The triumph of the bourgeoisie

June 12th, 2008

I’m now re-reading (for the umpteenth time) The Communist Manifesto. I love this book! It’s so poetic, so forceful, so snarky! I like this passage about the accomplishments of the bourgeois revolution in post-feudal Europe:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”

Hmmm… sounds good so far.

“It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley fuedal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors…”

Yep. All good.

“…and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation.”

Ouchy. (y’know, just a little.)

“It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless, indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -
Free Trade.”

Shifting uncomfortably.

“In one word, for exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploration.”

Slam dunk.

And returning to familiar territory, the following could be a contemporary critique (think globalization):

“Constant revolutionizing of production, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”

Sounds like post-Fordist jive to me… flexible production ‘n all that.

And here Marx sums up the essence of globalization:

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connection everywhere.

(This also gets to heart of Manuel Castells essential concept in The Network Society.)

Marx further lays out some consequences of of globalization:

1. Colonial exploitation (something Western scholars only began to figure out a few decades ago):

“..[industries] no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.”

2. Consumerism:

In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.”

3. Information sharing:

“In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

Here Marx intuits what the hackers would later sum up in the rallying cry for copyleft: “Information wants to be free”… if only it weren’t for that handy handmaiden of capitalism, copyright! Marx did not foresee the privatization of information, and its conversion into a commodity exchangeable on the market like any other good. But that’s another post…

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.

Marx’s prophecy?

June 6th, 2008

I had to laugh when I read this… Marx is too funny! He’s talking about proletarian revolutions but I think it’s an accurate depiction of the Left, post-60s.

“[They] criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil even and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims…”

More people oughta read Marx; it’s profoundly amazing how prescient he was and how relevant he remains.

Depressing notes from the edge of academia

June 5th, 2008

Today is the second day of the annual conference of the Canadian Communication Association, held this year, conveniently, at UBC. In a lunch time graduate session (I went, as usual, for the free lunch), we heard from some profs who talked about their windy paths to tenure-track positions. After hearing their widely divergent stories, the floor opened up and it became like a group therapy session. Grads asked pointed questions and discussed the varied and complex issues of grad life, finishing up, staying sane and eventually thinking about the job search.

One question concerned maintaining some sort of balance in the face of multiple demands on grads’ time and sanity, including:

1. The need to earn a living (for those of us who are unfunded);

2. The need to gain teaching experience;

3. The need to build a publishing record, which is linked to;

4. The need to attend conferences, network with colleagues and professors;

5. The need to complete your own work (courses, comps, research, dissertation); and

6. The need to maintain other relationships (personal, familial etc.).

Of course, doing all of these at the same time, and doing them well, without having  nervous breakdown, is effectively impossible. But what emerged from the panel was somewhat disheartening: publish as much as you can, finish as quickly as you can; don’t worry about teaching – you’ll figure it out along the way.

This is depressing, and disastrous for conceptualizing the university as a site for spawning and nurturing new ideas as well as a site for exciting new minds to the task of thinking critically and engaging passionately in the world. Despite faint protestation, this appears as a devaluation of teaching (a civic task?) and an inflation of (solitary, individualistic) research.

As an activist scholar, I see the opportunity for resistance and struggle outside the university, in my research interests, but also where I stand, within the academy. Engaging the university at the administrative level is of course important, particularly in light of its rapid coporatization, and its hearty embrace of the logic and language of capitalism.

But the classroom presents more immediate possibilities for challenging the status quo and effecting positive change. I think it’s critically important for anyone who believes in the transformative potential of education to consider carefully and deeply their role as teacher, as distinct from “transmitter of knowledge” or other such trite, elitist, egotistic assumptions. I took heart in the fact that several students responded passionately and irritably to this devaluation of teaching, noting that they felt teaching is extremely important, and remarking bitterly that perhaps this was why all their undergrad profs sucked.

Other topics discussed at this session included how to deal with the stress of school (forming support groups; doing yoga; blogging; drinking), should you do a post-doc (yes – better than working at Starbucks), and what a hiring committee considers a decent publication record (2 “significant” articles, some book reviews). It’s always reassuring to hear from your peers as you navigate what is essentially the same process with essentially the same problems and challenges. It’s good to know you’re not alone. And it’s good to share strategies and solutions, to help each other, to develop, however fledging, a sense of community among those who will, in all likelihood, be the next generation of communication scholars in Canada.

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