This page is a sub-page of our page on Humanity Inc. – from corporation to cooperation.
• Consequences of Capitalism – Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance,
by Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone, 2021.
Other relevant sources of information:
/////// Quoting Consequences of Capitalism, p. 1.
Common sense, the taken-for-granted and power
(Waterstone Lecture, January 15, 2019)
How do we know what we think we know about the world? How do we navigate through our day-to-day lives, and how do we negotiate novel situations? In this first chapter, we are interested in taking up questions about the mechanisms involved in producing, reinforcing, and sometimes changing the interpretive processes through which people come to conclusions (sometimes correct, but often incorrect or inaccurate) about: (1) how the world does operate in specific circumstances; and (2) how the world might or should operate. While we begin this discussion at a somewhat abstract and general level, we are concerned throughout with thinking about such matters within the contexts that are of foremost interest to us; that is, in public, social, political, and economic contexts rather than in predominantly private spheres of thought and activity. As a beginning shorthand, we will term what many people in a particular time and place believe common sense.
The notion of common sense
“Central to the notion of common sense is that its truths need no sophistication to grasp, and no proof to accept. Their truths is agreed to by the whole social body, and immediately apparent to anyone of normal intelligence.” This definition, from Kate Crehan’s book (2016), includes a number of very slippery concepts, things like “the whole social body,” “anyone of normal intelligence,” and things or ideas that we accept simply on their face without proof. All of those things should be alerts to us. But they are elements clearly of what we think we understand about the notion of common sense. In fact, that’s part of how common sense works, through these kinds of unexamined, taken-for-granted mechanisms.
There are several different senses of common sense. The first one from Aristotle is that common sense is actually a sixth sense that organizes the other five senses and allows us to understand the world. In other words, we experience all kinds of sensory input, whether it’s through hearing, or through sight, smell, touch, or taste, but there is a sixth sense, which, according to Aristotle, allows us to integrate all of that and make things that come into our brain meaningful. That’s one notion of common sense, a kind of mechanistic notion.
Second is what people in a particular time and place know about the world and how it works. Scale actually matters here; that is the closer you are, the more proximity you have to others. the more common is your common sense (at least posited in this sort of framing), and the more distinguished from distant others. This notion is where we get a phrase like, “Well, it’s only common sense. Of course that’s how things operate.” That’s another sort of notion of common sense.
A third one is one that actually puts a normative valence on some common sense and gives it a kind of positive inflection. this notion of common sense makes it the equivalent of good sense. This variant is what your gut tells you. We have many people who operate in society that way. This is where a phrase like “Use your common sense” is employed. In other words, “You know how the world works, right, so use your good sense.”
Now let’s turn to a formulation that characterizes all of this a little bit differently: British sociologist and social theorist Anthony Giddens and his notion of practical consciousness (1984). This relates to common sense. The first two framings of common sense just described (the Aristotelian notion and the notion of what everybody sort of knows about how the world works) are related to what Giddens thinks of as practical consciousness, which he describes as an accumulation of learned behavior for navigating the situations that confront us in our everyday lives. He calls it practical consciousness, and he distinguishes it from what he defines as discursive consciousness.
When utilizing discursive consciousness, one must have an internal conversation that tells you how to operate in the world. You have to think about things very carefully. Practical consciousness doesn’t work that way. You actually sort of know, under many circumstances, how to behave, what to expect, what will happen in the world if you behave a particular way, which is why last year I opened by yelling at people because it’s not what we think we understand about a situation like this. It’s not part of the decorum. It’s unexpected.
But practical consciousness is rarely raised to this kind of discursive internal conversation level. This is essential. The fact that we don’t have to think about every single thing we do and how we operate in the world is a very good thing. Otherwise, we would essentially be paralyzed. If we had to relearn every instance in which we operate in the world every day, we would in fact be constrained from behaving at all. So it’s a good thing that much of what we do in our interactions is routinized in this way; that is, that it is, in fact, a practical rather than a discursive consciousness.
There are some circumstances where we become aware that we are operating in a rule-bound way. One of those circumstances is when we are in novel situations. For example, when we travel and come into settings where we don’t know the rules.
