Gramsci Comes Home

Our long march through the institutions is not to reform them, but to transform the common sense they uphold.

With the 2008 financial crisis, the supposedly sturdy foundation of finance capital shook and nearly crumbled. Millions of working-class Americans saw their wealth, security, and jobs evaporate. Financial institutions got massive bailouts, while a tidal wave of foreclosures and evictions swept the country. The housing crisis in particular flipped the epitome of American stability and middle-class aspiration — the home — into a symbol of predatory financial exploitation. But while the failure of the system did not precipitate a revolt against those responsible, the resulting insecurity, injustice and anger around housing could form the basis for a broader struggle against a new financialized capitalist class.

This struggle can only come to fruition through organization, but the Left’s tactics have been wanting. We publish, we hold panels, we sell newspapers, we put on conferences, we create art. We desperately try to build a left discourse in a hostile environment. This instinct is a reasonable one in an era of neoliberal hegemony where all facets of life are reduced to the market. Meanwhile, our reliance on discourse has obscured the vital understanding that, in order to build a socialist movement, the contradictions of capitalism must be felt and experienced in the fabric of daily life.

As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward explain, “Workers experience the factory, the speeding rhythm of the assembly line, the foreman, the spies and guards, the owner and the paycheck. They do not experience monopoly capitalism.” Homeowners experience the paperwork, the bank manager, the police and the lawyers, the phone calls, the fear of homelessness, and the eviction. They do not experience finance capital, therefore few of them embrace a critique of finance capital. We can only analyze and transform hegemonic ideology through what Antonio Gramsci calls a “war of position.”  But while we have identified that we are indeed in a war of position, the Left largely fails to grasp what it means to fight that war.

Gramsci understood that challenges to hegemonic ideology must go through common sense — lessons  learned, views adopted, and tools employed to make sense of our world — not around it. Constructing a new ideology means transforming the intimate and up-close structures that reproduce the dominant ideology, creating alternatives by building and winning power, and creating leadership in that struggle.

In our own postmodern times, where nebulous social movements have replaced the powerful working-class parties of distant eras, and where socialist organization rarely leaves the margins of political life and the system is rigged against third party politics, a socialist party is not the vehicle for this work — but the socialist movement, when tied to transformative organizing work can be. Our goal must be to build a durable counter hegemony — not by “present[ing] [ourselves] at the outset in a polemical and critical guise,” but transforming the commonsense by transforming everyday experience, by organizing around the texture of daily life, the part of our lives spent navigating civil society — what Gramsci calls the “simple.” Our long march through the institutions is not to reform them, but to transform the common sense they uphold.

This is precisely what the recent financial crisis represents: a location for this kind of counter hegemonic consciousness transformation. While the critical and polemical approach has largely failed, another model has proven its ability to build working-class power, transform the common sense, and contribute to a durable counter hegemony. Such is the growing anti-foreclosure movement with its model of radical organizing.

This model was pioneered by City Life/Vida Urbana, a grassroots organizing project that began as a socialist community organization in the 1970s and has changed its focus with the shifting needs of its base. While other sectarian groups born of that same era died out, City Life’s brand of non-sectarian, practical, democratic socialist organizing survived and thrived. When the foreclosure crisis hit, City Life quickly shifted to begin organizing homeowners (a group typically viewed as homogeneously white, middle-class, individualistic property owners) and tenants in foreclosed buildings (a group typically viewed as working-class and people of color). Most have imagined these groups pitted against each other rather than fighting side-by-side.

Class, however, isn’t an abstract category, but the product of real people in a real context. And so City Life organizes real people in the context of the foreclosure crisis, making unlikely alliances possible. Their work with this coalition in the working class neighborhoods of Boston has defended hundreds of homeowners and tenants from displacement at the hands of the big banks. Their mass meetings reach hundreds, their mobilizations, thousands — and they have begun spreading their work throughout Massachusetts and beyond. City Life and the radical housing movement are pushing for non-reformist reforms, primarily by building a movement to decommodify housing and delegitimize market ideology.

Threatened and displaced homeowners have fought back not because they embraced an abstract structural critique from the outset, but because City Life’s organizing work has remained in touch with their everyday life needs, practices, and common sense. The combination of concrete victories, the development of a culture of solidarity, and the development of a political analysis are what allow the group to contest hegemony.

City Life has successfully protected hundreds of families from displacement, often with militant eviction blockades. But the depth of its organizing is shown in how many continue to fight for others’ homes even after they have lost their own. For dozens, City Life’s meetings are a routine part of their life, even years after their individual struggle is over.

While broad structural change is the ultimate goal of City Life, it recognizes that such change requires a mass movement and that what builds a mass movement is fighting and winning smaller battles. On the level of everyday experience, winning a “small battle” means something quite big. These victories transform the disempowerment built into the daily life of these communities. Moreover, solidarity isn’t something that is taught — it is lived and built.

Collective affirmation through techniques such as storytelling and call-and-response are continuously present at meetings and actions. Through these and other routine practices of struggle and group formation, City Life creates its own social universe where dominant culture is turned upside down — where collective struggle and continuously fighting for others often becomes more important than one’s own home. The organization uses political education and discussion, which are present in every meeting, to allow homeowners and tenants the moral space to challenge disempowering dominant ideologies. Foreclosure is the first site of education, and it is this initial focus on a “narrow issue” coupled with an accessible yet expansive political education that allows homeowners and tenants to develop a deeper structural awareness.

So much of left analysis is from “scratch” because it is socially and culturally removed from the lived experience of the structures it critiques. Our intellectuals are usually inorganic ones — they speak from a place of cultural and linguistic distance. One of City Life’s primary tasks is fostering organic intellectuals among the people who are best suited to elaborate a structural analysis given their proximity to the foreclosure crisis: homeowners and tenants. They are not just eloquent orators acting as a mouthpiece, but are on the ground and integrated into the affected group. They know about how things actually work, feel, and are accomplished, and they share the structural critique on both practical and intellectual levels. They make the best organizers for advancing a war of position.

City Life’s model has spread throughout Massachusetts, to New York, Washington, and beyond. The socialist left, with waning relevance and few recent successes to speak of, should take note of a growing Gramscian organizing project that is taking the offensive against finance capital. It is not just a matter of replicating City Life’s work, but of replicating the spirit of its organizing model.

We must find new and creative ways to address structural issues at the level of experience and culture. Gramsci may be frequently invoked, but he is practically misunderstood. By building a counter hegemony, he meant more than peddling a pre-fabricated alternative to capitalist ideology. People don’t embrace a counter-hegemony, they build it. Left organization must provide the building tools.

The attempt to wage a war of position by laying out a series of arguments to be expounded and embraced, by attempting to “introduce from scratch a scientific form of thought into everyone’s individual life,” the Left fails to take Gramsci seriously — and in this era, we must all be Gramscians.