Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How It Will Go, Episode 4: Teaching Marx

This is the fourth installment of my series How It Will Go, documenting the regularity of students' responses to certain figures/texts and, in the occasional rare instance that it happens, noting whatever variations I witness.

Today's episode: Karl Marx on "Estranged Labor" from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Context in which I teach this figure/text:  I teach Marx in a number of different courses, The only course in which I have enough time to teach the entirety of the 1844 Manuscripts is my 19thC Philosophy course, so most of the time I'm only teaching a selection of that text, namely the section on "Estranged Labor."  Nevertheless, whether in whole or in part, I find that students' responses to Marx tend to follow the same pattern.  As I often say to them on the first day we take up Marx's text, I don't think there is any other philosopher that students come to with more grossly erroneous assumptions and/or prejudices than Marx.  (Nietzsche is a very close second.)  As a consequence, I generally aim to direct my students' attention, in the very short time we have with Marx, toward his careful critique of capitalism and its constitutive dependence upon estranged/alienated labor, rather than his speculations regarding whatever may follow capitalism's inevitable collapse.  That is to say, my primary (if not singular) aim in teaching Marx's essay on "Estranged Labor" is to provide students with the conceptual apparatus necessary to realize that they are, qua workers, necessarily dehumanized by capitalism.

In sum, hers is HIWG:

First:  Students will reject Marx outright, straightaway, passionately and vociferously, without bothering to make any reference whatsoever to anything they've actually read by Marx.  They will repeat any number of standard, tired, at this point (very) old, anti-communist arguments manufactured by and propagated during the Cold War Era--which, let's be f'real here, ended before their parents even conceived them!--  and they will unreflectively (and ignorantly) appeal to the so-called "collapse" of communism (by which they will mean the collapse of the Soviet Union, a body that, not for nothing, NEVER EXISTED IN THEIR LIFETIME) as slam-dunk evidence that Marxism is "good in theory but does not work in the real world."  I will let them blather on,  I will try to not to cringe. I will resist correcting what is, by any reasonable account, their fundamentally prejudicial and/or revisionist histories of so-called "communist" states (the Soviet Union, Cuba, China, North Korea) as well as their lack of recognition of the manner in which fundamentally "communist" ideals have kept their own democratic/capitalist state afloat.  I will exercise an almost-saintly degree of patience.  And, then, I will insist that we return to the text.

Second: After forbidding any reference to whatever students may consider to be Realpolitik proof that "communism doesn't work," and after insisting that we attend to what is actually there in the text, students will finally be forced to put aside, for a moment, the prejudices they brought with them,  We will  return our attention to working through the iterations of "estranged labor" that capitalism requires, one by one, as Marx articulates them.

Third:  Students will actually attend to the text before them-- because I've ham-handedly forced them to do so-- and, all of the sudden, voila!, their perception of their own lived-experience will be given a new narrative frame, one that makes sense to them. Students will be like, OMG WTF HELL YEAH  MARX'S DESCRIPTION OF "ALIENATION" IS EXACTLY HOW I FEEL AT MY JOB, YO.

Fourth:  Students will be like, OMG WTF "PROFIT" (i.e., surplus value) IS DEPENDENT UPON MY ALIENATION AS A WORKER.  THAT AIN'T RIGHT!


Sixth:  Students will have what Christians call a "come to Jesus" moment (See: Matthew 19:24), and what we regular old philosophers call the deduction of a true conclusion from a valid and sound  argument.   Only now, at long last, are they ready to think about what might constitute an alternative.  And, not at all shockingly, many of them are far more inclined to consider Marx's principle, articulated in his "Critique of the Gotha Program"-- "From each according to their abilities.  To each according to thir needs"-- as a legitimately reasonable way to organize society.

And so it goes.

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