[This article appeared in the Fall 1968 issue of Modern Age, pp. 343-349.  It is based on a paper delivered by the author at the April 1968 national meeting of the Philadelphia Society.]


Antecedents of the Urban Crisis 

Dwight D. Murphey


            It is hardly possible these days to think about the causes of the “urban crisis,” or indeed about the causes of the many other crises that perplex us, without bringing to mind almost reflexively the customary shibboleths by which these phenomena are currently explained.  We hear these shibboleths endlessly.  Everyone in America is tutored to the point of saturation in these answers, essentially shallow and simplistic, that arise out of the perspectives common to that intellectuality that comprises our contemporary orthodoxy.

            We have heard these answers recently from the President’s Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.  Who created the urban crisis?  No one, we are told, but ourselves.  Our refusal, and the refusal of much of “white America,” to embrace with wholehearted commitment the moral and political panaceas that appeal so strongly to coercivist egalitarianism is, to this view, inexplicable, and is itself a primary cause of disorder.

            But these explanations do not satisfy.  Intelligent men find it difficult to accept the insistence that there must be some murky “hate” that is supposed in some quarters to have caused, by its universal presence, the assassination of the President in Dallas.  Therefore, they find it equally difficult to appreciate that if only they could purge themselves of this questionable “hate,” and then expatiate their guilt by giving unbridled rein to measures of federal expenditure and legislation (perhaps involving as a corollary the abandonment of our effort in Vietnam and, indeed, our entire American presence in the free world), the urban crisis would either shrivel or disappear.

            The difficulty with these many cliches is that they are based on a view of the world that we know to be highly inadequate not only descriptively, but—as well—morally, intellectually and spiritually.  A true analysis of the causes of our current unrest, urban and otherwise, could start in no better place than with a renewed appreciation of the philosophy of the Spaniard Jose Ortega y Gasset.  Ortega’s view of the nature of modern man and of his problems arose out of a time and place far removed from Newark, Detroit or  Chicago.  And yet, it may help us obtain some perspective of them.

            In Revolt of the Masses, Ortega’s diagnosis consisted essentially of a review of the ontological, existential qualities of modern man.  He began by making explicit our awareness that the world has during recent centuries become filled both quantitatively and qualitatively by ordinary human beings, whose multitudes are now highly participative in all aspects of human endeavor.  Whereas in certain prior historic periods the great bulk of humanity was not itself at the forefront of human thought and activity, in modern times virtually all of life has been taken over by the great run of ordinary men who previously stood in the background.  “The mass,” Ortega told us, “has decided to advance to the foreground of social life, to occupy the places, to use the instruments, and to enjoy the pleasures hitherto reserved to the few.”

             To Ortega, this involves a plenitude of human awareness and participation that offers an unprecedented potential to our age.  It places us on a higher plateau where there is an abundance of life and of possible creative energy unknown to prior times.  It offers the potential for a long-term escalation of civilization to a far higher level of attainment than we have previously known.  It is interesting, too, to note that Ortega ascribes this accession of the mass of humanity to social, intellectual and cultural predominance to two forces that we almost always consider to be positive: capitalism and technology.

            But while this is true, it is also true to Ortega that this omnipresence of the average man—a man to be seen everywhere, pressing himself matter-of-factly upon everything and in the process absorbing all around him into his own moral and intellectual tone—poses an inescapable threat to the very existence of civilized life.  Accordingly, “Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilizations.”

            While modern man knows full well how to use all of the implements of advanced civilization, and consequently retains all of the trappings of advanced culture, Ortega tells us that this man can only with the greatest difficulty retain any grasp of the incalculably subtle prerequisites of civilized order.  It is altogether too easy for him to accept and to take for granted the fruits of civilization while yet being profoundly ignorant of what is required to maintain it.  The consequence is intellectual chaos, the manifestations of which are readily apparent in so much of what we have come to consider as normal.

            It is important to understand the psychology of Ortega’s “mass man” which arises out of his existential nature.  Described by Ortega as essentially inert as a spiritual being, he demands nothing special of himself.  Such men are persons “for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; mere buoys that float on the waves.”  In an affluent age, such a man becomes possessed primarily of a “spoiled child” mentality and will desire, as will an over-indulged child, all the blessings of a highly developed social order while by his nature he is not ready to appreciate the round-about, orderly processes by which those fruits must be created if that social order is itself to be maintained.  “This leads us to note down in our psychological chart of the mass-man of today two fundamental traits: the free expansion of his vital desires, and therefore, of his personality; and his radical ingratitude towards all that has made possible the ease of his existence.”

