Class (Marxian)

Who Sells Writing?

Most of the plagiarized essays available at the online term paper mills are terrible. The free ones I’ve seen are largely incoherent or semi-coherent patches of writing recycled for high school writing assignments so obvious they’re kind of embarrassing. I haven’t seen all that many of the for-hire ones, but the excerpted samples available at some of the sites and the experiments I’ve seen from some of those investigating online plagiarism mostly point toward a consensus that the canned essays students sometimes pay for with a credit card aren’t much better than the free ones. What’s left are the custom for-pay papers, and the prices for those are pretty high. I would imagine the quality is better than that of the canned papers, and I’m sure the for-hire term paper artists are pretty good, but I have to wonder if the trade-off in cash versus time is really worth it: for a custom paper, the going rate seems to start at around $20 per page and go up steeply. So a three-page paper will put you out at least sixty bucks.

Most students don’t make more than $10 an hour, if they work. Is a three-page paper worth six hours of your time? It depends on the student, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think working students are the ones paying $60 for a three-page paper: if they’re working and going to college, there’s a sort of value equation there that would lead most of them, I would think, to sit in front of the keyboard and do whatever one can to get the work of writing done. That work might be lackadaisical or slapdash, but from what I’ve seen, they mostly do it. (It should be clear at this point that I’m not talking about cadets, who are not permitted to hold paid employment, and who are so overscheduled as to be completely incapable of doing so. They’ve got other pressing concerns.) So if you see a good paper from a student, and it’s a plagiarized paper exchanged in a market transaction, I’d bet there’s a good chance that student isn’t a working student.

There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with how markets work differently for different people. In “The Subject and Object of Commodification,” the Introduction to the Ertman and Williams collection Rethinking Commodification (NYU Press, 2005), Margaret Jane Rabin and Madhavi Sunder call into question

the economic neutrality of markets. Markets affect the rich and poor differently. The poor are more likely to be the sellers, and the rich, the buyers, of questionable commodities such as sexual services or body parts. Unequal distributions of wealth make the poorest in society, with little to offer in the marketplace, more likely to commodify themselves. (11)

The immaterial labor of education, and of writing, is self-work, and written products are often close to the self, even if they aren’t the gushing public exposure of self that compositionists too often misrepresent as what we call expressive writing. Writing is work, and it’s hard, and that work that we and our students do carries portions of our selves. (Poststructuralist objections and pointed remarks about the illusory nature of the unified subject noted, and I’m mostly in agreement. Randall Freisinger’s perspective in the Peter Elbow Landmark Essays volume on voice stands as required reading for those who raise such objections.) In higher education, students who are sufficiently privileged not to have to exchange their labor for a wage enjoy the relative privilege of being able to at least partially appropriate the value of their own self-work: they get to write their own papers, and in writing their own papers, they are turning that labor of writing into the capital of skill at writing, as well as exchanging their papers-as-commodities in return for the good grade that will presumably contribute to the furthering of their careers.

The ultra-privileged students who don’t need to work and who have the resources to pay for custom-written papers are also exempted from the need to turn any labor into capital, because any shortcomings they might have in human capital (the ability to write well, for example) are compensated for by the advantage their financial capital will give them after college. Who remains, then? The poor. And as Rabin and Sunder note, the poor are more likely to commodify themselves, and are also more likely to have experienced the educational advantages familiar to those with more wealth. In other words, the reason that so many canned for-hire term papers — and even some of the products of the custom term paper services — are so lousy is that they’re an instance of how market economies treat different classes of people in different ways. Poor people, who are more likely to have had poor experiences in the educational system, are more likely to be the ones who try to commodify their educational experiences by selling their term papers.

Chasing Down the Problematics of the LTV

I keep finding myself running into the problem of the labor theory of value (LTV) when trying to think about composition as an economic act, to the point where I’m wondering if its being a problem should serve as an indicator of the possible richness of the questions it raises. So on the one hand, I’m chasing down recent work in economics on that angle, from comparisons between Sraffa on commodities versus Marx on labor-times to thoughts from the Austrians on the economics of time (with reservations about both); but on the other hand, I’m seeing the aggregation problem — how do we disentangle measures of writing as economic activity from the pitfalls of the labor theory of value; how does the value of writing accumulate, in Sraffa’s sense — as the direction to follow, enthusiastically. If we understand pieces of writing as moments in the cyclic process of production-ownership-use-reproduction that embody addings-up of the labor of their authors and the authors upon whose work they draw as well as of the other contributing factors of production (including, e.g., computers; machines that stand themselves as aggregations of capital, and as substitutions of capital-intensive processes for labor-intensive processes), then thinking of the value of those pieces of writing becomes easier to do even algebraically, even though the algebra of the labor theory of value itself doesn’t quite work. There’s a way that the aggregation problem can make the economics of time as applied to writing actually work, I think, with implications from the way we value peer-reviewed articles to the counting behaviors associated with the Stanford study of writing to credit hours to time-use studies. (This is also a return for me to the Bourdieu chapter in my dissertation, where I looked at the limitations of Bourdieu’s X and Y axes of cultural and economic capital in tracing the relative values of cultural objects as being partly overcome by adding a Z axis for time and thereby tracing a trajectory of valuation as a three-dimensional shape, further complicated by producers’ and consumers’ disparate positions on those X and Y axes making those three-dimensional shapes slightly different depending on which angle you look from: thick-skinned balloon animals of valuation, maybe.) But looking at writing’s accumulated value through the LTV could help writing studies to respond to the “service course” critique (and likely find a lot of use for the Downs-Wardle approach), and also makes enormous amounts of sense for the citation-heavy, association-heavy new media-based compositions that seem more appropriate or at least more common in the context of the information economy: such compositions wear their factors of production on their collective sleeve and move away from the economic obfuscation of the romantic-author model (which, of course and interestingly in this context, was itself partly a response to the upheavals of the previous technological-economic revolution).

