Tag: Streeck

Black Swan future?

Black Swan

Rowland Atkinson and Don Mitchell in ‘Fracturing Societies‘ paint a rather bleak picture:

The world feels like it is falling apart, and maybe it really is. Maybe the weight of human misery, the collapse of civil societies, ethno-national tensions and divisions, political exits and polarization and the accelerating ecological crisis, maybe all of this make things different this time” .

…I personally struggle to see the positive: Rockstrom et al on the Anthropocene, ‘safe operating space for humanity’; Jared Diamond in ‘Collapse’; Wolfgang Streeck….

Of course, and acknowledging confirmation bias, there are many pessimistic voices. One might say that ever since the rise of capitalism in its various guises there have been jeremiads – we know who they are – and the optimist (Indur Goklany, Daniel ben -Ami, Martin Wolf) can say ‘they were proved wrong’. This depends on inductive logic and a certain time frame.

Martin Wolf for example, in his review of Wolfgang Streeck, argues that we will not descend into a new ‘Dark Ages’ due to the progress we have already made, and points to the benefits of globalisation accrued to China and India. He also makes the (bourgeois) argument regarding democracy and capitalism:

“…the relationship between democracy and capitalism is not, as Streeck seems to believe, unnatural. On the contrary, both systems derive from a belief in the role of people as active citizens and economic agents. In the former role, they make decisions together; in the latter, they make decisions for themselves….both are essential. Moreover, democracy cannot function without a market economy”. 

Does it though? Does a market economy always defend democracy? ‘Active citizens and economic agents‘ are bourgeois myths, they are ‘abstracted ideal types’ rooted in neoclassical economics. It might be correct to say ‘democracy cannot function without a market economy’ but what is the evidence? We might want to consider that right now in 2017 liberal democracy has died, or is at least in critical care, right at the time when we tried to establish (neoliberal) market economies in the US and the UK.

Tell me the critics, like Streeck, were wrong in another 100 years. Progress enjoyed by Europeans and Americans might be easily swept aside by an event we are currently not aware of. Globalisation already has inner contradictions (viz Rust Belt and Silicon Valley America) playing out and manifest as authoritarian populism.  Some of us think we can just see perhaps a Black Swan (or a flock!).

“A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was”.

So, we should be on the look out for what seems impossible, what we don’t know. Large events continue to surprise us because we are looking in the wrong directions. In 2015 both Brexit and the Trump Presidency were Black Swans that few predicted or took seriously. Now, after the event everyone is an expert.

So what were we doing in Universities? Were we so wrapped up in trying to solve technical questions and academic navel gazing as we compete in a market for customers?

Not everyone. I count the likes of Zygmund Bauman, David Harvey, Slavoj Žižek and of course Nicolas Taleb, as some engaged with the bigger picture.

The role of the academy is to support and encourage Gramsci’s organic intellectual and not weigh them down with nonsensical Research Exercise Frameworks or Teaching Exercise Frameworks (or whatever neoliberal metrics your University uses).

C Wright Mills argued:

“It is the political task of the social scientist — as of any liberal educator — continually to translate personal troubles into public issues, and public issues into the terms of their human meaning for a variety of individuals”. (1959 p187).

If we accept this task, as social scientists, liberal educators, can we translate the personal troubles of people into public issues and then act upon this interrogation of cultural, social and political forms; can we reveal both the structural transformations currently taking place and the personal stories as experienced?

Following on from Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the organic activist v the traditionalist academic and Noam Chomsky’s entreaty that it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies, Brock argued the role of the social movement academic is to “to debunk the knowledge on which the powerful rest”. Although written many decades ago, Gramsci’s archetype may well be seen within the corporate university (Bill Readings) which supports and encourages the traditional and ignores the activist, and in which, too many are far too obedient to the established order of the corporate university.

Graham Scambler argues that academics can be but are generally not intellectuals, the distinction is important because the latter are so because:

1) They possess an academically credible vision and pathway for a better state of affairs.
2) This is argued in public.
3) They are unwilling to compromise except in the ‘face of a better argument’.
4) They reject sophistry and demagoguery in pursuit of their ends.

