Archive for January, 2010

Some vaguely Marxist thoughts on the free market in food production

January 31, 2010

While reading the other day, I came across this article.  There are a couple of core ideas that come out of this article that are potentially relevant for our class discussions on Marx.

 First, there is an acknowledgment of the limits of the free market when dealing with a commodity like food.  According to the idea of marginal advantage (a core idea underlying free market policies today), a free market is efficient because it allows each region or each worker to specialize in the production of those goods it is most efficient at producing.  Kansas (so the theory goes) has soil and climate conditions that make it really efficient at producing wheat (it can produce higher yields of wheat at lower cost than, say, Maine).  So it makes sense to have Kansas grow lots and lots of wheat and then trade it with other areas similarly specialized.  The problem, as the article points out, is that things don’t really work out that way in practice.  Monocultures are highly susceptible to disease and soil exhaustion.  To maintain this efficiency, then, we need enormous inputs of fertilizer and pesticides; and to keep the production profitable, we need more or less constant innovation—e.g., genetically modified foods, and so forth.  In Marxist terms, the need for profit, which emerges out of existing property relations, drives the productive process in perverse directions, such that an activity supposedly devoted simply to producing needed goods (e.g., food) increasingly becomes a process that undermines that capacity (by poisoning the land, preventing the establishment of more sustainable local food systems, and so on).

Similarly, markets in food commodities are often really inefficient ways to distribute food.  A couple of years back, as the article points out, there was a spike in food prices.  This predictably led to countries using food as an investment.  Since prices are going up, we buy as much as we can and hold onto it until we think the price is going to peak.  I can make huge profits this way, but doing so also prevents some people from eating.

Finally—and this is an aspect of the “Manifesto” we haven’t discussed much—another interesting aspect of the article is that the relevant political and economic actors are depicted as being locked in modes of thinking that prevent forms of necessary innovation.  We are so used to capitalist thinking, even in the context of food production, that we think only in terms of growing a specific crop for cash and selling it on a free market.  But the article suggests that this model of increasingly efficient production of ever-greater yields of food may not actually have anything to do with the actual problems of global hunger.  Indeed, the suggestion is that increased food production simply leads to more waste and worse public health in wealthy and industrialized countries.  One of the implicit arguments of the article, in other words, is that existing property relations lead to modes of thinking that make it difficult for us to see the actual nature of existing problems and to develop actual solutions to them.

So read the piece and let me know what you think.

Neo-Marxist Sock Puppets

January 26, 2010

In the interest of trying to clarify some of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, I submit a technical analysis:

Now, there are some interesting differences between the content of Kiki/Bubu’s analysis and Marx’s.  For example, Kiki and Bubu suggest that the “neo-liberal” or “new economy” exploits in a way that is somewhat different from the classical mode of capitalism Marx analyzes.  In particular, according to our sock puppet friends, the new economy dominates by convincing us that we are our own bosses, or that we have the same interests as the capitalists (consider, for a moment, why, for instance, news broadcasts always report on the daily stock market numbers).  Moreover, in contrast to Marx’s prediction of proletarian solidarity, Kiki and Bubu suggest that the new economy liquidates all horizontal relations between the workers, constructing a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Nevertheless, the basic method of our sock puppets remains fundamentally Marxist, with some Foucault sprinkled in for fun (come back and watch this video again after we’ve read Foucault).  They explain why daddy works so hard primarily in terms of changes in the mode of economic organization (and more specifically, in terms of the new forms of symbolic or ideological apparatuses that have emerged to hide or rationalize the functioning of this economy).

Some reading questions on “The Communist Manifesto”

January 26, 2010

These questions should help to guide you through parts 1 & 2 of the “Manifesto.”

(1) “The Communist Manifesto” is certainly more accessible than the “Jewish Question,” but there remains some basic terminological baggage.  Try to be able to define: bourgeoisie, proletariat, means of production, relations of production, mode of production, capitalism, and feudalism.  To define means of production, relations of production, and mode of production, you might want to look here.

(2) What is the thesis of the “Manifesto” (hint: it is in the opening lines of part 1)?

(3) What is the specific form of class struggle we see in capitalism?  How is it similar and different from other class struggles?

(4) What are the basic processes and dynamics by which capitalism emerged from feudal society?

(5) In what sense is the bourgeoisie “revolutionary”?  What is capitalism like?  (e.g., is it stable?  What dynamics does it tend to produce?  What sorts of exploitation and class struggle do we find in it?)

