The Killing Jokes

This is a translation of a blog post written by John Brown during the recent electoral campaign in Greece, though it retains all of its currency and relevance.

A ‘joke’ capitalist regime: Gramscian reflections on good sense and common sense.

It is characteristic of regimes nearing their end for the powers that be to act in an increasingly absurd and irrational way, as if consensus among the population were no longer of any importance to them. It is something history has shown, with great regularity, from the Dominate of the Roman Empire until our times, from Caligula to Berlusconi. It is rare for a system, characterised by its high rationality, to fall without having gradually corrupted itself beforehand, and before entering a phase in which the dominant discourse has turned senseless, incapable of coming up with a minimal amount of good sense, and even less of informing common sense.

Good sense and common sense are closely related, but they are not identical terms. Good sense is a faculty for judging reality that does not need complex conceptual mediation. Good sense does not uncover truths, but it is able to recognise them. Good sense prevents the commission of absurd errors. Good sense cannot be shared because it is already shared out. Descartes said with a certain irony that good sense (‘le bon sens’) is the best shared out thing in the world since no-one ever complains of having less good sense than someone else. Common sense is something else. Common sense is what makes us think like others, it maintains an identity or at least a closeness of criteria within a society, so that the basic mechanisms of co-operation and communication, though also institutions of domination and exploitation when these exist, can function adequately. Common sense can be grim, dark and fanatical when the reigning social order is characterised by the domination of one person or a few; it can also be generous and open to difference, if determined on the whole by co-operation among equals.

Antonio Gramsci thematised the distinction between good sense and common sense in his Prison Notebooks. This is introduced via a literary example that comes from the chapter on the plague from The Betrothed (I promessi sposi) by Manzoni. One of the characters confesses in private that he refuses to accept a superstitious belief in evil individuals who willingly spread the plague (the ‘untori’, or ‘anointers’), but refuses to make the same declaration in public. Gramsci cites Manzoni: ‘good sense existed, but it remained hidden, for fear of common sense’. Common sense is ‘the philosophy of those who are not philosophers’; it is the result of a historical stratification of diverse discourses that have no guarantee of coherence. Philosophies, political discourses that tend towards hegemony, serve to lend coherence to common sense without ever achieving it altogether. Even an ideological apparatus such as the Catholic Church has had to accept in its midst a multitude of catholicisms that differ according to social and cultural environments. Gramscian common sense is, thus, a conservative and inert space into which it is difficult to introduce new ideas:

‘common sense is an equivocal, contradictory, and multiform concept and to refer to common sense as proof that something is true makes no sense. We can say with precision that something true has become common sense to show that it has spread beyond the circle of intellectual groups, but in that case we are doing no more than noting a historical fact and asserting historical rationality; in this sense, provided that it is used soberly, the argument has some value, precisely because common sense is crudely opposed to new things and conservative; thus to succeed in bringing about the introduction of a new truth demonstrates that the truth in question has considerable strength of evidence and powers of spreading.’ (Q,8, §173)

Thus a hegemonic idea can be established in common sense and draw upon its inertia and its conservatism. Such has been the case with the main ideological themes of capitalism: the market, free enterprise, freedom of contract, freedom of choice; or those of the capitalist State: representation, rule of law, human rights etc. All these had acquired up until now the condition of veritable popular prejudices anchored in common sense, thereby efficiently replicating the principal mechanisms of capitalist exploitation and domination. Each person’s good sense has had to adapt to this frame of ideas and representations, such that, even when the good sense of the individual rejects them, s/he however has to conform to them in public in order not to appear ‘unrealistic’ or ‘radical’.

