Gramsci, Financial Insecurity and the Sanders Campaign

Gramsci_Monument.jpg
Gramsci Monument Bronx NY/ Flickr

By Bill Barclay

Why do many people in the U.S. "vote against their interests?"  Why do many people not vote at all?

There have been a variety of answers suggested to these questions but not many have thought about these questions in the framework of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of common sense and good sense.  A recent report, “The Politics of Financial Insecurity,” provides some important insights when interpreted in Gramscian terms.

The report confirms a pattern common to U.S. voting and politics: there is a fairly strong relationship between economic well-being and choice of party.  The economic well-being measure is more complex than simply income, however.  It is based on a series of questions about whether a household has a checking account; savings account; credit cards; retirement account(s); or troubles financing mortgage or rent, medical or food costs.  Taken together, these questions measure financial security/insecurity.

The report contains some striking results about political knowledge or lack thereof.  Perhaps the most discouraging for those who care about political involvement is that, even among the one in four households classified as financially secure, only slightly more than 60% could correctly answer which party controlled the House and Senate.  Among the four in 10 households that were somewhat or very financially insecure, less than one in three were able to answer the question of which party controlled the House and Senate.

That result may not be particularly surprising, but why are the numbers so low?  And why are the four in 10 financially insecure much less likely to vote, not to mention contact any elected official about an issue. Yes, it is true that these households probably spend more time and effort just to make ends meet. But the most interesting section of the report reveals something else: ideological consistency increases as the level of financial security increases.  That is, financially secure households hold ideologically consistent beliefs across a number of issues about spending for the “social safety net,” “business, government and national security,” “government regulation” and “racial discrimination, homosexuality and immigration.”  Considered as a group,  the financially insecure hold more progressive values on these issues (with the exception of attitudes towards immigrants and jobs), but at the individual level they are much less ideologically consistent, holding many progressive positions but also mixed with – and perhaps diluted by – conservative positions.  An important result is lower levels of voter registration and turnout among segments of the population that are more likely to vote for Democrats – or maybe for even more progressive candidates.

Here is where Gramsci offers some insights.  In his discussion of “common sense,” the everyday philosophy of most people, he says there exists a mixture of world views, some that are consistent with the current reality within which they live and work while others are inherited from the past, learned at school or church, imbibed from the media, etc.  The resulting common sense may be, and usually is, inconsistent unless challenged by the new at both the level of theory and practice.  But new experiences alone may not result in a restructuring of thinking; rather, in the absence of connecting practice to theory, new experiences may simply leave people with “contradictory consciousness.” 

The reality of contradictory consciousness among the financially insecure is both a constraint on their political mobilization but also an opportunity.  It's a constraint because, while this large group of the population may not have completely accepted and incorporated the ideas of their rulers, they have done so enough that their political will to act is diminished, resulting in low voter registration, low turnout and/or votes “against their interests.” 

It's an opportunity, however, precisely because it means that the ruling ideas – about government regulation, about the role of business, about government spending – have been only unevenly and partially accepted by large numbers of people in the U.S.  This provides an opening for socialists to work towards developing this contradictory consciousness into what Gramsci called “good sense.”    

As Gramsci noted, “A philosophy of praxis [1] [must] first of all [base] itself on common sense in order to demonstrate that ‘everyone’ is a philosopher and that it is not a question of introducing from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s life, but of renovating and making critical an already existing activity.”

Creating “good sense” is the task of developing the positive core of common sense into a more coherent outlook, an essential task of the party as collective intellectual for Gramsci.  For us today, it is the essence of what we should be seeking to do in our public political education work such as the GET UP (Grassroots Economics Training for Understanding and Power) and other workshops that DSA chapters organize.  Even more importantly for the next few months, this is the task that many of us will face as we work in the Sanders presidential campaign, to make coherent the thinking of those we seek to educate to this campaign.  This approach is the best way to insure that the result of our work is not just to build another campaign for president but to contribute to the building of a larger movement for democratic socialism.


[1] Philosophy of praxis is Gramsci’s term for Marxism (coined to avoid the censor in Mussolini's prison) as the nexus between theoretical and practical activity.
BilBarclayAID.png Bill Barclay is on the Steering Committee of Chicago DSA, is a founding member of the Chicago Political Economy Group and serves as DSA National Member Organizer.

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