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Antonio Gramsci and the relevance of the organic intellectual today

This article discusses Antonio Gramsci's concept of the organic intellectual. Its continued relevance in understanding the role of workers in shaping their conditions of labour and the emergence of new knowledge production facilitated by social media and the internet.

Gramsci’s most famous idea is the concept of cultural hegemony, which highlights how the dominant class sustains its control by disseminating ideas and values that become accepted as common sense throughout society. However, another important concept developed by Gramsci that is often overlooked is that of the organic intellectual. Antonio Gramsci first wrote about this concept in his Prison Notebooks, which he composed between 1929 and 1935 while imprisoned by the fascist government of Benito Mussolini in Italy. Gramsci’s contribution to cultural and political theory is particularly noteworthy, with his most significant work being found as fragments within these notebooks. These writings offer significant insight into Gramsci’s ideas and serve as a testament to his intellectual brilliance. At its most basic level, the concept of the organic intellectual refers to an individual who comes from a specific social group and develops their ideas based on their personal lived experiences, rather than formal education or training. According to Gramsci:

“All men are intellectuals, one could therefore say: but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”

(Gramsci, 1971, p. 9)

This quote demonstrates that the organic intellectual is not limited to traditional intellectuals but includes anyone who produces and disseminates ideas within society, such as workers, artists, and journalists. The concept of the organic intellectual is particularly relevant in our current moment, where traditional forms of expertise and authority are constantly being challenged and new forms of knowledge production are emerging. In the era of social media and the internet, anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can produce and disseminate ideas to a global audience, bypassing traditional gatekeepers and hierarchies of knowledge. This has led to the emergence of new forms of organic intellectualism, such as social media influencers, podcast hosts, and YouTube personalities, who are able to use their platforms to shape public discourse and influence social and political outcomes.

The rise of organic intellectualism facilitated by social media and the internet has unfortunately given rise to the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories, such as QAnon. These theories are often disseminated by individuals who lack expertise and credibility but have a significant following on social media platforms. This has led to the erosion of trust in traditional institutions and has resulted in harmful outcomes, such as the January 6th insurrection in the United States and the attack on the Brazilian congress. To combat this, we must encourage critical thinking and media literacy, particularly among the younger generation who are most susceptible to these conspiracies. We must also promote trustworthy sources of information, fact-checking, and independent journalism. By doing so, we can counter the harmful effects of organic intellectualism and build a more informed and discerning society.

However, the need for remedies against harmful ideologies extends beyond conspiracy theories. Far-right movements have gained ground in many parts of the UK, promoting exclusionary and discriminatory ideologies that harm marginalised groups. This is in response to the harmful narrative promoted by the Tory government and right wing press, which scapegoats’ migrants and “the woke other” for many of society’s problems. There is an urgent need to promote more inclusive and equitable values. Organic intellectuals, particularly those from marginalised communities, can play a crucial role in countering these harmful ideologies by producing and disseminating alternative narratives. For example, the UK-based organisation Hope not hate has been working to combat far-right extremism by training organic intellectuals from different communities to recognise and respond to hate speech and other forms of discriminatory rhetoric. These organic intellectuals, who have intimate knowledge of the communities they serve, are able to engage in productive dialogue and build trust with community members, helping to counter the far-right’s divisive rhetoric and promote more inclusive values. By recognising and valuing the intellectual contributions of those who are most affected by far-right extremism and other forms of oppression, it is possible to build a fairer and more equal society that takes into account the interests and needs of all.

While some (see below) have criticised certain forms of organic intellectualism for its perceived lack of rigor and expertise, others, such as Henry Giroux, argue that organic intellectuals play a crucial role in democratising knowledge production and advocating for meaningful social change. Giroux contends that despite not possessing the same institutional power and authority as traditional intellectuals, organic intellectuals are still able to shape the contours of political debate and articulate the claims of various social groups for a more democratic public culture. As Giroux notes:

“Organic intellectuals do not possess the same institutional power and authority as the traditional intellectual, but they are no less important in terms of their ability to shape the contours of political debate and to articulate the claims of various social groups for a more democratic public culture”

(Giroux, 1994, p. 30)

This highlights the importance of the organic intellectual in connecting theoretical ideas to practical actions within their communities and underscores their ability to play a transformative role in creating social change. Despite critiques, the concept of the organic intellectual remains a powerful tool for recognising and valuing the intellectual contributions of non-traditional intellectuals, and for promoting a more democratic and inclusive public sphere.