‘My work as an economist consists of making the intolerable seem necessary’

This was possible in so far as and as long as capitalism maintained a certain rationality. As Marx and Engels remind us in the Manifesto, capitalism has been an enormous expansive force of productive capacity and socialisation of work and has produced a rise in human potential of such magnitude that no other civilisation can compare. What is more, in terms of civilisation, it managed to produce, under pressure from the labour movement and the threat of socialism during the 20th century, social systems with a high level of prosperity in countries of the imperial centre (basically, Western Europe, the US, Japan). Neoliberalism came along to place a limit on the social conquests won until the 1960s under capitalism and to reverse the trend, by liquidating or emptying out both the different institutions for democratic representation of labour (unions, parties, parliaments) that had been developing, and the rights obtained through them. The process accelerated in the second phase that coincided with the collapse of real socialism, ending up at the end of the 90s with a pure model of neoliberal regime driven by financial accumulation. By contrast with a capitalism that organised and rationalised production, and within that process engaged in transactions and pacts with society, we find ourselves today with a capitalism based on financial hegemony whose principal mechanism for the extraction of surplus value is now the system of debt, both public and private.

Within the frame of the system of debt, capitalism has lost all social rationality, since it is incapable of imposing its own ‘truth’ in the commons of society, in the space where common sense is formed. Not only do individual ‘good senses’ rebel against it, but gradually, the compact mass of a common sense, still dominated by the representations that reproduce the capitalist order, is penetrated by demands that are contradictory to it. These are political demands for democracy, moral demands for dignity and equality, and even the biological demand for the right to live and take one’s part in the common wealth, of a right also to enjoy the fruits of a common intellect in which we all participate, that we all contribute to, and of which property relations would deprive us. Debt-driven capitalism can no longer offer anything, apart from more debt and with it more sadness, more impotence. Instead of the shining future of the progressive capitalism of the 19th and 20th century, we see in front of our eyes a future of misery and destruction of the social fabric. In a way, this has always been so, and capitalism has only been ‘civilised’, and able to make its rationality prevail, thanks to the permanent resistance of workers.

(Image via)

Today this resistance takes on a new form. It retains, as the glorious miners of Asturias are showing us, the form of a traditional union struggle, but it now takes on, in a hegemonic manner, socially diffuse forms of expression that translate into occupations of urban spaces or obstructions of the material and symbolic flows of the capitalist regime. This new resistance is one of labour that is gradually more social, more immaterial and more intellectual. The Gramscian dissociation between ‘common sense’ of the people and truths of the ‘intellectuals’ and the hegemonic apparatuses has lost relevance today. Now the truth of the collective intellectual circulates on networks of collaboration and breaks the inertia of the common sense. The common sense loses its passivity and becomes the mass collective intellectual, what Marx named the ‘general intellect’. Simultaneously, capitalism is abandoning the field of rationality and of truth anchored in the common sense of production. Disassociated from a production that is more and more socialised and based on widespread access to the productive commons (language(s), knowledge(s), experience(s), natural and produced resources, etc), capitalism, under its hegemonically financial form, only exists now as a parasite, as a vampire, gradually expelled from common sense by a good sense of the masses that lays claim to the right to live in freedom.

This is what explains the ridiculous forms that characterise the present representation of capitalist rule. Venizelos, the former defence minister of PASOK turned economy minister to undertake an economic war against the population, proclaims during the current electoral campaign that the citizens should vote for him because he was the architect of the agreements that led to the ‘memorandum’ of austerity measures. Without the slightest embarrassment and lacking any kind of argument, he asks people to vote for him because he is the architect of the current disaster.

‘I’m not lying! He repeated over and over, but his hair dye was running..’

But closer to home, Mariano Rajoy issued a reminder, on the very day that the Spanish risk premium reached 500 points, that “we are not on the verge of any abyss”. For those of us who belong to a particular generation, this absurd declaration made us smile. How could we not recall the famous joke about Franco in which the bloodthirsty predecessor of our present Head of State the Elephant Slayer proclaimed: “Spaniards, in 36 we were on the verge of the abyss, with the 18th of July Regime we have made a great step forward…”

The powers that be are a joke. Powers that are a joke, that are ridiculous, can no longer influence common sense so long as their own –capitalist- rationality is counter to the new productive common sense. Today, capitalism as a form of society receives Spinoza’s tough verdict on those regimes that have lost their rationality and their political dignity by being cause for laughter and contempt among their subjects:

there are certain conditions that, if operative, entail that the subjects will respect and fear their State, while the absence of these conditions entails the annulment of that fear and respect and together with this, the destruction of the State’ (Political Treatise, IV, 4)


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