Whose Class, Whose Terms?

The temperature’s plummeted in the past hour. Still and humid nineties down to cool and breezy seventies. The leaves of the trees have all turned up their pale undersides. It’s going to rain.

Wolff and Resnick, as their title (Economics: Marxian versus Neoclassical) might indicate, usefully contrast Marxian and neoclassical theories of economics. Neoclassical theory, of which Hazlitt and Mankiw are exponents, “emphasizes individual behavior, which, it argues, is motivated by rational self-interest. The economy, as neoclassical economists theorize it, is the aggregate end product of individuals maximizing their own material self-interest.” On the other hand, “Marxian theory emphasizes social structure more than individual behavior,” to the point where “The economy, Marxists theorize, is the place in society where exploitation occurs and exerts its powerful influence over the rest of social life” (7). I suspect that most students would be highly unwilling to claim a Marxian view, not only because of its unpopularity in contemporary American culture, but also because the ideology of going to college is one of self-interest, and because students believe that they are acting in their own best interests by going to college. I’d be a jerk and a fool to argue.

I’m asking about student perceptions because Charlie’s questions of whether or not students would claim certain terms and models as their own seems to me both important and difficult, and because various recent discussions of the uses of language make me ask: who is this research for?

It’s for your committee, Mike. That’s all you need to think about.

Do I believe that?

Let’s do a little more contrasting before we think about answering. Heavy use of quotation follows: “Neoclassical theory. . . assumes that all goods and services are privately owned by individuals and that all individuals seek to maximize their satisfaction from consuming goods and services. . . All actions in markets are thought to be voluntary; you buy or sell only when you want to. . . Every transaction is mutually beneficial or else it will not occur. . . By contrast, Marxian economic theory proceeds by focusing first and foremost on class exploitation. It defines ‘class’ as a process whereby some people in society produce goods and services for others without obtaining anything in exchange. Marxian theory begins not with presumptions about human nature but rather with presumptions about social relationships, which shape and change what human beings are and think and do” (9). So, at one level, something sort of resembling the conflict between romantic individualism and structuralism. Perhaps the thing for me to remember here is that I’m going to be inclined to agree more with one ideology than with the other because of my own intellectual tastes and inclinations; the relative merits of the ideologies seem simply different, perceptive of different things.

Neoclassical theory’s “notion of causality usually has a few objects combining to cause some other object,” and bears “the presumption that any event can be shown to have certain causes or determinants that are essential to its occurence. . . This presumption — that it makes sense to think that events have some particular, fundamental causes that can be isolated — runs deep in the consciousness of many people. It appears in many theories, not only in neoclassical theory” (16). Certainly. It’s a compelling view. In many ways, it’s what capital-T Theory does: it explains. But I anticipate that Resnick and Wolff will suggest that such notions are reductive, as I did in my complaint about Mankiw’s suggesting that high productivity causes high living standards. Causality sometimes isn’t linear or direct or easily compartmentalized.

At the same time, many — including students in my classes — will argue that sometimes it is, and my students would be remiss to not point out that I in fact grade them, in part, on how clear their logic is, on how well they make a case for causality in letting one idea lead to the next in their papers.

I have a sudden terrible desire to give writing assignments like black ice; essays that reward treachery, coughing fits, the absurd, that require students to stream swarms of locusts from their pens and staple pages in the very center.

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

Contrast the neoclassical view to Marxian theory’s notion of “class, which it defines as the relationship among people in which some people work for others while obtaining nothing in return,” which requires “the notion of surplus,” by which “Some people in society produce a quantity of goods and services that is greater than what they get to keep,” and “This surplus is delivered to people who did not assist in its production” (17). Why does this not seem so difficult to me? Isn’t this the very definition of profit? Well, not quite: the neoclassical economist’s first point of contention would be that Sam Walton, who reaps the surplus from the paycheck of Darla the greeter, did indeed assist in production by providing initial capital, without which there would have been no Wal-Mart where Darla might work. The other response, which I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, is that this notion of surplus becomes horribly vexed when faced with the infinite reproducibility of the digital.

Would my students claim these questions? Can I ask them to? I can ask them, I think, to consider how their writing might circulate, to consider the ends of their educations. In that, maybe, this research might be for them, too, and not only for my committee. I still don’t know, though, how many of the terms of my research I should ask them to own: that feels to me like putting my agenda on them, when my first obligation is the teaching of writing.

I don’t think that’s a fair question you asked me, Charlie. I don’t think students have to claim my terms.

Whose Class, Whose Terms?

3 thoughts on “Whose Class, Whose Terms?

  • June 28, 2003 at 10:43 am

    I agree with you, Mike–it doesn’t seem odd or difficult at all that some the owning class get surplus (profit) of their own making. It seems at least somewhat relevant that our notions of class have changed markedly since Marx wrote: middle class now means “Have to work every day for a living” and only other people are working class. One of the things that interests me is how my students (or yours) would self-identify regarding class, and whether or how that impacts their attitudes toward the ends of their education. I’ve not thought it out completely, but I’m interested in what you discover.

  • June 29, 2003 at 12:45 pm

    Actually, Chris, I think you might have misread me: I was suggesting, rather cynically, that it doesn’t seem odd that the capitalist class get profit not of their own making. Exploitation seems to be an unfortunate fact of life in American culture, and I think we tell ourselves many stories to cover up or ameliorate our own sense of that exploitation.

    I’m interested in your comments about the middle class and the working class. Certainly, since 85% of Americans identify as middle class, and most folks want to think of themselves as hardworking, your first definition seems apt. But I’d also contend that there are quite a few people who identify as working class: it’s not solely a role of alterity.

    Many students in my classes are certainly middle class, but our campus is also in a fairly rural/agricultural area, with a significant population of farmers’ children and first-generation college students. I do think that many of those students aspire to be members of the middle class, but at the same time, class identity is a vexed issue when you consider the frequent advice to never forget where you came from.

  • June 29, 2003 at 4:48 pm

    No, I saw the bulge of your tongue in your cheek. I was picking up on the notion that a lot of people would call us both a couple of neo-Marxist class warriors for suggesting something so outlandish.

    I guess, for me, there are a lot of confounding issues that play into class identification re: education. When I ask my students (I teach at an open-enrollment, public state university campus where the average age of undergraduates is 26), they almost without exception identify an education as one leg up on the ladder to success. At the same time, most would call themselves middle class of one stratum or another. If pressed, I’m sure some would identify the very act of going to college as a middle-class (read: “bourgeois”) pursuit, but I imagine there would be ambivalence: aren’t I already middle class?

    I think a general culture of anti-intellectualism and a history of it among the working classes in particular plays a role here, but I haven’t thought it through enough to say anything definitive. I do find it interesting that so many in the business world–entrepreneurs, if you like–(adherents of neoclassical economics, if only in a practical way) would probably by any objective measure have a lot of working-class values: thrift, hard work, a distrust of the motives of fifth-column lefties, but would never identify themselves as working class.

    What I may be pointing at is that I think notions of class cut across strata of economic wherewithal; that is, there’s a disconnect from the strict spectral notion I think most have: that if you earn a working class wage in a working class job, you have working class values and identify yourself as working class. It is partially about alterity, but I think a lot of it’s about wish fulfillment, or some inchoate notion that if I act middle class, I will be.

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