Moreover, the concept of the organic intellectual is also important in understanding the role of workers in shaping their own conditions of labour. In many workplaces, it is the workers themselves who develop new techniques and technologies to improve efficiency and productivity, and who have the most intimate knowledge of the daily realities of their jobs. One such example of an organic intellectual in the workplace can be found in the retail worker who develops a new idea about how to improve the stocking process in a supermarket. Through their observations and interactions with customers, the worker develops a new way of thinking about how to organise items on the shelves based on how frequently they sell, rather than by product category. This idea leads to improvements in efficiency, sales, and customer satisfaction. The worker’s idea demonstrates the importance of recognising the intellectual contributions of workers in creating social change.

The Autonomia Operaia movement in Italy during the 1970s is another example of how workers could become organic intellectuals. In this movement, workers rejected the traditional union model and instead organised themselves autonomously to fight for better working conditions and wages. They developed their own theories and analyses of their situation, which challenged the dominant narratives about labour relations and worker-employer dynamics. These workers became organic intellectuals by producing and disseminating their own ideas and knowledge about their experiences, which helped to shape the movement and the broader discourse around labour rights in Italy. Through their autonomy and resistance, the factory workers of the Autonomia Operaia demonstrated the potential power of organic intellectualism in transforming not only their own lives, but also the broader social and political landscape.

Another example of how this theory has been put into practice is within the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s, which was led by a diverse group of activists, many of whom could be considered organic intellectuals. Ella Baker, a civil rights activist, and organiser, emphasised the importance of organising from the bottom up and empowering local organisers to develop their own leadership skills. Through her work as an organic intellectual, Baker was able to contribute to the success of the civil rights movement by connecting theoretical ideas about social justice to practical actions within communities. Recognising the intellectual contributions of non-traditional intellectuals and promoting a more democratic and inclusive public sphere is a powerful benefit of the concept of the organic intellectual.

However, it’s worth noting that Gramsci’s theories in the Prison Notebooks were never completed, as he died while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist government. This incompleteness implies that his ideas on cultural and political theory, including the concept of cultural hegemony and the role of intellectuals in society, may not fully account for the complexities of modern society. As a result, it’s critical to engage with Gramsci’s concepts critically and supplement them with other perspectives and insights. It’s important to be open to new ideas and perspectives and to constantly challenge and re-examine one’s own assumptions and beliefs. By engaging in critical discourse and seeking out a diversity of viewpoints, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of contemporary society and the role of intellectuals within it.

Nevertheless, the concept remains relevant, particularly in understanding the role of workers in shaping their own working conditions and the emergence of new forms of knowledge production via social media and the internet. Empowering individuals who generate and spread ideas in society, especially those who are discriminated against, can lead to a more comprehensive, unbiased society that considers the interests and needs of all its citizens. However, like many theories, the concept of the organic intellectual is not immune to criticism. One prominent critic is Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, who argues that Gramsci’s concept is too broad and lacks specificity.

Bourdieu criticised Gramsci’s concept of the organic intellectual for being too broad and lacking specificity. Bordeau contends that:

“Gramsci’s conception of the intellectual is so broad and so extensive that it would have to be considered virtually meaningless if it were not for the latent reference, in his use of the term, to the existence of intellectuals who are ‘organic’ in a more specific sense, and more precisely defined as having a ‘function of elaboration of the ideology of the ruling class’. This definition – ‘organic intellectuals’ are those who are occupied in activities of representation and legitimisation of the interests of a given class, with which they share the same interests – imposes limits on the vagueness of the notion of the intellectual, limits which are necessary if it is to be something other than an ideal abstraction.”

(Bourdieu, 1993, p. 50)

Bourdieu argues that the concept of organic intellectuals is too broad and unclear, but it becomes more meaningful if we understand that these intellectuals have a specific role. They represent and justify the interests of a certain social group. An example of this could be a group of economists who work for a large corporation. These economists may be considered organic intellectuals because they use their knowledge and expertise to support the interests and goals of the business they work for. They may develop economic theories and policies that benefit the business and its shareholders, even if those policies may not be in the best interest of the broader public or society as a whole. In this way, they are representing and justifying the interests of the bourgeoisie they belong to, rather than acting as neutral or independent intellectuals.

