Sunday, February 21, 2010

Unscrambling Marx

I'm about to begin teaching Karl Marx in my 19th C. philosophy class this week. Although students usually get some (very elementary) introduction to Marx in most of my other classes as well, this is the course in which they get the most extensive and systematic exposure to his writings. I always anticipate the Marx section with an admixture of joy and apprehension, excited about delving into Marx's ideas again, but dreading the resistance with which they are always met.

I have often asked myself: Why is Marx so difficult to teach to students? Marx certainly isn't the "hardest" thinker I cover in my courses-- his texts aren't as dense as Hegel's, or as complicated as Kant's, or as polyvalent as Plato's, or as idiosyncratic as Derrida's. But unlike those other thinkers (with the possible exception of Derrida), students come to class already with a host of prejudices and presuppositions about Marx that are very hard to overcome. A few years ago, I experimented with the practice of beginning the Marx section of my course by simply asking students what they "knew" of Marx already, in the hopes that getting the "scrambled" Marx out there and visible right on the front end would be helpful. (It wasn't helpful.) NYU Professor Bertell Ollman once noted, in book called Social and Sexual Revolution, that "the major hurdle in presenting Marxism to American students is their bourgeois ideology, the systematic biases and blind spots, which even the most radical bring with them." There is nothing in bourgeois idelogy, Ollman notes, that doesn't have a "scrambling effect" on students' reception of Marxian ideas. He describes this bourgeois ideology in two levels, the first harder to overcome than the second. Ollman writes:

In my experience, the most troublesome notions have been students' egotistical and ahistorical conception of human nature; their conception of society as the sum of separate individuals, and with this the tendency to reduce social problems to problems of individual psychology; their identification of Marxism with Soviet and Chinese practice; and of course the ultimate rationale that radical change is impossible in any case. Much less destructive and also easier to dislodge are the intrinsically feeble notions that we are all middle class, that there is a harmony of interests under capitalism, that the government belongs to and represents everybody equally, and that history is the product of the interaction of great people and ideas.

Check. I've encountered all of these in my classes. (The most consistently frustrating to me being the "ultimate rationale that radical change is impossible in any case.") But if there's one thing that we ought to have learned from Marx, it is that bourgeois ideology tends to be totalizing and, hence, none of us are entirely free of its distorting effects. And so, even as I attempt to chip away at and unscramble some of the bourgeois misconceptions above, I must also remain attentive to my own bourgeois blind spots. Yet, taking this kind of piecemeal approach can be frustrating and time-consuming, and it evidences its own kind of misunderstanding of how ideological frameworks work. If only there were a way to do the unscrambling work at the meta-level instead of at the level of details.

Here, Ollman is helpful, I think. After describing the elements of students' bourgeois resistance to Marx above, he wrties:

Underpinning and providing a framework for all these views—whether in the form of conclusions or assumptions, and whether held consciously or unconsciously—is an undialectical, factorial mode of thinking that separates events from their conditions, people from their real alternatives and human potential, social problems from one another, and the present from the past and the future. The organizing and predisposing power of this mode of thought is such that any attempt to teach Marxism, or indeed to present a Marxist analysis of any event, is doomed to distortion and failure unless accompanied by an equally strenuous effort to impart the dialectical mode of reasoning.

We've just completed 5 weeks on Hegel's Phenomenology in my class, so I hope that my students are well-prepped for an extra emphasis on the dialectical mode of reasoning. I plan to try this strategy this time around. If nothing else, I hope it can help assuage my frustration with the fatalistic, "radical change is impossible" mindset that so often impedes our study of Marx. One of the things that I hope my students learned from Hegel's Phenomenology is that no matter how frustrated consciousness got at the apparent irrationality of its world, and no matter how convicted it was in its despairing claims that nothing could be done, it eventually learned that the tools it needed to reconcile itself with the world were already immanent to it.


anotherpanacea said...

Happy Birthday to the Communist Manifesto!

Have you looked at Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? A lot of my Marxist friends have recommended it lately, and it's at the top of my pile of post-defense reading:

Art Carden said...

I have a two-part question, since I'm probably teaching Econ 323 (Classical & Marxian Political Economy) in the Spring:

What in Marx doesn't derive from his economics, and if his economics is wrong, what remains? Here's my piece on Marx for Foreign Policy, and more detailed and extensive criticisms are available in Eugen Bohm-Bawerk's Karl Marx and the Close of His System, Joseph Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis, Thomas Sowell's Marxism, Murray Rothbard's Classical Economics, and Ludwig von Mises's Socialism and Human Action.

DOCTOR J said...


