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Dialectical U

A decade ago, the department of Marxist-Leninist philosophy at Moscow State University was abolished by faculty vote, kicking off an ideological going-out-of-business sale—opiates of the people, all specters of communism, everything must go—and giving one more heave-ho to the writings of Karl Marx. American universities, of course, had already been giddily reshelving the volumes of Capital and other Marx tomes under the Dewey decimal heading of “Dustbin,” where they have rested, largely undisturbed, as mementos of the so-called end of history.

Despite a heady dose of mainstream Marxiana a few years back—when Verso reissued The Communist Manifesto as a historical-materialist collectible, and The New Yorker pronounced Marx a sort of capitalist savant, whose books make swell reading for market mavens—Marx’s legacy at most American schools seems to have been swept away with those souvenir shards of the Berlin Wall. “Nobody’s frothing at the mouth anymore about the Marxists on campus,” says Diana Gordon, a professor of politics at City College. “That’s an indication not that they’ve been accepted, but that they’ve faded into the woodwork.”

You won’t find any froth flying around economics departments, where Marx’s writings are considered just so much claptrap. “In a word,” says City University economics professor David Laibman, “Marx is underground. Most students in economics today will go through a whole program from Econ 101 to a Ph.D. without ever encountering Marx.” That assessment is seconded by Bill Tabb, who teaches economics at CUNY’s Queens College. “There’s a very large number of Marxist economists around, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at the profession,” Tabb says. “Since the Reagan years, our profession has become very narrow. There’s a great intolerance to anything that’s not mainstream.”

Marx has been booted from plenty of other syllabi as well. “My colleagues call me a dinosaur because I take class analysis seriously,” says Robert Fatton, chair of the department of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia. “Looking at Marx has become a theoretical exercise. Students see it as history, like studying medieval Europe, and no longer as something that is very real.” Besides, who wants to teach Marx when one’s own relative surplus value is hanging in the balance? “It is very difficult to get tenure and get published if you have a clear Marxist framework,” he says. “I would never have obtained tenure if I were doing American politics with a class analysis.”

Then there’s the Foucault factor. Many in the social sciences note that Marx’s work has been passed right by in the great pomo stampede. “There is almost a direct relationship between the loss of interest in Marx and the rising interest in postmodern and poststructural thought,” says Shannon Stimson, a political science professor at UC Berkeley. “Marx is still around, but it’s a vapid and ahistorical Marx. To me, looking at the construction of liberal politics without looking at the construction of liberal economics is bizarre. In some ways it really is as if Marx had never written.”

Yes, it’s hard to believe that the ruling classes once trembled when, in 1978, NYU professor Bertell Ollman was offered the political science chair at the University of Maryland. “When word got out that a Marxist was going to come there and head the department,” he recalls, “all hell broke loose.” The university retracted its offer after panic-stricken columnists inveighed that, as Ollman puts it, “We can’t let a Marxist get a hold of the poli-sci department of Maryland because it’s so close to the White House.” Nevertheless, mentioning Marx today is a breeze compared to yesteryear. “There are far fewer people throwing the Soviet Union or its horrors at me when I talk about Marxism these days,” Ollman says. “Who can I be spying for now? North Korea?” In fact, he says enrollment in his history of socialist thought course at NYU has jumped from about 80 students during most of the last decade to 131 last year—more, even, than in the radical ’60s.

Those on the lookout for a materialist uptick might also recall Marx’s famous declaration that he himself was no Marxist. “If you want to do Marx studies, you don’t look under Marx,” says City University scholar Marshall Berman, pointing out that historical materialism thrives in such niches as the new historicism in literature and critical legal studies. As it happens, we can thank Bush v. Gore for putting some spunk back into the latter discipline, according to Mark Tushnet, who teaches constitutional law at Georgetown. “Five years ago, critical legal studies was dead,” he says. “The Supreme Court’s decisions in the election cases have clearly revived it.” But even with that jurisprudential frisson, we’re not likely to see too much of Marx’s bushy white beard poking out from the textbooks. “It’s now part of the pluralist bazaar,” says Tushnet. “Here’s one way to think about things.”


Still, there’s a specter of sorts haunting the American academy. “If anything, students are more curious about Marx now than they were before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” says Paul Thomas, who teaches in the political science department at Berkeley. “They often come into class with the impression that somewhere along the way, somebody’s pulled the wool over their eyes about this man.” The going isn’t always easy, however, especially in the nether reaches of the 1000-plus pages of Capital. “It’s fair to point out that certain books are more read about than read,” Thomas says. “Capital would be one of them. More study groups have fallen apart when they dealt with Capital than with any other book I can think of.”

John Ehrenberg, chairman of the political science department at Long Island University, says that despite Marx’s prose, students don’t need Cliffs Notes to understand that they too have a world to win. “Young people are always attracted to the part of Marx which demands that capitalism live up to its potential. It’s not hard for them to understand the theory of surplus value or why workers get ripped off.” The time is getting ripe, he says, “for a new round of Marxist-informed social action.”

Feel free to blame some of that on Andy Merrifield, who teaches in the graduate school of geography at Clark University in Massachusetts—another nook where Marx has taken up refuge—and conducted a seminar on volume one of Capital last spring. “I had to sort of lure them into it,” he admits of the six students who eventually signed up. “But after the first few weeks, we were hooked. Marx is a great writer, you know.” Like others teaching Marx, Merrifield has earned the enmity of certain nondialectical colleagues: “You’re perceived by your peers as the devil incarnate.” But he may be one of a vanguard of fortysomething professors who are striving to marry Marx’s classic critique of capitalism with a new-school brand of activism. “My generation can have its foot in both camps,” Merrifield says. “We read Capital, but also understand the need to put bricks through Starbucks’ windows.”

