Another feature of modern society is the emergence of the mass phenomenon, which tends to merge rather than distinguish classes, and counter-balance the rise of modern individualism with the decline of local communities and the acceleration of political centralization.
Political and cultural centralization and uniformity have been interpreted as pointers to the creation of a ‘mass society’.
Tocqueville a 19th C. French scholar had warned that individuals lacking identification with strong intermediate institutions would become atomized (‘alienated’, in Marx’s language), and seek the protection of authoritarian governments.
The rise of totalitarian movements in the 20th century showed that these tendencies were real and present in all modern societies. These tendencies signified a new stratification of elite and mass, and theories appropriate to that. Even a class party like Lenin’s incorporated a belief in this stratification with its concept of ‘vanguard’ and ‘rank and file’.
Fascist sociology recognized only the division between leader and mass, Stalinist sociology that between Party and People, with the latter consisting of the three ‘classes’ of intelligentsia, peasant, and worker in non- antagonistic relationship, as a single mass.
Mass society has brought new problems, matching social progress with social pathology. Urbanization has meant crowding, pollution, and environmental destruction.
The decline of religion and community has removed restraints on appetite, while competitive capitalism that stimulates expectations cannot provide everyone with the means for their realization. Modern life has seen an increase in suicide, crime and mental disorder.
As mass political parties have come to monopolize civic life, individual citizens have retreated into daily life. These phenomena have put a strain on civic loyalties and the willingness of people to participate in political life. Political apathy and low turnouts at elections have called into question the democratic claims of modern liberal societies.
A similar concern has been raised with regard to the spread of mass communications in the 20th century. The uniformity and conformity bred by the press, radio and television have been seen to threaten the pluralism and diversity of modern liberal politics, and a reminder of the totalitarian tendencies that lie beneath the surface of modernity.
Industrialism was found to have created new pockets of poverty despite steady economic growth, between 15 and 20 % of the population remained permanently below (officially defined) poverty levels throughout the industrial world.
Did industrialism by its very mechanism of growth create a new category of poor who could not compete according to the ‘rationality’ of the new order? The communal and kinship supports of the past having withered away, there appears to have been no alternative for the failed and the rejected but to become claimants and pensioners of the state.
Some might see this as signs that modernity is fractured, that human-kind will need ultimately to re-think the utility of modernization and industrialism. Karl Marx offered the most systematic analysis of this ‘alienation’.
The industrial worker is estranged from his laboring activity because of the compulsions of class: he has no control over the terms and conditions of the disposal of his product.
Unlike traditional artisanship, modern labour processes do not require his constructive and creative faculties. The industrial system of production is phenomenally powerful; but this power is achieved at the cost of reducing workers, to mere labour-power, semblances of humanity.
Marx believed that the high productivity of human labour in modern industrial systems could free human beings from a greater part of the burden of work; but not until modernity severed its links with capitalism.