by Jack Common

In these days of the decadence of the great Liberal creed, when all parties are apt to call in the state to organise the chaos of competitive individualism, we cannot but marvel at the magnificent act of faith which said: leave individuals to sell freely with each other and the world will be alright … One can see how mad that must have sounded to the nobility and churchmen and kings whose profession it was to put the individual in his place. What a thing to trust to! The individual conscience, better than all the popes and colleges of cardinals; the individual initiative, more skilful than the trained corps of the aristocracy. Those brewers and merchants and petty tradesman had a flair for human quality, if you like. Compare their magnificent faith with the frigid planning and authority-mongering of their successors – it is the difference between eager youth and pottering age.

They were the voices of the people; they believed in the people. Not enough, perhaps, but enough to get some splendid things done. But now, the people have gone, disappeared out of cultural consciousness. Instead we have the masses. The word “masses” is as terrifying to modern masters as the word “people” was to the old catholic priesthood and nobility of reformation times. They are both words which to snobbish ears seem to oppose number to quality. To the protestant tradesman, however, the word “people” opposed the unborn quality of individuals to the dead quality of caste. It was a gamble in human potentials. It came off.

Now, we are a mass-civilisation which will not recognise its own character. All our institutions are cracked and strained by the washing of this great tide of multitudes, whom no one can give a voice to. They are there, the mass must be served, but none have joy in their service. You must give the public what it wants, or else sell what you want to the few persons constituted like yourself. You cannot work for men anymore: it must be either for mass or for the intelligentsia. That is a hell of a problem for us. What is it for the ordinary man?

He doesn’t understand the intelligentsia, who are busy with their own problems, and the “What the public wants” school don’t understand him. They give what he is prepared to pay for; and that, they say, is what he wants. Well, he wants a bit of fun and he’ll buy anything that promises to give it to him. That doesn’t mean he gets what he wants. He only gets what’s going. Fair-ground folk are apt to jeer at the fools they take in (one born every minute kind of thing), but if you’ve ever been to a fair, you quickly realise that the boys go there intending to be taken in – it’s part of the fun. Nobody really believes that the two-headed baby actually has two heads, only they appreciate anyone taking the trouble to fake it for them. Similarly it is very unsafe to suppose that people who buy the Daily Express or the Daily Mail (if anybody does buy the Daily Mail these days) believe in all the twaddle they see there. The ordinary man regards his newspaper as very much in the margin of his life.

And his newspaper, the mammoth-sale mass-journal, like his film, is a very bad guess at what he is like. It is compiled by cynics who think they are serving slaves, and who feel Barnum’s own sting in their humiliation at the servitude. They give expression to what they think is the slave-character of the masses. But the ordinary man of this civilisation is potentially free and powerful; there is nothing for which he can be enslaved. And he is enslaved, for nothing. Millions of him are kept in idleness because slavery is unprofitable, and freedom is fearful to contemplate. The slavery is unnecessary, and therefore it has to be maintained by lying. And because all those enslaved to the idea of masters hate and dread the idea of the ordinary men (whom they call “masses”) being freed, the whole of popular culture is a concocted slander by which would-be superior people defend their groundless superiority.

But actually the ordinary man is fine. Not the average man. He is a cerebral abstraction, like that average child which educationalists abuse themselves by playing with. Nor the “little man”, nor the “man-in-the-street.” All these are the conscious belittlements of those who cannot endure the richness of mere life, and must construct smoked glasses by a mental formula to dim it down lest their own ego be quenched by it. The common male of the species is fine. So, of course, is any bird or any tree. We take the poet’s word for it in the case of “natural” creatures; when it comes to men we listen to economists, or scientists, or journalistic hacks. Yet, precisely what is needed is another act of faith in the ordinary man. Give him the mastery of the machine-world which no masters of men can control, and things will be alright. You can bet on that.

End of Masses by Jack Common