has written that in the “technical mass order” the home is transformed “into a lair or sleeping place.” Even more puzzling is the complaint against modern medicine. “In medical practice . . . patients are now dealt with in the mass according to the principle of rationalization, being sent to institutes for technical treatment, the sick being classified in groups and referred to this or that specialized department. . . . The supposition is that, like everything else, medical treatment has become a sort of manufactured article.”
The attack on the mass society sometimes widens into an attack on science itself. For Ortega, “the scientific man is the prototype of the mass-man” because science, by encouraging specialization, has made the scientist “hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations.” Ortega draws from this the sweeping conclusion that “the most immediate result of this unbalanced specialization has been that today, when there are more ‘scientists’ than ever, there are much less ‘cultured’ men than, for example, about 1750.” But how is one to verify such a comparison between 1750 and the present. Even if we could establish comparable categories, surely Ortega would have been the first to shy away from statistical comparisons. Moreover, can we assume that, because a man specializes in his work, he is unable in his leisure, and in reflection, to appreciate culture? And what is “culture”? Would not Ortega admit that we have more knowledge of the world than in 1750—knowledge not only of nature, but of the inner life of. man? Is knowledge to be divorced from culture, or is “true culture” a narrow area of classical learning in which eternal truths reside?
But more than mere contradictions in usage, ambiguities in terminology, and a lack of historical sense are involved in the theory of the mass society. It is at heart a defense of an aristocratic cultural tradition—a tradition that does carry with it an important but neglected conception of liberty—and a doubt that the large mass of mankind can ever become truly educated or acquire an appreciation of culture. Thus, the theory often becomes a conservative defense of privilege. This defense is so extreme at times as to pose a conflict between “culture” and “social justice.” The argument (reminiscent of the title of Matthew Arnold’s book, Culture and Anarchy) is made that any attempts at social betterment must harm culture. And while mainly directed against “bourgeois” society, the theory also strikes at radicalism and its egalitarian notions.
The fear of the “mass” has its roots in the dominant conservative tradition of Western political thought, which in large measure still shapes many of the political and sociological categories of social theory—i.e., in authoritarian definitions of leadership, and in the image of the “mindless masses.” The picture of the “mass” as capable only of violence and excess originates with Aristotle’s Politics. In his threefold typology, democracy is equated with the rule of hoi polloi—who are easily swayed by demagogues—and must degenerate into tyranny. This notion of the masses as developed in Hellenistic times was deepened by the struggles between plebs and aristocracy in the Roman republic and by the efforts of the Caesars to exploit mob support; the image of the insensate mob fed by “bread and circuses” became deeply imprinted in history. Early Christian theory justified its fear of the masses with a theory about human nature. In the religious terms of Augustine—as later in the secularized version of Hobbes—the Earthly City bore an ineradicable stain of blood: property and police were the consequences of the Fall of Man; property and police were evidence, therefore, not of man’s civilization, but of his corruption. In heaven there would be neither private property nor government.
It was the French Revolution that transplanted the image of the “mindless masses” into modern consciousness. The destruction of the ancien régime and the rallying cry of “equality” sharpened the fear of conservative, and especially Catholic, critics that traditional values (meaning political, social, and religious dogma) would be destroyed.2 For a Tocqueville and an Acton, there was an irreducible conflict between liberty and equality; liberty guaranteed each man the right to be different, whereas equality meant a “leveling” of tastes to the lowest common denominator. For a Max Scheler, as well as an Ortega, the mass society meant a “democracy of the emotions” which could only unleash irrational forces. For the Catholic de Maistre, as for the Anglican T. S. Eliot, the equality of men meant the destruction of the harmony and authority so necessary to a healthy, integrated society.
