Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

“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…

7 responses to ““The Marx Week”

  1. John Garvey August 3, 2010 at 7:07 am


    I have two thoughts. First, I suggest spending a few minutes on a brief biography of Marx situated in the second half of the 19th Century–to try to humanize him. By way of example, there’s a wonderful passage in Anderson’s Marx on the Margins about Marx’s attendance at a Hyde Park rally in defense of Fenian prisoners that captures some of this. I’d be happy to copy it out and send it to you.

    Second, I don’t know if you’re familiar with or comfortable with the distinction between the “esoteric” and “exoteric” Marx that some of the value-form theorists employ. But the approach suggests: 1) that Marx can be read in different ways (as you well know); and 2) that Marx himself was prepared to be read in different ways. The point, after all, was to change the world.


  2. darkdaughta August 5, 2010 at 9:56 am

    hmmm…so much theory…so much intellectual distance embodied in the academic study of marx and therefore, inherently, in the study of capitalism…as theory…not as practice, real, grounded in the lived experience of billions all over the planet. i’m wondering if you will be inviting students to actually understand themselves as existing inside a capitalist system that is not theoretical model to be studied from a distance, but instead as tangible, traceable, documentable reality, a living system that feeds off their choices and actions, that needs their input and permission in order to exist even as it sucks life from them, their families and this world. i’m wondering if you plan on extending your analysis out from marx right on through to those workers of all ethnicities and cultures who are being crushed under the weight of a system that might need them but surely does not love them. will you include an analysis of race given that so many of the exploited workers impacted by capitalist oppression were bought and sold, had their labour stolen, were conned into accepting much less for their lands and/or labour…your topic and approaches to discussing is so full of potential. but yeah, i understand that one week isn’t a lot of time. but it is a good place to start. be well, n. pepperell. 🙂

  3. Nate August 6, 2010 at 1:46 am

    hi NP! I hope you’re well. If I’m not too late to the party, I’d suggest that you spend a minute or three on the dilemma of “Marx week” as well, to try to give the students a bit of clarity about how incredibly compressed and selective any treatment of that sort has to be. Maybe this is overly obvious but I’d also suggest that you just emphasize those components you think most interesting, not in the sense of what most compels you but in the sense of what might best encourage students to read further. As in, try to orient toward intellectual curiosity more than coverage and content delivery. Easier said than done, of course. I’d love to hear what you end(ed) up doing.
    take care,

  4. N Pepperell August 7, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    Hey folks – sorry for being so late to respond – work this week seems never to end…

    Starting at the bottom 🙂

    Nate – not too late at all – I don’t actually have to deliver this until late in September – I just got the invitation now, and felt it needed a bit of incubation time.

    I agree on not aiming for coverage – and content doesn’t tend to sink in well on any topic, with only a one-off 45-minute pass at a subject… But yeah, aiming for something that might get some students reading further would be good, and teaching the problem of covering Marx in 45 minutes is probably a necessary framing, at least given how I tend to speak – as in, I have a hard time keeping myself from meta-commenting on the things like that, even if I probably shouldn’t… ;-P So that’ll probably end up in the intro to the lecture somehow…

    Sometimes they tape these things and, if they do, I’ll post the eventual result online. (Assuming it’s not hideously embarrassing… ;-P) I tend to ad lib a fair amount in lectures, so I probably won’t be able to describe what I did until I’ve done it… But I may post some draftish ideas here before the day…

    darkdaughta – yes – this is part of what I mean when talking about the things political economy misses, that Marx tries to make visible: so he starts with a political economic story that involves relations of formal equality between people who produce and trade goods, and then zooms out – progressively farther and farther out – until you see a world where the political economic vision is something shown only to arise in this much more complex place, where slavery, colonialism, specific forms of gender inequality, and many other forms of concrete oppression are all part of what makes “capitalism” – so you don’t get to keep the theorisation that capitalism is just a “market” – a place where goods are exchanged, and let’s not worry too much about how those goods get produced – you replace that, instead, with an analysis of all the various means of production (and with a more complicated analysis of exchange as well) – and so you end up not being able to preserve this nice, neat sense of a “self-organising system” located in the organisation of exchange alone… You don’t get to abstract from all of these other realities to get the distilled reality that purges all of the actual suffering from the account of what “capitalism” is…

