Figure of Intellectuals in the Context of Social Medias 

Foto: Michael Campanella / Getty Images

For Karl Marx, it is the structural economic factors of capitalist society such as class inequality, crises and cyclical recessions and a growing proletarian class that should inevitably lead the oppressed classes to rebel and set up a new society, e.g. a communist society. Indeed, it is an economic determinism that should lead them to change. Since these economic factors were more prevalent in the industrial capitalist societies of the 20th century in Western Europe, such as France, Germany or England, these societies should have been the first to rebel. But in these societies, communism exists and thrives but fails to impose itself and, strangely, the first great internal communist revolution will take place in a less industrialized country with rural majority like Russia in 1917, then in others in countries with the same configuration, such as China, Cuba or Vietnam.

So the question is: why communism could not emerge in Western Europe, in a more fertile environment according to Marx and appears in these rural societies?

Gramsci will answer this question by developing the concept of Cultural Hegemony: of course the bourgeoisie dominates the proletariat through economic relations and by force, but it is not enough without the consent of the oppressed, which is why these bourgeoisies societies convey a certain ideology, a certain culture, certain values for the proletariat via various means of communication such as the press, the compulsory school to educate the proletariat to accept domination, to manufacture in a way its consent.

Values such as individualism, competitive spirit, exacerbated nationalism, belief in the possibility of a social rise and consumer behavior are spread in society in a more or less subtle way and make the proletariat accept its position. 

For Gramsci, there is the idea that the organization of culture is “organically” linked to the dominant power. “Every social group, which is born on the ground originating in an essential function in the world of economic production, is created, at the same time, in an organic way, one or more layers of intellectuals who bring to it homogeneity and consciousness of its own function, not only in the economic field, but also in the social and political field “.

So how to change, how to reverse this system? By observing the cultural hegemony of bourgeois society, Gramsci advocates a war of position, a cultural war. Communist activists have to infiltrate the means of propagating ideas: the media, the press, literature, art, music, and so on to propagate socialist ideas and to make the proletariat aware of a class consciousness in opposition to the values and ideals of capitalist society.

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On the 23th July 2019, a young girl of 16 years old has been invited to speak in frot of the French Parliament. With serious and a monotone voice, she asked these adults in charge of the rules and regulation of the French government to realize the importance of the climate crisis, to listen and respect what the scientists from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have repeatedly stated and insist that France, as well as other industrial countries of Europe respects the 1.50 C limit of global warming as agreed in the Paris Agreement. 

This very young girl has recently been globally famous, her name is Greta Thunberg, she comes from Sweden and has become in less than one year the main figure for militancy against global warming. Apart of being extremely vocal on this topic she has an Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, which cause her to speak with an expression of urgency, in a monotone voice.

Two month later, on the 23nd of September she delivered a speech at the United Nation annual meeting, the content, as well as the way she delivered it, have became viral on every social media (totalizing more than 100 millions of viewers on YouTube only): 

“My message is that we’ll be watching you. This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. (…) How dare you pretend that this can be solved with just “business as usual” and some technical solutions? (…) You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”  (Speech at the U.N. September 23, 2019)

This paper is by no mean a statement about her or what she has to say, it is a tentative to question this new phenomenon talking about climate change in a completely different way. She has also become a woman voice with a very different kind of approach, does it tell us anything about new emerging voices? And could we say that Greta Thunberg a form of “organic intellectual”? 

The reaction to the speech of Greta Thunberg at the French Parliament has been quite violent, from the political elite, she has been called “An apocalyptic guru”, “A Nobel price of fear”, “a prophet in short pant”, a deputy even said that “unfortunately spanking kids is now forbidden as she should be severely punished”.