In his view, a post-Seattle generation of students is ready to look at Marx with fresh eyes and a healthy disdain for free-market mystification. “These kids are political, and they have a gut feeling that corporations are screwing up the world. But it’s not a sophisticated theoretical understanding.” And that would be where Starbucks fits in. “There’s political purchase in slightly mad destructive acts,” Merrifield continues. “I’m not saying that has to be the chief political means through which struggle takes place. But if you can harness it with theory and give it some depth, then you can use that destructive energy intelligently.”

As scholars of revolution are wont to point out, economics has its cycles, and so does rebellion. Take note, Francis Fukuyama. History lives on.


Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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Steal This Idea

They came so close to setting Mickey Mouse free. Until a few months ago when congressional passage of the Sonny Bono Act extended the term of all corporate copyrights by 20 years, the rights to Mickey’s first cartoon were due to expire in 2002. Just three more years, and the century’s top-grossing commodified signifier (possibly outranked only by the Coca-Cola logo) would have taken his first, tentative steps into the light of the public domain. Weightier things have happened in the history of Western civilization, to be sure, but given the hyperreality of the age, there’s no telling what cultural shock waves the unshackling of Mickey might have set rolling. With the right spin, the event could have joined the fall of the Berlin Wall among postmodernity’s great moments of iconic liberation.

Tech journalist Seth Shulman’s Owning the Future, a brief but sweeping report on the malignant growth of intellectual-property claims in the last two decades, has matters more substantive than cartoons to dwell on— technological innovation strangled by the proliferation of software patents, for instance; medical breakthroughs stymied by corporate knowledge hoarding; age-old farming cultures threatened by the wholesale commodification of crop DNA. But in the end, his argument tells us basically the same thing Disney Inc.’s anxious lobbying on behalf of the Bono Act already did: that nothing haunts the information-age corporation so profoundly as the specter of unchained information, and that corporate efforts to keep the chains on are getting weirder and fiercer all the time.

Shulman’s crisp analysis tells us plenty, though, about the social conditions that frame those efforts. The standard Tofflerian version of 20th-century economic history, plausible enough in its bare outlines, gets a brisk retelling here: sometime between the saving of Private Ryan and the launching of Sputnik, we are reminded, the old “Second Wave” industrial economy, in which tangible products were central, gave way to the Third Wave, “a new historical era in which knowledge assets play a driving role in economic growth.” Mercifully, however, Shulman turns the blithe free-market boosting of Toffler and his disciples on its head. Against the “triumphalist” vision of cyberguru Esther Dyson, for instance, who sees only desperate late­Second Wave resistance in the furious intellectual landgrabbing now under way, Shulman insists on the obvious: that the landgrabbing is in fact a “symptom” of the new dispensation, in which corporations live and die by whatever chunks of information they can stake their claims to.

Shulman’s dispatches from the high-tech turf wars document recent patents on, among other eyebrow-raising examples, two very large prime numbers, a plant used by South American shamans to concoct the hallucinogen ayahuasca, the sexing of unborn infants by “looking at their genitals” in ultrasound images, approximately one-third of the known human genome, and, believe it or not, in a claim granted to a Connecticut inventor only a year ago— the wheel.

As this brief list suggests, Shulman’s book is entertaining, and a selective reader could easily skim for the pure thrill of outrage, skipping from one mind-boggling case of info-profiteering to another. But Shulman himself is careful never to stray too far from the larger and subtler social consequences: the stifling of scientific and technological evolution, the removal of fateful decisions about human and other gene pools from the realm of democratic choice, the exacerbation of inequalities and conflicts between rich and poor nations, and, ultimately, the prospect of “an ominous descent into a new Dark Age.”

Only in the last few pages of Owning the Future, however, does Shulman seek to map out a coherent strategy for averting these bummers— and it’s here you finally sense something missing from his argument. Not that his suggestions don’t sound eminently sensible. He simply proposes, after all, to reinvigorate the much diminished notion of the public domain, and he proposes to do so by updating certain tried-and-true legal and political approaches to managing more conventional forms of property. Declare the human genome a natural sanctuary, for instance, just like Teddy Roosevelt did with Yellowstone. Make health-related patent holders license their knowledge to all comers— the same way cities and states use zoning laws to regulate some private properties in the public interest. Nothing too radical there.

But that’s just the problem: Shulman spends much of his book arguing persuasively that there is something radically different about intellectual property, and that notions of property derived from the logic of tangible goods can’t adequately be applied to the “unreal estate” of the conceptual. It’s disconcerting, then, to find him in the end trying to do just that.

Indeed, it makes you wish that maybe Shulman had made a little room in his analysis for Mickey Mouse— or for that matter any other products of the culture industry. Because although the solid objects of industrial production might not offer adequate precedent for the cutting-edge, info-intensive technologies that fascinate Shulman, the soft, subtle objects of which culture has always been made are another story. Computer programming and genetic engineering are in fact suffused with the logics of cultural production— of language, writing, and symbol. That’s the very thing that makes them radically different, in the end. And had Shulman chosen to pursue that difference to the end, it might have been interesting to see what sort of policy proposals he came up with. No doubt they would be soft and subtle indeed, perhaps too much so to even count as policy at all. But as the bulk of Shulman’s book makes plain, the current crisis of our intellectual-property regime is a radical one, and nothing short of a radical rethinking is likely to see us clear of it.