Basing his analysis on Burawoy’s ‘four sociologies’ – professional (the scholar), policy (the reformer), critical (the radical) and public (the democrat)’, Scambler adds a fifth: action (the activist) sociology, but suggests that intellectuals may operate across all 5, but there are few engaged in public and action sociology. To what degree we are academics or intellectuals perhaps is a moot point but is worth some critical reflection. It is suggested here that the structures in which they operate discourages debunking, overlooking its funding while focusing in high impact publishing and research grants.

To engage in the debunking Brock suggests, may require ‘intellectual craftsmanship’, ‘critical practice’ as critical analysis/action/reflexivity important for critical enquiry in the ‘paraversity’. This assumes that academics see themselves as a) intellectuals or b) engaged in critical transformative pedagogy with their students and communities, as much as some sociologists do. This latter is problematic as education may be overly reliant, in practice if not in espoused theory, on transmissive, competency, instrumentally based pedagogies.

If the University cannot rise to the challenge by having an impact of political decision making, we may the first civilization to scientifically document our own demise.

 

See: https://ca.finance.yahoo.com/news/nassim-taleb-donald-trumps-election-win-was-no-black-swan-191857463.html

Climate change is an unsolvable wicked social problem?

Climate change is an unsolvable wicked social problem?

 

 

The following outline of climate change as a wicked problem (Rittel and Weber 1973) is based on a reading of Reinar Grundmann’s (2016) ‘Focus on Climate change and the social sciences’. The work of Jurgen Habermas (1984, 1987) and Wolfgang Streeck (2016) contextualises the exposition of climate change as a wicked social problem and this paper agrees with Grundmann’s analysis that there are no easy answers for the short or medium term, here defined as within 50 years, and adds that perhaps there might not ever be. Thus we are adopting Gramscian ‘pessimism of the intellect’ which requires urgent work on adaptation for a very different and perhaps dystopian world by the end of the century.

 

Regardless of its genesis, whether that be human induced or natural cycles, climate change requires human responses. Mitigation is now probably too late, as we’ve in all likelihood passed 400 ppm of carbon dioxide permanently. This means we are locked into temperature rises above the 2 degree ‘safe’ level. This is taking us into a new era, the Anthropocene, beyond a ‘safe operating space for humanity (Rockstrom et al 2009). Therefore we will have to plan for, and more urgently talk about, adaptation, disaster management and conflict resolution. However and in what manner we come together, or not, to address the fact of climate change and all of the other ecological challenges, this a ‘wicked social problem’ exacerbated by contemporary changes in the geopolitical, social and technological order (Streeck 2016, Harari 2016). The Anthropocene may well be characterised as a period of insecurity, indeterminancy and dissipation of the social order into a miasma of dystopia. Human societies are experiencing the dialectic between risks arising from modernity and the solutions put forward to manage those risks (Beck 1986).

 

A wicked problem is the sort of problem that is inherently different from the sort of ‘tame’ problems that natural scientists and engineers grapple with.

 

First of all, ‘wicked social problems’ are never solved once and for all. They can only be better managed. Each ‘solution’ invokes another problem to address. Take, for example, crime. To achieve a society with a 0% crime rate involves either redefining what crime is, leaving unsolved the social problems certain activities previously defined as ‘crime’ invokes, or it requires an enormous and deep level of surveillance and loss of liberty that would have unintended consequences for human relationships and politics. Like a game of ‘whack a mole’ other social, political and philosophical problems would arise from such an answer.

 

A ‘tame’ problem would be an equation to solve, analysing a chemical compound, designing a bridge or checkmate in 5 moves (Grundmann 2016). Tame problems allow us to know what the measure of success is when they are solved, and success criteria are known beforehand. They have a ‘stopping rule’. The success criteria of wicked problems like crime are inherently political and often underpinned by cultural values within a power matrix of vested interests.

 

‘Wicked’ here means resistance to solution rather than evil. The problem is difficult to solve because of incomplete, contradictory and changing elements to them that are also difficult to recognise. The elements making up a wicked problem may be interdependent within a complex system and thus solving one element may exacerbate another aspect of the system and/or reveal another problem.

 

For climate change what are the ‘success criteria’? What indicators, metrics, outcomes or empirical observations can we make that allows us to claim success? This may depend on how we define climate change. Do we use the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) definitions (Grundmann 2016)?

