Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Mass Society and Totalitarianism

In the light of the growth of populism, I thought it might be useful to dig out and publish this essay on the topic, which I wrote in 1979. I have slightly modified it to include some details that were included in background notes on some of the theorists cited, as well as adding in some comments.  It provides an insight into why the EU referendum was also likely to be disruptive, and also shows that current discussions are not new but a rehash of ideas discussed 40 years ago.


According to mass political theory, mass societies are seen as being divided between elites and masses. There is a lack of effective intermediate groups, e.g. family, class etc. This means that elites are accessible directly without intermediation, and non-elites are readily available for manipulation by elites. For Kornhauser, mass society is an abstract type. It is always a matter of the degree to which an actual society is a mass society. 

Mass political theory rests on propositions about the nature of change in Western society, the consequent alteration of political values and expectations, the appearance and nature of mass populations, the growing participation of a larger proportion of the society in political institutions, and the increased accessibility of elites. It develops from these a powerful account of our times, the sources of political stress, and the consequences that may develop. Of the latter, its major concern is with the rise and nature of totalitarianism. 

Until recently, mass was used as a reference to crowds and crowd-like behaviour. Blumer's  definition added anonymity, isolation and atomisation. Continental writers added the understanding that masses are durable, they need not be spontaneous, but may be constructed by design. In Kornhauser's words, masses are “people who are not integrated into broad social groups including classes.” (W. Kornhauser – The Politics of Mass Society) Arendt affirms that “masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack … class articulateness...” (Hannah Arendt - The Origins of Totalitarianism). They cannot be integrated into organisations based on common interest. 

There is a heavy emphasis in the literature on a determinate role for popular opinion in mass societies. A mass society is one in which nearly all elite elements and decision making centres are obeisant to the masses. Halebsky argues that there is a tendency to consider each relationship in either/or terms. This, he argues, is in keeping with the character of mass theory “which makes it more of a suggestive model of behaviour than a clear analytic or predictive scheme.” Sandor Halebsky – Mass Society and Political Conflict   

There are two main versions of mass theory. The first is known as the aristocratic criticism. It argues that subversive movements are less likely to develop where elites are not readily entered or influenced. The second is the democratic criticism. It states that, if non-elites possess an independent group life, and are not readily manipulated or mobilised by elites, then subversive movements are less likely to develop. Kornhauser argues that both are inadequate on their own. He proposes a combination of the two. 

The aristocratic view stresses the need for the independence of elites, on the premise that constitutional liberty requires leadership, with the capacity to define, exemplify and defend it. The democratic view stresses the need for the independence of non-elites on the premise that constitutional liberty, above all, requires safeguards against the accumulation of power by any group, especially elites. The two views, Kornhauser argues are not incompatible. Civil liberty requires considerable social autonomy of elites and non-elites. There must be extensive self-government, both private and public, and individuals must belong to several governing units; and there must be extensive opportunities for elites to formulate policies and take action, without ad hoc interference from the outside. Mass theory suggests that the most suitable social structure is that of social pluralism. Halebsky argues that mass theorists suggest a revisionist theory of democracy; democratic elitism. The arguments of the democratic elitists, he argues buttress the propositions of mass theory. Direct participation by the citizen is seen as disruptive. 

Mass theory suggests that certain fundamental and related, long-run changes in Western society, and a number of sociological and psychological consequences have created a mass society. A series of transformations are noted in terms of the breakdown of organic communities and traditional patterns, with the disruption of intermediate group relationships. Where intermediate group relations are inoperative, mass society develops. Intermediate groups provided a basis for integration and defining the individual's status, helped instil moral standards, and constituted the focus of individual participation and basis for satisfaction of individual's needs. Their decline created the “atomistic society”, resulting in a heightening of dissatisfaction, and restlessness. 

The decline of community involves the erosion of the insulation protecting the elites from direct mass intrusion. The lack of satisfaction of social and psychic needs leads to demands and attacks on elite groups. Pluralist forms are also undermined consequently weakening the diffusion of power and constraints on concentrated power. Structural change and centralisation of power and decision making have produced apathy and powerlessness, atomisation and increased manipulability, and weakened social pluralism, and individual competence. 

Mass theory raises an alarm over the intrusion of untutored, anti-libertarian, incompetent masses upon the reasoned, knowledgeable, value preserving functions of the elite. Growing egalitarianism has encouraged a “sovereignty of the unqualified”. The people have acquired power they are incapable of exercising, whilst governments must recover their lost power if they are to govern. Of course, the nature of these masses as “untutored” etc., is not a natural feature of non-elites, but a consequence of polities in which the mass's involvement in political activity is designed to be generally passive and peripheral. 

