U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Whither the Mass Society?

mass societyThe following is a guest post from Mark Edwards.  Mark teaches American history and politics at Spring Arbor University in Michigan.  He has published numerous articles, including in Diplomatic HistoryReligion and American Culture, and Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions. His first book is The Right of the Protestant Left, and he is currently at work on a related project, The Christian Origins of the American Century: A Life of Francis Pickens Miller.

Writing in The End of Ideology (1955, pp. 21-22, 36), Daniel Bell proclaimed mass society criticism “the most influential social theory in the Western world today.”  He summarized mass society talking points this way:

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. . . . 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.

While Bell sympathized with the many culture critics had sensed the “radical dehumanization of life” since World War I, he also considered mass society grievance “an ideology of romantic protest against contemporary life.”  Bell’s dismissal begs the question: How could so many people be so profoundly misguided about techno-corporate capitalist modernity?

I’ve been thinking a lot about mass society criticism lately as I prepared for the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) in Chicago.  I had assembled a panel on “Conservatives Who Hate America” with William Patterson professor Michael J. Thompson (founder and editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture, www.logosjournal.com) , S-USIH’s venerable Paul Murphy, and Bronx Community College Professor Peter Kolozi (author of Conservatives Against Capitalism forthcoming next year from Columbia UP).  My presentation concerned the confluence of traditionalist conservatives and the transnational Protestant left (meaning, World Council of Churches members with democratic socialist commitments) within the mass society tradition.  This convergence was coincidental in that both groups wrote in relative isolation from each other.  Nevertheless, Niebuhr publically endorsed Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences (1948) and Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community (1953), and the WCC debated Nisbet’s work at their second meeting in Evanston.  Nisbet, meanwhile, quoted Niebuhr at length in Quest, while Clinton Rossiter encouraged conservatives to “go to school with Niebuhr.”  Thinking again through this strange alliance—this “conservative socialism,” as Viereck termed it—got me excited about the prospects for a comprehensive history of mass society criticism, one that would chart its major forms as well as offer insight into the function that such a critical mode played for the people advancing it.  Did mass society criticism really offer an alternative view of modernity, or was it just one more example of how (credit Doug Rossinow) structures of power generate their own resistance?  How did mass society critics act upon their discontent, if at all?  It seemed to that this is a fertile field of investigation for the intellectual historian.  And then our panel met.

Thankfully, only one person came, so we could really discuss the directions and implications of each other’s work.  It was a truly stimulating experience.  However, our conversations also left me skeptical that a complete history of mass society criticism could ever be written.  Just one example: In response to Paul’s excellent paper on the New Humanism, the question was raised as to how much Babbitt and company were simply rehearsing the long America drama of elite distrust of democracy.  That got me thinking: Was John Adams the first mass society critic (“What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass is Tom Paine’s Common Sense,” he complained to Jefferson)?  In other words, our discussions pointed to the problem of defining as well as periodizing mass society criticism.  Of course, to periodize is to define, and vice-versa.  My own conception of mass society criticism was that it was a response to urban-industrialism; the democratic Progressives like Addams and Dewey were the first mass society critics, and then the Young Americans and New Humanists and leftist Protestants, and then new conservatives, then Hayden and SDS, and then Lasch, Lears, Berry, and so on.  Yet why privilege urban-industrialism, and the twentieth century, and those who actually used some variant of mass society (“enmassment,” “massification”)?  And, in light of the Frankfurt school, why include only American mass society critics?

So, is a total history of mass society criticism possible and desirable?  Or, are we left with distinguishing more narrow definitions and periodizations, such as David Steigerwald appears to be doing in his forthcoming work on mass society theory, “One World or None,” which covers 1940 to 1980.  How might you theorize and demarcate mass society criticism?  Who would you say MUST be included in a history of mass society criticism?  Finally, how would you assess the historic function of mass society criticism—as real resistance, compromised resistance, accommodation by another name, or other?

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very interesting figure re mass society theory: Edward Shils: on one hand, close collaborator with Parsons and one of the central founding fathers of modernization theory, main force at the U. of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, on the other hand, a mass society theorist, and on yet another hand, friends with Polanyi!

  2. Excellent post. I have been lately trying to understand mass society critique by also trying to understand the comparatively under-studied phenomenon of mass society enthusiasm. I follow, here, as in most things, James Livingston. We mustn’t forget that mass society has also meant, for many leftists, the coming of socialism. And, relatedly Corey Robin has been absolutely invaluable lately in sketching out the real meaning of Thatcher’s “no such things as society,” and in the process revealing that conservatism abhors both socialism and anomic individualism–it is really interested in the family as the pivotal institution of collective life.
    One are where mass society critique/boosterism is really fascinating is Black radical thought. Lewis Gordon on Fanon, for instance, stresses the importance of a Sartrean conception of anonymity as a positive good in Fanon’s thought–to not be caught in some power apparatus’s racialized gaze as a dark-skinned subject was to have access to a wished-for anonymity, figured as freedom from state surveillance and the police gaze. In this reading, mass society is the precondition of liberation.

  3. Thanks for these thoughts, Kurt, and for the Gordon tip. Just discussed Fanon briefly this week in a lecture on Black Power; I can see Gordon’s point.

  4. Mark: I like the way you sketch out a potential book on mass society criticism from Dewey and Addams onwards. As with any such book, there will be antecedents. But if you focus on industrialization and urbanization as the pivots, such a book would certainly be coherent. One etymological question: when did “mass society” get coined? This might help give such a project form.

