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The danger of common sense

'Common sense' is key to how we negotiate politics collectively. Rather than fighting the right on its own populist turf, the left must draw out, embrace, and frame its campaigns around, the ‘good sense’ which exists within ‘common sense’.

Stuart Hall Alan O'Shea
4 November 2013

The Killburn Manifesto is a statement being made in twelve monthly instalments, issued free on-line, about the nature of the neoliberal system which now dominates Britain and most of the Western world, and about the need to develop coherent alternatives to it. OurKingdom is publishing a number of essays drawn from the manifesto. Here, in an abridged and edited version of their longer manifesto piece, Stuart Hall and Alan O'Shea discuss 'common sense'.

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Flickr/Dr Case

'And let this be our message - common sense for the common good.' (David Cameron, 24.4.11)

Appealing to common sense is a favourite device for politicians. After all, common sense is 'what everybody knows', what everyone takes for granted. Common-sense policies cannot be impractical, unreasonable or extreme, because they are solidly in the groove of popular thinking - they are part of the folk wisdom of the age. Thus we all know that it is important to be fair to 'hard-working families', to get value for money, to be tough on benefits.

In fact, what politicians are really doing when they appeal to common sense is shaping popular opinion. By asserting that popular opinion already agrees, they hope to produce agreement as an effect.

We believe that the battle over what constitutes common sense is a key area of political contestation. Far from being a naturally evolved set of ideas, it is a terrain that is always being fought over.

Common sense can be understood as a kind of 'everyday thinking' that offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily available knowledge that contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument, and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting solely the realities of daily life, and answering the needs of 'the common people' for practical guidance and advice. The Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci was the first to write on this.

For many years now there has been a concerted attempt to make the market the cornerstone for a new kind of (neoliberal) common sense. Slowly but surely, neoliberal ideas have permeated and are transforming what passes as common sense. More egalitarian and collectivist attitudes of the kind that once underpinned the welfare-state era are giving way to a more competitive, individualistic, market-driven, entrepreneurial, profit-oriented outlook.

But popular common sense also contains critical or utopian elements. For example, there is a widespread sense of unfairness and injustice about 'how the world works' - landlords exploit tenants; banks responsible for the credit crunch expect to be bailed out by taxpayers; CEOs receive immense bonuses even when their companies perform badly; profitable businesses avoid paying tax; and companies do not pass on to consumers the gains from falling commodity prices.

Gramsci called these apparently 'natural' insights into the wicked ways of the world 'good sense'. Common sense and 'good sense' co-exist, and this provides a basis on which the left could develop a popular strategy for radical change.

How then does common sense make sense of all the changes of the last thirty years? Have most people accepted that it is inevitable and natural to understand ourselves as consumers and market competitors?

The answer to these questions is partly determined by whether or not the left and the Labour Party recognise the need for a battle on this front. We believe that the struggle over common sense needs to be taken more seriously: the Labour Party must find ways of harnessing the intensity and anger people feel, of articulating people's good sense to a different kind of politics. Instead of using the same language as the Tories, it needs to frame policy statements in language and rhetoric that help to build a new consensus. It needs to challenge the neoliberal consensus rather than argue within its own terms, to participate in a battle of ideas rather than propose small measures of incremental change

It must use every policy issue as an opportunity, not only to examine the pragmatics, but to highlight the underlying principle, slowly building an alternative consensus or 'popular philosophy'. There were some signs of Ed Miliband moving in this direction at the Labour Party conference, but only days later the party's pronouncements on immigrants and benefit claimants had reverted to the punitive populist framing of the Tories.

Labour can only win the battle of ideas (and it won't be much use if it doesn't) if it takes its role as a 'popular educator' seriously. It needs to be more than an electoral machine or HM's Official Opposition. Each crisis provides an opportunity to shift the direction of popular thinking - not by simply mirroring the right's populist touch or pursuing short-term opportunism, but by adopting a more open, courageous, innovative, 'educative' and path-breaking strategic approach built upon popular 'good sense'.

 

This is an edited and abridged version of a longer argument published online at www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/pdfs/Manifesto_commonsense_neoliberalism.pdf

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

Democracy is in crisis and unaccountable flows of money are helping to destroy it. Peter Geoghegan’s new book, ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’, charts how secretive money, lobbying and data has warped our democracy.

How has dark money bought our politics? What can be done to change the system?

Join us for a journey through a shadowy world of dark money and disinformation stretching from Westminster to Washington, and far beyond.

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In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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