Multitudes And Demassification

Carlo Bordoni«The idea of “demassification of classless society” struck me as arranging numerous diffuse observations into an orderly and cohesive vision…» Zygmunt Bauman

The speed with which social changes originate and develop often leaves observers disarmed: sociologists, who (by definition) should be prepared to understand, are not always able to follow the passages of history in order to arrive at an understanding of the events until the events themselves are practically concluded or on the way out. The fact is that, while we still speak about the masses and mass culture, we have just witnessed, though with a natural unawareness, the greatest process of demassification of society and the emergence of a multitude that incorporates every definition of population and class.

Actually, the present society cannot be exactly defined as a mass society: it has lost the substantial connotations of it; it is instead directed at the exaltation of individuality, of singularity, of the peculiar and of difference. This has been to the detriment of the social concept, favouring isolation, the nuclear family and individual solitude.

The face of the masses has changed in the space of a century. The fluid, uncontrollable, elusive mass that stirred up anguished fears amongst the middle classes at the beginning of the twentieth century to the point of justifying authoritarian control through oppression, now seems to have been tamed, almost sedated. Its most disturbing qualities have been put under constant surveillance, analysed in depth, and dominated in order to make them less dangerous.

It seems that now we can no longer speak in terms of the masses. It has been replaced by widespread individualism which is unable to recognise itself in any ideal, in any system of common values; reluctant to believe in anything that does not have an immediate correspondence and is sensitive to personal interests. Thanks to a radical process of demassification in which the means of mass communication played an important part, today we can speak more of multitude rather than masses.

The multitude is a consequence of massification. It is only in the multitude that we can find the single representatives of a time of uncertainties and the absence of common values, though with never-before-seen self-awareness, self-determination and facilitated ability to communicate with others. The multitude has this fundamental characteristic that the mass did not have: the awareness of its own individuality within a non-homogenous social organisation, but not less equal for this. Also, the possibility to communicate has great importance for the development of the multitude: or rather, communication is an essential element. The masses, on the other hand, are characterised by a univocal system of communication, a sort of showman’s megaphone which involves everyone with the same intensity and the same language. In the masses, communication is a one-way process, from above to below, given that the masses need to be guided.

An educated mass able to critically comprehend the data supplied from above and, above all, able to effectively communicate with other individuals, is already ready to become a multitude and to overcome the obstacle of the passivity which has, so far, characterised it.

How can the process of demassification be defined? As the most disturbing social event to characterise the post-modern period? What is the inevitable consequence of the crisis of mass society?

There can be several causes, not all of which can be put down to political or economic reasons. Regardless of which angle to consider it from, demassification represents a social change of incredibly vast proportions involving culture, politics, economics, behaviour and the very existence of each individual. The process of subjectivisation or individualisation which stems from the early twentieth century as a reaction to the emergence of an aggressive and uncontrollable mass and which established itself during the control of the masses within totalitarian regimes, ended up causing a split in the compact front of society, favouring an exasperated rarefaction, characterised by fragmentation, by separatism, solitude, personal benefit, by the defence of private interests, in what Bauman defined liquid society.

The third phase of massification, the consumer phase, began to show signs of weakening at the end of the sixties, in concurrence with the working class and student protests, which contested the equilibrium of the middle class well being and highlighted the political contradictions. This continued into the seventies with the emergence of alternative movements that questioned the life style imposed on consumerism. They were against savage industrialisation (the post-Ford production method and also exploitation of natural resources thanks to the emergence of ecology awareness), and sought alternative ways of political participation: they were heading towards “biopolitics” (Foucault), closer to human needs.

Demassification has strongly demonstrated a preference for moving away from traditional politics, in the sense of the delegation of power, in the implicit refusal of the system of representation, expressed in a widespread denial of consumerism and in the emergence of anarchical movements right between the seventies and the eighties. Its highest point proved to be in that “end of the great narratives” which was post-modernism at the end of the seventies. As a matter of fact, the end of the seventies coincides with the crisis of ideologies, which has profound political repercussions, to the point of leading to the dissolution of the communist system in the Soviet Union, the last surviving totalitarian state in the western world.

