The human problem of capitalism or Being on the winning team

April 10th, 2009

I am enjoying reading Fromm very much. He formulates the human problem of modern capitalism (circa 1950s) this way:

“Modern capitalism needs men who cooperate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience—yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim—except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.

What is the outcome? Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome.”

Fromm adds that capitalist society offers numerous palliatives to  help people deal with their devastating aloneness, their unconscious despair: the routine of monotonous work; the routine of amusement and the unsatisfiable satisfaction of buying new things. In this way, contemporary society is close to Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are “well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, without any except the most superficial contact with his fellow men.”

“The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones—and the eternally disappointed ones. Our character is geared to exchange and to receive, to barter and to consume; everything, spiritual as well as material objects, becomes an object of exchange and of consumption.”

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Sound familiar?

June 10th, 2008

I finished rereading selections of “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” by Marx today. This text features an application of Marx’s materialist conception of history  to actual historical events – those preparing the ground for the coup d’etat of Napoleon III in France.

This tract contains two of Marx’s most famous quotes:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

This showing the role of the individual in history and refuting determinist accusations.

And: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Haha Marx. And no doubt.

But this quote also leaped out at me:

“Society is saved just as often as the circle of its rulers contracts, as a more exclusive interest is maintained against a wider one. Every demand of the simplest bourgeois financial reform, of the most ordinary liberalism, of the most formal republicanism, of the most shallow democracy, is simultaneously castigated as an ‘attempt on society’ and stigmatized as ’socialism.’”

How often have we heard a similar refrain in contemporary politics or in what passes for political commentary in the mainstream press? Though the above quote was written in 1852 about the ongoing French revolution, it applies to the increasingly conservative political landscape in contemporary Canada. As we are increasingly encouraged to bow to one master only – the god of consumerism – we slowly find our options reducing and our potential moves narrowing. Any inclinations that transgress the edicts of capitalism are sharply rebuked and restrained. As in revolutionary France of the mid-nineteenth century, ideas not bounded by profit and authenticated by minority elite control are called impractical, if not dangerous. Even socialist.

Teaching for learning (duh!)

May 16th, 2008

The last two days I attended a conference at SFU called Teaching for learning: New approaches for a new generation. The title alone is scary enough, no? I mean, isn’t that what one would assume teaching was for? Lawdamighty. I learned a lot – mostly concerning the nightmarish state of teaching in the academy.

The opening keynote was Max Valiquette, Youth Culture Expert, for pete’s sake. Here’s a guy who is “Canada’s foremost expert on youth culture and marketing”; I see him on MuchMusic all the time. WFT? At an education conference? Ferchrissakes. Although he did make some interesting points about “Gen Y” (another marketing ploy?), all Valiquette had to offer was a sales pitch, and a pretty weak one at that. He only ever discussed youth (students) as consumers, their entire existence enframed by consuming things, and communicating (exactly what was unclear) via an unparalleled selection of new communication technologies. He talked about Gen Y, as having choice and control like no other generation in history. But choice in cell phone ringtones, reality shows or social networking websites does not equate to freedom. What if I choose not to be slave wage earner; to not be in a warring society; to not be subject to surveillance and control by my state, my boss, my educational institution? I am afraid Valiquette had nothing to say on what an important or meaningful choice might be.

The next session I attended was called “The Millennial Student: Connecting to Generation Y – Not!”, by Maureen Wideman. Trophycase and I have been known to make mockery of Gen Y (and my kid, overhearing one conversation, asked about “Genertaion A”. Ezackly, I told him.) so I thought I’d check it out, you know, for kicks. It was unclear how much of an expert Wideman is on the topic, as she admitted she’d culled all her “research” on the topic from the Internet. I guess the key thing I got from her presentation, which was interesting, all sniping aside, was that profs today are out of touch. It’s not that the students have changed so much, but that profs haven’t changed at all (or nearly enough). How often I have felt this, even as a grad student! And not just because they eschew technology in the classroom. They frequently have little idea what’s going on outside the classroom, outside their specialized knowledge niche. Another interesting point that Wideman made was that it’s not the profs’ show anymore. This was probably her most important – and radical – statement, that profs must give up control in the classroom, and engage with students in a more horizontal, rather than hierarchical, fashion.

Next I attended a session by Sydney Eve Matrix. I only went because her name was so intriguing and I didn’t actually believe it was real. I thought she must be a sci-fi writer or even the offline embodiment of a virtual avatar. She isn’t. Her presentation, “Experiments in High-tech Edutainment: Engaging students in a media-rich Popular Culture Course”, was interesting enough – basically a description of the massive infusion of technology into a film course she teaches at Queens University. It was quite impressive and a tad insane – she spent 60 hours per class preparing. But her classes sounded absolutely kick ass – fun and interesting. Naturally I had difficulty with her characterization of this type of teaching as “edutainment” (seriously, no irony involved) and with her characterization of her teaching techniques as “gimmickery” (and again, finding nothing problematic with this). The presentation was entirely uncritical but I nonetheless appreciate the “by any means necessary” approach to the classroom. At least she cares, and is trying to engage the students in the course material, trying to get them to attend class – in a pro-active and positive rather than punitive (marks deducted etc.) way. But I really got the idea that she had the idea of tricking students into learning. And I don’t think this can or even should be done.

The idea that students are consumers – and should be treated as such by the profs – was a dominant undercurrent – from presenters and attendees alike. I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, the conference was put on – not merely sponsored – by McGraw-Hill Ryerson. Talk about convergence. But hey, the university is already run like a corporation, with the bottom line as the prime mover (not education, just so’s we’re clear). So why not vertically integrate – nay fuse? Sounds like a good business plan.

There was one presenter who spoke progressively, thoughtfully and (would you believe?) philosophically about teaching and learning. It was the same (and only) person who talked about citizenship in relation to education, and who only uttered the word “consumer” in the context of producers and consumers of knowledge.

Mark Battersby suggested that teaching objectives should be oriented toward developing “the competent layperson” rather than emergent experts in our own particular fields. The bottom line here: Teach students how to learn, not what you think they need to learn. Why? So they can go out in the world and be engaged citizens, critical thinkers and autonomous individuals who can call upon “generic intellectual abilities and a broad understanding of the world” to enable them to get what they need, and live a full, rich life

Genius. Of course, other progressive thinkers and philosophers have promoted this sort of approach. Neil Postman, in Teaching as a subversive activity, calls this learning for survival. It is grounded in the notion that teaching should be relevant (and therefore of interest, engaging) to the student. This is not dissimilar to Freire’s concept of a pedagogy of the oppressed, wherein society’s most downtrodden are educated through conscientização, a critical and political consciousness raising with freedom as its main objective.

So despite its uncritical, mostly descriptive overtones, and its corporately whorish undertones, the conference wasn’t a total bust. There was one person on the right track. It’s something, anyway…

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