 

The UNFCCC define it as “a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity, that alters the composition of the global atmosphere, and that is in addition to natural climate variability over comparable time periods”.

 

The IPCC define it as “any change in climate over time whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity”.

 

The UNFCCC focuses on human activity driving climate change, while leaving to one side natural variability. The IPCC encompasses both. Therefore climate policy would address anthropogenesis (UNFCCC) or everything (IPCC). In each case we would still need to construct measures of ‘success’.

 

If we could agree and state that the measure is ppm of C02 in the atmosphere then action would naturally be channelled towards addressing that figure. It is by no means clear that this would or could ‘solve’ the social problem of climate change such actions might entail. Climate change does not have a ‘stopping rule’ characteristic of tame problems. Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide might look like one but there are other measures such as carbon budgets, global average warming temperatures or heat content in the oceans. There is also fierce resistance to curbing carbon emissions and environmental regulation in some quarters based on free market and libertarian arguments (e.g. Cato Institute 2016), despite the agreement signed at COP21 in Paris in 2015.

 

 

The wider context in which climate change solutions operate.

 

The expression of climate change as a problem, and climate change solutions, interact with the social, cultural and political power context in which they operate. They are not ontologically separate from the social or the material and they operate within complex adaptive systems. Knowledge/power discourses frame their expression, their feasibility and their acceptability within often hegemonic, though not unchallenged, frames of reference.

 

That context is variously called late modernity, post modernity, post industrial, disorganised, financial, rentier, or neoliberal capitalism. Wolfgang Streeck (2016) pace Antonio Gramsci, suggests this context is actually a post-capitalist interregnum in which the old system is dying but a new social order cannot yet be born. Streeck calls the current order one of multi-morbidity, climate change being one of many frailties as we head towards social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminancy. Streeck argues that the current context is anchored in a variety of interconnected developments:

 

  1. Intensification of distributional (capital v labour) conflict due to declining growth
  2. Rising social inequality
  3. Vanishing macroeconomic manageability
  4. Steadily increasing indebtedness (private and sovereign)
  5. Pumped up money supply (from quantitative easing)
  6. Possibility of another financial crisis as per 2008
  7. The suspension of democracy
  8. Slowdown of social progress
  9. Rising Oligarchy and Plutocracy
  10. Governments’ inability to limit the commodification of labour, money or nature
  11. Omnipresence of corruption
  12. Intensified competition in winner takes all markets
  13. Unlimited opportunities for self enrichment (for the 1%)
  14. Erosion of public goods and infrastructure
  15. The failure of the US to establish a stable global order
  16. Public cynicism towards economics and politics.
  17. Rising populist nationalism and the spectre of fascism and isolationism in the US
  18. Fracturing political blocs and alliances
  19. Erosion of Democratic legitimacy ad thus a democratic deficit

 

 

To that:

 

  1. Health Inequalities.
  2. Potential Ecosystem collapse.
  3. Disruptive technologies: Automation, Artificial Intelligence and digitalisation.

 

 

There are countervailing voices. There are those who see a better future for humanity, placing belief in progress (Norberg 2016), reducing global violence (Pinker 2011), the ability of growth based capitalism to solve problems (Ben-Ami 2010, Goklany 2007, 2009) and the citing of improvements in key indicators such as reductions in infant mortality (see Hans Rosling’s ‘gapminder’ 2016). Added to this are of course the voices of politicians who promise to either “make America great again” , “A country that works for everyone” or “Russia as a Normal Great Power”. Extrapolating from the past into the future is of course inductive logic and is thus open to its critique. This also applies to the negative descriptions of the current state of affairs. The task remains to consider which view will prove correct? Not an easy question partly due to many issues being wicked problems.

 

These latter political narratives may be examples of ‘systematic distorted communication’, i.e. voices and discourses aimed at achieving very particular political ends inimicable to that aimed towards mutual understanding and social integration. This form of communication, according to Habermas (1984, 1987), involves one party being self deceived, it is a form of communication in which power differentials operate and are invisible.

 

For example, the Cato Institute argues on environmental regulation:

 

“Science can inform individual preferences but cannot resolve environmental conflicts. Environmental goods and services, to the greatest extent possible, should be treated like other goods and services in the marketplace. People should be free to secure their preferences about the consumption of environmental goods such as clean air or clean water regardless of whether some scientists think such preferences are legitimate or not. Likewise, people should be free, to the greatest extent possible, to make decisions consistent with their own risk tolerances regardless of scientific or even public opinion”.

