Reviewed by Mauro Di Lullo
Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, written after he was arrested and jailed by the Fascist Regime in November 1926, contains a discussion of class, subalternity, and the role of intellectuals, that provide an innovative understanding of these terms, and their functions in creating inequality and hegemony. Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives, through its analysis of class, subalternity and intellectuals, extensively engages with the Prison Notebooks, offering new ways to describe the different practices that structural inequality can assume through race, gender, sexual orientation and religion in our globalised-capitalist society.
At the beginning of the book, the author introduces the Prison Notebooks, and gives us a very clear explanation of Gramsci’s notion of class, subalternity, intellectuals, and common sense. These are put in relation to the work of different thinkers, such as Marx, Croce, Gentile, Bourdieu, Arendt, Spivak, and Said. However, inexplicably, Gramsci’s influence on Pier Paolo Pasolini is barely mentioned in the whole book. In case studies of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements, the author discusses the complex relationships between the experience of hegemony and inequality, as well as the creation of bourgeois narratives, through her discussion on what founds common sense. The conclusion explains Gramsci’s relevance in a time where inequality and hegemony appear persistent elements of any political narrative. Yet, the book would have benefitted from greater clarification of its own critical voice, linking Gramsci’s biography with his innovative ideas on intellectuals, class, inequality and hegemony. Readers who are less familiar with his work, might need greater clarification of the relevance of historical and political events of the early twentieth century on Gramsci’s thought.
The book is divided into two Parts, which are, again, split into seven chapters and a conclusion. The first part is entitled Subalternity, Intellectuals and Common Sense. As the book reminds us at the beginning of Chapter 1, it is mainly concerned with narratives of inequality. The first chapter introduces and develops the concept of subalternity that Gramsci discusses in the Prison Notebooks. How can subalterns understand and articulate their own state of subalternity? This is the question that Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives, attempts to answer. The first chapter also explains the substantial differences existing between Gramsci and Spivak on the notion of subalternity. Gramsci’s original conception of subalternity is related to his aim of social and political transformation, and consists of subordination in all its manifestations, including internalized subordination. As Gramsci affirms, if we want to go beyond the general and narrow level of analysis of subordination, we need to undertake an empirical and historical-political analysis of time and place, in order to better understand and explain what subalternity represents.
Chapter 2 concerns intellectuals, and their function in bourgeois society. The chapter mainly focuses on the processes through which knowledge is finally produced, reproduced, and transmitted to subalterns. As the chapter reminds us, these hegemonic processes must be discussed and explained in relation to Gramsci’s notion of intellectuals and their role in creating and reinforcing inequality. The intellectual’s understanding of the world is always restricted in fundamental traditions, redesigned by the beliefs and attitudes of the world in which the intellectuals are living and working. Intellectuals, according to Gramsci, are always intimately related to power structures. They are a specific political product of their own time and history.
On this point, the chapter gives us a precise explanation of the central Gramscian distinction between organic and traditional intellectuals. Traditional intellectuals are those that are educated in the philosophical and political elaboration of ideas, and that are formed as intellectuals inside the existing academic infrastructures (i.e. Universities), and through its bourgeois knowledge creating narratives. Organic intellectuals, on the other hand, should not be discussed as a uniform kind of intellectual. They are, as the book reminds us, critically important in the creation of a new class. ‘’Organic intellectuals are necessary if the incoherent experience of a social group or class is to be transformed into a coherent narrative…’’(31). It is the emerging class, as the chapter on Adam Smith shows, that creates intellectuals in order to reinforce its hegemony on the subalterns. In this sense, organic intellectuals become necessary if the chaotic life-experience of subalterns can be transformed in a set of acceptable narratives for the dominant class. The chapter further expands its engagement with the Gramscian’s notion of organic intellectuals, analysing their role in the shaping of what Gramsci describes as a “historical bloc”. What is this bloc? Why is this concept so important in creating inequality? Gramsci explains the historical bloc, and its role in reinforcing inequality and hegemony, through his discussion of structure and superstructure. It is with the enforced cohesion between the intellectuals’ understanding of the world and the feeling of the subalterns that inequality and hegemony can prevail and create a social force.
