By the mid-1970s, it appeared, the predominant usage of the terms ‘mass’ and ‘masses’ had shifted to largely quantitative meanings. Raymond Williams noted that whilst ‘in the right circles and in protected situations, the mob and idiot multitude tones’ could still be heard, usage had by and large moved away from ‘the older simplicities of contempt’ to the ‘sense of a very large number’.footnote1 Over a decade later, Andreas Huyssen argued that the era of a consciously high-cultural modernism defining itself against ‘mass culture’ was over, shifted into the past by a complex array of political and cultural practices, not the least of which was postmodernism’s appetite for the forms and genres of popular culture: ‘The uses high art makes of certain forms of mass culture . . . blur the boundaries between the two; where modernism’s great wall once kept the barbarians out and safeguarded the culture within, there is now only slippery ground which may prove fertile for some and treacherous for others.’footnote2

Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, it is possible to see a resurgence of the older, non-quantitative languages of anxiety about and scorn for ‘the masses’, a return to the tone and conceptual dichotomies, if not the vocabulary, marking out again the ‘mob and idiot multitude’ from the individuality they simultaneously lack and threaten. Such a resurgence should have its heaviest contemporary investment in the field of politics, in reactions to what is posited as the undoing of thought, of fact and reflection in the perceived populisms that succeeded the financial crisis of 2007–08.footnote3 Here I want to consider not a political manifestation of the return of ‘the masses’ but a sister ‘allegory of crowd control’, one in literature where the returning figure is that of a specifically modernist mass, Dave Eggers’s novel The Circle, from 2013.footnote4 It has none of the narrative energy and ironic joie de vivre of the memoir for which Eggers first became widely known, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). It uses a third-person narrator, deadpan, detailed, detached, to tell a story of the dismantling of privacy and consequently of individuality, autonomy and freedom, in a dystopia of the near future. The novel was immediately and widely received as a ‘Brave New World for our brave new world’, a warning as ‘important for us now as Nineteen Eighty-Four’ was then.footnote5 Margaret Atwood described the novel as a satire of ‘the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy’ in which a ‘brave new world of virtual sharing and caring breeds monsters’.footnote6

The ‘monsters’ of The Circle do not take the form of physical crowds or assembled masses. They are disaggregated, disembodied, spread globally and asynchronously through a homogeneous digital space of friendship, community, commerce and love. Such disaggregation has indeed been the default form of the masses for over a century, departed from only at moments of social crisis when the masses do take to the streets, or seem to threaten to. Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1895) was criticized by Gabriel Tarde, at the height of its sensational reception, precisely for confusing ‘the vast realm of opinion or “mental” forms of assembly with that much smaller and intermittent realm of “psychic connections” produced by physical contacts’.footnote7 For Tarde, the masses as a crowd were already the ‘social group of the past’. Public opinion, the specifically liberal ideological condition and consequence of the era of the popular press, creates a ‘dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental’, then emergent as ‘the social group of the future’.footnote8

This group became the dispersed beings of mass culture, socialized even as they were atomized, their signature and habitus the escalating ‘commodification and colonization of cultural space’ which also entailed the penetration of the masses in their new forms into the core spaces of liberalism, those of privacy. Modernism’s other was this form of the mass, that of mass culture with which it engaged in a ‘compulsive pas de deux’.footnote9 The first novel to emit a full-throated scream at these socialized, individualized yet massified wreckers of true sociality and true individuality was Brave New World. A comparison of Huxley’s 1932 novel with Eggers’s 2013 version should help us learn something about the continuities and ruptures shaping today’s new ‘masses’—and also something about the forces literature may be assembling to protect itself from their forms.

Both novels are built out of an anxiety—and a certain cynicism—about democracy. The conditions of the anxiety are presented without drama, presuming readers’ assent: science and technology, when coupled with the modern state and the stock nostrums of representative government—‘equality’, ‘progress’ and the rest—provide unprecedented ways of centralizing power, but these concentrations of power cannot (and need not) tolerate anything outside themselves. ‘Freedom’ and ‘individuality’ are necessarily sacrificed: in Brave New World to ‘Community, Identity, Stability’; in The Circle to ‘community’, ‘participation’, and ‘transparency’. This anxiety about democracy is not uncommon in dystopian fiction: it may be that the erasure of the political promise of freedom, of which democracy is one articulation, is a constitutive component of dystopia itself.footnote10 The cynicism is more dispersed in these novels, and is historically the most interesting aspect of both. For it is not generated by or invested in objective forces hostile to the project of democracy—political movements, for example, states or corporations. Rather it is occasioned by democracy’s potential beneficiaries and agents: people as a collective. It is not democracy per se that these texts are cynical about but the capacity of people to live up to its ideals. The freedom and individuality the novels mourn are precisely the qualities that ‘the people’ are unequal to.footnote11