 

On the face of it who would argue against freedom to decide one’s own risk tolerance? ‘Freedom’ is a public good is it not? What this statement ignores is the fact that some very powerful and well resourced ‘others’ are more ‘free’ to exercise risk tolerance, they are also more ‘free’ to engage in activities that involve ‘externalities’ – pushing the cost of one’s exercise of freedom onto others. How free were the victims of Union Carbide’s Bhopal ‘death by negligence’ of 1984 where at least 2000 died as a result of the plant’s gas leak? Union Carbide’s freedom to operate involved a power imbalance that denied the citizens from exercising their ‘risk tolerance’. How free are Londoners in exercising their ‘risk tolerance’ to nitrous oxide pollution from vehicle exhausts responsible for 9,500 deaths per year (Vaughan 2015)?

 

The Cato Institute argues it is a research organisation conducting independent non partisan research on a range of policy issues. It clearly states however that principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace underpin its work. Apart from the nebulous ‘peace’ (who is not for peace?), those principles are very clearly part of the neoliberal imaginary and are thus as ideological and partisan as many other organisations. On funding, Cato states on its home page that it receives ‘no government funding’. What it fails to clarify is who exactly funds it. On page 41 of its 2016 annual report there are only numbers of $ donated while preferring to refer to individuals, corporate and foundations as funding streams. However, Cato was founded by the Koch brothers, billionaire owners of Koch industries, who reportedly believe in lowering corporate and personal taxes, minimal social security and less oversight of industry (Mayer 2010). Hardly a non partisan viewpoint.

 

 

Habermas’ theory suggests that communicative action serves to transmit and renew cultural knowledge, in a process of achieving mutual understandings. It then coordinates action towards social integration and solidarity. Communicative action is also the process through which people form their identities. The current context suggests that communicative action, orientated towards the requirement for social integration for action on climate change, is extremely fragile.

 

Gross (2010) gave three examples of systematic distorted communication:

 

  1. The pervasive employment of Nazi language in Europe in the 1930’s in Europe.
  2. The everyday, routine use of sexist language.
  3. The prescription languages and practices of Physicians influenced by drug company promotions.

 

We may consider also:

 

  1. The narrative on individual responsibility for health
  2. The absolute requirement for deficit and debt reduction as a goal of policy
  3. Free market liberalism in the US and the UK
  4. An unaffordable NHS in the UK
  5. Immigration, asylum and refugee control
  6. Fossil fuel subsidies and continued extraction.
  7. The hegemonic Nuclear Deterrence Theory
  8. Koch brothers support for the Cato Institute on liberty, small government and free markets.

 

 

Climate change solutions arise and operate within this context. Today we have no easy solutions or even signposts that indicate success on progress to either mitigation or adaptation. It may even be the case that we are actually chasing rainbows. If we are entering a period where social institutions are breaking down, where system integration disappears leaving a mass of individuals to find individual solutions to the myriad problems they face, without grand integrative narratives to provide guidance, then social cohesion breaks down and Habermasian ‘communicative action’ dissipates in the face of the onslaught from the systematic distorted communication of power interests.

 

 

Beck U (1986) Risk Society. Towards a new Modernity. London Sage. (1992 edition)

 

Ben-Ami, D. (2010) Ferrari’s for All – In defence of economic progress. University of Bristol. Policy Press.

 

Cato Institute (2016) Environmental Regulation (online) http://www.cato.org/research/environmental-law-regulation accessed 13th October 2016

 

Goklany I (2007) The Improving State of the World: Why we are living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner Planet. Washington. Cato Institute

 

Goklany I. (2009) Is climate change the “defining challenge of our age”? Energy Environment, 20:279-302.

 

Gross A (2010) Systematically Distorted Communication: An Impediment to Social and Political Change. Informal Logic 30 (4): 335-360

 

Grundmann R (2016) ‘Focus on Climate change and the social sciences’ . http://discoversociety.org/2016/10/04/focus-climate-change-and-the-social-sciences/

 

Habermas J (1984) Theory of Communicative Action. Vol 1. Reason and the Rationality of Society. Cambridge. Polity Press

 

Habermas J (1987) Theory of Communicative Action Vol 2. Lifeworld and System. A critique of Functionalist Reason. Cambridge. Polity Press.