Important as these conceptions are as reminders of the meaning of excellence, and of liberty, they reflect a narrow conception of human potentialities. The question of social change has to be seen against the large political canvas. The starting point of modern politics, as Karl Mannheim has pointed out, came after the Reformation when chiliasm, or religiously inspired millennial striving to bring about heaven on earth, became an expression of the demands for social and economic betterment of the lower strata of society. Blind resentment of things as they were was thereby given principle, reason, and eschatological force, and directed to definite political goals. The equality of all souls became the equality of all individuals and the right of everyone, as enlightened by progressive revelation, to make a judgment on society. Comte, the father of modern sociology, expressed great horror at the idea of this universal right to one’s own opinion. No community could exist, he wrote, unless its members had a certain degree of confidence in one another, and this, he said, was incompatible with the right of everyone to submit the very foundations of society to discussion whenever he felt like it. In calling attention to the dangers of free criticism, Comte pointed to the decline in public morals as evidenced by the increase of divorces, the effacement of traditional class distinctions, and the ensuing impudence of individual ambitions. It was part of the function of government, he thought, to prevent the diffusion of ideas and the anarchic spread of intellectual freedom.
Modern society, apparently, does not bear Comte out: though the foundations of privilege go on being challenged in the name of justice, society does not collapse. Few moralists would now uphold the bleak view once expressed by Malthus that “from the inevitable laws of human nature some human beings will be exposed to want. These are the unhappy persons who in the great lottery of life have drawn a blank.” The most salient fact about modern life—capitalist and Communist—is the ideological commitment to social change. And by change is meant the striving for material economic betterment, greater opportunity for individuals to exercise their talents, and an appreciation of culture by wider masses of people. Can any society deny these aspirations?
It is curious that in these “aristocratic” critiques of modern society, refracted as they are through the glass of an idealized feudal past, democracy is identified with equality alone. The role of constitutionalism and of the rule of law which, with universal suffrage, are constituent elements of the Western democratic structure, are overlooked. The picture of modem culture as debauched by concessions to popular taste—a picture that leaves out the great rise in the general appreciation of culture—is equally overdrawn. If it is granted that mass society is compartmentalized, superficial in personal relations, anonymous, transitory, specialized, utilitarian, competitive, acquisitive, mobile, status-hungry, etc., etc., the obverse side of the coin must be shown too—the right to privacy, to free choice of friends and occupation, status on the basis of achievement rather than of ascription, a plurality of norms and standards rather than the exclusive and monopolistic social controls of a single dominant group, etc., etc. For if, as Sir Henry Maine once put it, the movement of modern society has been from status to contract, then it has been, in that light, a movement from a fixed place in the world to possible freedom.
The early theorists of the mass society (Ortega, Marcel) focussed attention on the “deterioration of excellence,” while the later theorists (Mannheim, Lederer, Arendt) called attention to the way in which the over-organization and, at the same time, the disruption of the social fabric facilitated the rise of fascism. Recently, in the light of Communist successes, the argument has been advanced that the mass society, because it cannot provide for the individual’s real participation in effective social groups, is particularly vulnerable to Communist penetration, and that the mass organization, because it is so unwieldy, is peculiarly susceptible to Communist penetration and manipulation. (See Philip Selznick’s study, The Organizational Weapon.) Certainly, the Communists have scored enormous successes in infiltration, and their “front” organization may be counted one of the great political inventions of our century. But without discounting Communist techniques, the real problem here lies less with the “mass society” as such (aside from the excuse it affords disaffected intellectuals for attacks on modern culture) than in the capacity or incapacity of the given social order to satisfy the demands for social mobility and higher standards of living that arise once social change is under way. This is the key to any radical appeal.
It is not poverty per se that leads people to revolt; poverty most often induces fatalism and despair, and a reliance, embodied in ritual and superstitious practices, on supernatural help. Social tensions are an expression of unfulfilled expectations. It is only when expectations are aroused that radicalism can take hold. Radical strength is greatest (and here the appeal of Communism must be seen as a variant of the general appeal of radicalism) in societies where awareness of class differences runs deep, expectations of social advancement outstrip possibilities, and the establishments of culture fail to make room for aspiring intellectuals.