Yet, how can we discuss and explain the feeling of the subalterns? It is Chapter 3, in its engagement with the concept of common sense that addresses this question. The chapter begins by clarifying the difference existing between the Italian word senso commune, and the English translation of common sense. As the author reminds us, there is an important difference between the two words that should be kept in mind in all English works on Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. For Gramsci, there is no unitary meaning in common sense; the term is highly contradictory and extremely fragmentary, yet, Gramsci’s discussion of it is not exclusively negative, and in the “’chaotic common sense”’ he also recognizes what is described as buon senso (good sense). What is the buon senso? It can be described as a call for subalterns to realise that blind emotion or passion are not significant in any attempt of political and social transformation. Buon Senso (good sense) is also discussed in chapter 7 of the book on the Global Occupy movement.
There is an inner political value in Gramsci’s notion of common sense, and the book explains this value by quoting Gramsci on how to study and learn in prison. In this extensive quote, Gramsci explains that even through reading ‘trashy books’, a prisoner can learn about inequality and subalternity. There are multiple voices that are speaking through common sense; we do not need to respect or adore these voices, but we need to discover and actively engage with the good sense present in this common sense. We need to exploit this good sense in order to achieve social and political transformation.
The subsequent chapter discusses what the subalterns know through common sense. This is another chapter that attempts to understand how subalterns can have knowledge. The chapter begins by, firstly, considering the relation existing between language and subalternity. How was Gramsci’s Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century? The country was extremely poor and underdeveloped, and only a small minority of people (20%) could speak the Italian language. The majority of other Italians were speaking local dialects. Gramsci appears to be certain about the importance of using proper Italian; it is through standard language that speakers can access to an intellectual and political understanding of the world. It is through standard language that there could be social and political transformation. Yet, as the chapter clarifies, Gramsci’s attitude to dialects reflects his attitude to common sense; there is in both terms an element with the radical power to challenge hegemony in its narratives. There are also interesting sections of this chapter that explain Gramsci’s attitude to folklore, operatic works and popular novels.
The chapter ends with an important question; if subalterns may speak, how can this process unfold in different historical and political contexts? The second part of the book answers this question through its discussion of Adam Smith as an organic intellectual, and through two critical case studies, namely the Tea Party and the Global Occupy movements. As Chapter 5 reminds us, any emerging class ‘creates together with itself’ its own organic intellectuals (81). In his work, Adam Smith gives the emerging bourgeois class a precise moral imperative, namely to remove any aspect of feudal restrictions to commerce and bringing about a future of complete wealth. This is a chapter where readers fully understand the importance of organic intellectuals in reinforcing cultural and political hegemony upon the ruled. Chapter 6 and 7 of the work move from the eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century, and discuss the Tea Party and Global Occupy movements. Common sense is the dominant element in both movements and, as Chapter 6 discusses, the Tea Party movement systematically exploits the idea of common sense as peacefully grounded in traditional capitalist values. The chapter explains the origins of this right-wing movement and its wide influence in reinforcing hegemony and inequality through the USA. Chapter 7 discusses the Global Occupy movement. As the chapter reminds us, behind the Global Occupy movement, there was also an element of good sense to be used in any drive of social and political transformation. Yet, as the chapter concludes, if the Global Occupy movement did not threaten capitalism in its structure, it certainly helped the subalterns to rethink of capitalism. It was a step in creating what Gramsci describes as the war of position. It was a significant step in the ‘cultural battle to transform the popular “mentality”’ (183).
The Conclusion shows the continuous relevance of Gramsci’s conception of class, subalternity and common sense for scholars and activists trying to create a communist alternative to our capitalist society.
6 January 2017