Thursday, March 11, 2010

Teaching Marx

On Thursday morning, I start teaching Marx to my Great Philosophers course (I posted part of my introduction to the course here). Up to this point, we've covered Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, and Rousseau, but with Marx there is an important rupture. As Marx states in the 11th thesis on Feuerbach, "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it." Now, this doesn't tell the complete story of philosophy, because, to be fair, the German idealists recognized the changes and crises that accompanied industrialization. Nevertheless, if they did not view these crises as spiritual crises, they gave only an incomplete picture of what the historical determinations of thought were. As Marx states in the 'Introduction' to his Toward a Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, the criticism of theology must become the criticism of politics. This turn had yet to be fully realized in either Schelling or Hegel.

More importantly, however, there are a series of questions that become comprehensible within philosophy only after Marx. These are the kind of questions that I start my first lecture with, and I am writing them out here because this format is allowing me to overcome the writer's block I was experiencing (and then I found the page in Michel Beaud's A History of Capitalism that I was searching for, that has a few of these questions). Usually I just ask these questions as I think of them, as I lecture, but I haven't been so sharp in the morning classes. Hence I need to write them down. Often I wonder if this are the first time that some of my students have thought about them, even if this won't be the last, because after Marx I teach de Beauvoir and, this semester, I've added Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism.

These are things we ought to be thinking about, and we ought to be seeking their cause in the capitalist relations of production, not in what I've called Anything But Capitalism (culture, modernity, etc.). These are questions of economic justice (so "Is it fair" = economic justice). 1a, 2a, and 3 are adapted from Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism (Monthly Review Press, 2001: p. 310).

1a. Is it fair that the most important resources and effort of the world populace are directed toward the satisfaction of a minority of the planet's inhabitants (which I will call the global north, which includes the US, Canada, and Europe-- although China and India are very rapidly joining the most economically advanced part of the world economy), while a large majority lives tenuously and in destitution?

1b. Is it fair that the richest part of the world commands the social organization of a majority of the world's population, who often labor as providers of raw materials and producers of commercial goods at wages far below any acceptable standard in the Global North?

2a. Is it fair that satisfying the needs, for a few generations, of that proportion of humanity who possess purchasing power should threaten the resources and stability of our planet (its geopolitics and its ecology), to the point where interests of future generations are irreversibly harmed?

2b. Is it fair that the Global South must bear much of the cost of the industrial production already developed in the North?

3. Is it fair that choices which involve the future of the earth and human society should be abandoned to agencies that possess either a very restricted vision (a market or a slice of market) or a shortsighted vision (the expectation of a more or less short-term profit)?

4. Is it fair that just as the world gets smaller for us (travel is more available and less expensive) that the majority of the world's population is confined, for various reasons (poverty or legal restriction on travel), to their local areas? Does not the influx of tourist dollars reproduce the dependency of these economies on the post-colonial metropoles?

5. Finally, a local question for us. Is it fair that our institutionally established public goods are being privatized (or, forced to join the market) when it shifts the cost from society as a whole to individuals, and the benefit to private companies? Should public goods like health care or education be organized according to profit motive rather than toward generating social wealth?

Of course, I'm not going to answer these questions in my class, but I am going to show how Marx proposes that we can only grasp these questions by interpreting them through the lens of social antagonism.

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