Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reason #9--Old Tools Unmastered May Be Just the New Tools We Need

Like all worthwhile philosophy, Marx's overall theory is not meant to die in the armchair. And it's not meant to be replaced by dogma. It's more like a stance for navigating the details of our existence and how we get from where we are to where we need to be.

Since we've become a world more or less run by private corporations (which Marx sketched out at the dawn of the modern industrial era), we've need new maps to navigate our lives, and Marxism in its most basic forms provides the tools for drafting and following those maps. I tend to think the crucial concept is class, but Marx uses this term so differently than it is usually used in America that it is as if North and South, East and West have been scrambled.

This idea of class affects everything else. In Marx's most concise summary of his theory, a preface he wrote to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he states, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

We know this, but I don't think we appreciate it. We are taught to selectively apply this understanding. In school, we are taught to overlook the sexism and racism of leaders from another age because we must remember, "They were men of their time." And yet, we often seem to forget that we are creatures of our own time, place and experience.

Our conditions are not fixed and eternal any more than those in the past, and they are distorted by our individual points of view, just as potentially distorted as the opinions of those past leaders our history teachers ask us to excuse.

To truly understand the times we live in, we need to consider how every idea we have is born out of the comfort and antagonism in our lives, whether it is our own idea based on our own experiences or that of those around us.

Why is it that so many teachers I work with speak so disdainfully of their students (me, too, man; I have my days....), and why is it that we suspect our administrators as much as our students suspect us?

Is it, in the first case, because we are in an antagonistic power relationship with our students, pitted against each other in a battle of wills? Is it because, on the most basic level, we are fighting each other rather than a larger system that has little interest in truly democratic education?

Is it, in the latter case, because we know that the administration and the Board are looking out for the bottom line above all else and, despite the way teachers love to think of ourselves as "professionals" (it helps to justify all that money we spent in school), we are no more important to the system than any other worker?

Is this same realization the reason doctors chafe at receiving their instructions from an insurance company, an HMO? Don't we all know the quality of the job we do matters little to those in charge as long as it serves the bottom line?

[And one of the most valuable things about a Marxist approach is that it allows us to set personality aside for a moment--not ignore it but set it aside. This isn't about nice people or mean people, good guys or bad guys, devoted teachers or burn outs (although it is about the process that creates burn out). This is about the larger forces wearing on these people, on all of us. Bottom line, as I said before, my day job is chair filler and gatekeeper. Everything else I do is my own initiative.]

Faith in capitalism requires a belief that what serves the bottom line is in the best interest of all parties. But try telling that to the cancer patient who can't receive experimental treatment the insurance company won't fund (nevermind those who can't afford insurance). Try telling that to me when I know I could push a borderline writing student past his or her hurdles if I wasn't juggling this students' needs against 100 others.

[And believe me, our writing teachers have had to fight to keep the number of writers we deal with down to a group we can just barely read, a hundred a semester, a number that gets called into question almost every time we negotiate our contracts.]

We all know the truth. The bottom line serves a few people’s interests while it shortchanges most of us who get sick and most of us who seek an education. Unfortunately, most of us are too busy suffering in isolation to see the potential for liberation that lurks in such an observation. We are too alienated to see we are really not alone. We lack the class consciousness to see a basis for unity.

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