(6) What dynamics will lead to the end of capitalism?

(7) Now a more general question: what basic forms of power explain the sorts of social changes Marx is describing?  Who or what are the important actors?  What sorts of things are not important in Marx’s explanation?  Finally, compare all of this to Hobbes: if there are dynamic changes in society, how might Hobbes account for these changes?

Also, some questions regarding part 2 of the “Manifesto”

(8) Who are the communists?  What is their relation to the proletariat as a whole?

(9) What is the general goal of the communists?

(10) Now a potentially more critical question: given the theory of society sketched in part 1 (e.g., given Marx’s understanding of the causes of social change/dynamics) do the political goals of the communist party make sense?  What is the purpose or role of communist party political activism in Marx’s general theory of society?

(11) What are some of the “bourgeois” objections to communism that Marx identifies?  How does he respond to these objections?  What is the general message Marx wishes to convey in these responses?

(12) “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing the other.”  Be prepared to discuss what this means and what it implies for forms of political activism (in particular, the activism of the proletariat).


Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”

January 25, 2010

For Thursday, we will begin reading Marx and Engels’ most famous work, The Manifesto of the Communist Party. The page contains links to the text, along the work in PDF, Word, and (of all things) audio formats.  We’ll be discussing the text and the issues surrounding for three classes, but for Thursday (1/28) focus on parts 1 and 2.

Marx’s “On the Jewish Question”

January 19, 2010

You can find a link to a version of Marx’s essay here.  As I mentioned at the end of class today, the crucial thing to keep in mind, as you’re reading this essay, is that Marx is not really writing about (or all that interested in) the “Jewish Question” as such.  Rather, he is using the debates about the Jewish Question as a way to analyze the state and its relation to the “private sphere” of what he calls civil society (which is the system of needs, or for our purposes, the realm of the capitalist economy).  Or put differently, Marx is primarily engaging in a critique of politics (or what he calls “political emancipation,” which occurs when we create a political society based on the sorts of principles we saw in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”).  I will post some more detailed reading questions later this evening, but for now, let me offer a brief analysis of some of Marx’s terminology, so that you can have a clearer understanding what he’s actually trying to express.

Political emancipation: political emancipation occurs insofar as differences between people (say, their religion, economic status, or “noble blood”) become politically irrelevant.  All citizens are granted equal rights (both things like property rights and the equal right to participate in politics), and the state is officially neutral or “atheistic” vis-a-vis its citizens.  That is, the state does not create rights and privileges for citizens on the basis of things like religious practice.

The universal state (sometimes referred to as the state as such): The political state is a form of political community in which the citizens have achieved political emancipation.

Human emancipation: This is a trickier concept; it refers for Marx to genuine freedom or emancipation, as opposed to the illusory freedom or emancipation we see in political emancipation.  It has something to do with making the ideals of political emancipation actual (that is, it has to do with overcoming the alienation found in contemporary life, of returning  the heavenly realm of political ideals to actual and material life) and it has something to do with criticizing political emancipation as such.

Civil society: this is the realm of social relations that occur independently of the state, and typically, the family as well.  Primarily, for Marx, these relations are economic in nature; it is the realm of “free labor” (i.e., the ability for the laborer to sell his/her labor power to whomever can purchase it) or the free exchange of commodities in general.  In capitalist organization, this realm is increasingly divorced from traditional communal ties (e.g., I sell my labor to the highest bidder, not to the traditional strongman in my neighborhood; or the capitalist decides not to purchase my labor anymore, in spite of the fact that we might have a long standing relationship).

True Confessions post Leviathan

January 18, 2010

I’m embarrassed to admit my ignorance – but will take advantage of this space  to do just that.

Prior to our first assigned reading I had embedded in my brain the pictures of our founding fathers signing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.    I knew only two things – (1) we were a rag-tag group of people who didn’t want to pay taxes to England, and (2) we wanted religious freedom.  And from those two bits of information had assumed that those dedicated, intelligent men  gathered and formed a nation.   For all these years I  have held them in awe for their ability to imagine and create our society.  I never considered that there was political thought prior to their thought – never considered that they were part of a continuum of thinkers.

It was very energizing to discover differently.  That it’s not only important to trace the historical events that led us to where we are now, but to acquire an awareness of what people were thinking during those times.  And perhaps, most important of all to realize that we too are part of the continuum of thinkers.

