The 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 History, Religion 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?