By Aaron Samuel Zimmerman
To understand the vital role that organic intellectuals play in shaping America’s ideological future, it is first critical to understand how, according to Gramsci, hegemony operates. For Gramsci, hegemony refers to the condition of one class exercising dominance over the rest of society. This domination, however, need not be a product of coercion. Indeed, one of Gramsci’s foremost intellectual contributions is his formulation of how the oppressive and exploitative characteristics of capitalism (the hegemony with which Gramsci was primarily concerned) are often not enforced by the state’s martial power; rather, capitalism’s continued ascendancy is, first and foremost, the product of cultural and ideological domination (Adamson, 2014; Hoare & Sperber, 2016; Morton, 2007).
Gramsci’s ingenious insight is that individuals in capitalist societies tend to consent to their own exploitation. Employing the construct of hegemony, Gramsci describes how the ruling class in a capitalist society (i.e., the bourgeoisie) presents the substrata of the society (i.e., the working class) with particular understandings of the world that become accepted as “common sense.” For example, many persons in our society may consider it to be common sense that being a successful student in school is a function of dedication, intelligence, and diligence and that, inversely, those who do not succeed in school are unmotivated, unintelligent, or lazy. Of course, these beliefs obfuscate many other factors that shape student success: for example, the distribution of wealth and resources in our society. Through ideological hegemony, a dominant class is able to manufacture the rest of society’s implicit consent to a particular way of making sense of the world.
We might say that the hegemonic cultural ideology that drives (and has driven) our own nation is the ideology of neoliberalism (Harvey, 2005). Neoliberalism is a political ideology that favors privatization, reduced government spending, and free-market capitalism. Within this ideology, politics is analogous to business, democracy is analogous to capitalism, the president is analogous to a CEO, and a citizen is analogous to a consumer (Apple, 2001; Colclough & Manor, 1993; Giroux, 2008; Lynch, 2006). Indeed, perhaps Trump himself is the paragon of this ideology (Trump & Schwartz, 2009), a point not lost on many of his supporters who believe that his shrewd business acumen is precisely what our nation requires in order to “make America great again” (Schiller, 2016). It would be misleading, however, to insist that Trump is the only political representative of neoliberalism. President Obama, for example, despite having been labeled by some as a “socialist” (Kurtz, 2010), has overseen the enactment of a number of neoliberal policies, including expanding the effort to privatize public education (Giroux & Saltman, 2009).
The fact that both Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated allegiance to neoliberal ideology is illustrative of Gramsci’s argument that each substratum of a given society can lay claim to its own variation of the dominant ideology while still conforming to hegemony (Adamson, 2014; Hoare & Sperber, 2016; Morton, 2007). That is to say, not every substratum of society will believe in the same version of common sense. However, in order for hegemony to operate effectively and maintain its equilibrium, every substratum in a society must share certain beliefs. These overlapping ideological elements glue the diverse substrata together, thereby serving the larger, exploitative social purposes of the dominant group.
For example, before the election, Trump’s supporters espoused one version of common sense: "How could anyone possibly, with good conscience, vote for Hillary Clinton?" (see Hawkins, 2016). Meanwhile, Trump’s detractors espoused a very different logic: "If you vote for Trump, you are deplorable." (see Clifton, 2016). Both of these versions of common sense, however, maintained our nation’s status quo. Both Trump and Clinton endorsed a vision of the country in which markets, banks, and corporations are to be “regulated” by a rule of law that places economic interests above the public good. Despite the vitriolic discourse before the general election, it remained unquestioned that market-based principles should be the primary forces that shape our society (Apple, 2006; Giroux, 2010; Shivani, 2016). Indeed, historically, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have worked together to advance our nation’s neoliberal agenda (Giroux, 2004).
Traditional Intellectuals and Organic Intellectuals
Because hegemony operates through the dissemination and adoption of ideology, intellectuals play a key role in Gramsci’s understanding of politics. Intellectuals generate and spread ideas, and, as such, they are critical to hegemony’s exercise of power. Intellectuals who spread the hegemonic ideology of the dominant group are, according to Gramsci, traditional or institutionalized intellectuals. These are intellectuals who possess special qualifications (e.g., a college degree) and who, by means of their qualifications, are sanctioned by hegemonic infrastructures to speak. While we might presume that university professors are able to discern (and speak for) the plight of oppressed social substrata, Gramsci cautions against this assumption. Although traditional intellectuals may believe that they are independent voices within the discourse of society, according to Gramsci, they may be assimilated mouthpieces of hegemony and arms of ideological oppression.