Some reading questions for chapter 5 of the Grapes of Wrath, and “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”

January 15, 2010

The “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” was written, primarily by the Marquis de Lafayette  in August of 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution.   It is not to be confused with the 1793 version of the Declaration (which was written during the Revolution’s later and more radical phase), though I would argue that the two versions are not, for our purposes, all that different.  My main interest in this document has to do with how it compares with Hobbes’ conception of power.

(1) According to the “Declaration,” what is the purpose of political organization and society?  Is this stated purpose different from the one Hobbes identifies? 

(2) How does the “Declaration” define liberty?  Again, compare this definition to Hobbes.

(3) Who is identified as the “sovereign” in the “Declaration”?  What powers does the sovereign have?

(4) What role does violence play in the principles identified in the “Declaration”?

Regarding the Grapes of Wrath, let me first contextualize the assigned chapter a bit.  The consistently moves back and forth between telling the story of a specific family (known as the Joads) and more “general” chapters designed to highlight the ways in which the Joads’ experiences are but specific instances of a much broader phenomenon.  Chapter 5 is one of the more “general” chapters: none of the characters in this chapter, for instance, is given a name or any distinguishing characteristics.*  This mode of telling the story, I would suggest, is of great signficance.  It reinforces the general feeling that all of the characters are basically interchangeable–that none of the characters really control or even influence these circumstances.

In any case, once again, try to keep the big questions in mind: what sort of power is operating in this story?  Who (if anyone) can be said to possess it?  What effects does this power create?  But to get to these bigger issues, consider the following questions:

(1) How is the “Bank” depicted in this chapter?  What is the purpose or symbolic meaning of this depiction?

(2) Why does the family have to move off of the land?

(3) “The bank is something else than men.  It happens that every man in the bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it.”  What could this mean, and how could it be true?

(4) How is the tractor and its driver described?  E.g., what is he compared to?  How is the practice of farming (both how it was originally done by the family and how it will be done) described.  Identify the specific language.

(5) Given what you know from the story do you think that it is “just” for the family to be kicked off of the land?  Why or why not?

(6) Who is responsible for what is happening in this chapter?

(7) Given your answer to question (6), what does this tell us about the forms of power operating in this story and what (if anything) political action might do regarding them?

*The lone exception, of course, is the driver of the tractor, who is identified as being “Joe Davis’ boy.”  Part of the reason for this identification, I would argue, is that Steinbeck is also trying to demonstrate the ways in which the events he is depicting tears traditional communal ties asunder.

Readings for Tuesday, January 19

January 14, 2010

For January 19, we are reading chapter 5 from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (this is a pdf).  The novel as a whole was published in 1939, and depicts the events surrounding the dust bowl, and the migration of poor farmers to California.   It will serve as a brief introduction to Marx, along with the conception of economic/structural power.  I’ll post further reflections and reading questions over the next day or two.

Readings and Reading Questions for Thursday, January 14

January 11, 2010

For Thursday, we will be reading and discussing excerpts of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, as well as the famous document from the French Revolution, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.”   You can find a link to Hobbes here.  We’re reading chapters 17-18, and 21.  They concern the nature and origin of society (chapter 17), the powers that the sovereign must have in order to keep society functioning (chapter 18), and the liberties that subjects retain (chapter 19.  You can find the “Rights of Man” link here.

Here are some basic thoughts and questions that might be helpful to you as you do these readings:

Always keep in mind the big questions.  This is a class on the concept of power, so we are interested in how the authors we are reading understand what power is, where it is located in society (including who if anyone possesses it), where it comes from,  the sorts of effects it produces, and how it produces them.  The complexity here is that the authors we are reading for Thursday tend not to address these sorts of issues explicitly.  So in order to get at the big questions,  consider these smaller ones:

(1) In chapter 17, Hobbes famously argues that society has its origins in a social contract: who participates in this contract?  What do they agree to do?  What sort of power operates in an agreement?

(2) Why does Hobbes say that we need a sovereign?

(3)  What are some of the main powers the sovereign has?  What sort of power underlies these specific powers?  In other words, what is it that allows the sovereign to keep the peace and unite society?

(4)  How does Hobbes define liberty? 

(5) What sorts of liberties do the subjects retain?

(6) What is the relation between the subject’s liberties and the sovereign’s power?

(7) Try to think about an image or picture that could capture the essence of how Hobbes thinks about society and social order.  You might want to draw it if you can.

(8) In terms of governmental authority and the rights of the citizen, what differences are there between Hobbes’ position and the one we see in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”?   Does the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” adopt a different understanding of power than Hobbes does?