15 Observations on the Emerging Vertical Dimension of Cultural Conflict
If the old motto was watch out below, the new one ought to be: Watch out above!
Back in 2014, I sketched out a widely-read outline of an alternative interpretation of cultural conflict. Curiously enough, the conceptual tools I used came from a 1929 book from philosopher José Ortega y Gasset entitled The Revolt of the Masses—a work that offers surprisingly timely insights into our current situation.
That article stirred up a lot of debate at the time, but the whole situation has intensified further since 2014. Everything I’ve seen in those eight years has made painfully clear how insightful Ortega had been. The time has come to revisit that framework, summarizing its key insights and offering predictions for what might happen in the future.
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Here’s part of what I wrote back in 2014:
First, let me tell you what you won’t find in this book. Despite a title that promises political analysis, The Revolt of the Masses has almost nothing to say about conventional party ideologies and alignments. Ortega shows little interest in fascism or capitalism or Marxism, and this troubled me when I first read the book. (Although, in retrospect, the philosopher’s passing comments on these matters proved remarkably prescient—for example his smug dismissal of Russian communism as destined to failure in the West, and his prediction of the rise of a European union.) Above all, he hardly acknowledges the existence of ‘left’ and ‘right’ in political debates.
Ortega’s brilliant insight came in understanding that the battle between ‘up’ and ‘down’ could be as important in spurring social and cultural change as the conflict between ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is not an economic distinction in Ortega’s mind. The new conflict, he insists, is not between “hierarchically superior and inferior classes…. upper classes or lower classes.” A millionaire could be a member of the masses, according to Ortega’s surprising schema. And a pauper might represent the elite.
The key driver of change, as Ortega sees it, comes from a shocking attitude characteristic of the modern age—or, at least, Ortega was shocked. Put simply, the masses hate experts. If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter. The upper elites still try to pronounce judgments and lead, but fewer and fewer of those down below pay attention.
This dynamic is now far more significant than it was eight years ago. So I want to share 15 observations on the emerging vertical dimension of cultural conflict—these both define the rupture and try to predict how it will play out.
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