Teaching Marx at Harvard: An Interview with Steven Jungkeit
by Matt Bieber
Steven Jungkeit is a Lecturer on Ethics at Harvard Divinity School. He holds a PhD in Modern Christian Thought from Yale, and he is the author of Spaces of Modern Theology: Geography and Power in Schleiermacher’s World. Jungkeit is also an ordained Presbyterian minister and a father of three.
This semester, Jungkeit is teaching the only course at Harvard dedicated to the Marxist tradition. (Full disclosure: I am a student in the class.)
Marx, Marxism, socialism – these are dirty words in America. Was that always true? Or was there a time – perhaps around the time of Marx’s original publications – when you could self-describe as a Marxist in the United States and not get shouted out of the mainstream?
I don’t know about the time of Marx’s original publications, but I’d like to believe that in the 1890s perhaps, 1920s, when there was a strong labor movement going on in the country, a lot of civil unrest, my sense of things is that it was possible to describe oneself as a Marxist, to use Marxist ideas, to appropriate Marxist categories and language, to use the ideas of socialism in a fairly overt and mainstream way for the purpose of social organization.
In the past, it was possible to do that. I think maybe in the 1960s as well. That may be one of the last moments where it seemed that Marxist categories were out in the open somewhere, maybe even just in a pocket of intellectuals or activists working for civil rights or women’s rights or whatever. But there have been these moments in American culture and American history when it seems like it’s manifested itself, it seems like it’s been allowed to come to the forefront. But not lately. I think you’re right to say lately it does seem like almost anathema to talk about these categories. And it’s been that way since the middle 70s or so.
I think that’s beginning to change. More and more I’m picking up the chatter out there in the airwaves; I think people are open to reading Marx, thinking about Marx. Especially after [the economic crisis of] 2008, but even before that. I don’t know where it’s leading or whether we’re leading into a new moment like the 60s or the 1920s or maybe the 1890s. I don’t know.
You’re teaching a course on “Marx and his Readers.” Obviously, that covers a lot of ground. Which aspects of the Marxist tradition do you see as most urgent, useful, or applicable to our contemporary situation?
What I’m not interested in doing is gaining converts or getting people to join a party or something like that. I don’t even know where to go to join a party. What I am interested in is getting people to think about class consciousness. I think more and more we need to be thinking through that stuff. Again, after 2008, after Occupy Wall Street, more and more I think that conversation is probably happening, but I think we need to keep having that conversation and keep thinking about it. In order to have that conversation, it makes all the sense in the world to turn to Marx and the Marxist tradition, to see what one of the finest thinkers on class consciousness has to say about this stuff.
Thinking through, for example, how capital works and how it creates this labor pool and underclass that capitalism depends upon in order to function. I think it’s a really helpful thing to witness as Marx makes these grand assertions in Capital. So working that through in Marx, but then working it through in Lenin, working it through in Lukacs and Althusser and seeing the ways others have run with this idea too.
Here’s the other thing I think we need to figure out, the big public conversation that needs to happen: how do you organize? If you’re worried about these issues, how do you organize resistance? How do you organize counterpunches? I mean, it’s one thing to sit and read these texts in a seminar, but how do you organize something?
I remember sitting through a seminar that David Harvey led at Yale at one point, and he took us through this project he was working on – I don’t know, in 2007 or 2008 – about the history of neoliberalism. He was walking us through how neoliberalism started to arise, how it gained its power, its force, and he concluded this whole grand sweeping history of the last 30 years by saying, “Look, for the last 30 years, neoliberalism has been waging a kind of class warfare. It’s incredibly potent, it’s incredibly organized.” He ended the whole talk by saying, “We need to wage class warfare back.”
So the first question is: What do you mean by “we”? Who’s “we”? And the next question is: How do you do that? How do you wage class warfare? What would that look like?
I think in a way, that’s started to happen, as people are starting to talk about tax codes. People are starting to talk about income inequality. People are starting to talk about wages that corporate executives make, tax rates that executives pay versus the tax rates that middle class and lower-income people pay.
