Idiots or puppets?

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.

Rereading texts 30 years later

I went to university to study sociology at the age of 32 after having a fairly chequered career up until then in the world of work including, amongst others, periods in electronics (selling photo-electronic control systems), an order picker in a warehouse (groceries), financial services (selling life assurance and unit trust investments), laying concrete bases for a construction firm (North Sea Gas), publishing (selling Caxton encyclopedias) and running a couple of my own businesses (fencing and importing racing tyres for bicycles). My introduction to social thought and sociology came between 1976 and 1978 when I was driving a bus for the West Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive in Leeds and listening on most days to my conductor (the buses were front loaders and before one man operated buses became the norm) talking about Marxism, class warfare, the coming revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat. He happened to be the garage shop steward for the TGWU. I went to Leeds University to study sociology under Zygmunt Bauman in 1978 after wandering around in the labour market for 16 years fairly aimlessly (although, as it turned out, learning quite a lot).

Several things struck me when I started my sociological studies – how hard it was to understand anything I was told or read, how narrow and inexperienced where most of (but not all) my lecturers and fellow students however clever and erudite in other respects, and how it seemed de rigueur to have a specified guru (Althusser, Marx, Elias, Weber, Habermas, Marcuse,  Luhmann, etc. ) and rely mainly on a fairly restricted range of canonical texts.

Now, 33 years later and after continuous habitation in the world of higher education and professional sociology, I am turning (for fun!) back to some of the texts I read in the early days with so much difficulty and feelings of inferiority. Many I have not looked at again since those days. However, rereading some of them has been a revelation. I now think H Stuart Hughes’ Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Social Thought (1958) is magisterial. He was one of the very first in the English speaking world to recognise and comment upon the importance of Gramsci. When I first read it I found it almost impenetrable.

Speaking of Gramsci, another book I am reading that I haven’t looked at since the late 1980s and really struggled with is A Gramsci Reader (2008) edited by David Forgacs. Now I am finding it written clearly and succinctly and of enormous relevance to today’s political changes and unrest. Quite a few forthcoming notes and quotes in this blog will be from this book.

I am not, however, looking for the holy text or texts that will answer all my questions and tell me what to think and do. I have had a couple of dispiriting exchanges recently where individuals who I otherwise respect have said when, for instance, I have expressed an interest in Bauman’s ideas on the changing role of public intellectuals from legislators to interpreters and what this means for their relation to civil society and politics, that he is mistaken and his work so flawed it is not worth spending time on. This usually comes with a recommendation to read some other thinker who has got it right. I have had similar reactions, from different individuals, when I say I am rereading Capital, or Elias, or Foucault. I really don’t know what their problem is, unless a fear of the messy and uncertain real world. Social, political, economic and cultural processes are unimaginably complex. I will read and take from anyone who has made a principled attempt to understand society and social change. For instance, Alhusser was on dodgy ground when he characterised individual actors as mere ‘bearers of structure’ but his views on identity formation and ‘interpelation’ are useful and are saying something important, as is Foucault when he talks of ‘regimes of truth’ and Elias when he elaborates his ideas on sociogenesis, or Marx on surplus value. At the end of the day these are all resources to think with and about in discussion with others to make sense of the world we live in and to work out what we believe and how we should act,  how we should live, what sort of world we want to live in and how we might achieve it. Pre-eminantly, how do we want to relate to and live with others with respect, in common humanity in harmony with ourselves and the environment.  None of the putative gurus can answer this for us. This is a job we must do for ourselves by means of a bit of intelligent collegiate ‘winging it’.

Intellect and intelligence

Gramsci makes a distinction between intellect and intelligence. Intelligence is what has been operating throughout human evolution and the development of culture broadly understood. Intellect is referred to as an ‘arid and pedantic intellectualism’ contrasted with the engaged vitality and products of intelligence. He also equates intellect with a certain misunderstanding and distortion of knowledge. Gramsic is concerned with how the masses can become intellectually autonomous and not dependent on what he calls ‘career intellectuals’. His starting point is that everyone is already an intellectual.

How does this fit in with a critique of knowledge? It seems to imply the distinction between wisdom (applied and developed intelligence) and knowledge (fragmented codified facts and models) that is often made from other perspectives, i.e. Buddhism. It also fits in with  ideas on mass intellectuality and social knowledge. However, the implication is that mass intellectuality is mired in its colonisation by elements of career intellectuality and also by its pragmatic development in localised day to day living and survival. It needs to become more autonomous with respect to both of these limitations – building on the authentic experience of life but developed in the context of a broadening awareness of the conditions of life and connections with others (loosely the conditions and relations of the production of surplus value).  Gramci’s writings on education might usefully be explored on these points.

After thought: Margaret Archer (a critical realist) claims everyone is inherently reflexive and is capable of distancing themselves to some degree from their circumstances and exercising their intelligence. In practice this may be limited to dealing with immediate living and problems but the most routine tasks and the most unthinking automatic behaviour is routinely confronted with instances of ‘having to make sense’ and acting to some degree autonomously.