To your first question ("What in Marx doesn't derive from his economics?") I would say: quite a bit. I think it's a mistake to view Marx primarily as an "economist." His critique of one economic system, capitalism, was just a part of a larger philosophical project that is indebted more to Hegel and Feuerbach (among others) than his economist contemporaries. Just to use one example, I think it's more correct to view Marx's particular "economic" analyses as following from his theory of estranged labor (derived as it is from Hegel's account of "alienation" in the Phenomenology), rather than the reverse. So, what there is in Marx that is not *derived* from economics is a whole constellation of philosophical speculations about human social and political life, the relationship between material conditions and the "superstructural" ideas by which we understand those conditions, the manner in which individual, group and historical consciousness is formed, and-- implicit in all of those-- a model of what philosophers call "the good life."

To your second question, I'm not sure I agree with you that "Marx's economics is wrong"... if what you mean by that is, primarily, his critique of capitalism. I took a look at your Forbes essay and, as you might guess, I'm unconvinced that the evidence is there to dismiss Marx as quickly as you do. You claim that Marx is "wrong" on three main points: (1) that the lives of the poor and working class will grow more wretched under capitalism, (2) that capitalism depends on estranged/alienated labor, and (3) that the fundamentally exploitative nature of capitalism will eventually generate its own "crisis." I'm sure you know already that there is a wealth of scholarly literature (philosophical, economic, and social/political) available to support all three of these claims.

But it is on the third claim that I find your objection the most puzzling. How do you explain the current "crisis" of capitalism? Do you think it is *not* in crisis? It seems to me that even the most stalwart defenders of capitalism today will readily admit that much of our current crisis is due to indulgent and overly-exploitative practices... which is, of course, exactly what marx predicted.

Art Carden said...

Interesting: I'll add your insights to my Econ 323 notes (with credit, of course). On progressive impoverishment and exploitation, I refer you in particular to chapter 14 of Gregory Clark's "A Farewell to Alms." As a result of industrialization, returns on capital and land stayed largely constant while real wages for unskilled labor exploded. The first sixty pages or so of Deirdre McCloskey's The Bourgeois Virtues--her Apologia--make a pretty solid case. pp. 1-52 are in the Google Books preview. Here's a paper on the same she presented when I was in grad school; here's a draft of her Bourgeois Virtues MS that provides a $0.00 substitute for the published version.

Short answer on the current crisis: the current crisis is a crisis of interventionism, not "capitalism." My friend Steve Horwitz has a great little essay called "An Open Letter to My Friends on the Left" making this point (I'm reading his book now and visiting his institution this week). Economic crises are not produced by anything inherent in free markets. They're produced by distortionary interventions. Fortunately, Roger Garrison has a lot of very handy powerpoint slideshows and the like explaining different approaches to the theory of the business cycle.

My fear, though, is that we mean different things when we say capitalism, and indeed some of my free-market loving friends are actually trying to abandon the term, which I'll admit isn't really descriptive of free markets. When I say "capitalism," I mean secure private property rights and unfettered markets. Thus, taking from Peter to pay General Motors is interventionism, not capitalism. From what I can gather, a lot of commentators on the left would put the circus of expropriation and redistribution whereby firms like GM, Chrysler, Archer Daniels Midland, Nand others are enriching themselves at the political trough under the banner of "capitalism."

DOCTOR J said...

Art, thanks for the followup comment. It occurs to me (actually, quite often in our discussions) that we might both benefit from some kind of a collaborative workgroup on these questions. My guess is that we're sometimes talking past each other more than a little bit. An example: several times in our conversations we've disagreed on this point about whether or not the lives poor people have gotten better or worse. Now, it's certainly the case that there is a LOT of lattitude in how we measure things like "better" and "worse" when it comes to quality of life issues. My sense is that you measure them on strictly "economic" terms (are workers being paid more?) while I am inclined to situate the wages of workers in a broader context of what I see as increased alienation and dehumanization, decreased mobility and possibility, and almost entirely non-existent agency for structural change. Is there a meeting point somewhere between our positions? I don't know, but I'd be interested to see.

As you note above, I think we also suffer from some vague vocabulary usage. So, all of that is just to say that I'd be interested in talking more extensively about this-- more extensively than the short blurbs that we've been afforded on panels together or in our blog exchanges, at least. I'd like to know more about the (technical) economic vocabulary and values you are employing, and I'd like to share with you some more of the broader philosophical content of Marx's work.

You'll have to take this proposition as a good-faith IOU for now, though. I've got to get through 3rd year review and finish my book before I can undertake anything else time-consuming!

DOCTOR J said...

