Gramsci, common sense and the Norwegian right

Like Antonio Gramsci found himself confined to Mussolini’s dungeons, having to jot down short lines of thought in small notebooks, I at times find myself confined to the kitchen table, by a laptop, forced by an uncontrollable impulse to comment on something I have seen or read, to write a few short lines about some subject.

I recently started reading Monthly Review Press’ edition of Antonio A. Santucci’s Antonio Gramsci. One of the best known concepts Gramsci developed is the concept of “common sense”. Gramsci describes common sense as:

common sense identifies exact, simple, and practi­cal causes through a set of judgments, and it does not allow itself to be drawn into metaphysical, pseudo-profound, pseudo-scientific, etc., quibbles and absurdities” (Q, p. 1334) (quoted in Santucci p 139).

This is a description which I find quite precise to this date. The focus on exact and simple causalities makes it difficult to introduce more complex ideas (or ideas that seem more complex) when you have political opponents that counter your ideas with more simple concepts.

Obviously, Gramsci is right when he quotes Ferdinand Lassalles “to tell the truth is revolutionary”. And in a wider context one could quote Stanislav Andreski:

So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a accumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.

The truth – science – can thus undermine current outdated political-economic structures. “Common sense” is on the other hand a product of these, and can rarely undermine them directly. (To be clear: Andreski was not talking about Gramscis “common sense” in this quote, but rather pseudoscience.)

Among scientific peers there exists a system to try to eliminate personal or structural biases that is continuously improving (scientific method), however this has limited effect when your public is not your scientific peers. Which they are not in a political debate, and not in a public debate on science.

“Common sense” today (and perhaps at most times), is the opposite of science, as it will always tend to “lag behind”. Most people do not read meta-studies or broad systematic reviews in peer-review journals when they construct their worldview. They rather construct it via a process of “anecdotal accumulation”. Every small bit of information is combined in an unsystematic manner, filtered through existing prejudice and a number of other psychological quirks we humans have, giving a worldview that might well be functional (we’re still here), but not a match for scientific rigor when it comes to getting to the truth (assuming we’re talking about questions where such a thing exists).

Thus science, when trying to become “common sense”, will be filtered through mass media and other channels who generally oversimplify and interpret based on previous information. E.g. almost 100 years after the theory of relativity few people have any grasp of it.

As a physicist, I could thus make a comparison between Newtonian physics and “common sense”. It may often be correct. It is simple, easy to understand, and mechanistic. When the subject matter develops, however, and you expand the borders of the frame within which you work and study, Newtonian physics no longer works. If you however try to explain some of the more counter-intuitive aspects of general relativity or quantum physics to a lay person, the risk is quite large that they will not believe you. The ideas of e.g. simple causality or linear time form a backbone in the worldview of most people, and thus within physics represent a parallell to (or an example of) what Gramsci describes as “common sense”.

The development of knowledge within the social sciences has not been as straight-forward, and answers are by nature not as definite. The results thereof, combined with the success of the natural sciences, are probably a reason why the more mechanistic way of thinking from classical mechanics has a high standing within large parts of the population. If you can point to a “natural” and mechanistic explanation to a social phenomenon, it will cling better in the ears of many people. It is in Gramscis terms “common sense” in today’s environment.

A good example of this can be found in a Norwegian TV-show a few years back, hosted by comedian Harald Eia – “Hjernevask” (Brainwash”), in which Norwegian social scientists were interviewed, edited into a parody of themselves and then contrasted with apparently more sensible Anglo-American scientists, usually with a more “genetic” and less “cultural” perspective. The immense power of Darwin’s theory of evolution has led to many an oversimplification, and some sad departures into social Darwinism. Still today they exist as an undercurrent on the ultra-liberalist right, where large social differences are justified by some people (and families) simply being genetically “better” than others. Discussions around IQ levels between e.g. Africans, Europeans and Asians also show us that classic genetic racism is still alive.

All though quite a bit of “evolutionary psychology” still today has little scientific backing other than “observing a piece of i.e. gender difference in modern society” and “constructing a plausible stone-age scenario to explain it”, it fits well with the mechanistic image of reality that constitutes the current “common sense” hegemony.

In many ways public debate on these issues has not come very far since the seventies, all though evolutionary science has made considerable progress. In this debate, it can thus be relevant to share a few quotes from Stephen Jay Gould (Biological Potentiality vs. Biological Determinism From: Ever Since Darwin, W.W. Norton, 1977), in which he criticizes the social Darwinist O.E. Wilsons work:

It is, primarily, an extended speculation on the existence of genes for specific and variable traits in human behavior – including spite, aggression, xenophobia, conformity, homosexuality, and the characteristic behavioral differences between men and women in Western society.

If genetic determinism is true, we will learn to live with it as well. But I reiterate my statement that no evidence exists to support it, that the crude versions of past centuries have been conclusively disproved, and that its continued popularity is a function of social prejudice among those who benefit most from the status quo.

Our biological nature does not stand in the way of social reform. We are, as Simone de Beauvoir said, “l’être don’t l’être est de n’être pas” – the being whose essence lies in having no essence.

It seems the political right in many areas has a world view that fits well with a simplified and mechanistic approach. We can see this in talk of discipline in school and of being “tough on crime”. Such a simple construct of human nature is of course very wrong, as science shows us, but for the political thinkers who brought us homo oeconomicus, such an error is only a natural extension of previous errors on thought.

This mechanistic view of humans can be found in many a socio-political model. New public management with its economistically driven system of financially rewarding “production” of different indicators, had little scientific basis, but is predominant nonetheless. In fact, science tells us that when financial reward becomes the motivator, the quality of work decreases (see Dan Pink, Drive). But in todays society, this probably seems contradictory to common sense.

In modern Norway the old mythical-religious hegemonic worldview has lost, and given room to one that respects and fears science – particularly natural science – but at the same time knows very little about it, and thus lags behind current knowledge about 100 years.

There therefore seems to be a view that social engineering can be conducted in the same way as engineering (which is viewed along the lines of classical mechanics), and using the same methods: Measuring simple indicators, and allocating resources to amplify simple reward-driven behavioristic traits in humans and by extension, organizations. Massive testing of e.g. pupils and schools does however not make either better, and is not the best way of getting knowledge about how to achieve this either. On the other hand, these test-regimes bind up a lot of time and resources that gives teachers and pupils less time to teach and study. Still these “common sense” (still in the Gramscian sense) solutions, trump scientifically based ones.

As Karl Marx wrote in his preface to the French edition of Capital:

There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.

I fear the same applies in the communication of science to people at large. For a new hegemony to arise, based on current science (which, actually fits better with the worldview of the left, both on the areas mentioned above, and notably on fields like climate change and the devastating effects of social inequality), a continuous and arduous struggle of communication must be fought. Perhaps when it has been won, however, science will have progressed even further.

 

This post was originally published at http://venstresida.net/?q=node/3573

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