It is among industrial workers rather than apathetic peasants (in Milan rather than Calabria), among frustrated intellectuals rather than workers long unionized (e.g. India), that radicalism spreads. Resentment, as Max Scheler once noted, is among the most potent of human motives; it is certainly that in politics. It is in the advanced industrial countries, principally the Untied States, Britain, and Northwestern Europe, where national income has been rising, where mass expectations of an equitable share in that increase are relatively fulfilled, and where social mobility affects ever greater numbers, that extremist politics have least hold. It may be, as the late Joseph Schumpeter pessimistically believed, that, in newly awakened societies like Asia’s, the impatient expectations of key social strata, particularly the intellectuals, may so exceed the actual possibilities of economic expansion that Communism will come to look like the only plausible solution to the majority.3 Whether this will happen in India and Indonesia is one of the crucial political questions of the next decade. But at any rate it is not the mass society, but the inability, pure and simple, of any society to meet impatient popular expectations that makes for a strong response to radical appeals.
From the viewpoint of the mass society hypothesis, the United States ought to be exceptionally vulnerable to the politics of disaffection. In our country, urbanization, industrialization, and democratization have eroded older primary and community ties on a scale unprecedented in social history. Yet, though large-scale unemployment during the depression was more prolonged and more severe here than in any country in Western Europe, the Communist movement never gained a real foothold in the United States, nor has any fascist movement on a European model arisen. How does one explain this?
It is asserted that the United States is an “atomized” society composed of lonely, isolated individuals. One forgets the truism, expressed sometimes as a jeer, that Americans are a nation of joiners. There are in the United States today at least 200,000 voluntary organizations, associations, clubs, societies, lodges, and fraternities with an aggregate (but obviously overlapping) membership of close to eighty million men and women. In no other country in the world, probably, is there such a high degree of voluntary communal activity, expressed sometimes in absurd rituals, yet often providing real satisfactions for real needs.
“It is natural for the ordinary American,” wrote Gunnar Myrdal, “when he sees something that is wrong to feel not only that there should be a law against it, but also that an organization should be formed to combat it.” Some of these voluntary organizations are pressure groups—business, farm, labor, veterans, trade associations, the aged, etc., etc.—but thousands more are like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters, the American Jewish Committee, the Parent-Teachers Associations, local community-improvement groups, and so on, each of which affords hundreds of individuals concrete, emotionally shared activities.
Equally astonishing are the number of ethnic group organizations in this country carrying on varied cultural, social, and political activities. The number of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Czech, Finnish, Bulgarian, Bessarabian, and other national groups, their hundreds of fraternal, communal, and political groups, each playing a role in the life of America, is staggering. In December 1954, for example, when the issue of Cyprus was first placed before the United Nations, the Justice for Cyprus Committee, “an organization of American citizens,” according to its statement, took a full-page advertisement in the New York Times to plead the right of that small island to self-determination. Among the groups listed in the Justice for Cyprus Committee were: the Order of Ahepa, the Daughters of Penelope, the Pan-Laconian Federation, the Cretan Federation, the Pan-Messian Federation, the Pan-Icarian Federation, the Pan-Epirotic Federation of America, the Pan-Thracian Association, the Pan-Elian Federation of America, the Dodecanesian League of America, the Pan-Macedonian Association of America, the Pan-Samian Association, the Federation of Sterea Ellas, the Cyprus Federation of America, the Pan-Arcadian Federation, the GAPA, and the Federation of Hellenic Organizations.
We can be sure that if, in a free world, the question of the territorial affiliation of Ruthenia were to come up before the United Nations, dozens of Hungarian, Rumanian, Ukrainian, Slovakian, and Czech “organizations of American citizens” would rush eagerly into print to plead the justice of the claims of their respective homelands to Ruthenia.