So two of the major things that we’re drawing from these texts: 1) How do we become increasingly class-conscious?—because I think it’s everywhere around us and we just need to take off the blinkers to see it—and, 2) How do you get organized to do that?
Marx does a great job with the class-consciousness business, not so great on organization. Lenin is good on class consciousness but he’s great on organization. I think there needs to be more contemporary analysis. I don’t have any illusions about duplicating or replicating their projects–I wouldn’t want to.
Class-consciousness feels like one of the most complicated pieces. In Capital and elsewhere, Marx divides the world into pretty stark categories: there’s the capitalist and there’s the laborer, and it’s pretty clear where you fall. Subsequent thinkers have elaborated that hierarchy with lots of subclasses and categories and so forth.
I wonder if this is part of what’s so difficult about even recognizing class dynamics – the difficulty of locating yourself in such a complicated hierarchy. And the subtler the distinctions, the more incentive there is to identify yourself with the particular rung you’re on, as opposed to the more general class of folks who are in roughly the same situation you’re in.
Marx actually talks about labor as a form of slavery – that if she wants to eat, the laborer doesn’t have any choice about whether to sell her labor; she can only choose which capitalist to sell it to. Unless you’re independently wealthy or you have a bunch of capital, that’s the situation you’re in.
This radically changed the way I think about the proletariat. In one sense, I’m incredibly lucky – I have lots of rare opportunities. But in another sense, I share something with many –
We all sell our labor.
Yes. It makes me think about the American dream – how most versions of it are wrapped up in ideas of financial advancement, being capable of purchasing more. There’s a built-in disincentive to recognizing the commonality of your economic situation with other people, because you’re trying to keep up with the Joneses.
I think that’s true. Walter Rauschenbusch had that quote that I drew from in one of our classes – he talks about how most ministers are actually proletarians, living hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck, and worrying about how to live once the paychecks end. I think that’s actually the state that most people who come into this culture wind up in – a job that’s going to pay but not super-well. And, increasingly, massive debt. I think probably a lot of folks are living that proletarian existence, as Rauschenbusch describes it.
That’s a different kind of proletarian existence than, say, what Marx described when he was touring the factories in Manchester – it’s a middle class proletarian existence.
We also need to think about social capital. People coming to Harvard Divinity School (or anywhere like this) might live a proletarian existence, but they have this immense social capital that confers privileges that are less tangible, but they’re privileges nonetheless. So it’s a different kind of proletarian existence. But nevertheless it’s still hand-to-mouth, can still be hand-to-mouth. But we do need to nuance what we mean – this is not people going down into the mines.
I was thinking something similar – that there’s something about the original imagery that carries through ‘til today. When I think ‘proletarian’, I think of someone covered in soot and working in some really dangerous, unhealthy situation. And in this room, our situation is not that.
That stuff’s now been globalized. It’s been largely removed from the purview of most of our urban lives. We don’t see it, but it’s out there. So, yes, it’s gone from the factories in Michigan or Boston or New Haven or Bridgeport; now it’s in Bangladesh or Jakarta or Shenzhen. So it’s still out there; that’s the deep proletarian existence. I don’t want to confuse that with the thing that Rauschenbusch was talking about.
Does this help explain why Marxist thinking is so marginal in America? That some of the most dangerous, dehumanizing jobs – jobs that might have once generated or fanned the flames of a robust class consciousness – just aren’t here anymore. And that when they’re gone, they’re “out of sight, out of mind.” When that becomes the case, it’s easier to find yourself back in this neoliberal, rising-tide-lifts-all-boats way of looking at the world – because most of the boats around you aren’t particularly leaky.
Or we don’t see them as leaky, because of, say, a credit system. But if you looked a little bit deeper and a little bit harder, they’d be pretty leaky, and without the buttressing of credit, I think a lot of those boats would be going under. This complicates things even more; it makes it harder to see what kinds of lives people are actually capable of leading, what wages are actually capable of buying.
But anyway, I think you’re exactly right – that by pushing those jobs offshore, it removes it from our purview, and it removes it from our consciousness as well. So it makes it incredibly hard to organize. Once you disperse labor like that, it’s hard to get people to talk, it’s hard to get people to strike – anything like that. So it has all kinds of consequences.