Terry Eagleton is another critic of Gramsci’s concept, he has argued that the concept focuses too much on individual intellectuals and ignores the social and economic structures that shape intellectual labour. Eagleton writes:

“The concept of the organic intellectual, however, is often presented as if it were enough simply to recognise the creativity of certain non-professional or sub-professional groups, without paying sufficient attention to the ways in which their activities may be shaped and directed by institutions and structures which may have little to do with their own autonomy or sense of intellectual mission.”

(Eagleton, 1990, p. 125)

Eagleton implies here that this might lead people to think that the only important intellectual work is done by individual geniuses, rather than recognising the broader societal and institutional factors that shape intellectual labour. Eagleton again:

“The concept of the organic intellectual risks romanticising the figure of the intellectual as a kind of autonomous creator of cultural and political values, and in doing so, may neglect the structural and institutional factors which condition and constrain such creation.”

(Eagleton, 1990, p. 132)

Secondly, Eagleton thinks that the concept of the organic intellectual is too focused on individual creativity and neglects the importance of teamwork and collaboration in intellectual labour. He argues here:

“The notion of the organic intellectual as a kind of autonomous, independent creative force risks obscuring the fact that intellectual work is often a cooperative effort, involving dialogue, argument and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. It is not so much the autonomy of the organic intellectual which is at issue as his or her isolation from other intellectuals, from the traditions and discourses of the past, and from the collective intellectual labour which goes into the production of new ideas.”

(Eagleton, 1990, p. 127)

Here Eagleton argues that intellectual labour is often a collective effort, with multiple individuals and groups working together to produce knowledge and ideas. By neglecting this collective and collaborative aspect of intellectual labour, the concept of the organic intellectual risks praising individual acts of creativity and downplaying the importance of collaboration.

The concept of the organic intellectual continues to be a powerful tool for understanding how ideas are produced and spread, despite some criticisms. By recognising and valuing the intellectual contributions of non-traditional intellectuals like workers, we can create a more inclusive and equitable society that prioritises the interests and well-being of all its members. As traditional forms of expertise and authority are increasingly challenged and new forms of knowledge production emerge, the relevance and importance of the organic intellectual persist. Empowering those who produce and disseminate ideas within society, particularly those who experience oppression and discrimination, can lead to a more just and inclusive society.

Throughout this article, I have discussed the organic intellectual concept and its ongoing significance, while recognising its limitations. It is crucial we recognise the impact of this concept on our comprehension of knowledge generation, social progress, and the function of intellectuals in society. As we consider the role of intellectuals in society, it is important to reflect on the concept of the organic intellectual and the challenges it poses to traditional forms of expertise and authority. Non-traditional intellectuals, such as workers, artists, and journalists, make significant contributions to knowledge production and social progress, but their contributions are often undervalued or overlooked.

To create a more inclusive and democratic public sphere, we must recognise and value the intellectual contributions of all members of society, regardless of their background or education. However, we must also be aware of the potential limitations and pitfalls of the concept of the organic intellectual, and work to address them. By empowering those who are most affected by oppression and discrimination to produce and disseminate ideas, we can build a more just and equitable society that reflects the interests and needs of our communities. Through studying examples of how the concept of the organic intellectual has been put into practice, we can learn from successes and failures and work towards a society that recognises and values the intellectual contributions of all individuals and groups. Gramsci’s words offer a poignant conclusion:

“The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned. The challenge of the organic intellectual is to maintain a permanent tension between the individual and the collective, between autonomy and responsibility, and to develop the capacity to analyse social reality in all its complexity”

(Gramsci, cited in Fiori, 1990)

References:

Bourdieu, P. (1993). The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. Columbia University Press.

Eagleton, T. (1990). The Ideology of the Aesthetic. Wiley-Blackwell.

Fiori, G. (1990). Antonio Gramsci: Life of a revolutionary. Verso Modern Classics

Giroux, H. A. (1994). Living dangerously: Identity politics and the new cultural racism. Beacon Press.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Q. Hoare & G. Nowell-Smith, Eds. & Trans.). Lawrence and Wishart.


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