Even in urban neighborhoods, where anonymity is presumed to flourish, the extent of local ties is astounding. Within the city limits of Chicago, for example, there are eighty-two community newspapers with a total weekly circulation of almost 1,000,000; within Chicago’s larger metropolitan area, there are 181. According to standard sociological theory, these local papers providing news and gossip about neighbors should slowly decline under the pressure of the national media. Yet the reverse is true. In Chicago, the number of such newspapers has increased 165 per cent since 1910; in those forty years circulation has jumped 770 per cent. As sociologist Morris Janowitz, who studied these community newspapers, observed: “If society were as impersonal, as self-centered and barren as described by some who are preoccupied with the oneway trend from ‘Gemeinschaft’ to ‘Gesellschaft’ seem to believe, the levels of criminalty, social disorganization and psychopathology which social science seeks to account for would have to be viewed as very low rather than (as viewed now) alarmingly high.”
It may be argued that the existence of such a large network of voluntary associations says little about the cultural level of the country concerned. It may well be, as Ortega maintains, that cultural standards throughout the world have declined (in everything—architecture, dress, design?), but nonetheless a greater proportion of the population today participates in worthwhile cultural activities. This has been almost an inevitable concomitant of the doubling—literally—of the American standard of living over the last fifty years. The rising levels of education have meant rising appreciation of culture. In the United States more dollars are spent on concerts of classical music than on baseball. Sales of books have doubled in a decade. There are over a thousand symphony orchestras, and several hundred museums, institutes, and colleges purchasing art in the United States today. Various other indices can be cited to show the growth of a vast middlebrow society. And in coming years, with steadily increasing productivity and leisure, the United States will become even more actively a “consumer” of culture. (These changes pose important questions for the development of a “high culture,” but that problem lies outside the scope of this essay—see Clement Greenberg’s “The Plight of Our Culture,” Commentary, June and July 1953.)
It has been argued that the American mass society imposes an excessive conformity upon its members. But it is hard to discern who is conforming to what. The New Republic cries that “hucksters are sugar-coating the culture.” The National Review, organ of the “radical right,” raises the banner of iconoclasm against the liberal domination of opinion-formation in our society. Fortune decries the growth of “organization man.” Each of these tendencies exists, yet in historical perspective, there is probably less conformity to an over-all mode of conduct today than at any time within the last half-century in America. True, there is less bohemianism than in the twenties (though increased sexual tolerance), and less political radicalism than in the thirties (though the New Deal enacted sweeping reforms). But does the arrival at a political dead-center mean the establishment, too, of a dead norm? I do not think so. One would be hard put to it to find today the “conformity” Main Street exacted of Carol Kennicott thirty years ago. With rising educational levels, more individuals are able to indulge a wider variety of interests. (“Twenty years ago you couldn’t sell Beethoven out of New York,” reports a record salesman. “Today we sell Palestrina, Monteverdi, Gabrielli, and Renaissance and Baroque music in large quantities.”)
One hears, too, the complaint that divorce, crime, and violence demonstrate a widespread social disorganization in the country. But the rising number of divorces, as Dennis Wrong pointed out (Commentary, April 1950), indicates not the disruption of the family, but a freer, more individualistic basis of choice, and the emergence of the “companionship” marriage. And as regards crime, I have sought to demonstrate (in Fortune, January 1955) that there is actually much less crime and violence (though more vicarious violence through movies and TV, and more “windows” onto crime, through the press) than was the case twenty-five and fifty years ago. Certainly, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York were much rougher and tougher cities in those years. But violent crime, which is usually a lower-class phenomenon, was then contained within the ecological boundaries of the slum; hence one can recall quiet, tree-lined, crime-free areas and feel that the tenor of life was more even in the past. But a cursory look at the accounts of those days—the descriptions of the gang wars, bordellos, and street-fighting in San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, New York’s Five Points, or Chicago’s First Ward—would show how much more violent in the past the actual life of those cities was.