Hardt and Negri think that the rise in network power, the rise of the internet, Facebook and Twitter and things like that, actually provides the capability for organizing these dispersed populations. That might be – I don’t know; I’m open to that. I’m a little suspicious – I don’t quite know that these tools are actually going to unify us, but it’s an interesting thought. There might be something there.
You’ve said previously that you view the US as existing within a pretty tight ideological bubble. Within that bubble, it becomes easy to imagine that Marxism isn’t just dead here, but is dead, full-stop, for the entire world. But as you’ve pointed out, there are lots of places around the world where the inspiration and insights of the tradition are alive and well, motivating people and movements for change.
When I was first reading this material, I used to go to this bar off-campus in New Haven. I ran into an old classmate of mine; he said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, it’s our Marxist reading group.” He just thought it was laughable. “What are you even talking about? Why are you reading this stuff? What’s the point?” He seemed to think that Marxism was a conversation that maybe had been going on 30 years ago, but maybe not even then. That’s kind of the typical reaction here, I think. “What is even the point?”
Well, the response is that there are all kinds of pockets of Marxist thought around the world. It doesn’t take long to uncover, it doesn’t take long to unpack. One really easy example is every couple of weeks, the London Review of Books arrives in my mailbox, and I guarantee there’s going to be an article in there that’s going to be informed by some current of Marxist thought – Perry Anderson just had this obituary reflection on Eric Hobsbawm, or Terry Eagleton’s going to say something, or Zizek. So even in a fairly mainstream European publication, offshore from America, it’s able to thrive.
I think that’s true in Continental thought in general. I think about some of the things that are happening in, say, French thought, especially since Derrida’s death in 2004 – this resurgence of Marxist-inspired thought. It had been there, but I think now it’s more prevalent. Zizek all of a sudden gets a phenomenal hearing. Badiou, Agamben, and Hart and Negri started putting their stuff out and getting more of a following.
But then I think of all the political regimes, say, in Venezuela, all over Latin America. Marxism is still alive and well in a new idiom, a new frame and guise. Bolivia, Cuba – think about what’s going to happen in Cuba in the next five or ten years – who knows, tomorrow? It seems like it’s prevalent across Latin America and Asia, Europe as well, and it’s a shame that Americans can’t engage that more carefully and more fully.
Marx monument, Moscow. Photograph by Román Emin
Right. It feels like something that is just so toxic that it can’t even be approached. I remember in the 2008 presidential campaign, just a couple of days before the actual election, a reporter from a local station in Florida was interviewing then-candidate Biden and said “You may recognize this famous quote: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” That’s from Karl Marx. How is Senator Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to spread the wealth around?”
It was amazing on a couple of levels: one, because she apparently didn’t seem to recognize that we already have a redistributive tax system –
That’s what taxes are – redistributive.
Right! And more than that, what struck me was that she seemed to think that the redistributive impulse – and maybe sharing more basically – was somehow morally suspect.
I was talking to a friend of mine, a PhD student in business economics here, who told me that if economic growth had been 1% less over the last 50 years, average incomes would be 40% less. He concluded by suggesting that perhaps the best thing we can do for the poor is to grow the economy.
I don’t want to misconstrue his views – I think he supports raising taxes on the wealthy for other reasons - but there was this really interesting note in what he was saying. That we may not be able to afford to help one another now, because we have to grow the economy so we can help each other in the future. In other words, we can’t afford compassion, we can’t afford generosity.
I remember when President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. There was this whole controversy when Obama talked about how Sotomayor has empathy, and how that’s a valuable trait in a judge.
It seems as if the discourse of the last 30 or 40 years has made it more difficult to imagine empathy and compassion as anything other than evidence of a weak, lily-livered mentality. That we just can’t afford to be good to one another.
It’s too sentimental.
And this is the amazing thing about some of the early Marxists. Whatever you think of Marx’ and Lenin’s political conclusions, what you can’t get away from is the fact that they were driven by a profound compassion for the suffering of their fellow human beings under conditions of brutal exploitation. And that stuff is deeply moving.
