All proper tea is theft…or something along those lines

Part of my training is a module on philosophy, or rather how philosophy can be applied to the research questions myself and colleagues will be working on.  Each week we get a different philosopher, and each week I try and scribble some notes to myself to make a sense of it all.  I’m not one of nature’s greatest deep thinkers so it can be a bit challenging to engage with words like dialectic and phenomology; indeed even spelling them is a challenge.  However, following  a request on twitter here’s my (very basic) reflections on Marxism as we were presented with it this week.

The only Marx I understood to dateSo lecture 4 and we move onto Karl Marx and Marxism, which given my area of interest in the open and commons, not to mention knowledge commodification is one in which I’ve got particular interest. One thing that was apparent, each of our tutors have been real enthusiasts for their philosophers of choice which is very engaging. Neil started off by explaining that Marxism is a less popular topic than it was 30-40 years ago, and yet remains very relevant today – especially in the light of the mess that the application of capitalism and the free trade economy has made of the world. It develops themes from Hegel, and the idea of dialectical materialism,

The heart of the ideas start with the idea of production: everything is produced, and capitalism is dominated by this concept and the fact that the worker (proletariat) produce more value for the owners (bourgeoisies) than they are recompensed for. It is this excess value that makes capitalism work, and what Marxism points out is that by being aware of this fact the worker can attempt to redress the balance. Interestingly to be a member bourgeoisies was defined as being able to live off your rent or your shares/investments without needing to work. Which essential means virtually all of us (the 99%) are members of the proletariat.

Sadly today it seems more than ever that the split between proletariat and bourgeoisies is wider than ever – capitalism being as Marx said a crisis ridden system. Neil pointed out that the root of the global financial crisis could be pointed to a failure of an equality of wealth redistribution. Wages have been kept down (the standard of living in the US for example remaining static for decades), but production of consumer society items has continued apace. In order to ensure that the money still flows, banks have to loan to the workers – who themselves are unable to repay due to wage suppression and as such the money fails to flow and the system fails.

Your faculty hard at work - yesterdayProduction includes not just physical goods, but also includes knowledge – with Neil noting sardonically that universities are increasingly viewed as knowledge factories with targets and benchmarks set by people recruited from industry, rather than allowing a more egalitarian development of knowledge. Marxism says that there are always disadvantages in a system but we workers tend to forget this and just get on with life (I assume this is liked to the idea of religion or TV being the opiate of the masses!). Coercion in the form of laws or fiscal reward is used to ensure that workers do what the owners want, but always seeking to minimise that outlay to maximise profits.

However, every so often the workers get bolshy* and decide that the world doesn’t have to be this way – citing the example of European shoe production becoming unionised in the 1970s resulting in it moving to the far east. This represents the shift from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself.  For myself there is a direct applicability to the idea of academics (workers) serving the bourgeois capitalism publishing houses. Their reward is financially pretty weak sauce – citations from other authors – but these are needed to meet the metrics and promotion criteria in order to drive forward their own careers. A cycle to which OA potentially offers an answer to, but to which relatively few are prepared to move.  This will be something I’d like to find out more about.

Since the lecture was foreshortened there’s more Marx in my future next week (coupled with Freud, which should make an interesting pairing!) – but it was certainly one I very much enjoyed, and was very well presented.  Talking with one of my colleagues offline the suggestion was made that Marxism is utopian but when applied in the real world comes with real world failings (5 hr queues for bread); but then as I  suggested – doesn’t any philosophy or system come with failings once people get involved with it?  I’ve sure Karl would agree.

Das Kaptial on sale on Amazon - I fear there's an element of the ironic here
Oh and as for Das Kapital, we didn’t get into that – which is just as well, it still sounds like the title of a bad ITV variety show in the Britain’s Got Talent niche, probably fronted by Ant and Dec!  Oh and phrae of the lecture had to be commodity fetishisation – as represented by the poster boy for the movement – Smeagul/Gollum!  All my precious property, it must be mine…

*traditionally my mother’s word for me when I started answering back as a teenager.  Or at least the repeatable one!

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