    But somehow, I need to do this… in 45 minutes… ;-P So I’ll see how it goes… But yes: this would be the goal – to try to give at least some sense that things hang together in Marx, that capitalism is conceptualised as a complex whole that includes whole realms of experience that are omitted from the classical or mainstream vision of how capitalism works…

    John – I’ll need to find out how the other figures have been approached in the course – whether the idea is to focus on the economy or society in a more sociological way, or whether the idea is to talk about major figures and their ideas… Definitely there’s no way to introduce “my” Marx without saying that Capital is a layered text, and that these layers make many different kinds of appropriation of the text possible – the main problem is how clear it’s possible to be about this, given the time constraints…

    More on all this as I think it through… Many thanks all…

  5. roger August 10, 2010 at 10:55 am

    I’ve been out of the blogging loop, lately. But because it is late September, I see no reason that you can’t overtly say, there is a mainstream approach to Marx that is historically important and that still has a certain force, but – in the situation created by the fall of communism – we can go back to Marx in relation to our own situation in many ways. And – if I were you – I’d refer to the growth of income inequality and the stultification of upward social mobility in the period between the 1980s and now, quoting the good old OECD figures, as a sort of framing device to bring up the issue of Marx’s relevance. I’d also reference the lack of any international labor organization whatsoever, to press on the importance of the international aspect of Marx’s project – in contrast to the astonishing success of international capital. These broad parameters could then frame your excellent Pepperellian reading of Marx. A reading sensitive to the emergency we are living in, and the way that this is, probably, entirely obscure to students who no doubt envision going out there and grabbing jobs in the top 20 percent income bracket.

  6. demet August 16, 2010 at 1:16 am

    Sorry if I am very late in posting this but I think you have a very good starting point to provoke some questions for students. Some students will of course prefer a kind of introduction to marx for dummies types of summary oriented to exam, but others will definitely be challenged, which is what teaching is for.

    My modest suggestion is to make your points a bit more accessible to students, enabling them to face the very problem themselves. You could perhaps ask, at the beginning what they think about the markets in contemporary world, or give examples from newspapers regarding how individuals speak not only about market but ‘speak market’ (market sentiment, markets behave, markets like, markets react…etc from Financial times for example) and then try to point out why people talk this language which looks like independent from us. You can perhaps then relate this to Hayekian view of the market before going into other elements which make up capita. You can show how while prices of commodity X are changing in the market in some exchange, this very commodity’s production in China is done by workers who get little wages…

    Anyway, good luck with the teaching and looking so much forward to reading more new posts on your blog 🙂

  7. N Pepperell August 20, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Hey folks – sorry to reply so late – I keep being surprised with new deadlines at work, and the blog (among other things) loses out…

    demet – yeah – when I can work with students across a whole term, I feel fairly confident that I can get the issues to come up more or less organically, so that people are more likely to understand, because they’ve come up with the issues themselves… Using newspapers to show the personfication of “the market” as an independent actor may be a good shorthand – I should also try to find out a bit more about how the course has already framed the economic theory it’s discussed so far… It helps to be able to riff off of references or even just terminology that the students will find a little bit familiar…

    roger – yeah – I think some element of that narrative will need to be in the lecture: that Marx has historically been understood in specific ways, and that we aren’t bound by those ways – and are, in some sense, freed by the very historical changes that can make more traditional appropriations seem problematic… It’s an interesting question how the students from here see themselves – I might try some informal polling in my current class (students I’m teaching now would have taken the equivalent of this course last year). I wonder if they think they’re headed for that top 20%… Australia has been comparatively sheltered during the crisis, and I’m not sure how well knowledge of it has filtered down to the students… Or whether the course has made an attempt to get it to filter down…

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