Friday, November 24, 2017

Revisiting an old discussion on Gramscian intellectuals

Since it came up with a student, I've tracked down an older piece of writing in which I try to define the oft-cited (and oft-misunderstood) notion of 'the Gramscian intellectual'. Here goes (with one or two minor edits):

Artists are Gramscian intellectuals too... I think.
As an undergraduate student I felt a sense of empowerment when I first understood what I believe is one of Gramsci’s most important ideas about subjectivity. This lesson came indirectly as I contemplated a well-known passage in Robert W. Cox’s influential 1981 essay, “Social Forces, States, and World Orders”, in which Cox claims that “theory is always for someone and for some purpose” (128) – a sentiment I later discovered was borrowed from Gramsci’s own wording: “Anybody who makes a prediction has in fact a ‘programme’ for whose victory he is working” (1971, 171).

But this isn’t just a complicated way of saying everyone has implicit biases. Nor is it, as John Krinsky explains (2009), an assertion about “cheerleading” for causes to which one is sympathetic. Rather, it is an affirmation that the work of social theorists has real social and political implications and that research could (read should) work towards historicizing the structures of domination and inequality, and advocate pathways to social justice and emancipation.

But merely making a ‘prediction’ or researching and writing about social justice doesn’t make one a Gramscian ‘intellectual’. Rather, Gramsci saw intellectuals as individual people who had the ability and social function of ‘organizing’ or ‘mobilizing’ others, as noted in the following (notably gendered) characterizations of intellectuals:

  • “He must be an organizer of masses of men; he must be an organizer of the ‘confidence’ of investors in his business, of the customers for his product, etc.”;
  • “[Intellectuals] must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favourable to the expansion of their own class” (in Hoare and Smith, 1971: 5-6).   

The key word that should jump out is ‘organizer’. Intellectuals are thus people who mobilize masses; they are the type of people who inspire action; they are the ones who can stand up in front of a crowd and influence listeners to take up their cause. Barry Burke’s essay does a great job of explaining this concept, and thus it is worth quoting at length here:
Gramsci’s notebooks are quite clear on the matter. He writes that "all men [sic] are intellectuals... but not all men [sic] have in society the function of intellectuals". What he meant by that was that everyone has an intellect and uses it but not all are intellectuals by social function. He explains this by stating that "everyone at some time fries a couple of eggs or sews up a tear in a jacket, we do not necessarily say that everyone is a cook or a tailor". Each social group that comes into existence creates within itself one or more strata of intellectuals that gives it meaning, that helps to bind it together and helps it function. They can take the form of managers, civil servants, the clergy, professors and teachers, technicians and scientists, lawyers, doctors etc. Essentially, they have developed organically alongside the ruling class and function for the benefit of the ruling class. Gramsci maintained that the notion of intellectuals as being a distinct social category independent of class was a myth (Burke, 2005).
These ‘organizers’ of masses were further divided by Gramsci into two categories. He wrote that there were “organic” intellectuals, and “traditional” intellectuals. Again with Burke’s explanation:
He identified two types of intellectuals - traditional and organic. Traditional intellectuals are those who do regard themselves as autonomous and independent of the dominant social group and are regarded as such by the population at large. They seem autonomous and independent. They give themselves an aura of historical continuity despite all the social upheavals that they might go through. The clergy are an example of that as are the men of letters, the philosophers and professors. These are what we tend to think of when we think of intellectuals. Although they like to think of themselves as independent of ruling groups, this is usually a myth and an illusion. They are essentially conservative allied to and assisting the ruling group in society. The second type is the organic intellectual. This is the group mentioned earlier that grows organically with[in] the dominant social group, the ruling class, and is their thinking and organising element. For Gramsci it was important to see them for what they were. They were produced by the educational system to perform a function for the dominant social group in society. It is through this group that the ruling class maintains its hegemony over the rest of society (Burke 2005).
In order to counter the hegemonic structures of society, Gramsci foresaw a movement of the masses, but the movement would require its own organizers, working with the purposes of social justice and emancipation in mind. It is often this latter type of movement leader, an intellectual organic to the working class, that is commonly presumed when people today use the term “organic intellectual”.

Yet it is worth noting the potential area of confusion. Note, for example, how Stuart Hall, one of the most influential Gramscian theorists, skips straight to this latter definition of organic intellectuals: As Hall has explained, the “the principal agents” of the dissemination of cultural thought in a society “are intellectuals who have a specialized responsibility for the circulation and development of culture and ideology and who either align themselves with the existing dispositions of social and intellectual forces (‘traditional’ intellectuals) or align themselves with the emerging popular forces and seek to elaborate new currents of ideas (‘organic’ intellectuals)” (Hall 1986, 21-22). In other words, Hall (and many other neo-Gramscians) have distinguished between “organic” and “traditional” intellectuals based on their political alignment.

In my interpretation, Gramsci appears to have used the term “organic” to mean something akin to “nascent to” (similar to that found in Burke’s definition). Other interpretations of Gramsci note that the terms merely reflect the class into which the intellectual was originally born. This presents a problem though. For example, what type of intellectual is she who has origins in the bourgeoisie, but who later sympathizes and comes to organize those in the working class (say, Bernie Sanders, for example?).

The concept of the “intellectual”, I argue, needs to be placed within the context of Gramsci’s life in early 20th Century Italy. He lived in a highly classed society, and political movements were far more intellectually aligned with class interests.  Moreover, in his close reading of Marxist political economy, Gramsci interpreted two overarching classes in society – workers (those who must sell their labour power for subsistence) and capital (those who owned the means of production). Thus, intellectuals, whether traditional or organic, worked in the interests of a particular class (whether or not they were aware of this).

As a result, some may argue that we can't take Gramsci’s mode of analysis and apply it to a contemporary society with a different class context than early 20th Century Italy, especially given the strange disparate political and ideological allegiances found across all classes today. Further, in our present day and age, it is arguable that the organizing and directing function of intellectuals within society is fulfilled by a diverse group of actors that goes beyond individuals, and includes government agencies, public relations and advertising firms, multinational corporations, global organizations, local think tanks, media networks, political parties, etc (think Breitbart News, for instance, and the role that organization played in mobilizing the political movement behind Trump).

In any case, this does not mean the terms aren’t helpful. Even if we may agree that the context is changed, the original kernel of the idea of the organic intellectual is one we should hold on to. Today we can see intellectuals playing a key role in both consolidating and countering hegemonic thought (think of the underlying structures that are subconsciously propagated by intellectuals working in the interests of the ruling class). Think of people who help to propagate dominant ways of thinking in our society, like news editors, authors and artists, or TV personalities, union leaders, and prominent environmentalists, etc... These people play the role of the "intellectual" in society (in Gramscian terms) just as much as professors and other 'thought leaders'. Today, in my view, the question of whether they are ‘organic’ or ‘traditional’ is less important than their purpose, or their political project, or the type of society they are advocating.

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