The tradition has been so marred by the failures and brutalities of particular Communist regimes that that original motivation, I think, gets lost, and all people see is the Red menace or the specter of Stalin or whatever.
Those original moments of Engels seeing these factory conditions, and then Marx, those long passages on the working day. What happens to people in these kinds of conditions? What happens to human lives? What happens to their sense of time? What happens to bodies? How are they maimed? I think that’s the moral core of this tradition in a sense: what happens to human lives and human bodies when capitalism is unleashed and runs amok?
So I agree with you. I think that’s a fundamentally good question to be asking, to be noticing. What are the working conditions in capitalist regimes? What’s the price it’s exacting from bodies and lives?
Marx doesn’t begin his analysis there; that comes through in the middle of Capital. But insofar as it’s in the middle, I feel like that’s one of the core pieces that he’s working with, and it becomes this voice of moral outrage: “Look what’s happening here!”
So if nothing else, if we got back to that, noticing what’s happening to concrete bodies, concrete lives, that might be a good thing. Maybe we construct something different than what Marx, Engels, Lenin and all the rest did. I tend to think we’ll probably have to – if we’re going to do anything, then the outcome’s going to have to be different. Whatever’s been tried, we have to do it better.
So I don’t know what the next stage or the next move is, but I think we need to learn from their outrage and imagine what our world would look like without these maimed bodies and maimed lives for the sake of consumption and production. That, to me, is an urgent moral question. And it doesn’t feel sentimental to ask that; I think it’s profoundly realistic, having our eyes opened wide to the conditions that a lot of people exist in. We’re all touched by it and we all participate to a degree, but many of us exist at a safe remove from those harsh conditions.
Once you have that moral vision, once you have that realization, how do you change it? How do you organize something different? Lenin in particular makes for very interesting reading. I don’t know how I feel about him – I love him in a lot of ways but I’m not entirely confident I would want to live under his regime. Working with what he had to work with, he made some very interesting choices, probably some necessary choices. But for many of us in the American context, the liberal democratic context, that would be a hard sell to make.
So, yeah, I myself feel the tension there – how far would I be able to take this? But this is where these texts can push me too.
When we left off, we were talking about living in a world in which we know that many of the most difficult or physically dangerous jobs have been shipped overseas.
There’s a tension that comes with knowing that your way of life is based on other people’s suffering, is based on knowing that there’s a class of people who have dangerous, painful jobs somewhere else. And in this situation, the incentives to repress or self-deceive or adopt ideologies that pave over these tensions are incredibly high.
I want to be made uncomfortable. I want to read stuff and be made aware of stuff that I don’t know what to do about, but that nags me, that bothers me, that haunts me. That, in and of itself, feels like the beginning of an ethics. I often read this stuff and feel confused about it. I don’t know how to appropriate it necessarily. I sometimes feel like a lone reader. I go to the library and read something; I don’t why that’s particularly noble. It’s good material; I come into conversation with other folks who are invested in it.
But I think there is something to it in that what it does is create a lived tension at least in my existence – and I hope in the existence of others who encounter this material. That something doesn’t quite add up in my life and I am dependent upon these nefarious, malignant realities.
I think the first step – and maybe the only step that a lot of us make – is confusion. What do we do? But maybe there are other steps too that I, in a way, am offering the class. Continually reading the stuff, trying to figure out: What is to be done? Again, it might not be Lenin and his answers to that question. But at the end of the class, I want the class to be thinking: How do we answer that question? What is to be done? I’m pretty open about saying, “Hey, I need help with that question and I’m glad I have a lot of other smart people to think through it with me.”
But I do think what these texts and this tradition can do is to create an interruption in our thought-worlds and maybe in our lived worlds, maybe in some small ways, maybe some big ones as well. I don’t know quite where that takes everybody individually or collectively. But thank God for that interruption. It’s small, but it’s something.
It’s an offering.
It’s an offering, right. That’s a good way to put it.
We were talking earlier about how factory jobs have been shipped overseas. This comes back to a connection to the aesthetic side. So this figure who operated/operates within the Marxist sphere—Jacques Rancière, he’s getting a lot of press these days—has a notion of the “distribution of the sensible” and spoke of the politics of aesthetics. He’s taking Foucault’s notion of the distribution of bodies, the distribution of spaces, how these things are arranged in such a way that modern life can function.