This is a very important kind of step, to think about the fact that much of behavior is is rule-bound, and this is what Giddens is thinking about when he says that practical consciousness works for most everyday situations, but there are circumstances in which we begin to become aware that we have internalized a whole number of rule-goverened behaviors (1984). In fact, to use a phrase that I want to emphasize, we take things for granted.
A second circumstance in which we might move from practical to discursive consciousness is when we are operating in situations where we think we know the rules, but something unexpected happens. Either something unpredictable occurs, or we don’t like the consequences. But again, this kind of situation produces in us this notion that life is rather rule-bound and that we need to understand how things work.
One important question that Giddens asks about all of this, and that we’ll come back and think about, is “where do all these rules come from? How do these rules of behavior come into play?” I’ll come back to this in a little bit more detail in a minute, but just for the moment, let me introduce this very unfortunate word that Giddens coined. This is a process that he calls structuration (1984).
What he means by this is that people through their practices make and reinforce the rules, but then forget about the fact that they are people-made rules. The rules begin to take on a character that looks like they simply operate independently of society. That issue where we forget that we are the rule-makers is what makes the status quo so persistent to some degree. Again, we come to take the rules of everyday life for granted. This is how things work; this is how things should work. It’s just common sense. I’ll come back and talk about that. I also want to make clear, at this point, that not everyone is in an equal position in making these rules and making them stick, and we’ll come back and think about that.
Where does our common sense come from? How do we learn these rules? On quote from Kate Crehan again: “In a sense, we all have our own particular common sense. Much of this will be shared by others in our immediate environment [that is this proximity issue], diverging as those others become more distant. So we’re acculturated into understanding these rules (2016).
I just want to note here a little caution, which again I’ll say a bit more about in a bit. Our own accumulated experience becomes increasingly solidified over time. That is, we start to think we know how the world works, and things that accord with that evolving viewpoint we take in much more easily than things that seem to contradict how we think the world works. This evolution is a kind of ongoing process to the extent that we need to understand further and further how the world works.
It’s also important here to distinguish between what’s possible to know and understand firsthand from information that must be delivered second-, third-, fourth-hand by a various media; that is, mediated information, which is more and more the case. I mean, we know less and less about the world firsthand than we do through other sources of information.
It’s also critical to point out that nothing enters our brains or minds unfiltered. Going back to the idea from Aristotle, the first definition of common sense (i.e., the extra sense that allows us to make meaningful what other senses tell us about the world) sidesteps the very important question of how this additional sense itself is built. What I’m suggesting is that part of our acculturation, part of the way we develop a sense of the common sense, is to develop a set of filters that tells us what’s important, what’s not important, how we should interpret what we get as stimuli. Some of that can be right, some of it can be wrong.
So the issue of taken-for-grantedness, and reinforcement of common sense, is a very important phenomenon. This is, in fact, what I just described, that is that we begin to filter those things that don’t really accord with how we think the world works, and we reject those things that really are contradictory. This is especially the case, I would suggest, and is becoming increasingly the case, through what we think about as either this bubble or silo effect. This is where we’re channeled in many of our media interactions, particularly into things that we seem to have already accepted.
So anytime you see a prompt, “If you liked this, you will love that,” know that this tactic works according to algorithms that produce this channeling effect. This is happening in all kinds of ways on social media and even in the mainstream media. People are CNN people, or they’re MSNBC people, or they are Fox News people. So there’s a tendency to sort of silo ourselves or put ourselves in these bobbles, and that’s becoming inreasingly the case.
Now, and important question: Are we thinking about common sense (singular) or are we thinking about common senses (plural)? All too often, one rational being’s obvious fact is another’s questionable or flat-out wrong assertion. There is more than one common sense, and even seemingly incontrovertible facts have a way of shifting over time. Even for ourselves, something that we may have believed at one point in time, if we are open-minded, we might believe something quite different at a later date. But quite clearly, there are different common senses operating simultaneously. These are the sources of controversy and argumentation.
The notion of the single common sense, “[w]hich all men have in common in any given civilization is quite foreign to the spirit of the [Gramsci prison] notebooks. For gramsci as for Marx, any given civilization is so fractured by inequality that understanding it requires us to begin with that inequality. Those most elementary things which are the first to be forgot, the fact that there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led. Common sense in all its multitudinous confusion is the product of a fractured world” (Crehan 2016).