And the same kind of reactions after her speech at the U.N.  came from some of the most influential French leftist intellectuals: Michel Onfray, described the young girl as kind of cyborg, a robot without any expression; Pascal Bruckner, condemn her as “a dangerous propaganda of climate infantilism”, while for the philosophers Luc Ferry and Alain Finckelkraut, Greta’s radical ecology is actually a defense of the doctrine of “civilization collapse”, that is, the anti-liberal ideal of leftism and third worldism, seeing in it it the ideological continuation of “dead communism”. Worst Bernard Chenebault, president of the Friends of the Museum Palais de Tokyo association in Paris, have been dismissed last September after calling for the murder of Greta Thunberg on social medias. 

On the other hand, apart of the masses who support Greta’s message and have been organizing huge demonstrations around the world, especially the young generation, some intellectuals see in her a form a Joan of Arc, a messianic figure who tell the truth whatever it is. 

Camella Nelson, Associate Professor in Media, at University Notre Dame, Australia underline the mostly aggressive reactions from masculine commentators “By attacking industrial capitalism, and its ethos of politics as usual, Thunberg is not only attacking the core beliefs and world view of certain sorts of men, but also their sense of masculine self-worth. Male rage is their knee-jerk response.” Or “accusations of emotionality, hysteria, mental disorders and inability to think for oneself – stereotypical labels that are traditionally used to silence women’s public discourse and undermine their authority “

While Slavoj Žižeck have recently given his opinion about Greta Thurnberg in an interesting point of view: “I totally support the movement of Greta, you know why? Her autism is part of her message, today we need this kind of dogmatic approach. Do we need to live in a society where we have to debate democratically if rape is good or not? Of course not. (…)  We need this kind of approach, this is the position of Antigone, she is the dogmatic, she says “fuck off, I am going to bury my brother (…) Sometimes this kind of fresh ways, this kind of dogmatic approach, her autism, which means she doesn’t want to play this rhetorical game. She doesn’t say she have the answers. It’s a deep message because most of us, we don’t really take this ecological thread seriously. And our usual reply is what I would have called fetishist disavowal: ‘We know but you cannot solve it so easily. We have to be patient. And then we do nothing. Her message is simply: “Take science seriously. Act. Do it seriously.’”

But could we really qualify Greta as an intellectual? To the question, there exists a more or less consensual answer which is to say that the intellectual is: a person who is dedicated to the exercise of the mind, who seeks, analyzes, produces and diffuses knowledge, which participates in the public debate, which enriches qualitatively and quantitatively the heap of knowledge already existing in a specific field, a discipline and / or a subject. 

According to this definition, Greta Thurnberg is obviously not an intellectual as she just asks us to take very seriously what the scientists have already repeatedly said. Could she be the kind of organic intellectual whose duty is to speak to the obscured precepts of folk wisdom, or common sense? Does she bring homogeneity and consciousness of her own function in the social field, to paraphrase Gramsci? Could we say that the young generations of today are an excluded social groups of a society referred to as the subaltern by Gramsci? If we consider that organic intellectuals are most important since they are the ones who actually elaborate and spread organic ideology, then the message of Greta could be seen as a new form of message needed to change a world situation, the one which is the results of capitalism and neo-liberalism. Could the realization of the urgency of the ecological situation be the origin of a global revolution and a transformation toward new forms of economical organization? It seems too early to answer to these question and the future will tell us. 

For sure, the fact that Greta Thurnberg, a 16 years old young girl from Sweden, have became globally famous, speaking on the same level with presidents or dignitaries of the main religions, will contribute to offer new ways of engagement, engage in new ways of negotiation.[ ]

References:   

  • Letters from prison, Antonio Gramsci
  • Antonio Gramsci, Steve-Jones (Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006)
  • Mais pourquoi Pascal Bruckner déteste-t-il Greta Thunberg? Slate Magazine online
  • Greta Thunberg, tête à clash, Olivier Estèves, professor of Lille University, Libération
  • Greta la science, Michel Onfray, on his own website, Michel Onfray.com
  • Greta Thunberg, “Miracle” climate savior or puppet? The Economic Times
  • Misogyny, male rage and the words men use to describe Greta Thunberg, Camilla Nelson, Meg Vertigan, The Conversation
  • Greta Thunberg and People still don’t take climate threat seriously, Slavoj Zizek, YouTube