Part 8- Harbingers of the Depression Era

New Political Theories

The oldest of the five was Georges Sorel (1847-1922) who sought to analyze the use of social myths.  His major work, Reflections on Violence, detailed the general strike as a social weapon and gave the intellectual backing to the 1910 French railway strike and the British strikes of the same period as well as the British general strike of May 3-12, 1926.

Sorel held that every effective social movement had its myths and that masses of men are stirred into heroic action and perseverance by such appeals to the imagination.  He noted that the 18th century political dogmas of freedom and equality were irrational and impossible, but their myth radically modified the whole course of constitutional development.  In the 1930s, one find Roosevelt effectively wielding social myth with his ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ speech which mocked Marx’s Manifesto cry that workers had nothing to lose but their chains.  Roosevelt lost out when he ran into the social myth of the inviolability of the Supreme Court when he sought to pack it.  The myth was too strong.

Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941), a Sicilian student of constitutional process, wrote his The Ruling Class (Elementi di Scienza Politica) in 1896 but it was fist put in English in 1939.  Mosca hated Marx and rejected the Nazi racial theories.  What he did see is that all societies were ruled by minorities or oligarchies, even such small social societies as sewing circles, and stamp clubs and that they justify their rule by ‘political formulas’ that contain little ‘truth’ but which express the deep human need to defer to abstract universal principles rather than to the will of individuals.  He also held that the internal stability of a ruling group can be measured by the ratio between the number and strength of the social forces it controls or conciliates and the number and strength of those it fails to represent; thus his ‘sense of social balance.’

Mosca held that aggressive individuals or social forces are checked by habit, custom or other juridical defenses (due process in a government by law).  A high grade of juridical defense also depends upon a sufficient division of wealth to allow a fairly large number of people with moderate means.  He saw the standing army as the key to why military dictatorships don’t dominate society.  It succeeds because there is a sharp absolute distinction between the private and officer, and the officers come from the ruling class and reflect the balance of forces within that class.  Nevertheless he holds officers had to be completely eliminated from political life.  Mosca viewed the modern intensification of nationalism as a product of world religions, which re-embraced many diverse types within the same group, which inclined those groups to coalesce individually around political formulas of a non-religious nature.  In this he anticipated such excesses as Bosnia, the Indian sub-continent internal and external massacres and the Sudanese civil war.

A third political theorist was Robert Michels (1876-1956) whose key work was Political Parties.  An Italian Swiss, he first published his work in 1913 and in English in 1915 with an additional chapter on wartime conditions, which was also in the 1939 reprint.  It was his thesis that the party oligarchies control the electors and the best that can be hoped for is a selection among a small coterie of leaders.  Direct democracy is impossible he contended both because of the number of people involved and the technical means of expressing their will.  Thus we have representative government, which is controlled by a party oligarchy.  Elected officials tend toward life incumbency and custom becomes a right.  In many case a political leader gains his point by threatening to resign at a critical point.  Churchill used this threat during World War II. Leaders can also use their perquisites of appointment to gain support, as in committee appointments or chairmanships in the legislature.  Another legislature leader’s tool was the acceptance of ‘port barrel’ legislation or including such proposals in other legislation. This method of oligarchic control is common in legislative party caucuses, as is the allocation of reelection resources.

The fourth theorist in the group was Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923).  He was a Swiss Italian like Michels and developed as an economist and sociologist.  His Cours d’Economie Politique was published in 1897, while the first two volumes of his Trattato di Sociologia Generale reached publication in 1919.  This is a work that eventually comprised four volumes, published in English as Mind and Society in 1935.  In economics ‘Pareto’s law’ held that income is distributed inevitably throughout society in the same way regardless of social or political institutions or taxation, a view not fully accepted in the post-World War II era.  His economic views were combined with those of the syndicalists and used as the intellectual justification for the corporate Fascist systems used in Spain and Italy, even though Pareto had to flee Fascist Italy.  Like Michels and Mosca, Pareto held that a small ruling class actually controlled modern

“There us a not very numerous governing class, which keeps itself in power partly by force and partly by consent of the much more numerous class of the governed…A governmental system in which the ‘people’ expresses its ‘will’ (if we could suppose that the people has a will) without factions, intrigues and cliques, exists only in the state of the pious designs of theorists…Democracies in France, Italy, England and the United States tend more and more to be demagogic plutocracies.”

The current ‘soft money,’ high election costs and ‘sound bite’ politics suggest some validity to Pareto’s observations.

Fifth of the group was professor Jose Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), a Spaniard whose Revolt of the Masses was published in Spanish in 1930 and in English in 1952.  He focused attention upon the attitudes and characteristics of what he termed ‘mass man’ rather than the bourgeoisie or rulers, citing the growing importance of this group as a result of urbanization and the depopulation of the countryside, trends very obvious in modern Africa.  He noted that for the average mass man, life could be easier, more convenient, and safer than it could be for the rich of the past.  Mass man, Ortega noted, was a spoiled child, intellectually complete in his own mind and willing to impose his view upon others.  He held there was not: “A single group whose attitude in life is not limited in believing that it has all the rights and none of the obligations…(adding) This fighting-shy of every obligation partly explains the phenomenon, half ridiculous, half disgraceful of the setting-up in our days of the platform of ‘youth’ as youth.”  Ortega was one of the early commentators upon the characteristics of the ‘youth culture’ that permeates modern society. .

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