Gramsci in Reverse: Organic Capitalism's Stealthy Counter

Lancelot Kirby I Education I Commentary I February 27th, 2014

The twentieth century Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci is rightly famous for his concept of the organic intellectual, a term he interpreted to mean an individual from the lower classes who would work to critique the dominant culture of society used by the ruling class to control the population.

I contend that there is a flip side to this coin. That, just as an intellectual may arise organically from the lower classes to critique the culture, there is also an organic mechanism of capital for neutralizing such threats. The observation is not unique, but so pernicious I felt it deserved to be clarified and brought out into the open.

At one end of the spectrum, the potential organic intellectual accepts, while still young, the propaganda that a college education is the best way out of poverty. Putting aside the problem of mounting student debt, there is the equally serious problem of the quality of education itself, a problem dealt with at great length by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. In order to be an effective critic, certain skills are essential - such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. The disadvantaged student is limited in her choices as to which university she may attend, and must often sacrifice quality for affordability. Those institutions which are most affordable very often score the lowest in imparting those valuable skills. In large part, this is due to the increasing commercialization of higher education. To compete, schools are becoming viewed more as businesses that provide a product. To sell more product means pleasing the consumer, - in this case, the student or, more often, their parents - who want an easy path towards their child's graduation.

One consequence of this process has been the slackening of rigor in courses and the sense, in the student body, of entitlement to a degree, since that is what they are in effect paying for. Thus, those individuals who might have the most to say about the current system are effectively silenced without coercion or complaint. The organic intellectual is essentially stillborn within this process because she was never exposed from the start to the proper atmosphere for critique. Nevertheless, for compensation, they will be given what, in capitalist terms, is called an "education;" typically in business or some specialized proficiency in the medical or technological fields, and never look back with any sense of loss as they pick the low hanging fruit from capital's tree.

The second progression for organically silencing dissent is far simpler, but not in the least less unsettling. It comes under the name of "selling out," but its subtlety is such that the individual being sold has so completely appropriated the modes of capitalist thinking that the transaction is never even seen to have taken place. It is truly an invisible hand at work with magical prestidigitation.

In this instance, what amounts to the modern public intellectual, the entertainer or comedian, grows in increasing prominence, their presence becoming more and more inescapable to the larger social consciousness. At this moment, the individual becomes commodifiable. He or she is offered a platform were they may reach an even wider audience than ever before. However, along with this increased influence comes increased affluence. The entertainer has attained all that they desired; they can entertain and are paid increasingly well to do so. This nascent social critic began as an outsider looking in and critiquing what he had seen. With increasing popularity, however, he reached the point of commodification. Being absorbed by capital, he begins to view capital's interests as his own. Whereas before he was an outsider looking in, now he is on the inside looking out, and in this natural, non-coercive fashion, capital thus nullifies the efficacy of dissenters who gain too much influence.

There are perhaps few better examples of this transition than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Stewart has repeatedly been called out for his half-hearted criticisms. His childishly naive dictum of "fairness" in giving both sides a serious hearing in his determination not to hurt feelings or ruffle feathers has repeatedly given credibility to the worst excesses of the US government. This error of false equivalence was revealed no more tellingly than in the disastrous Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which became a massive joke at the attendee's expense - a sad deflation of hopes from a man who was reported to have once been an admirer of Eugene Debs.

Organic Capitalism is stealthy and the tools at its disposal are almost limitless; yet, it can be overcome. With increased community outreach and education, and the simple moral backbone of those who can resist its temptations and see through its lies, a better world is not just possible but inevitable.