The radical possibility of common sense

Clear, persuasive political messages require making people see the obvious.

The radical possibility of common sense

Clear, persuasive political messages require making people see the obvious.

Good punk music is obvious. That’s the whole point: it strips away all the finery so you can’t help but see the raw heart of it. But when I got on a punk kick for the first time in a few years, much of it seemed lifeless and boring, precisely because it was so obvious. Hearing a rat-tailed dude with bad tattoos scream about the horrors of corporate control and everyday fascism doesn’t feel revolutionary anymore, it feels tired. The message is as true as ever, but who has time to get up in arms about something we’ve all known for all our lives?

Yet some punk felt as vital as ever, even though it was just as obvious. The second verse in the IDLES song “Mother,” when singer Joe Talbot’s voice cracks screaming “my mother works seventeen hours seven days a week,” or live Downtown Boys shows when singer Victoria Ruiz mixes bilingual abolitionist speeches with simple calls to arms like “a wall is just a wall” — somehow, moments like these don’t sound lifeless truisms, they sound like the common-sense analysis of a budding generational movement. The things we’ve known for all our lives turn out to be things we’ve taken for granted, and suddenly something different seems not only possible, but inevitable.

The songs that work, work because they capture a shared experience: common sense requires a commons. Hearing the same tropes over and over again is deadening. When they speak directly to your own life, though, they can be a genuine revelation about the world and your place within it. But there’s a thin line between the common sense and the smug, between the obvious and the preachy.

This dynamic is especially notable with punk because the genre is so often a direct statement of leftist political values, and the turn to common sense is central to today’s insurgent politics. After collectively spending the last 10 years pretending to be dazzled by Ezra Klein’s charts and watching the Democratic Party means-test its way into oblivion, morally righteous simplicity is key to the left’s revival. The solutions to supposedly intractable social problems are clear, to hear the left tell it. Want to solve the ills of capitalism? Just take rich people’s money. Don’t you see?

The problem is many don’t. And liberals have their own simple slogans well in line with the wonks’ fundamental worldview: Love Trumps Hate and the Resistance and We’re Better Than This America and Immigrants Are Welcome Here and We Believe In Science and the Future Is Female. The supposed obviousness is the point. All these slogans are built on top of this country’s foundational myths — about American democracy and the inevitability of justice and of meritocracy. Their appeal depends on the extent to which you find these myths compelling, because common sense is really just the everyday form of ideology.

The things that are obvious to you are the features of the narratives you use to make sense of the world — which for most people are the ruling-class ones they’ve been socialized into believing. For most men in this country, it’s obvious that there are biological differences between men and women that explain why women handle the bulk of childcare. For most of the Democratic Party, it’s just common sense that Trumpism is an abnormality that can be fixed with our tried and true norms. (And for cynical aging punks, it’s obvious like corporate life sucks — which doesn’t mean you don’t embrace it eventually.)

Marxists have long emphasized this function of common sense, leading them to declare war against it. Common sense is “based on surface appearances,” scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote for Socialist Worker in 2011. It is used to “explain away or cover up material reality,” hiding the true world behind useful fictions (useful for capitalists, anyway).

The key is finding the shared experiences of the largest group, and speaking to them in the clearest terms possible.

If socialism is growing today, it’s because that old common sense is too threadbare to make an effective cover up. What was once obvious is now up for debate. To take just one recent example, it’s hard to believe in meritocracy when college-admissions scandals prove that even the traditional forms of gaming the system aren’t good enough for rich people anymore. The stories about hard work paying off stop sounding believable. The reality of class hierarchy is ever more visible.

But this kind of analysis quickly drifts into the arrogant condescension that has long plagued much of the left, limiting its spread to those already predisposed to support it. Taylor quotes Frederick Engels’s notion of “false consciousness” in her dismissal of common sense — something that has too often implied that the Marxists know more about people’s own lives than the people themselves. Add the fact that today’s socialists are emphasizing how simple and obvious their insights are and you have all the elements of a viewpoint that can sound as cold and lifeless as bad punk and self-help books.

And yet the predominant common sense is a bunch of horseshit. There are mostly unacknowledged material conditions constraining our lives. While socialist insights — about corporate control and rising fascism and more — do seem kind of obvious, in many cases this appeal to obviousness is working.