Mass theorists see mass behaviour arising almost as a matter of course, though some stress the prerequisite of mobilisation by marginal elite elements. Kornhauser argues that mass politics occurs when large numbers of people engage in political activity outside the rules of society. The lack of intermediate relations leaves elites accessible to penetration, and non-elites available for mobilisation by mass oriented elites. 

The situation of mass populations maximises their sense of lack of purpose. Support for extremist movements is seen as coming not from class groupings, but the most apathetic, least organised, declassed elements. Kornhauser argues that the nihilism of the masses is a greater threat to liberal democracy than class antagonism. “The nationalisation of the masses grows out of the extreme loneliness of urban man”Neumann affirmed. 

The powerful appeal of mass movements rests on their ability to offer community, and also to fill associated needs among the masses. It also rests on their being an effective way of striking out at discredited existing political elements and leadership, of giving vent to one's anxieties and lack of political effectiveness. The likelihood of mass participation is heightened where existing elites have lost the authority and respect that helped mitigate against supporting anti-establishment movements. Mass theorists note the fanaticism, nationalism, and blind faith of the movement and its members. “The vigour of a mass movement,”  Eric Hoffer  says, “stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice.” 

Fundamental to mass theory is the proposition that totalitarianism is based on masses bereft of any intermediate or autonomous relations. If mass populations are lacking, totalitarianism creates them. Institutional or organisational structures, providing a focus for loyalties other than state or party are rooted out. Loyalty to the regime is accounted for by the mass condition of the population. Essentially, domination in totalitarian society is maintained through several devices. One is that of demanding and achieving extensive social and psychological involvement of the population in the state as such, its rituals, symbols and purposes, and in the diverse organisations it controls. This provides a sense of community, belonging, identity etc., which creates loyalty to the state, and impedes the development of contrary commitments. Domination is preserved by a network of intermediate organisations controlled by the state, in which the citizen is extensively implicated and through which he can be manipulated. They serve as a means of enhancing elite access and control over the population. 

In spite of the oppressive, anti-libertarian, and irrational character of totalitarianism, the unusual and disturbing feature of such regimes is that they rest on the consent of their people. For the mass theorist, it is the mass condition of the population that accounts for its loyalty to the regime. Essentially, the mass theorist argues that such regimes exercise control over all agencies of power, destroying or incorporating any potentially independent power base. Nor are there any limits on the regime's exercise of power or its ability to carry out its will. In part, though, the potency of the regime rests on its identifying itself with the national will and purpose. It thus presents itself as the embodiment of the nation, not of its distinct interests or perspectives therein. 

Freedom, the mass theorist stresses, rests on the autonomy and vitality of diverse social units. This is a crucial condition, requisite for the sustenance of both elites and non-elites. It is the destruction or weakness of pluralist structures that undermines democratic freedom. Implicit in mass theory are two different theories of a democratic polity. While they appear contradictory, they contain important compatible elements. One stresses the decentralisation of power, the other stresses the importance of elite autonomy and the minimisation of non-elite involvement in decision making. 

Mass theorists differ on their conceptions of the role of the state as outlined by Halebsky. Democratic elitism contrasts with traditional democratic theory, which stresses participation by the citizen, and the benefits that flow from this. The concept of democracy implicit in most mass theory stresses indirect rather than direct exercise of power by the citizen, the procedural over the normative content of democracy, liberty over equality. In other words representative democracy. Direct exercise of power by the citizenry is seen as disruptive. 

Giovanni Gentile spoke of fascism as “a total conception of life”, in a speech on 8th March 1925. At the same time, liberal opponents used the term “totalitarian” as a term of opprobrium for dictatorial and dishonest political practices. Trotsky used the term to describe the soviet Stalinist monolith. According to the dictionary of the Soviet Academy, the term was used, after 1940, exclusively to “fascist” regimes. Official soviet writers deprecate the use of the term to the Soviet Union as an aspect of “cold war” propaganda. In America, the term was various applied to fascist Italy and Germany, and to the Soviet Union. 

Fleron Jr. argues the need for an alternative term for today's communist countries, drawing attention to the varieties of meaning attached to the term, and urges greater precision in its use. Fleron's approach is back to front according to Schapiro. By studying the three countries, proper limits to the use and meaning of the term can be discovered. 