Rancière is taking that notion and applying that to aesthetics, saying that we need aesthetics in order for new things to become visible to us, in order for new sensations, experiences, to become cognizable to us. And one of the things that I think he means is that there is an aesthetics to the arrangement of city spaces, to the arrangement of factory spaces, to the placing of those jobs, those factories elsewhere, out of sight.
That’s a distribution of the sensible, and perhaps we need to be aesthetically renewed, re-educated in order to be able to see into it and to empathize with those folks. I do think that’s an aesthetic practice actually.
Right. When an American manufacturer opens a factory in Bangladesh, there are obviously cost savings and the like. But doing so also renders what goes on in that factory insensible to us. Not only is it far away, but the doors are closed, the gates are locked, and the guards are out front. You can’t see even if you want to. Unlike Upton Sinclair in The Jungle, who could get into the factory floors and see the effects on man and beast.
Yeah, that’s true.
Today, every now and then you get a video smuggled out that makes it onto YouTube or something, but it takes a real operation to get that kind of access.
Yeah, that’s the distribution of the sensible. Again, we don’t have access to – what does its smell like? What do the human bodies that gather there smell like? What does it look like? I mean, we have these YouTube videos, but – I’m kind of awed by it, the scale of it, the immensity of it. But we’ve kind of deodorized our world.
We’ve created an aesthetic universe where those kinds of smells, sights, taste, touch, of bodies pressed together – that does not exist for us. I think that requires a new aesthetic understanding. That’s the connection that I think Ranciere helps us to make.
There’s also a question of how much data would you need to make sense of that world?
There’s a documentary about the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal called Casino Jack and the United States of Money which features an extended sequence about the whole Saipan economic development project they were involved in. All of these congressional bigwigs, Tom DeLay and the like, would show up and go on factory tours for a few minutes. But even seeing the conditions of the factory doesn’t necessarily tell you what you need to know. You might see folks in decent garb in a relatively clean environment, but if you’re taking a 15-minute tour, you’re not seeing what it looks like, what it feels like to labor for 12 hours a day at a sewing machine. You’re not seeing what the workers get to eat, or the conditions of the places where they sleep at night, or whether they’re free to move around. It becomes this huge information challenge to actually know what’s going on.
There’s this factory in Shenzhen that is essentially a city in and of itself. It’s got a little downtown, restaurants, weight rooms and swimming pools and all the stuff, all the civic infrastructure of a small city. So I’m going to guess that, sure, you can see exactly what you want to see: “Look, it’s a good way of life. People exercise here and shoot hoops and go and have coffee at the little coffee shop on campus.” But to your point, it doesn’t really provide access to what it’s like to be there for years, performing these tasks that are incredibly mundane for 12 hours a day.
Ron Fricke’s new movie, Samsara, depicts some of this in really powerful ways. As you might guess from the title, it’s a pretty tortured and pessimistic picture of human reality. I don’t know how he got access to do this, but it includes some sequences depicting a factory ‘campus’ in China.
There’s a shot maybe ten seconds long of a woman standing at a conveyor belt. The bodies of chickens are suspended from the conveyor belt, and as one comes by, she reaches out, grab its legs, and snaps them forward, breaking the wishbone or something like that. That appeared to be her job. She would reach out, snap the bone, put her hands down for a moment, and then another chicken would arrive.
After just three or four seconds, I was in tension. I couldn’t get my head around the idea of an hour, much less eight hours, much less twelve, much less weeks, much less months and years and so forth. It took a minute, and then I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s her world.”
Yeah. It’s not going down in the mines per se; it’s not labor that’s going to break your back — some of it might. But what it does to your mind, what it does to your spirit, what it does to your emotional life, this constant repetition – that’s an acute source of suffering, maybe on par with the kind of damage that takes place to bodies. And the scale is kind of unfathomable.
