>From IntellectualCapital.Com

Lessons from the Revolt of the Masses
by Dr. Jerry Pournelle
Thursday, April 13, 2000
Comments: 121 posts >>>At site<<<

The 20th century was and remains instructive, and we will be examining its
lessons for a good part of this ambiguous year that is not quite part of the
last millennium nor yet part of the next. Some of the lessons were foreseen,
although like Cassandra our prophets spoke truth but were not believed. Other
lessons are only now emerging.

Controlling the masses

You can characterize the 20th century in many ways, which is to say there are
many lenses through which we can look at history. Choosing one and only one is
a great mistake. Any one view is certainly wrong in some to many particulars,
but we can learn from all of them. Marx and Freud had much to teach, but
choosing either as one’s master is folly.

One observer not much remembered now is the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y
Gasset, whose best-remembered book, The Revolt of the Masses, is still worth
reading. The title is as good a one-line summary of the 20th century as any: a
century in which the 18th-century notion of individualism held sway. That
notion, as Ortega puts it, is that “every human being, by the mere fact of
birth, and without requiring any special qualification whatsoever, possessed
certain fundamental political rights … and these rights, common to all, are the
only ones that exist.” These notions kicked around in the 19th century, but it
was only in the last half of the 20th that they came into their own. Now
everyone believes in that philosophy or at least purports to. The consequences
are grave.

A few are obvious. When I was young, it was uncommon to put citizens accused
but not convicted of crimes in chains. Only if the accused proved to be unruly
was he handcuffed, and only if especially unruly was he put in full chains. Now
we see elderly ladies led into the courtroom in handcuffs, leg irons, waist
chains, looking for all the world like Jean Valjean being led to the galleys.
When the absurdity is pointed out, we are told that because some people are
unruly and violent and cannot be controlled even with handcuffs, equality
demands that we do it with all.

If you treat every criminalequally, you must treat everyone as the villain

Even traffic stops often result in citizens with no criminal record and accused
of no more than unpaid traffic tickets being taken to the stationhouse in
handcuffs. We have learned the lesson: If you treat everyone equally, then you
must treat everyone as the worst possible villain. To retain civilized equality
we must give up civilization, or at least civility.

Ortega thought the fundamental danger of the century was the supremacy of the
state over society. Mussolini’s fascism was a mere extension of the notion of
liberal democracy that all social problems are amenable to action by the state,
with the result that spaws the question: “Can we help feeling that under the
rule of the masses the State will endeavor to crush the independence of the
individual and the group, and thus definitely spoil the harvest of the future?”
Certainly David Koresh and his followers in Waco would have understood that.

Power at all cost

On the other hand, Ortega was wrong in one particular. He believed that the old-
fashioned kind of dictatorship was impossible. One could not rule by
Janissaries or Mamelukes if only because the dictator needed the approval of
his security apparatus: If you will rule through a gang of thugs you must
retain the loyalty of the thugs. That has been proven wrong again and again.
After Stalin died there was not a Stalinist left in the leadership of the USSR
(although there were plenty among the faculty of American universities). Modern
methods of social control are quite efficient. Rome endured centuries of civil
war as legion after legion revolted to raise their commander to the purple.
Nothing like that happened in the USSR so long as it endured, and nothing like
that has happened in Cuba. Castro rules supreme and can still make mischief as
he will, the suffering and privation of his people notwithstanding.

And that is another important lesson for dictators taught by the last century:

If you are a dictator, never let go. Hang on to the last. Contrast the
declining years of Augustin Pinochet and Fidel Castro if you want a dramatic

Of course, that advice may be easier to give than to take. Once again the 20th
century teaches a stark lesson for dictators: If you want to remain in power,
get nuclear weapons. You do not need many, but you must have some. It used to
be that you didn’t need any of your own; a firm alliance with a power that had
them would do. Both the United States and the USSR protected unsavory regimes
with their nuclear umbrellas. Now the USSR’s umbrella does not extend so far
(although quite far enough to give them a free hand in Chechnya and the various
Russian Turkestans). Now you need your own nukes to be safe.

There are other ways. The rulers of Haiti have managed without nukes, largely
because they threaten the United States with their own total collapse. Without
some kind of regime in Haiti the seas would be filled with leaky boats as the
people of Haiti flee toward the United States. At the cost of American
Janissaries to prop up the failing regime, we avoid all that. One suspects
there are those who wish we could do the same with Mexico -- install and prop
up a regime that would close the border from the other side.

But while one may remain in power through Janissaries and the ability to annoy
the United States, this is not anywhere near as safe as having nuclear weapons.
Slobodan Milosevic learned that the hard way. If he had nukes we would never
have bombed his country. Pakistan and India may practice ethnic cleansing all
they wish; they have nukes. Don't forget Chechnya. And Saddam Hussein knows
this lesson well. One suspects it is pretty clear to everyone in the Middle
East, and after the Kosovo Bombardment (hardly worth dignifying it as a war),
it should be clear to everyone.

And on the home front

Our final lesson for today is domestic, and it too grows out of principles
Ortega expounded. You must not ignore the state in a mass society. Individual
rights are not real unless bought with hard coin. Bill Gates has found that

Does anyone imagine that the U.S. government would have gone through the
machinations it did, transferring jurisdiction and files from the Federal Trade
Commission to the Department of Justice and recruiting Microsoft’s commercial
rivals as participants in a government case against Microsoft, if Gates had
donated a billion dollars to the current regime? If he had bought his nights in
the Lincoln Bedroom? If he had made his large Washington office not a sales
office, but a “public relations” office, complete with “information sessions”
with free food and liquor for congressional and White House staff? If he had,
in a word, paid the bribes to become part of Gore-Tech? Gates once served as a
Congressional page. He was from a family long associated with the Democratic
Party. His mother was appointed to the University of Washington Board of
Regents by a Democratic governor, and Gates always made (modest) donations to
that party. His view of the world was made in a very different time: he thought
politics irrelevant to building a business. Now he knows better.

In fact, we all know it would not have taken a billion. A hundred million would
have been enough, and look what that investment would have returned. Gates
personally lost billions in an hour after Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson’s
decision. So did most of America through the decline in the value of their
pension funds as the NASDAQ nose-dived.

So, as the politicians prattle about “campaign reform,” the government has made
it very clear: Ignore Imperial Washington at your peril. If you do, we will
punish you.

‘Pay the soldiers’

Ortega y Gasset would not have been surprised. Neither would the historians of
the Roman Empire. After Marcus Aurelius came Septimius Severus, whose advice to
his children on how to remain in power was “Stay together, pay the soldiers,
and take no heed for the rest.” In our case the soldiers wear three-piece suits
and carry briefcases, but they command armed troops. For details look up

There are many more lessons to be learned from the 20th century, but those will
do for a start.

Jerry Pournelle has written about computers and civilization for 20 years. He
is a contributing editor for IntellectualCapital.com. His e-mail address is


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