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Friday, May 8, 2015


What, Chris asks, was the nature of the assignment for the final paper in my Marx course?  the students were invited to write about any subject they wished, but I handed out a set of possible topics for those who wamted some guidance.  Because Marx is far and away the most broadly learned thinker whose works I have taught, and because the students came from many disciplines, the range of paper topics was extraordinary.  The paper was to be 15-20 pages long.  Here is the list of topics I circulated:

Suggested Topics for the Final Paper

1.         The development of capitalism has been quite uneven, progressing in some countries rapidly and in other countries quite slowly.  What problems does that fact pose for the sort of international working class movement Marx envisions?

2.         Write a Marxian critique of the Occupy Movement.  Or, write a critique of Marx from the perspective of the Occupy Movement.  Or, write critiques of both Marx and the Occupy Movement from some other perspective.   I don't care.  Just make it penetrating and interesting and original.

3.         What is the difference, if any, between mystification and good old garden-variety stupidity, ignorance, and superstition?  Give some well-worked-out examples of both and analyze them.

4.         Choose some work of Philosophy or Economics or Political Science or Anthropology with which you are really familiar and do an analysis of the relationship between the linguistic structure of the text and the structure of the reality the author is attempting to capture.  [Warning:  this is super hard, and if I were in the business of giving out brownie points, anyone taking this would get extra brownie points just for trying.  On the other hand, it is real easy to crash and burn with this one.]

5.         If you have taken a college or graduate Economics course, analyze the difference between the sorts of questions asked by the classical Political Economists and the questions asked by modern neo-classical economists, with special attention to the ideological significance of those differences.

6.         In a way, the most original element in my lectures is the idea that a formalization of a narrative account of the economy, or indeed of anything else, must capture in the formalization all of the essential components of the narrative.  Choosing ANY text you wish and ANY philosopher you wish, write a paper developing that idea.

7.         There has been a good deal of discussion lately [Google it] about the prospect that within a generation, robots will be sufficiently advanced to do most of the work now done by human workers.  Write an analysis of the problems [or promise] such a development would present, drawing on Marx's analysis of capitalism for inspiration and guidance.

8.         Marx wrote a long chapter in Capital on the working day, and an even longer chapter on machinery and modern industry.  But he did not write a chapter on work in a bureaucratic office, which in his day was quite unusual but is today the norm for many, many millions of workers.  Try your hand at an analysis, à la Marx, of the modern office.  You may, if you wish, include a Dilbert cartoon strip.

9.         How did Neolithic human society develop into society with a private ownership of the means of production and a system of courts and police to enforce that ownership?  You might want to take a look at The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels -- or some recent anthropology.

10.       The most profound statement in all of Marx's writings is the passage I quoted at the very beginning of the course, from the Preface to Marx's An Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy:  "No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself."   Now that you know something of Marx's theories, write a paper discussing the implications of this statement for the possibility of a social and economic transformation of capitalism into socialism.


Chris said...

I almost expelled hot tea through my nose, from laughing so hard at the second question.

Overall great questions. 5, looks really appealing.

F Lengyel said...

"There has been a good deal of discussion lately [Google it] about the prospect that within a generation, robots will be sufficiently advanced to do most of the work now done by human workers. Write an analysis of the problems [or promise] such a development would present, drawing on Marx's analysis of capitalism for inspiration and guidance."

The question ought to be broadened to include not only the automation of the work of human workers, but of owners.

As Paul Krugman wrote a couple of years ago in The New York Times:
"Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but they will also reduce the demand for people—including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots."

Perhaps, but one answer is for the robots to own themselves. The automation of ownership should be a priority among artificial intelligence researchers. Owning things can be done far more efficiently with software than with human wetware.

And unlike the more impressive and specialized feats of automated job elimination, such as automated medical diagnosis, early case analysis in litigation or the driverless car, the automation of ownership is relatively straightforward.

The gains in wealth due to increasingly efficient automation can indeed accrue to whoever owns the robots: the robots themselves, those actually responsible for generating the gains. Human owners are no longer needed.

classtruggle said...

Great range of questions that students can investigate, and different types of data and information that can be collected and provided to aid interpretation. Very useful. Thanks for this one. Hope you don't mind me adding these to my collection of questions and topics related to Volume I which I like to use in reading group discussions.

When I took a course on the first Volume (as well as directed readings on Volumes 2, 3 and 4), we had three assignments: a midterm paper that was intended to be exegetical i.e. a description of Marx's argument in the student's own words (about 15 pages double spaced), answers to guide questions that were found at the end of our study notes which were created by the instructor, and a final essay that allowed students to explore an historical or contemporary question that relates in some way to the subjects covered in Capital (about 25 pages).

Topics were somewhat similar (e.g. commodity fetishism, crisis theory, transition from feudalism to capitalism or from capitalism to socialism, rise/origin of the state, primitive accumulation/making of the WC, Japanization, reserve army of labour, women's work, etc).

For what it's worth, here's a link to my supervisor's study notes for Volume I

When I was a contributor on Wikipedia and editing the article on Volume I, I remember adding a list of reading guides (by Harvey, Cleaver, Hardt, Clarke, etc) in the external links section. May still be there.