Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Zooming Marx

Colleen Lye, Chris Nealon

Thinking with Marx breeds shared projects. Over the last year and a half we have been co-editing a collection of essays on 21st-century Marxist literary criticism, and this winter, in order to prepare to write the introduction to that book, we set out to tandem- teach undergraduate courses on the first volume of Capital at our respective universities.

It was a joy. We found that our weekly conversations were deepening our own understanding of Marx, as well as our admiration for our students. They were especially quick to grasp Marx’s attention to the asymmetries he argued are built into seeming equivalents: supply and demand, money and commodities. The week we discussed Chapter 3, on money, one of us took Marx’s reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream – “We see then, commodities are in love with money, but ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’” – and diagrammed the problem on the blackboard (commodities tend to run aground; money needs to get around). In the other course, we found ourselves discussing the same asymmetry by lingering over that strange contemporary phrase, “surge pricing” – which, once you’ve read a bit of Capital, turns out to describe all pricing.

Then came the pandemic. It came just as we were teaching Chapter 15, “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” where Marx argues that technologically-driven increases in productivity both elongate the working day and propel a spiral of expansion driven by competition for profit rather than by any need for the products of industry. With a little help from some Marxist epidemiologists, we were soon able to think about COVID-19 as an outgrowth of the deforestation and displacement caused by the “Green Revolutions” of the last half-century, allowing us to focus on the pandemic’s origins in present-day frontiers of commodity agriculture, and to see through the Orientalist narrative of its origins in exotic Chinese eating habits.

Of course we weren’t just having an intellectual adventure. We were obliged to think as much about our students’ precarity as their alacrity. In the years before the epidemic, many of our students were already sensing the unsustainability of our current course, knowing that what lay in store for them was very possibly a future of employment scarcity, heavy tuition debt, and unaffordable housing, in a world characterized by intensifying and more frequent “natural” disasters. This was especially unignorable on the west coast, where graduate students in the UC system were fired en masse in late February, amid a strike against the conditions created by tech-driven spikes in the cost of living, and where the airborne ash from California’s ever-longer wildfire season had already led to widespread adoption of N95 masks a year before. 

By the week we reached Chapter 25 of Capital, where Marx develops his famous concept of the “industrial reserve army,” 16 million Americans had filed for unemployment benefits. And at that point, we were all beginning to ask a question that hadn’t occurred to us in the first whiplash weeks of school closures and stay-at-home orders: what kind of world will we return to, after the epidemic?

The funny thing is, we had both envisioned our arrival at that 25th chapter of Capital as a kind of culmination – it is, after all, titled “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation.” So when one of our students asked about the place in that chapter where Marx argues that capital’s demand for labor is not the same as a demand for workers, we had to take a collective deep breath and think hard about what that asymmetry might mean in 2021, in 2022, and in the years to come. What if the lost jobs don’t come back, or not on the same terms? What will it mean if populations not previously superfluous to regular waged labor – like college students, say – begin to experience themselves that way? Two of our students, pursuing these questions, found themselves doing that rare thing, which is to see beyond the narratives that pit the vulnerable against the more vulnerable, and wrote an op-ed in defense of their graduate instructors’ right to strike.

We are both roughly thirty years older than our current undergraduates. We made our own slow way to Marx across the decades from a discipline, literary studies, where Marxism has never been a dominant force, and from subfields – Asian American studies and queer studies – where Marxist work has long been viewed with suspicion for being reductive, mechanical, oblivious to anything but “class” in a rigid, old-fashioned way.

But for us, the power of reading Capital lies in how it explains the way a myriad of categories, and a host of oppressions, took shape in the first place. As that 25th chapter segues into a final suite of studies in what Marx called “primitive accumulation,” he makes clear that the iron law of the wage could not – and cannot – exist without the histories of un-waged work that came before it, and subsist alongside it. This means, of course, the histories of women, of slaves, of colonies, and how they have long served as affordances for the logic of the wage, the logic that has led to our planet of slums.

Our students are grasping this much faster than we did, at their age. Fewer than half of them are English majors, or taking our courses for what you would call “literary” reasons. But the study of literature is at the center of what we have been hoping to bring them: it has taught us to recognize the difference between a reductive interpretation and a strong one. Capital is rigorous, but it is also capacious. And our students are teaching us that the hard work of tracking its concepts pays off in deep and unexpected ways. They are showing us that even when we are dispersed to our retreats, reduced to a gallery view on our screens, it can breed solidarity.

About The Authors

Colleen Lye

Colleen Lye (Ph.D, Columbia) is Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley, where she teaches courses on 20th and 21st century literature, marxism and postcolonial theory, and A...

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Chris Nealon

Christopher Nealon teaches American literature, aesthetic theory, and the intellectual histories that bear on the history of poetry. He also regularly teaches courses that explore ...

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