The Teleology of Capitalism

Does capitalism have a particular teleology? If those who believe strongly in the virtues of unfettered free-market capitalism were to think teleologically, what ideal end-state would they imagine, and for whom?

Popular critiques of vulgar or orthodox Marxism understand its ideal goal to consist of class struggle leading to socialist revolution followed by a worker’s utopia wherein “after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Critique of the Gotha Program). Critiques of various forms of Marxism that admit a more sophisticated understanding still often find a solid target in teleologies that imagine some remedy to the appropriation of unpaid labor and a loosening of the bourgeoisie’s private ownership of the means of production: so, yes, Marxisms by definition often imagine some future circumstance toward which they work.

Do the advocates of free-market competition similarly imagine some ideal future circumstance — and if so, what does it look like?


Looks like I’ll be in NYC this spring, and among fine company, judging by the rhet-comp blogosphere’s activity today. I submitted an individual CCCC proposal for the first time since 2000, and I’ve been placed into a panel titled “Capitalism, Commodification, and Consumerism,” so I’m definitely eager to see who I’ll be presenting with. And happy and grateful, as always, to have the opportunity to share what I’m working on.

My presentation’s current title is “Identity as Economic Activity: Representing Class from the Wealth of Nations to the Wealth of Networks.” I’m planning to do things differently this year: I’ll try to write it as a journal article first, and then condense it down to presentation length in order to (I hope) get some helpful feedback before sending it out.

Abstract follows, for those who might be interested.

Read more

Not Working Class

A few weeks ago, Bill asked in a great post about poetics, rhetoric, and the logic of affect, “Is a ‘working-class rhetoric’ even possible?” I’d like to see more from Bill in this vein, partly because I’m not entirely comfortable with the implicit parallel I (perhaps mistakenly) infer from Bill’s post between poetics versus rhetorics and working class versus middle class (that seems to be hinted at in a heart-versus-head way in Julie Lindquist’s recent College English piece, as well), but largely because I agree with a lot of what he’s saying, especially the statements that “Our culture doesn’t have a vocabulary for having non-fiction discussions about class status. We lack terms with agreed-upon meanings. Statements about class (especially working-class) status are politically divisive, perpetually contested.”

We learn from Raymond Williams that class distinctions are inherently contradictory: the working class is characterized by its activity, while the middle class is characterized by its position. Yet there is a rhetoric of the working class academic, a status-claim performed in books, articles, listservs, and conferences.

I can’t perform that status-claim. I am not a member of the working class.

In saying that, I am not suggesting such claims are wrong or misguided. I am in no way trying to perform the rationalization of economic inequality in self-indulgent praise of the inherent moral superiority of the middle class that one prominent scholar in my discipline has deemed necessary. I am not attempting to indict the admirable scholarly work in such excellent volumes as This Fine Place So Far from Home and Coming to Class. I’m just saying: I can’t claim that. I won’t claim that. And I don’t want to claim that.

Why not? I’ve still got my Class A Commercial Driver’s License. I can still drive the biggest rigs and biggest loads out there. I hauled 72 tons plenty of times, and that’s bigger than most peoples’ houses. I worked construction as a teenager and temped in my 20s. I went into the regular Army as an enlisted trucker, and came out Sergeant Edwards. With a cross wrench, I can change a tire faster than anybody you know (well, OK, except for maybe Rob) outside of NASCAR. And I wouldn’t be finishing my PhD right now if I hadn’t had the Army’s GI Bill.

But I’m not working class.

And it’s obvious, from Raymond Williams, why not. The working class is defined, synchronically, by its activity. What it does. According to such a synchronic definition, I’m a teacher and a scholar; a professional; a member of the professional class. Position is diachronic. Where one stands, culturally, is not about the now of activity but about the history of position. Claims of working status are placed in the present — as I think they should be, since studies of class are inescapably political and aimed at remedying contemporary inequalities — while positional claims are necessarily based upon a historical foundation.