            In becoming civilized, man has learned to make force the ultimate, not the first, resort.  “Civilization is nothing else than the attempt to reduce force to being the ultima ratio.  But the “mass man” reverses this, as a result of his inherent psychology, and can appreciate no other way than to make force the first resort, the prima ratio (or indeed the only resort). 

            It is not surprising, then, that such a man’s battle-cry is that of “direct action.”  It is a battle-cry derived directly from his existential nature.  But “direct action” is most readily effected by violence, and it is important to note explicitly that this violence has its final expression in statism.  This statism, of which we have seen a great deal in the twentieth century, is nothing more than an institutionalization of the psychological nature of the predominant type of man and of the means of human interaction that are natural to him.  Thus, it is justifiable to say that the world finds itself reverting backwards out of humane civilization and into a quasi-barbarism that threatens all human values.  And this nascent barbarism is to be found initially within the soul of every man who by incapacity or want of interest fails to lend himself to a satisfaction of the prerequisites of civilized life.

            With this as background, it is perhaps helpful to extend Ortega’s analysis in at least two directions: first, to see it in the context of an even broader historical or even anthropological perspective; second, to examine still other attributes of modern man that have been at work in creating the present crisis.

            Before engaging upon the first, it is worthwhile to bring into view the direct relationship between the philosophy of liberty and what must be the philosophy of any truly advanced civilization.  Libertarians or conservatives are concerned about the many elements that are necessary to a society based on individual liberty, which many of them would define as a society in which coercion is reduced, through the medium of the Rule of Law, as much as is realizable, given the inevitability of some residual coercion.  This is very much the same thing as to say that at the root of it they are concerned about man’s achievement of civilized order.  A free society is a sine qua non of advanced civilization, at least as they would define it, and advanced civilization is a virtual sine qua non of the free society.  The upshot is that the means to a free society cannot be narrowly programmatic; rather, any real contribution of any kind to the degree of man’s civilization is, by virtue thereof, also at least an indirect contribution to man’s capacity for a free society.  [Note in 2006: The last three sentences here invoke a need to concern ourselves with “advanced civilization” as a complement to individual liberty.  This considerably expands on the deductive “theory of liberty” that I explored in my first book, Emergent Man.  That theory considered primarily the formula stated in the second sentence of this paragraph.]

            But if we are to view history in perspective, we are instantly reminded by countless events that the whole assumption that mankind is “civilized” is, despite all that so many men have done to make us creatures of noble stature, basically a half-truth.  It is a conceit that even the briefest review of history cannot preserve.  At every stage in history the prerequisites of anything truly worthy of the name of “civilization” have only been fractionally met.  Needless to say, it would require a very real presumption to attempt an exhaustive catalogue of them, or even to pretend to an awareness of them all.  It is enough to say that it is evident since man’s written history began that some have been met and some have not.

            Were we to say that they have been fully met in the twentieth century, the ghosts of a hundred million human dead would murmur their voiceless protest and the living dead across the world who live in something considerably less than a state of liberty would demand to know how it is that we are so insulated from reality.

            And yet, can we say that all the prerequisites were fully met in the early nineteenth century as Napoleon marched through Europe?  Were they all intact in the sixteenth century during the Religious Wars?  Were they met in Rome when the Triumvirate defeated Brutus at Philippi?

            It is not to be taken so readily for granted then that civilization is the rule and that voids in the prerequisites of civilization are the exception.  Man’s written history dates back six to ten thousand years.  That is not a long time, considering the many hundreds of thousands of years he has been toiling along.  Were we to wait yet another five hundred thousand years and look back on it, it would assuredly seem that he has scarcely begun in these six thousand years his quest for civilized order.

            A large part of the underlying problem, therefore, appears in the fact that man is still only groping after the essentials for a decent basis for his life.  At no point has it been conclusively established that mankind is capable of creating and then sustaining a free, humane and truly stable social order.  This was the great hope of the “American experiment,” but many events of the past one hundred fifty years must be admitted to cast some real doubt about man’s ability to sustain the free society contemplated in early America.  In our second extension of Ortega’s analysis, we will necessarily become involved in some analysis of this instability.  This second extension must consist of an examination of certain specific factors that have been at work within our society.  It concerns the reaction of the intellectual to modern man and the constructiveness of his response.

            We must start by noting something often overlooked: the intellectuals of the modern world—the men of “tender conscience” and serious intellect, as they were defined by Emerson—have not at any time, despite the fervor with which they have so often embraced egalitarianism and dogmatic democracy, felt at home with the people when the people have been left to be themselves.  Let the average man be free to live as he pleases, and this “democrat” will soon tell you how disgusting it all is.