Yes, there are multiple common senses operating at any particular time and place. There are always competing common senses at play, which tells us several things. Immediately, it tells us that common sense is unstable. It changes over time. It changes from place to place, from one group, for example a social class, from one setting to another, and so on. This also tells us that common sense is both malleable and subject to manipulation. It’s not a stable thing. Common sense can shift.
The webs of intelligibilty in which our socialization wraps us from the day of our birth are a reality from which we all begin. We are all to some degree creatures of popular opinion, and yet of certain historical moments, there is radical social transformation. When and why does this happen? Running through the Gramsci notebooks is the question, what is the relationship between popular opinion, another phrasing of common sense, and social transformation? How are these things tied together, if they are tied together at all? This was a central question for Gramsci and one that Marx really did not take up to any significant degree. So Gramsci is thought of in many ways as a cultural theorist of Marxism.
… There is a kernel of good sense in common sense.
… The role of intellectuals is to extract the good sense out of the hodge-podge of common sense. Gramsci thinks of intellectuals as falling into two categories. Organic intellectuals are those that remain connected to their class and further class interests.
Traditional intellectuals, as Gramsci describes them, are people who are interested in being apologists or explainers or supporters of the status quo. The traditional intellectuals are also what Marx would have called the vulgar economists, with whom he was engaged in conversation and contention. So the role of intellectuals is to extract the kernels of good sense out of common sense.
Okay, let me now turn from the abstract for a minute and think about a concrete example of something that we think about as common sense, which we will come back to in certain ways through other parts of the course. So as common sense, the American dream. If I say that phrase, do you get a picture in your mind immediately? What does it look like?
The American dream, here it is: In America (and this is not just confined to America, of course), if you work hard, play by the rules, you will succeed. That’s part of the dream. Typically, it also includes a metric for what constitutes success. It almost invariably takes a commodified form, success. Since that’s the kind of reward a capitalist system can and must deliver.
For example, a recurrent formulation is a home of one’s own. Now, I don’t want to get very far into a discussion of why this particular measure of success, that is, a home of one’s own in the suburbs and so forth, was the preferred form of connoting and illustrating the American dream. But it had a great deal to do with the rise of mass consumption. The phrase itself, the American dream, was coined in the ’30s basically in the heart of the Depression. Much of this framing was pointed at the need to keep the economy rumbling at a great pace when World War II ended. So one of the ways in which industry could keep going was to promulgate not collective consumption, but individual consumption. So everybody had to have their own house. And, consequently, everybody had to have their own Kelvinator, their own appliances. You couldn’t share these things in common. That wasn’t enough market. So the American dream takes a particular, that is, a commodified, form.
The American dream, as common sense, also has some taken-for-granted presumptions underlying it. The first is that America is a mereitocracy. That is, a system in which people’s success in life depends on their talents, abilities, and efforts. This is one of the presumptions underlying the notion that if you work hard, play by the rules, you will succeed. There’s an ethos of individual achievement. You get this on your own – the self-made man, the self-made woman.
This translates into a number of other societies. Some of you may remember the iron lady, Margret Thatcher. One of her many, many quotable quotes was “There is no such thing as society,” spoken as she was dismantling British society at the time. There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women, and then it’s kind of after that, and their families, okay, if you can keep them together under those circumstances.
Another tacit presumption is that the rules are fair and known or knowable to all, that is, that we operate on a level playing field. If these presumptions are violated, then the formulation of the American dream is very much in jeopardy. But if we presume that these things are the case, then we might be persuaded that the American dream is in fact a viable option of society.
But I’m going to suggest … I’m not going to suggest. I’m just going to say, there’s an obverse meaning to take away from the common sense understanding of how our society operates. That obverse meaning is this: In America, if you don’t succeed, you are either not working hard enough, or you are not playing by the rules, or both. So if you don’t succeed, and this is the obverse of thinking about the American dream as it’s laid out, essentially, your failure is your own fault. This is another corollary of the individualized notion of how society works. All the opportunities are there. If you fail, it is your fault. There is nothing structural or systemic or unfair getting in your way, either historically, contemporaneously, or into the future.