 

Harari Y (2016) Homo Deus. A brief History of Tomorrow. London Vintage.

 

Mayer J (2010) Covert Operations. The billionaire brothers waging a war against Obama. New Yorker. August 30th. Online http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations accessed 13th October 2016

 

Norberg J (2016) Progress. Ten reasons to look forward to the future. London Oneworld.

 

Pinker S (2011) The better angels of our nature. A history of violence and humanity. London. Penguin.

 

Rittell,H. and Weber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, pp. 155–169, Policy Sciences, Vol. 4, Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam

 

Rockstrom, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F. S., III, Lambin, E. F., Lenton, T. M., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H. J., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C. A., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S., Rodhe, H., Sorlin, S., Snyder, P. K., Costanza, R., Svedin, U., Falkenmark, M., Karlberg, L., Corell, R. W., Fabry, V. J., Hansen, J., Walker, B., Liverman, D., Richardson, K., Crutzen, P. & Foley, J. A. (2009) ‘A safe operating space for humanity’. Nature, 461 (7263). pp 472.

Rosling H (2016) MDG 4 Reducing Child Mortality available at https://www.gapminder.org/downloads/mdg-4-reducing-child-mortality/ accessed 13th October 2016

 

Streeck W (2016) The post-capitalist interregnum: the old system is dying, but a new social order cannot yet be born. Juncture 23 (2): 68-77

 

Vaughan A (2015) Nearly 9,500 people die each year in London because of air pollution. The Guardian (online) 15th July https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/15/nearly-9500-people-die-each-year-in-london-because-of-air-pollution-study accessed 13th october 2016

Antonio Gramsci on intellectual thought – challenging nursing.

Antonio Gramsci on intellectual thought – challenging nursing.

 

 

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), leader of the Italian Communist party, was arrested and imprisoned by the fascist regime in 1926 and died in the Quisisana clinic in Rome in 1937, aged 47. His pre prison work and his ‘prison notebooks’ have hugely contributed to the examination and development of political philosophy and intellectual thought. Among the ideas he developed are the role of the intellectual in culture and politics and the concept of hegemony. The prosecutor at his trial was acutely aware of his intellectual abilities, and thus threat, and stated:

 

“We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.”

 

(Buttigeig 2011 p16).

 

Gramsci found himself in a concrete prison not of his own choosing. Nurses find themselves in an abstract prison of the mind put there by their own reason, their lifeworld colonised by the systematic distorted communication of the strategic action of powerful others.

 

This is all a world away from the daily work of nursing, and so at first pass may appear of interest only to the likes of critical social scientists or historians of political thought. Reading Gramsci opens up a discussion on what being an intellectual might mean and of how power is exercised and maintained. Nurses going about their clinical work will not be vexed by such questions and it might be the case that academic nurses will not be either. That could be a mistake given the current context outlined by Streek (2016) of global challenges to social order which have current and future impacts on health and health care delivery.

 

That context is variously called late modernity, post modernity, post industrial, disorganised, financial, rentier, or neoliberal capitalism. Wolfgang Streeck (2016) echoing Gramsci, suggests this context is actually a post-capitalist interregnum in which the old system is dying but a new social order cannot yet be born. Streeck calls the current order one of multi-morbidity, climate change being one of many frailties as we head towards social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminancy. Streeck argues that the current context is anchored in a variety of interconnected developments:

 

  1. Intensification of distributional (capital v labour) conflict due to declining growth.
  2. Rising social inequality.
  3. Vanishing macroeconomic manageability.
  4. Steadily increasing indebtedness (private and sovereign).
  5. Pumped up money supply (from quantitative easing).
  6. Possibility of another financial crisis as per 2008.
  7. The suspension of democracy.
  8. Slowdown of social progress.
  9. Rising Oligarchy and Plutocracy.
  10. Governments’ inability to limit the commodification of labour, money or nature.
  11. Omnipresence of corruption.
  12. Intensified competition in winner takes all markets.
  13. Unlimited opportunities for self enrichment (for the 1%).
  14. Erosion of public goods and infrastructure.
  15. The failure of the US to establish a stable global order.
  16. Public cynicism towards economics and politics.
  17. Rising populist nationalism and the spectre of fascism and isolationism in the US.
  18. Fracturing political blocs and alliances.
  19. Erosion of Democratic legitimacy and thus a democratic deficit.