Friedrich's analysis in “The Unique Character of Totalitarian Society”, claimed to demonstrate two propositions: “totalitarianism” was a new and unique form of political rule; its characteristics were common to fascist and communist types. Five common factors were listed: an official ideology; a single mass party, usually led by one man, and superior to or intertwined with the state bureaucracy; a technically conditioned monopoly of mass communications; and a system of physical or psychological terroristic police control. In his book published with Brzezinski, in 1956, a sixth factor, central control and direction of he economy was added. Monopoly control is “not necessarily exercised by the party.” “The important point is that such a monopolistic control is in the hands of whatever 'elite' rules the particular society, and, thereby, constitutes its regime." 

Schapiro argues that the theory confuses two different things: the “contours” of a polity; and the instruments of rule. All three arose from a mass movement, headed by a powerful leader. Though, in one sense, each leader could be termed “charismatic”, in the Weberian sense, the factor of preparatory work to “create” the charisma distinguishes them. Lenin, he argues was the originator of this technique, (though Marc Anthony's speech after Caesar's death, In Shakespeare's “Julius Caesar” has been cited as an early model) and though he never became, or wanted to become, a leader like Hitler or Stalin, he provided a model for them. He understood the importance of long, preparatory, manipulative work to harness mass support, rather than relying on spontaneity. 

Intensive and unremitting mobilisation of the entire population characterised all three prototypes, Schapiro argues, primarily for war, in the case of Hitler and Mussolini, and for the construction of socialism in one country for Stalin. There are those who argue that mobilisation of the population, as Schapiro noted, characterised all three regimes, and is the feature primarily distinguishing “totalitarian” regimes from “authoritarian” ones. But, as Schapiro admits, mobilisation of the population took place in Britain, and the US, during the wars. All three regimes, he argues, are characterised by their claim to legitimacy, based on the masses, which has to be confirmed by rigged plebiscites. This feature of the use of plebiscites was also noted by Trotsky in “The Class Nature of the Soviet State”, where he compares various Bonapartist regimes. 

Though Aryan industrialists profited from Hitler's attacks on labour and Jewish property, this profit did not mean power, nor did the industrialist have a formative influence, Schapiro argues. However, nearly all of Hitler's Economic Council were leading industrialists, and it could be argued that the Nazi's policies, including war, were dictated by the needs of the reproduction of capital, particularly the need to create a single large European state. In the Soviet Union, he argues, control was made easier because of the absence of private property. Stalin and Bukharin encouraged the peasants to get rich. It was their disastrous economic policy which created dissatisfaction, and allowed the growth of the kulak, culminating in the withholding of supplies in 1927-8, which forced Stalin into his barbarous collectivisation programme. 

The three prototypes were a new phenomenon, Schapiro argues, not because of their features, but because these features occurred in the context of a mass society; their governments claimed mass support, and used modern technological devices. He differentiates between Cuba as totalitarian and the Dominican Republic under Trujillo as no more than a police state, as it lacked ideology and mass mobilisation. 

Schapiro says, that Arendt's “Origins of Totalitarianism” argues that totalitarian lawlessness is novel as it masquerades as constitutionalism. Margaret Canovan who was a specialist in Arendt, and had access to her unpublished papers, claimed that Arendt does not say this. Canovan was one of my politics tutors at University. However, a search today of the internet shows pretty convincingly that she did. Schapiro says that, for Arendt, ideology has nothing to do with ideas or beliefs, for such a regime, but is an instrument for manipulation. Again Canovan challenges this view, but a look at what Arendt says in relation to the role of Anti-semitism in Nazi Germany illustrates the point. 

As Wikipedia puts it, 

“Arendt also maintained that Jewry was not the operative factor in the Holocaust, but merely a convenient proxy because Nazism was about terror and consistency, not merely eradicating Jews.” 

The point is made more extensively in  Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government

She noted that terror performed the function not only of frightening, but of isolating individuals. Schapiro concludes that totalitarianism is new not because of its features, but because these occur in the context of mass society. 

Analysis by historians like Hobsbawm and Rude and sociologists like Tilly have thrown into doubt many of the presumptions of mass theory. Many urban and rural protest movements have been found to reflect real and reasonable grievances, where means of redress were limited and support came from stable, established community members. Wolf's analysis of peasant movements supports the need to focus attention on interest, needs etc. Further material has been provided by Pollack, Walter T.K. Nugent, Clanton and Durden, in their analysis of the American populist movement.  Michael Rogin's study of McCarthyism argues that its base was principally amongst conservative not populist elements. 