This is the aesthetic side of politics: the struggle to get people to see what you see, even when — especially when — it’s blindingly obvious. And doing so without being a boring, condescending prick about it. After all, the target in 2019 is not just convincing people of the horrors of capitalism. It’s also stopping anti-capitalism from becoming another truism capitalism uses to sell more shit.

If Marxists are right, then artists and politicians and organizers have to make visible what philosopher and critic Stanley Cavell calls “the ordinary.” The problem is that the ordinary consists of “the missable, the unobserved, what we could call the uncounted, taken not as given but for granted.”

The trick is doing that well. But just as there’s no handbook for making good art, there’s nothing to guarantee that an appeal to the obvious will come off. “It is essential to making an aesthetic judgment,” Cavell says, “that at some point we be prepared to say in its support: don't you see, don't you hear, don't you dig?” Doing so necessarily risks falling flat. But that merely emphasizes the imperative of understanding what defines a person’s daily experience, of knowing what to emphasize to bring the ordinary clearly into view. “The best critic will know the best points," Cavell says. So how do we become those critics?

The key is finding the shared experiences of the largest group, and speaking to them in the clearest terms possible. “Time and again,” historian Max Elbaum wrote in Revolution in the Air, his classic history of the New Communist Movement, “tiny bands of militants who articulated demands that spoke to the aspirations of the dispossessed were able to move mountains.” That’s why slogans like the British Labour Party’s “For the Many, Not the Few” have encapsulated the most successful movements of recent years.

Especially after a global economic collapse whose full weight was felt only by the poor, and particularly in a country like England where ornate class rituals (say, former U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron being fellated by a dead pig) still govern daily life, basic, unadulterated class war offers a better explanation of why the world looks the way it does than any of the familiar tales about hard work or entrepreneurialism. The Labour Party is giving voice to the long felt but seldom spoken feelings of the country. Condensing that outlook into a simple, clear statement of intent creates the commons that can give life to a new common sense — so long as it’s backed up with actual, meaningful actions and policies to make it believable.

Consider Black Lives Matter, a slogan (and movement) that has indelibly changed the United States. In just three words, it both targets and denies the basic racist logic that has governed this country for its entire history, a logic that is mapped onto people’s everyday lives in segregated neighborhoods and segregated jobs and segregated schools. Spoken alongside images and stories of the familiar, daily oppressions — and resistance — that have been a feature of black life on this continent since the first slave ship landed, Black Lives Matter reorders the way people see the world. Not by offering new information, but changing the way that information is connected, by making what has always been true obvious and urgent in a new way.

This kind of recognition in especially pressing in the era of alternative facts. The context for any music, any art, any speech, any experience at all in 2019 is an the ever-expanding web of content. That’s why every Black Lives Matter supporter in this country has probably had to explain that the slogan doesn’t mean only black lives matter. That’s why newspapers don’t just report; they report on their reporting to prove their trustworthiness. That’s why Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar saying an obvious thing about AIPAC’s influence ends up with Christian Meghan McCain calling Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley anti-semitic.

There is a constant whirlwind about what happened and what really happened and what it all means, so much so that it becomes ever more difficult to get a grip on any of it at all. It’s no wonder the tattered remnants of familiar bromides about Who We Are provide the most comfort for many: screaming from the midst of the mayhem that your take is not just the one true take, but that it’s obviously the one true take is always liable to turn the left into a closed-off subculture.

But the risk must be run, because, maybe ironically, all that noise makes the appeal to common sense particularly necessary, too. Only by rooting down into the ordinary facets of life, showing how left-wing ideas are obvious if only you look, can the left be truly heard. Corbyn and Black Lives Matter and Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders are already proving it works. Measured against the actual reality of the lives of working people, the familiar talking points are revealed as the bankrupt, mealy mouthed fictions they’ve always been.

It’s only in the process of struggling together with others, of building those connections in our daily lives, that the left will know how to make the obvious obvious. Not just because it will help us convince others of our program, but because it will ensure that our common sense doesn’t become its own disconnected fiction — something that has plagued far too many socialist sects. The only way to know what ordinary lives are like is to share in them. Find what you have in common, and it will all make sense.

Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina.