Workers and intellectuals

Author: joe

Monday, 13 December, 2010 - 23:57

While thinking about Gramsci last week, I was reminded of his emphasis on the solidarity of intellectuals with workers. Who are these intellectuals he talks about? He distinguishes between two different kinds: the "traditional" and the "organic". The former, traditional, intellectuals emerge, seemingly legitimately, from the pre-existing structures of society, and thus appear to have relative autonomy, and somehow represent independence from political interference or interest: clericy, academics, philosophers, theorists - he calls them a "stratum of administrators". The latter, organic, intellectuals are those who are created as part of the emergence of social classes and structures. Gramsci offers the example of capitalist entrepreneurs who, as part of their endeavour, produce a host of technical advisors, organisers, managers and specialists who aid, lubricate and support their entrepreneurial adventures.

As I've said, I read Gramsci as a teacher who is wiser than me, so when troubled by something he suggests, I am forced to grapple with it seriously, rather than gloss over it. Gramsci is famous for his assertion that "all men are philosophers", but this simply entails the further question - what is the function of the intellectual dimension of each person, in the struggle for emancipation and enfranchisement?

The answer may seem to lie in the "traditional" intelligentsia, who have retained their autonomy from the dominant political class, rather than the "organic " intellectuals whose knowledge is infected by coercion into the dominant mode of production. What would be necessary, were this true, would be for the "traditional" intellectuals, the academics and scholars, scientists and theorists, to teach the lowly, "organic" intellectuals. Indeed much contemporary discourse on the threat to the university implies this analysis: rising tuition fees and withdrawal of funding from arts and humanities means that the university system is in danger of being co-opted into subservience to the dominant mode of neoliberal production, being stripped of its historical intellectual autonomy, and directed at instrumental, commercial subjects which will drive capital growth in the economy, because under the new arrangements it will be limited to the richest in society and through privatisation, arcane or unprofitable subjects will go to the wall in favour of crowd-pleasing employment-guaranteeing degrees.

But here's what Gramsci says:

The problem of creating a new stratum of intellectuals consists therefore in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium, and ensuring that the muscular-nervous effort itself, in so far as it is an element of a general practical activity, which is perpetually innovating the physical and social world, becomes the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world. The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labour even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual.
The Formation of the Intellectuals by Antonio Gramsci

Technical education, not education which aims at the production of the man of letters, must inform the new, necessary stratum of intellectuals - and this emphasis inverts the obvious answer outlined above. Far from valuing the autonomy of a layer of intellectuals detached from the dominant mode of production, Gramsci seems to critique intellectual activity that is not engaged with 'muscular-nervous' (i.e. practical) effort. Instead of lumping the "organic" intellectuals in with the dominant classes their efforts serve, he argues that it is this body of intellectuals that need to be fostered - and at that, through development of their practical, instrumental abilities, rather than their elevation into lofty academic "eloquence":

The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator (but superior at the same time to the abstract mathematical spirit); from technique-as-work one proceeds to technique-as-science and to the humanistic conception of history, without which one remains "specialised" and does not become "directive" (specialised and political).

Or, you might say, all talk, no action. What is it in this critique of the "eloquence" of the traditional intellectual that is not enough? Isn't it the very separation of the academy from the consciousness of the worker that renders it extraneous? If that were all, then it might be enough simply to educate the worker into the concerns of the academy. But that would simply be an attempt to assimilate and thereby eradicate the very consciousness of the worker, in the mold of Matthew Arnold's vision of a universal education system that taught all children ancient Greek so that they could avoid being too anarchic. Actually Gramsci seems to be arguing that progress towards a new emancipatory hegemony requires a class of intellectuals that is not separate from the workers, but embedded in it and thus with its hands on the machines, engaged in the reproduction of the organs of society.

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer "ideologically" the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.

The dominant class wishes to colonise and normalise both classes of intellectuals. The problem for the university is that it imagines itself to be separate from the bourgeoisie, but in solidarity with the worker. In fact the reverse is all too true. The university should be invaded by the masses, not because the academy can transform them into lofty thinkers, but so that the workers can put knowledge to their own ends. Resistance must be on those terms, not the protectionism that characterises much of the current defence of the HE sector. As Armin Medosch wrote a couple of days ago,

"[the university system] reproduces internally the class structure of society, where the show is run by non-teaching managers, while a few celebrity professors benefit and the majority are just intellectual wage workers adjusting to different levels of exploitation and alienation. If the students really care for education as a public good they would be well advised not only to defend the status quo but raise maximalist demands, and simultaneously, as already happens in the many occupations and self-teaching experiments, to seek to re-invent university from below, redefine what counts as knowledge and science, and to experiment with new learning and teaching techniques and devices which are more egalitarian and less tainted by the fetishisation of knowledge in the class structure of 'cognitive' informational capitalism."

The university is already private, rich-favoured, neoliberal. The fight should be to seize the opportunity to reform it in the image of the worker, rather than the rich.

Categories: Antonio Gramsci, intellectuals, university, solidarity, worker, hegemony, emancipation,
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