Allen's study of Nazi support in a German town shows its basis arising from stable respectable elements and from class divisions, political antagonisms, and more or less ordinary political processes.  Hamilton's study of support for the French CP pointed to similar factors without finding support for notions associated with mass theory. Portes study of support for Popular Unity in Chile found no evidence that it was a “simplistic political response of those who know no better.” 

Studies of migration, the role of marginal urban populations, etc., refute the notion that large scale social change is productive of volatile available populations and political instability. Others have stressed the importance of communications, class consciousness etc. Paige suggests the need for a model based on “variables tied to the political system”, not to alienation and isolation. 

Halebsky argues for greater stress on social organisational forms and processes, and the active cognitive role of the individual. Through various case studies, drawing on the work of many of the above authors, he seeks to corroborate his argument that it is not merely a matter of individuals reacting to various pressures and stimuli, but how these are interpreted, as individuals construct their actions. To understand particular instances of behaviour, we need more knowledge of “the sequences of interpersonal relationships, choice happenings, spread of information, behavioural response of other actors and groups, and so on.” He concludes that most extremist movements are based on class interest, and inequity, and “their behaviour and demands are generally not irrational, erratic or remote from actual disabilities and their cause, not even intolerant, in many instances, of the just needs of other elements of the society. This is not to say that against the same standard of all knowing wisdom, informed by hindsight, each particular action and objective was not always the wisest, most accurate or efficient; behaviour rarely is.” 

Tucker argues that not all regimes emerging from mass movements are totalitarian. Contrasting the regimes of Lenin and Stalin, he argues that the distinguishing feature is the “psychopathology” of the leader. In one, the party retains its independent character, in the other, it becomes an adjunct of leader's apparatus. He calls these two regimes “Bolshevik” and “Fuhrerist” respectively. 

There are three basic criticisms of the concept of totalitarianism. It has been argued that it is a cold war term. Certainly, Friedrich and Brzezinsky's use of the term appears to limit it to communist regimes. Spiro argues that the features outlined are also to be found in other polities.  Marcuse goes further. He argues that the outward forms in the US may be different, but this seeming liberty “under the rule of a repressive whole”, becomes “a more powerful instrument of domination”. 

Secondly, there are those like Curtis who argue that “the concept if used automatically to all communist regimes disregards not only the changing nature of the Soviet Union, but also the diversity of the different regimes in which changes have occurred at different rates.” 

Thirdly,  Barber argues that traditional analysis of rulers and ruled, as distinct categories, is out of date. Modern industrial mass democracies constrain the individual by more subtle methods than by direct repression. These are compatible with a free press, multi-party system, etc., on the basis of the large measure of agreement on the basis of society, shared by competing parties and newspapers. DeTocqueville also saw the possibility of this. Indeed, because the state is politically controllable, and its activities are visible, its threats to personal liberty are, in some ways, less pernicious than those emanating from unrecognised influence – sources operating under assumed but totally unreal conditions of equality in a supposedly fragmented and pluralistic private sphere. 

In conclusion, one could perhaps agree with Kornhauser that modern society, whilst creating the chance of alienation, also created enhanced opportunities for the creation of new forms of association; whilst destroying small enterprise, it creates the opportunity of greater leisure activities, etc.; urban life atomises traditional social groups, but provides a variety of contacts and experiences that broaden horizons, and the range of social participation; modern democracy diminishes the legitimacy of elites, but encourages a multiplicity of competing elites. Here too is an important difference between pluralist and modern “totalitarian” regimes, despite the changes which have taken place in many of them. Whilst the term “mass society” appears to be of little analytical value, I would tend to agree with Schapiro that “totalitarian” is still valid as a distinct and discrete description of something which, as a concept, and practical manifestation, remains different from other concepts. That it is abused is no reason to consider it invalid, provided it is used within limits which are justified by strict analysis and supported by reason and evidence. 

Bibliography and Further Reading 

W. Kornhauser - “The Politics of Mass Society 

S. Halebsky - “Mass Society and Political Conflict” 

L. Schapiro - “Totalitarianism” 

A. J. Groth - “The 'isms' in Totalitarianism”, (American Political Science review Vol. 58, No 4, 1964) 

S. Giner - “Mass Society” 

C. J. Friedrich and Z. Brzezinski “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy” 

H. Arendt – "The Origins of Totalitarianism" 

No comments: