Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: July 2010

“The Marx Week”

I’ve been asked to do a guest lecture on Marx for a large first-year undergraduate economics for social scientists course, which apparently spends its final three weeks on the general theme of “radical approaches to economics”. I’ve been invited, in other words, to cover “the Marx week”.

I suspect that anyone who reads this blog regularly (or who used to read it regularly, when I used to update it regularly – those regular updates will come again, I promise!) will have some sense of the dilemma this invitation will cause. The Marx of Marx scholarship is not the Marx of survey undergraduate courses – and “my” Marx is sort of an outlier even for Marx scholarship… I don’t want to give a lecture to a set of unwitting undergraduates that gives them an impression of Marx that would simply be unrecognisable in relation to the more conventional conceptions of Marx they are going to encounter elsewhere. At the same time, I don’t think I could give a good lecture about… someone else’s Marx…

So somehow I think I need to give a lecture that canvasses the Marxes students are most likely to run into elsewhere in their classes. And somehow I need to give a lecture that doesn’t endorse those Marxes.

I think…

And this isn’t for my own students, or for a course with which I have any other involvement. Which means I also don’t know how the classicals, or the Keynesians, or the Austrians, or anyone else has been explained. So whatever context I provide for Marx among the economists has to be relatively self-contained and intelligible as a narrative in its own 50-minute terms…

My initial thought was to focus the lecture around the organising narrative of the fascination for self-organising systems – perhaps talking a bit about the way in which self-organisation is taken as an intrinsic property of the market by certain classical political economists, and by later theorists like Hayek and Friedman (whose work is covered at least to some degree in this course, although I don’t know if this aspect of their work is emphasised at all). Marx comes along – a very, very, very simple version of “my” Marx – and says: markets are very old – and in most pre-capitalist societies, they do not exhibit the properties currently ascribed to them. Their “self-organising” property is therefore not really self organisation. It relies on something else – on a whole range of other sorts of practices, that must operate in tandem with markets, in order for even markets to demonstrate the characteristics we currently intuitively associate with them.

I can then say – broad brushstroke – no detail – that Marx then goes on to analyse those other sorts of practices that must operate in tandem with markets – everything from particular practices of self, to legal forms, to state institutions, to distinctive kinds of social conflict – and on and on. The idea was to come up with a much more complex vision of what it takes to make capitalism the “self-organising system” that it seems to be – to explain what complex arrays of practices are required for its reproduction – and to explain why this very complexity makes it very difficult for social actors to understand how everything hangs together to produce this aggregate result. One consequence of this complexity is that theorists can become bedazzled by the complexity – can loose track of what aspects of practical activity are generating what effects. When this happens, the effects appear to arise mysteriously – they appear to be intrinsic consequences of some smaller, less complex dimension of social practice. Like, for example, markets.

But markets aren’t the only thing mistaken for generating the whole aggregate phenomenon that is capitalism. Different sorts of theorists grab hold of different parts of the complex system – experiences of self, for example, or types of state formation, or kinds of social conflict – and make a similar move, taking the dimension of social experience that they favour, and arguing that this favoured slice of social existence is what intrinsically generates consequences that, in Marx’s account, actually require the tandem operation of the whole complex array of practices.

From here, I could – I think – move into how Marx has been received: into common perceptions of Marx, by adherents and critics, that over-emphasise what was intended to be only one dimension of a much more complex system. I think I can get from here to the most common images of Marx students are likely to encounter – while also giving them at least the nucleus of a counter-narrative or alternative image.

Or is this just a ridiculous thing to try to do in “the Marx week” of an undergraduate survey class?

Suggestions and alternatives much welcome…