 

 

To that:

 

  1. Health Inequalities.
  2. Potential Ecosystem collapse.
  3. Disruptive technologies: Automation, Artificial Intelligence and digitalisation.

 

 

Streeck seems to suggest that it is the very success of neoliberal capitalism, its defeat of social democracy and forces that would otherwise tame its destructive tendencies, that has paved the way for such developments that characterise its internal contradictions. There is nothing left to save capitalism from itself.

 

There are countervailing voices such as Joseph Norberg (on the possibility and actuality of progress), Daniel Ben-Ami (on growth based capitalism to solve ecological problems) and Stephen Pinker (on reducing levels of global violence) who paint more positive pictures. Add of course the voices of politicians who promise to ‘Make America Great Again’, to create “A country that works for everyone’ or establish ‘Russia as a Normal Great Power’ or to regain ‘primacy in South East Asia after a century of humiliation’. The picture now is one of complexity, tension, dynamics and unpredictability.

 

None of this bothers most UK nurses who work with individuals who are ill, distressed, living with long term conditions, or dying in hospital and at home. They are also involved in public health basing their approaches in general health management, health education and health promotion. Their training and education focuses on instrumental competency based knowledge and skill acquisition but it lacks critical enquiry into the context in which they work. Gramsci’s approach to intellectual enquiry could provide a blueprint for alternative or complementary critical nurse education that has to consider wider socio-political determinants of health, the sort of developments that Streeck outlines.

 

 

 

Gramsci’s thinking

 

We get an insight into how Gramsci’s brain functioned from a letter he wrote in 1929 to the wife of a comrade who also was in prison for ‘anti-fascist’ activity. The context is that of how to study while in prison. The prison referred to, of course, had concrete existence. However, if we consider that today nurses may imprison themselves within the conceptual walls of stultifying paradigms that block freedom of critical thought, for example biomedical empiricism, his thoughts on reflection and analysis might be useful. The letter predates Wright Mills’ 1959 chapter on intellectual craftsmanship, a reading of which shows some commonality in approach and is an alternative to the metrics used today in our research excellence framework assessments. One wonders if Gramsci was writing today, would he secure tenure in some contemporary Universities.

 

He wrote in the letter that one must abandon, in the prison context, the ‘scholastic mentality’ and banish the thought of pursuing a regular and in depth course of study. Along with Wright Mills who later wrote about avoiding empirical work if he could help it as it was merely about sorting out facts and disagreements about facts, this statement appears to be counter intuitive until one considers that a goal of intellectual life could be about criticality, understanding philosophy, self, culture, history, politics and society. Again put this way, many nurses may well eschew intellectual enquiry as irrelevant.

 

Gramsci urged language learning as rewarding, but more interestingly is his outlook on the relative paucity of texts in prison libraries. He argued that a political prisoner must extract “blood from stones” (Buttigeig 2011 p15). The paucity of books in prison was of course a function of the external constraints imposed by the regime. The ‘paucity of books’ available to students today may be a result not of external concrete constraints but of internal self imposed constraints as to what counts as proper reading for a degree in Nursing. Gramsci experienced a concrete prison of walls imposed by the fascist regime. We might experience a ‘prison of the mind’ constructed by dominant cultural ideas (hegemony) imposed by ourselves upon ourselves through the process of normative governmentality. Gramsci argued for ‘extracting blood from stones’, the stones being whatever he could get.

 

To get the most of the books available to him, often popular novels, Gramsci adopted the following viewpoint:

 

“Why is this always the most read and most published literature?”

“What needs does it satisfy?”

 

“What aspirations does it respond to?”

 

“What sentiments and views are represented in these awful books that have such broad appeal?”

 

For student nurses, these questions could be applied to many of the texts, for example the professional body’s literature, that they read to assist with the development of critical thinking. Critique could be emancipatory but in actuality reading ends up in uncritical acceptance. I’m not talking about appraising and critiquing research evidence or engaging in critical analysis of for example leadership theories in nursing. Criticality is lacking in the socio-political and power domain.

