Marx famously (infamously?) referred to the peasants of feudal societies as idiots and as like so many potatoes in a sack. In particular he was talking about the conditions (of production and relations) that prevented them from developing any sort of social collective consciousness as the basis for political awareness, organisation or mobilisation. This seems rather insulting and no doubt it was meant to be but, as Hobsbaum reminds us, we shouldn’t forget Marx’s classical education. The word ‘idiot’ as the Greeks used it describes some one who is only concerned with their private affairs and not with those of the wider community. Does not this sound like the condition of many in Western societies today? Gramsci, describing a proletariat devoid of political consciousness, says they would be like puppets on a string. Both Marx and Gramsci were considering the conditions within which a critical revolutionary shared consciousness would develop, through the dawning recognition of the conditions of their subordination and exploitation, and through being able to see the strings and who was pulling them. There is then the important further question of how this consciousness leads to revolutionary social change. Reform is not the issue for either Marx or Gramsci as that is fully in keeping with the reproductive dynamism of Capitalism anyway. Reform is business as usual by other means, reproducing the same forms of exploitation, political exclusion and inhumanity.
This account of idiocy and puppetry has resonances today with the hyperindividualism that many social theorists and commentators attest to. We are not short of sociological accounts of how individuals have become disembedded from social connections and support with the waning of community and, more recently, the welfare state. Thatcher’s claim that there are only individuals and families and the current emphasis on individual responsibility reinforce this impression, as does the ideological reliance on economically rational individuals operating in free markets to cure all our social ills. Beck’s theory of ‘individuation’ seems to agree with this as well although there is a hint of radical possibilities in his account.
What are the conditions of existence today that shove their way under the noses and into the faces of individuals who want nothing more than to focus on their own affairs, seek their own advantage and tend to their own security. These people do exist, and in large numbers. Many times have I heard strategies being outlined to shore up established positions and advantages – an adaptation, an accommodation to the social and political environment rather than a challenge to it. Gramsci says only the pursuit of a higher goal can break and destroy this reformist tendency to adaptation. This is why development of political awareness is a collective process that takes in a much wider context than that of the individual. This is why it requires political action.