            Henry David Thoreau, living at Walden Pond, was not nearly so much incensed at the political or economic leadership of his time as with the people themselves.  He complained that if he read one of the English classics there was no one—positively no one—in nearby Concord who had read it and with whom he could converse about it.  Everyone was engaged in, as he called them, “superfluously coarse labors,” living a life of restless nervous energy seeking after things that a contemplative man could just as well do without.  He rebelled spiritually against the entire cultural milieu of the free society.  “I sometimes wonder that we can be so frivolous.”  Merely being free did not provide men, so far as Thoreau was concerned, with a satisfactory set of values.  What they were making of themselves was something distorted, petty and out of keeping with their best natures.

            Emerson felt the same way.  In his lecture on “The New England Reformers,” he reported that there was a very real struggle in early America between “spiritual methods” and “mechanical methods.”  In truth, he shared much of Ortega’s own reaction to modern man: “Men are become of no account.  Men in history, men in the world of today, are bugs, are spawn, and are called ‘the mass’ and ‘the herd.’  In a century, in a millennium, one or two men; that is to say, one or two approximations to the right state of every man.  All the rest… are content to be less….”

            The upshot was, as he said, that men of “tender conscience” gradually began, around 1820, to withdraw from the practical activities of life.  In 1844, he wrote: “There was in all the practical activities of New England for the last quarter of a century, a gradual withdrawal of tender consciences from the social organizations.”  This was due, he had told us in his essay “Man the Reformer,” to the fact that “it is when your facts and persons grow unreal and fantastic by too much falsehood, that the scholar flies for refuge to the world of ideas….”

            And what sort of response did sensitive men make to their essential alienation from the men around them?  They fled, and have been fleeing for over a century and a half, into “a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world!”  They diverted their alienated energies into such scattergun idealistic movements as “temperance and non-resistance societies, movements of abolitionists and of socialists, assemblies called Sabbath and Bible Conventions, all composed,” as Emerson told us, “of ultraists, of seekers, of all the soul of the soldiery of dissent.”

            The “alienation of the intellectual” is often remarked.  In fact, it is a predominant theme in our period.  But it is well for conservatives and libertarians to reflect more deeply than is ordinarily done on some of its justifications, components, and results.  First, as we have seen, it is an alienation not just from capitalism or commercialism, but from people themselves when they are left free to be themselves.  Not wishing to lose entirely his identification with the people around him, the sensitive man has often created a scapegoat for his alienation and has blamed a variety of  “evils,” often identified as capitalism, or commercialism, or even the “class struggle.”  These have had the enormous advantage of leaving “man” on his side, while making the problem one simply of revolutionizing the supposedly monstrous mechanism that is presumed to be distorting men.  And yet, it is difficult to read the writings of many intellectuals without being struck by a realization that there is a much deeper alienation against modern man himself. 

            How valid is this initial alienation?  If we are intelligently concerned about achieving and sustaining a free society, we must—in answer to this question—reverse our usual presumption and start precisely at the point the alienated intellectual has started: with a deeply felt appreciation for the spiritual inadequacy of man in a free society, at least under the circumstances in which we have seen modern man.   We are overlooking one of the main lessons if we are ourselves blind, because of our own preoccupations, to this very fact that sensitive men have long noticed: that there is a spiritual, existential defect in a free society if man’s freedom doesn’t mean more to him than merely an opportunity to become absorbed in triviality.  A philosophy of liberty without a religious impetus to give man’s life noble bearings is itself incomplete and has never struck the main body of intellectuals very well.

            From this starting point, our task is precisely to formulate the constructive response that has been missing for at least a century and a half.  For his part, the alienated intellectual has not himself made his alienation the seedbed for constructive responses.  Instead, he has cast about like a lost soul, grasping frantically at anything that has seemed idealistic—as Emerson said, “a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world,” including, but by no means exclusively encompassed within, temperance societies, non-resistance movements, abolition, socialism, “all the soul of the soldiery of dissent.”

             It would be impossible to understand the modern age without appreciating fully this inappropriateness of the response of the intellectual.  Alienated, he has nevertheless failed to grasp soundly any real conception of what it takes to make humane civilization thrive.  Hence, he has become in many ways the engine, despite his many capabilities and moral qualities, toward the reversion into barbarism.

            This inappropriateness stems in part from a psychological characteristic of this intellectual.  Throwing himself into idealistic movements to give himself a sense of meaning, he has tended greatly, as a consequence, to overvalue his chosen point of focus.  He has concurrently undervalued everything else, precisely because he is alienated from those other things.