One last thing, Art: why haven't you become a "Follower" of this blog yet? You're one of my best and most consistent commenters!

Lorenzo said...

But if there's one thing that we ought to have learned from Marx, it is that bourgeois ideology tends to be totalizing and, hence, none of us are entirely free of its distorting effects. And so, even as I attempt to chip away at and unscramble some of the bourgeois misconceptions above, I must also remain attentive to my own bourgeois blind spots.
Can I just express how much I hate this sort of thinking. It is essentially an open invitation to develop contempt for one's "unenlightened" fellow citizens. That societies and cultures have operating presumptions that are deeply embedded is obviously true. But that is a very different notion than this "suffocating blanket" concept of systematic delusion and malign power over perception and understanding.

... their identification of Marxism with Soviet and Chinese practice; But Soviet and Chinese practice have something to do with Marxism. Indeed, I would argue that they, in fact, express the underlying logic of operationalising Marxism pretty well. The "Lenin was a bad Marxist" and "it just hasn't been tried properly" are defensive justifications rather than hard-headed analysis.

Radical change in the society-transformed sense may not be impossible: but the record is pretty clear that it is a bloody (literally) bad idea.

And Marx's economics is wrong in a straightforward sense that the labour theory of value is simply false. Moreover, Marx's critique of capitalist exploitation relies on playing games with one's concept of 'labour'.

Art Carden said...

@Doctor J: I'm now a "follower." Do I need to get a special tattoo or something now?

steve said...

I appreciate this post, since I have had similar experiences when teaching the Communist Manifesto. A student exclaimed he couldn't believe Marx wrote for the proletariet because (1) it was too hard to read, and (2) he wasn't proletariet himself. Sigh. My strategy since then has been to teach Marx as if everything he says is completely sensible and obvious and hope it rubs off, but I admit that that's not a very sophisticated or sound approach. Also, I show videos of sweatshop labor in the various "special trade zones" in third-world countries. That helps them visualize alienation of labor and the brutality of capitalism quite well.

But I think that when you teach Marx's debt to Hegel you shouldn't underestimate his debt to Adam Smith and other economists. If you read the first book of Wealth of Nations and the first book of Capital together, you will see how similar they are both in structure and in content. And later in Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith himself was viciously critical of the merchant class which he points out conspires against the working class. He also claims free market capitalism is as likely to happen as More's Utopia. He definitely sounds like a precursor to Marx in those moments. (This is a problem with philosophy departments in general, in my opinion, who constantly repeat a narrow genealogy of texts -- Descartes, Hobbes, Hegel, Marx, blah blah blah -- even though the philosophers they teach were themselves casting their own nets far more widely. Marx also frequently quotes from Adam Fergusen whom many of my philosophically inclined friends have never even heard of.)

But I agree with Art amd Lorenzo that theory of labor and surplus value has been since discredited, but it was discredited not just in Marx, but also in all the other economists writing back then, including Smith. So, it's not like the free market praising fans of Adam Smith still analyze the word to the letter of Smith either. And I also agree that Marx shouldn't be disassociated from his legacy of Lenin and Mao. But what I would add to Lorenzo is that captialist economics shouldn't be disassociated from its history of slavery, genocide, sweatshops, child labor, racism, sexism, and colonialism. And Marx should be praised for his philosophical legacy in the liberation movements of those countries as they struggled against such capitalist, colonialist practices. Most students tend to be against slavery, genocide, and colonialism, and I find that they warm up to Marx when put in that context.

Lorenzo said...

captialist economics shouldn't be disassociated from its history of slavery, genocide, sweatshops, child labor, racism, sexism, and colonialism.
All of which happened in Leninist states too. It was, after all, the Soviet Union which reintroduced both slavery (its labour camps were patently a system of state slavery) and serfdom (the law tying workers to their workplace is the essence of serfdom). So Marx is demonstrably not a path out of such horrors.

Indeed, the tyranny, poverty and oppression is worse in Marxist states than in comparable capitalist states. Moreover, there were perfectly adequate critiques of all those horrors which do not get any extra force whatsoever from Marx's analysis. On the contrary, they are better since they do not lead, as his did, to new (and often worse) versions of them. Indeed, thoroughly capitalist states abolished slavery and produced prosperous, peaceful and free societies. So, clearly, none of these horrors were at all required by capitalism.

So, if they occur in capitalist and non-capitalist societies and some capitalist societies have either abolished them or reduced them to levels never before achieved, clearly they have nothing specifically to do with capitalism.

Conversely, if Marxism in power always leads to oppressive tyrannies, then clearly it most emphatically has no moral claim on our belief.