An excellent example of this phenomenon is situated within contemporary educational research. Cochran-Smith and colleagues (2015), in their review of over 1,500 articles of research on teacher preparation, noted a curious relationship between scholars and neoliberalism:
[I]n general, the greater the alignment of [a work of] research to the neoliberal program of education reform, the more centralized and funded the research was, and the more likely it is to inform state and/or federal policies and practices related to teacher preparation and certification. The lesser the alignment, the more marginalized and underresourced the research was, and the less likely it is to influence policy and practice outside of university programs themselves. Although many of the studies, across programs of research, were about “equity” and “access,” few raised questions about who does and does not have access in the first place, why and how systems of inequality are perpetuated, under what circumstances and for whom access makes a difference, and what the role of teachers (and teacher education) is in all of this…[O]nly a relatively small portion of the studies we reviewed fundamentally challenge the current arrangements of social, economic, and institutional power…[M]ost of the existing research…[does not] substantially challenge the material conditions and social relations that reproduce inequalities and profoundly influence teaching/learning in K-12 schools. (p. 118)
In other words, traditional intellectuals (e.g., tenure-track university professors) conducting conventional and funded educational research tend to cater to neoliberal infrastructures. Traditional intellectuals are, thus, beholden to traditional, hegemonic institutions. As a result, these intellectuals’ research rarely challenges the hegemony of neoliberalism. In this way, one might argue that contemporary educational researchers represent traditional intellectuals who, through the advancement of neoliberal ideology, are complicit in our current society’s hegemonic exploitation. As Gramsci argues, traditional intellectuals are rarely as independent or autonomous as they believe they are.
For this reason, Gramsci argues that overturning or revising a hegemonic ideology requires the role of organic intellectuals. Organic intellectuals, by Gramsci’s definition, emerge from within a given social substratum and, through the generation and proliferation of ideas, help the substratum to identify its own needs. According to Gramsci, these intellectuals are not “traditional” in that they are not necessarily scholars, academics, or pundits. Rather, these intellectuals are workers: technicians from the working class. These individuals are not credentialed or “sanctioned” as trustworthy social mouthpieces; rather, they are concerned primarily with the practical matters of their daily living. According to Gramsci, the organic intellectual is concerned with “technical” education, or education as a means of living, and with active participation in everyday life, rather than with the scholarly, abstract, or academic pursuits of traditional intellectuals. As a corollary, Gramsci asserted that with the rise of new organic intellectuals comes a new brand of “eloquence.” The eloquence employed by organic intellectuals need not be synonymous with the rhetoric of traditional scholarship. Instead, arguments rooted in technical, personal, and practical matters are also powerful vehicles for ideological revolution.
Gramsci’s distinction between traditional intellectuals and organic intellectuals highlights some important implications regarding how we might imagine education in the era of a Trump presidency. First, Gramsci’s distinction urges traditional intellectuals to temper their enthusiasm in speaking for the needs, identities, goals, and concerns of different societal substrata, since they may not be as independent from hegemonic infrastructures as they believe. Instead, traditional intellectuals, such as university professors, might redouble their efforts to partner with communities, so that they may provide platforms for organic intellectuals to generate and disseminate their ideas (McDonald, Bowman, & Brayko, 2013; Zeichner, 2010). In turn, authentic ideological revolution may be possible.
Second, and relatedly, the various methods through which organic intellectuals “speak” must be acknowledged as valid forms of political discourse and must not be dismissed by traditional intellectuals as merely “noise” (Young, 2000). Even if organic intellectuals do not generate and spread their ideas through conventional and sanctioned academic media (e.g., writing a 3,000 word essay), the traditional academics must recognize that all methods of speaking (e.g., protest, performance, construction) hold potential for being eloquent and legitimate as it concerns the organic generation and dissemination of new cultural and political ideas.
Finally, if we wish to galvanize the organic generation of new ideas, rather than the reproduction of neoliberal ideology, we must invest in the creation of authentically democratic schools at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels (Apple & Beane, 2007; Giroux, 2010). Rather than factories of standardization (Brooks & Dietz, 2013), our nation’s schools ought to be places where organic intellectuals are nurtured. This means moving schools away from suppliers of credentials and towards infrastructures where the practical matters of daily living take place (Dewey, 1916).
If education is going to make a difference in the era of a Trump presidency, we must reexamine what it means to be an intellectual. Applying Gramsci’s theories, I have argued that we must rely on the ideas and efforts of organic intellectuals if we are to challenge and replace our nation’s contemporary hegemony of neoliberalism. Traditional intellectuals who are interested in fostering ideological revolution must partner with working class communities, for it is from these communities that our next generation of organic intellectuals will arise. Furthermore, traditional intellectuals, ensconced in traditional modes of scholarship and rhetoric, must be open to new ways of thinking and speaking. Even when organic intellectuals express their ideas in “unsanctioned” ways, we, as a society, must all listen, for it is through these new ways of thinking and speaking that genuine ideological revolution may occur and a new dominant ideology in our nation may arise.
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Aaron Zimmerman is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Tech University. In his research, he focuses on the complexity of teaching and the personal meanings that are revealed through the process of teacher development. For correspondence, please email email@example.com