            This was a primary fact about the abolitionist agitation prior to the Civil War.  Abolition was made the supreme value.  The preservation of the Union and of the institutions of a free society under our Constitution was considered to be of much less value.  This was recognized explicitly by Thoreau himself, who, in his “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” quite frankly told us:

            “Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all its faults, is very good; the law and the courts are very respectable; even this State and the American government are, in many respects, very admirable and rare things, to be thankful for, such as a great many have described them; but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking of at all?”

            It was fortunate for the reputation of such an intellectual that the Civil War was won by the North and that the Union, for better or for worse, was patched back up.  But an abolitionist, through his forty years of agitation, could not with assurance have predicted that outcome.  As the nation moved, largely under his impetus, closer and closer to separation and war, the alienated intellectual’s primary concern was not to preserve and extend the highest form of civilized order in America; one is tempted to save that it was not even to abolish slavery; rather, it was to find meaning for himself in a world that appeared far removed from anything really meaningful.  [Note in 2006: I am surprised how much the preceding discussion foretold the thesis of my article in the April 1991 issue of the Tamkang Journal of American Studies entitled “Modern Liberalism’s Devaluation of Mainstream Values: A Key Factor in Understanding American History, 1820-1991.”  The article is listed in these collected writings as Article 33 (A33).]

            It is not surprising that this analysis of the modern American intellectual must parallel in large part the analysis that may be made in an apparently unrelated context of the spiritual-intellectual ingredients of the Nazi phenomenon in Germany.  Upon reading Mein Kampf not long ago, I was struck by two principal characteristics of the man who wrote it: there is to be seen in it an energetic, driving, spiritual craving for activity and for a movement that would give meaning to men, in this instance to the German people; and it exhibits a narrowness of intellectual perspective that, despite Hitler’s personal intelligence, must characterize his philosophy as a manifestation of an intellectual vacuum.  And where such a vacuum can exist, we should not be amazed to find the winds of chaos rushing in.

            Ortega has himself told us that Hitler was not a monstrous exception for modern man, but rather in many ways a prototype.  In comparing him with our own intellectual, we must affirm the essential truth of this analysis.  When modern man combines a basic spiritual defect with a profound intellectual failure, only effects of tragicomic proportions can be expected to follow.

            We can see much the same phenomena in America today.  There is the same combination of the alienated intellectual and Ortega’s child-man marching toward goals that are so formulated as to seem to most men, even men who hold to a libertarian standard, to be morally impeccable—with the crucial exception that they are elevated above all other values, and are based on an inadequate understanding of the prerequisites of humane civilization. Instead of a balanced working out of existing problems through the processes of a free society and of a civilized order, the cry of “direct action” goes up from those who approach all difficulties and delays with the temper tantrum reaction of the spoiled child.  And the cry is smiled upon permissively, if indeed not greatly encouraged, by those who, already deeply alienated, are willing to flirt with the burning of cities as a consequence of their own idealistic search for meaning and because they see in it a handy device to attain long-sought and highly-valued programs.

            In noting these factors, it would not be correct to say by omission that there are not legitimate grievances by the minorities in America.  Libertarians and conservatives are, by the very nature of their sensibilities and philosophies, uniquely able to understand the true grounds for those grievances.  But the real issue we face is not to be found primarily in the grievances themselves, as important as they are.  It is to be found, rather, in the question: Why may not these matters, which unfortunately must require a long evolutionary cycle to alleviate and may even then never be fully resolved, be worked out within the civilized processes of a free and orderly society?  The issue is much more significant than the mere existence or non-existence of a few billion dollars worth of buildings in our cities.  If that were all there were to it, civilization could survive their destruction and go on.

            The real significance is to be seen, by analogy, in the writings of Tacitus, who told us that the primary reason the Republic succumbed to the Caesars was that the people became sick of disorder, and that when the choice became one of chaos on the one hand or statism on the other, the people chose the latter.  While no reasonable man would wish to overstress the apocalyptic nature of the crisis, the overriding issue that is joined pertains not just to a transient crisis of the moment, but to the health of the very fundamentals of our civilization.  It would be fatuous to offer easy solutions.  The very definition of the crisis precludes them.  To offer them would be to withdraw, as not truly relevant, all that has just been reviewed.  But it may clearly be said that the solution is not to be found in an intolerant condemnation of either modern man or the modern intellectual.  It may be found only in coming to know the nature of both, so that, having diagnosed the void, we may lend our energies to a reestablishment of the missing prerequisites.