At this point it becomes quite apparent that such large-scale abstractions as “the mass society,” with the implicit diagnoses of social disorganization and decay that derive from them, are rather meaningless without standards of comparison. Social and cultural change is probably greater and more rapid today in the United States than in any other country, but the assumption that social disorder and anomie inevitably attend such change is not borne out in this case.
This may be owing to the singular fact that the United States is probably the first large society in history to have change and innovation “built into” its culture. Almost all human societies, traditionalist and habit-ridden as they1 have been and still are, tend to resist change. The great efforts to industrialize under-developed countries, increase worker mobility in Europe, and broaden markets—so necessary to the raising of productivity and standards of living—are again and again frustrated by ingrained resistance to change. Thus in the Soviet Union change has been introduced only by dint of wholesale coercion. In the United States—a culture with no feudal tradition; with a pragmatic ethos, as expressed by Jefferson, that regards God as a “workman”; with a boundless optimism and a restless eagerness for the new that has been bred out of the original conditions of a huge, richly endowed land—change, and the readiness to change, have become the norm. This indeed may be why those consequences of change predicted by theorists basing themselves on European precedent find small confirmation.
The mass society is the product of change—and is itself change. But the theory of the mass society affords us no view of the relations of the parts of the society to each other that would enable us to locate the sources of change. We may not have enough data on which to sketch an alternative theory, but I would argue that certain key factors, in this country at least, deserve to be much more closely examined than they have been.
The change from a society once geared to frugal saving and now impelled to spend dizzily; the break-up of family capitalism, with the consequent impact on corporate structure and political power; the centralization of decisionmaking, politically, in the state and, economically, in a group of large corporate bodies; the rise of status and symbol groups replacing specific interest groups—indicate that new social forms are in the making, and with them still greater changes in the complexion of life under mass society. With these may well come new status anxieties—aggravated by the threats of war—changed character structures, and new moral tempers.
The moralist may have his reservations or give approval—as some see in the break-up of the family the loss of a source of essential values, while others see in the new, freer marriages a healthier form of companionship—but the singular fact is that these changes emerge in a society that is now providing one answer to the great challenge posed to Western—and now world—society over the last two hundred years: how, within the framework of freedom, to increase the living standards of the majority of people, and at the same time maintain or raise cultural levels. American society, for all its shortcomings, its speed, its commercialism, its corruption, still, I believe, shows us the most humane way.
The theory of the mass society no longer serves as a description of Western society, but as an ideology of romantic protest against contemporary society. This is a time when other areas of the globe are beginning to follow in the paths of the West, which may be all to the good as far as material things are concerned; but many of the economically underdeveloped countries, especially in Asia, have caught up the shopworn self-critical Western ideologies of the 19th century and are using them against the West, to whose “materialism” they oppose their “spirituality.” What these Asian and our own intellectuals fail to realize, perhaps, is that one may be a thorough going critic of one’s own society without being an enemy of its promises.
1 This antithesis, associated usually with the German sociologist Tonnies, is central in one way or another to almost every major modern social theory: Weber’s traditional-rational behavior, Durkheim’s mechanical-organic solidarity, Redfield’s folk-urban society, and so on.
2 Nazism, in the view of modern conservative and Catholic critics, is not a reaction against, but the inevitable end-product of, democracy. Hitler was a new version of the classical demagogue, leading the mindless masses in nihilistic revolt against the traditional culture of Europe.
3 As Morris Watnick has pointed out in a pioneering study (in the University of Chicago symposium The Progress of Underdeveloped Areas), the Communist parties of Asia are completely the handiwork of native intellectuals. The history of the Chinese Communist party from Li Ta-Chao and Ch’en Tu-hsu, its founders, to Mao Tse-tung and Liu Shao-Chi, its present leaders, “is virtually an unbroken record of a party controlled by intellectuals.” This is equally true of India, “where in 1943, 86 of 139 [Communist] delegates were members of professional and intellectual groups.” The same pattern also holds true “for the Communist parties of Indochina, Thailand, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia, all of which show a heavy preponderance of journalists, lawyers and teachers among the top leadership.”