Let’s think about these presumptions and the obverse for a minute. How can you work hard if there are no jobs for you? Which is increasingly the prospect, as we think about the export of jobs that has occurred; as we think about automation taking jobs away; as we think about productivity going up but the demand for labor going down. One of the problems might be, “Well, I’d like to work hard, but I just can’t find work.” Or what if your job pays so poorly that despite working very hard, and sometimes at more than one job at a time, you still can’t make ends meet? So the pay structure doesn’t allow success, despite hard work. Anybody who’s interested in this kind of thing, I’d recommend any of the works by Barbara Ehrenreich, either Nickled and Dimed or some her more recent works, in which she talks about the fact that many people are working really, really hard and simply can’t get by. What if the rules are rigged against you in some way and are unfair?
So the American dream is like that. But if we let the common sense notion of the American dream stand for just a moment, here are a couple of questions that we should ask of any taken-for-granted elements of the political, social, and economic status quo. The first is who benefits from this view of society? That is, if we believe the American dream, that to succeed, people must work hard, must play by certain rules that are written not by them, but with which they must comply. If we believe that, who benefits from that kind of orientation to society and who loses? We should always be thinking about who are the winners and the losers here.
It also suggests some questions about the political, social, and economic implications of such an understanding. For example, what does it mean about the role of government? If everything is by your own bootstraps, does government have any role in helping people out? Or what about civil society? Does anything require the intervention of civil society? Or should we just let the tender mercies of the market tell us how things ought to operate? But taking the American dream in its typical formulation has very serious implications for what we think about the role of any of these institutions. So we need to think carefully about that. And it’s one of the reasons we can see assaults on things like welfare, unless it’s called a subsidy, assaults on entitlement programs, so-called, even though we’ve paid for them.
But if your belief is that people just make it or don’t make it simply on their own dint of activity and effort, then there really is no role for society. People simply make it or they don’t make it. But as I say, thinking about this has some implications for that.
If you have a high tolerance for obscenity, I would urge you to find this on YouTube. The late George Carlin. I’d urge you to take a look at “The American Dream. You Have to Be Asleep to Believe It.”
All right. Now let’s turn to the relationship between common sense and power. Here’s a quote from the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall. It’s a little bit long but it’s worth going through:
Why then is common sense so important? Because it is a terrain of conceptions and categories on which the practical consciousness of the masses of the people is actually formed. It is the already formed and taken for granted terrain on which more coherent ideologies and philosophies must contend for mastery, the ground which new conceptions of the world must take into account, contest and transform if they were to shape the conceptions of the world of the masses and in that way become historically effective. (Hall 1986)
Basically, what Hall is talking about here is that we have embedded within us very heavily cemented notions of how the world works. If we want to change people’s minds and think about the world operating differently, we have to contend with those deeply embedded and vitally held conceptions of how the world operates. He uses this language quite deliberately. We have to contend. This is a struggle.
So “popular beliefs, the culture of a people,” Gramsci argues, “are not matters, are not arenas that can be left to look after themselves. They are themselves material forces. Common sense is a field of struggle and contestation” (Hall 1986). That is, for Hall, this is an arena for very fierce battles. The reason for this, of course, is that to have one’s view of how the world operates become predominant is a very potent form of political power. If you can convince that your sense of how the world ought to operate is the way it ought to operate, this is an extremely powerful political tool.
This form of power is also related to Gramsci’s important concept of hegemony. One definition of hegemony, and there are other definitions, I mean, we have some definitions of hegemony in common parlance, like the US is the world’s only hegemon, which is a debatable point no matter what, but that’s not exactly the meaning I’m using here. Hegemony, as I’m using the term here, is governance with the consent of the governed.
The alternative form of governance is coercion. Now think about it, if you’re an elite and you want to govern people, which of these forms is preferable? Well, of the two, hegemony is much more desirable for the governors since governance with consent does not produce opposition and resistance by definition. If people are consenting to be governed, why would they object? Why would they resist?
/////// End of quote from Consequences of Capitalism