These changes of great social and political significance, though, as a whole, directed towards the disintegration of mass society, would not per sé be sufficient to justify speaking about demassification if they had not been accompanied by other elements of a more cultural nature, of a culture induced by technology and supported by it, which has the capacity to go well beyond the level of political dialectics and deeply influence the habits and behaviour of each individual.

Technological innovations determined the changes in the twentieth century, sometimes imposing as great divide factors compared to the past, and making permanent fractures from which there is no going back. Mainly two of these innovations have revolutionised social relationships, interacting to the point of developing effects that were unthinkable even for those who had designed them. Demassification would not have assumed the importance we recognise in it if it had not found two precious allies in the same means of mass communication (especially television) and in the culture of the web, which revolutionised communication in the nineties.

Television and the web: two innovations made possible by technological progress, so very similar to each other, and yet so different, above all because of the unexpected effects they brought about in mass society. Television is known to be the most effective means of communication and family entertainment since the end of the fifties; in the nineties it was the web which took up a prominent position at the beginning of the new century.

In the space of less than forty years, we have seen the most profound socio-cultural change, which was bound to radically influence the daily habits of the masses. Both these technological innovations got under way for different reasons which in daily practical usage are subverted as if power over their use had been lost. Television began as a means of mass communication, as a sophisticated instrument of cultural hypnotism, of homologation, of control of citizens’ consent, subjected – as for the other media already used by totalitarian states, radio and press – to a systematic informative/formative purpose and to propaganda, of a univocal type with no possibility of retroaction.

The demassifying power of television is absolute: it shuts the individual into a private place, cuts out all desire for interpersonal communication, in the false conviction that it is sufficient to look into a monitor to open a window onto the world and not be cut off from society. Television multiplies its alienating effect, inducing the viewer to prefer a passive enjoyment that produces pleasure and addiction, since it allows the viewer to participate in the events without being involved in them. A voyeuristic and narcissistic pleasure that fosters self-esteem since the viewer is not up for discussion; he is protected in a safe position of virtual domain, sheltered from every consequence with regard to what is being watched, which leaves ample room for the ability to judge, to the arbitrary exaltation to evaluate the information received, to reject it or ignore it. This is an enormous power that satisfies the user and encourages him to prefer the reality mediated by television to the immediate one.

The society of the individual, no longer massified, so tragically dispersed, does not assume the form of the exaltation of individualism in the strict middle-class sense, but of its depressing reduction, a fading appearance. The masses which are split through losing their compactness, their indistinct unity, can no longer be defined as the masses, because they have lost their amorphous quality, diffuse and immutable, which it is difficult to break into. Web culture has exalted the process of demassification, taking its effects to extremes: it has exasperated personal addiction to the screen, through which it is possible not only to see the world, but also to interact virtually.

Demassification does not only mean to take away the mass effect, liberate from the oppressing condition that makes everything interchangeable, or promote individualism: it also means to destabilise, to remove the certainties that man relies on, reduce him to a state of anguished solitude, which sometimes leads only to a refusal of himself or of others.

The demassifying effect has thus spread, moving from passive reception of data to interaction with the data. Viewers become operators, since they are able to see, hear, write, communicate, but also to react, modify, contribute, making the most of multimedia opportunities. Everything they do in the web and for the web, and it seems unnecessary to leave their environment, substitutes reality and represents its most pleasant side where the “solitude of the global citizen” seems to free them from a painful and dissatisfying existence.

The theme of the multitude and its meaning of individual liberty within a collective autonomy, responsible and able to self-regulate, should be re-read. However, this does not mean that demassification, this traumatic process aimed at breaking ties – sometimes diseased, obsessive and hateful – with a levelled society, will resolve itself, without any effort, into a multitude, and therefore into a society of free, conscious, mature and satisfied individuals. A tormented passage is necessary, a long and difficult apprenticeship which leaves several wounds and visible traces along the way.

If now it is possible to talk about the prevalence of the multitude in Spinoza’s sense, it is only at the price paid by one or two generations who have had to suffer the consequences. With a little care, since those scarce results obtained can not be considered definitive, given that the condition of the multitude is historically unstable: it is only an opening, which can soon be closed again, or side-tracked by further reactionary tendencies, by new temptations of an unforeseeable “return to order”. All the time, lying in wait around the corner of every qualifying social change.