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A Morbid Democracy

Old and New Populisms


Monica Simeoni

The crisis of democracy in Europe and the inability of the political parties and élites to adequately meet the challenges of globalisation exposes the increasingly fragmented middle classes to the temptations of Euroscepticism, and, in some cases, xenophobia. This appears to be a portrait of contemporary reality, but the current crisis has deep roots. The Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset described the pathologies of the mass man and of the nascent democratic system as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century, in a significant text entitled Una democracia morbosa, which appears to foreshadow the present state of affairs. The crisis of the average man, the degradation and devaluation of culture appear to be the distinctive traits of the new, post-ideological democracy of our times, known as «audience democracy». The political parties, faced with this profound crisis, in some cases seek dangerous shortcuts through demagogic and rhetorical use of the term «people», while the charismatic figure of the leader gains in prestige as a reference model. Resentment, caused by lack of representation of the just demands of the citizens, can turn to anger and destabilise the institutions of democracy. There is therefore an urgent need for an inclusive Europe with a renewed welfare system, based around the citizenry and not the masses.
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1. Ortega y Gasset’s Mass-man


1.1. Ortega y Gasset. The Revolt of the Masses and the mass-man

Ortega y Gasset was a complex and eclectic scholar, not only because of the variety of his writings, which ranged from philosophy to sociology, to theatre and art (including a study on Goya), but above all because of his political positions and theses, often severely criticised. It was during the Franco era in Spain when opposition was fierce, that Ortega, with his conscience-driven criticism of the West, refused to take ideological sides within either the “official field of the left” or that of the right. He preferred, rather, to carry out a deep and serious analysis of the new middle class which was becoming the protagonist of civil society in Europe. He approved its nascent democracy but, at the same time, he understood how the complexity of a social actor who, without responsible and competent guidance, might turn democracy into a danger rather than an opportunity.

Many authors have found a parallel between the analysis presented in The Revolt of the Masses and that of Tocqueville who, a century earlier, in Democracy in America, had pointed out the risk that a democratic majority, once it had gained power, might betray the self same ideals of freedom and merit for which it had fought.

The two historical contexts were different, however. Ortega’s analysis was undertaken during a very particular moment in European history, at the time of Franco, of fascism and...

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