  5. The term “mass society” was coined by Karl Mannheim, and introduced to US audiences in Edward Shils’s 1940 translation of Mannheim’s “Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction.” The reception of this idea takes place in the context of the (aborted) reception of Frankfurt School in the early postwar. Interestingly, in his ASR review of the Shils translation, C Wright Mills singled out the concept of mass society for particular scorn as imprecise romantic drivel — ironic given that Mills himself would eventually make much hay of the concept in the 1950s.

  6. Thanks for these suggestions! Sounds from Bill and Nils like Shils should be in. I’m wondering how much time should be given to mass society theorists v. mass society activists. Is the distinction appropriate and important?

    • See in particular Shils, “Mass Society and Its Culture” in his anthology The Intellectuals and the Powers, and his autobiographical “Introduction” to his other anthology Center and Periphery, particularly xviii – xxi. Also Leon Bramson, The Political Context of Sociology, chaps 3, 5, 6. Also Kettler & Meja, Karl Mannheim and the Crisis of Liberalism.

  7. Mark, when you say “mass society theorists v. mass society activists. Is the distinction appropriate and important?” — I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “mass society activists” – do you mean activists in mass movements? All of the mass society theorists were in one way or another negative, or at least highly ambivalent, about mass society, whereas activists in mass movements, and the historians and theorists of such activism and mass movements, have been positive or negative depending on whether they largely share or oppose the politics of the particular mass movement they’re studying.

    • Thanks so much for the references, Bill. By “activists,” I meant people like Reinhold Niebuhr or Richard Weaver or Buckley, Jr., who didn’t really add anything to theories of mass society (like a Mannheim or Adorno) but who simply co-opted mass society themes for political purposes. It’s an awkward term and distinction, as I noted. I’m just wondering: Would a responsible history of mass society thought include Shils alongside Jane Addams, Parsons next to Peter Viereck?

      • I don’t think you need Parsons – he’s not nearly as directly on point as Shils. And with Niebuhr, of course, you have to look at the twists and turns of his whole intellectual/political career – I don’t know at how many points that would intersect with the “mass society” issue. Jane Adams was certainly an activist and concerned with the masses, but I don’t know if she belongs in this company – the connection might be the social intellectual hothouse of turn of the century Chicago — see Robert Park (look in the Bramson book).

  8. That got me thinking: Was John Adams the first mass society critic (“What a poor, ignorant, malicious, short-sighted, crapulous mass is Tom Paine’s Common Sense,” he complained to Jefferson)? In other words, our discussions pointed to the problem of defining as well as periodizing mass society criticism.

    Excellent point here, Mark. The pamphlet “Common Sense” sold over 120,000 copies in just 4 months, which were then passed around from there in a country of some 2.5 million. That must surely qualify as some heavy-duty mass media!

    [BTW, the arguments in “Common Sense” are often biblical, which one would certainly not expect from “that dirty little atheist” Paine. At one point, he suggests God created America as a haven for Protestantism.

    No, I mean really.

    Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America is a strong and natural proof that the authority of the one over the other, was never the design of Heaven. The time likewise at which the Continent was discovered, adds weight to the argument, and the manner in which it was peopled, encreases the force of it. The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: As if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary to the persecuted in future years, when home should afford neither friendship nor safety.]

  9. Just a plug for Peter Kolozi’s book, Conservatives Against Capitalism, which Mark Edwards mentions in his post. I supervised Peter’s dissertation, on which the book is based. It was a terrific diss, and it’s going to be an even more terrific book. Keep an eye out for it!

  10. Hi Mark: Thanks for the kind comments on my paper. I am glad to be “venerable” and will start working on “blessed,” with, of course, sainthood after that — the ultimate goal of all good intellectual historians. Truth be told, your and Peter’s papers were the standouts and reflect two excellent books, one just out (yours) and one hopefully forthcoming soon (Peter’s). I benefited greatly from our conversation.

    I like the citations provided by previous readers. Long, long ago, when I was more attuned to this, folks at Indiana U. mentioned Patrick Brantlinger’s Crusoe’s Footsteps to me, which has a chapter on mass culture and postmodernism. I wonder about the distinction between mass culture and mass society.

    Your project seems very valuable to me, and the focus on twentieth-century social theory important — the people who used “mass society” as a sociological concept and category, whether critics or “activists.” Many before like J. Adams had been critical of the hoi polloi (their incapacity for self-governance and desire for “bread and circuses,” etc.), but mass society seems a critique coming from the modern fretting about “crowd” behavior and the rest — the fear that “we” (any of us) not just the lower-class “them,” modern individuals, are vulnerable to manipulation, susceptible to self-delusions, somehow not as autonomous and in charge of ourselves as we thought. It provides a good example of sociological thinking migrating across fields and into popular commentary culture and reflects the many anxieties besieging mid-twentieth century secular intellectuals. There is room for more study, I should think.

  11. As for intellectuals who have speculated about mass society, and which of those should be included in any Western or American study of that concept, I vote for José Ortega y Gasset. His *Revolt of the Masses* (1930) has been cited by both American liberals and conservatives beginning in the 1940s and 1950s. Gasset could act as a bridge between early and mid-century American mass society critics. Gasset’s name is all over George Nash’s CIMA. I’d be shocked if Gasset doesn’t play an important role in Stiegerwald’s forthcoming book. – TL

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