An example of the lack of such criticality is the almost universal acceptance of the UK’s Nursing and Midwifery Council’s revalidation process. The requirement is for nurses to renew their registration every three years by following the process outlined by the NMC. The surface reason for revalidation is that it ‘promotes greater professionalism among nurses and midwives and also improves the quality of care that patients receive by encouraging reflection on practice against the revised code’. If we apply Gramsci’s questions above to the texts on revalidation put out by the NMC, a possibility arises that we just might make alternative and critical analyses of just such banal statements in official publications.

 

“Why is the NMC always the most read and most published literature on professional behaviour?” Because of its statutory position as the regulator to protect the public. Because Nurse educators use it as the basis for their teaching. Because the NMC has the power to discipline nurses…..

“What needs does it satisfy?” Neophyte nurses, especially, need guidance on professional behaviour and standards and don’t have the time, or resources or educational preparation to consider this in an in depth way. NMC guidance provides the generally widely accepted standard……

 

“What aspirations does it respond to?” To keep one’s registration and to bolster one’s subject position as ‘safe practitioner’

 

“What sentiments and views are represented in these awful books that have such broad appeal?” The sentiment of nursing as ‘character based moral work’, of nurses as ‘caregivers’, as self sacrificial angels who always cope……

 

The answers to the 4 questions of course are myriad and those above are merely some examples requiring further reflection, reflexivity and criticism.

 

The lack of critique of the NMC on revalidation illustrates ‘normative governmentality’, in that nurses and midwives, and perhaps more interestingly nursing academics, have internalised certain norms, values and assumptions that prevent them from seeing anything other than the official line. This could be an example of what Furedi (2006) refers to as philistinism underpinned by instrumentalism in higher education, in which academics become educational technocrats rather than what Gramsci refers to as organic intellectuals.

 

Intellectuals are those with broad reading, vision and a concern for public issues. Graham Scambler argues intellectuals are not only engaged in the public sphere but do so around an identifiable moral or political position. A question arises about the degree nurses and midwives are, or wish to be, engaged in moral and political questions, the degree to which they can engage in communicative action free from systematic distorted communication.

 

The questioning of texts exemplifies the Gramscian notion of critical enquiry and action and allows us to consider such questions as, for example, what counts as research in contemporary nursing faculties. The answer to that is political in that it frames what nurse academics study, write about and publish, and it frames what students of nursing count as valid knowledge. If we apply those questions to the published outputs of contemporary nursing scholarship what answers would we get? For example, does a high h index always indicate intellectual rigour or criticality? Given the wider determinants of health, which include the social, political and ecological, it could be suggested that health care professionals would be aided in their understanding of health and illness, and hence what to do about it, by critical enquiry that goes beyond accepted epistemologies.

 

Nursing students have been told to be critical thinkers and many University curricula claim to foster such thought. Texts are not to be accepted at face value, and that we should examine assumptions and viewpoints of writers. This should go beyond for example appraising research literature for methodological rigour. Should we also appraise the metaparadigms and epistemological assumptions of ‘acceptable’ and ‘REFable’ nursing research? Should we ask what degree does contemporary scholarship in nursing reflect the sort of intellectual enquiry that Gramsci and Wright Mills advocate? In a world increasingly characterised by forces that threaten to disrupt stability and global order in ways that could be catastrophic to human health, are we preparing nurses to face that?

 

Gramsci died far too soon, and ‘without honour in his own country’. Whether he considered his life a failure in that fascism still held power, nonetheless he provides a template for thinking, studying and critique in difficult circumstances. He had a vision, he was an intellectual, he had a political purpose. Whether academic nurses in the 21st century find this inspiring or irrelevant may depend on what vision we have for nursing praxis for the future.

 

 

 

Buttigeig J (2011) in Gramsci A (1975) Prison Notebooks. Volume 1 Ed. Einaudi G. Columbia University Press. New York.

 

Furedi F (2006) Where have all the intellectuals gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism. Continuum.

 

Gramsci A. (1975) Prison Notebooks. Vos 1-3. Edited Einaudi G. Columbia University Books New York.

 

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