In other words: I’m not a working class academic because I’m an academic. And my commitment to political change is based on that awareness of difference. For me, to claim working class status would be to endorse an inherently conservative position, a position that privileges and celebrates a cultural identity rooted in the past, rather than to pay attention to my own labor and the classroom labor of my students. And I refuse to misname my own work, because I refuse to misname the work of my students. Economic change isn’t about who we’ve been: it’s about what we do.

I am not working class. We work.

Chocolate Proletariat

My attorney and I went to see Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today, and we enjoyed it immensely. Like Bill, I totally saw the Michael Jackson connection; Bill’s thoughts on the implications of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka being “repelled by the very notion of nuclear family” are well worth a read. And like Bill, I totally loved the songs. Missi Pyle as Mrs. Beauregarde was fantastic, as was Johnny Depp, who did a fine job of displaying the misanthropic — and at times downright sadistic — tendencies evident throughout Dahl’s body of work. And the movie is simultaneously gorgeous and hallucinatory, and very, very funny.

What really interested me, though, was Dorothea Salo’s fine and productive reading of the movie as being “about labor, abuse thereof.” She’s totally, totally right, and if you don’t want to know any more about the movie, please don’t read any further: no major spoilers, but there are some minor revelations about the movie’s content.

Read more

Not a Marxist, Revisited

Karl Marx, in his early (1845-46) manuscript The German Ideology, argues that “The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production musst not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production” (150). Am I reading this correctly, in understanding that Marx’s argument is that economic activity produces individual subjectivity? In understanding that, essentially, how you labor determines who you are?
Read more

More on Mondragón

My mind’s racing. I wrote on Monday about the Mondragón cooperative experiment; we talked about Mondragón today in the Rethinking Economy seminar I’m taking, and the insights came in a rush at the end. Part of the reason Mondragón is so remarkable, as I noted Monday, is its sheer scale: it demonstrates that cooperatives need not be small and timorously idealistic projects, with their practices always limited in scale, and often limited to labor-intensive rather than capital intensive processes. It demonstrates that cooperatives can compete.

The doubter in me says: so what? It’s not like that affects you or your practices. But it does.
Read more

I’m Not a Marxist, But

I think I should start keeping track of how many times I say “I’m not a Marxist.” Or even a Marxian. (Which is a word I can’t look at without thinking of Marvin.)

Because it’s really weird how hard I have to try to keep orienting my own theoretical perspective on economic issues in order to acknowledge that — although capitalism sometimes does bad things to people— we still expect ourselves to take it for granted, as an incontrovertible fact of our lives.

Democracy is the same way: it can do bad things to the minority, but we don’t want to admit it; we want to reassure ourselves that it’s great for everybody. Even the small groups of people who are ill-served by it. We seldom talk about it, but when we do we refer to it as the tyranny of the majority. In a true freewheeling radical democracy that incorporates the rules of capitalist competition, everyone looks out for their own interests, and the group with the lowest numbers loses. If enough conservatives are worried that queer Americans represent a threat to their ways of life, then conservatives vote to deprive those queer Americans of various rights: such is the tyranny of the majority. (Conservative rhetorics often invoke metaphors of the holocaust — as Terry Gross was stunned by on NPR the other night — or the civil rights movement — as John Lovas has recently pointed out — in order to represent the privileged as victims. Does your heart not bleed for the wealthy?)

What I’m trying to say is that it seems to me that the name for any critique of capitalism has become “Marxism”, and that such a label has been used quite well by those that benefit from capitalism as a smear term for the perspective of any who might speak against them. I wish there were more than one term for a critique of the injuries (and their concomitant framework) associated with capitalism.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio.

Rejecting Class as Process

Some brief thoughts on Gibson-Graham, Wolff & Resnick’s “Introduction: Class in a Poststructuralist Frame” to their edited collection Class and Its Others before I go to bed. First, they usefully point out that “the language of class is inevitably performative — it participates in transforming economic and other social relations” (2), a poststructuralist insight which helps me in seeing how the discourse of class continually makes and re-makes its own hierarchies, perhaps even within Bourdieu’s relational space. But they also make a distinction between two different types of “discourse of class”, one being “the familiar and widespread sense of social distinction” and the other being “the more restricted economic sense first systematically expounded by Marx” (2), and then proceed to shoot at that “familiar and widespread” definition, arguing that class cannot “be seen as ordained by or founded on positions in a larger social structure or as constituting social groups (classes) unified by commonalties of power, property, consciousness,” or other factors (9). The problem is, though, that they’re setting up this “a priori social structure” (9) as a straw man, something already existing, when the fact of the matter — as already discussed above — is that it gets enacted every day.
Read more