But it also points out the differences between, say, what Marx was talking about and the kinds of conditions that we’re encountering now. I mean, Marx is talking about these labor conditions and factory conditions akin to this stuff in Shenzhen and other places. But it seems to me that Marx’ critique has to do with maimed bodies – mostly it’s things like that.
But I think more and more these days, it’s that mental suffering that long, repetitive motions create. It’s not necessarily that it’s physically dangerous per se – it might be — but it’s got a psychically burdensome quality that’s vicious.
And there still are those physically dangerous places.
Yes, I don’t mean to undermine or neglect that. It’s definitely there.
I get the sense that it’s a harder to create public concern around the kind of suffering we’re talking about now. There is something vivid and undeniable about a broken leg or somebody losing a finger in a meat processing plant. But things like the profound boredom or the stark craziness that goes on in a mind that is totally unoccupied with anything meaningful – it seems harder to generate sympathy for that.
Maybe that’s because things like boredom are more universal. Lots of white-collar workers in office jobs, for example, feel boredom all the time. And I wonder if there’s some subtle cultural narrative whispering in our ears: “What are you complaining about? These are jobs with physical security. This is progress.”
Right. It provides a wage; you’re probably not going to get a digit sawn off or something. So yeah, thank God it’s only boredom. And yet I do wonder why people aren’t more worried about boredom. We should be profoundly grateful when the only danger is boredom. But I wonder why white-collar folks that work boring jobs aren’t more concerned about the fact that they’re bored out of their skulls by what they do – that it has no meaning whatsoever, no existential importance.
I just have this sense that we get one life to live, and to spend our lives being bored seems like a waste. I don’t want to be too judgmental about that, because look, having meaningful work is, in a way, a luxury, and having any work at all is helpful and good. Thank God for that. Nevertheless, I do want to push back a little bit and say, why do we settle for so little? Shouldn’t meaning be on the table within the work we do, in the kinds of activities and labor that we engage in? We all have to pay the bills and we all have to do stuff that we don’t like sometimes. But shouldn’t we be able to talk about what provides purpose and meaning, what provides a deep sense of satisfaction in one’s work? But that’s not part of the conversation, and it’s not a rallying cry for any kind of political change. I wish it were.
I don’t want to evaluate any particular job, because some things could be exciting that I would find boring but other people find incredibly stimulating and lively. Conversely, I am sure that some people think what I do is unbelievably boring. I sit and turn pages and try to put paragraphs together – I mean, what a boring job! I don’t know, I find it exciting, I find it kind of fun.
To my mind, meaning is a category on par, close to on par, with wages. That’s something that ought to be on the table.
All of this raises the question of our collective ambitions. In this last presidential election, so much of the debate was about who could create more jobs. It was just jobs, full-stop – not what kinds of jobs.
Or what kind of conditions people are going to be subjected to.
Right. In a certain way, it’s a very low bar.
To be fair, creating jobs is hard; I certainly don’t know how to do it. And obviously, jobs matter – unemployment is devastating in part because it cuts people loose from the meaning that comes with work and being able to provide for oneself and one’s family.
That said, there’s something a little depressing to me when that’s all we’re talking about. We’re not talking about how people are going to spend the bulk of their waking lives. We just want to make sure that they have a place to go and get some income. There’s a sadness about that.
Here’s what I would say to that. What I would love to see happen – I mean, this is totally utopian and crazy and any economist would laugh me out of the room – but in addition to, say, both the education you need for a job or the physical exertion and danger that’s required for it, I would love to see meaning and purpose be brought into that economic equation of how jobs are rated and how jobs are compensated. I feel like it ought to be reversed, so the jobs that have an inherent meaning to them, that people feel they get deep sense of satisfaction from – maybe they pay less; they should pay less. Maybe university professors should be proletarians. And conversely, the jobs that are dull and mundane and require deep submission to tedium, boredom, things like that – maybe the reward for that should be cash money.
It sounds nuts to say that the person who’s doing the custodial labor should be paid as much or more than the CEO. But I think that there’s already a value that’s being paid out to the CEOs in terms of the kind of labor that’s being performed there. It’s interesting, it’s engaging. To be fair, it’s probably stressful too. But there’s a value that’s already inherent in the labor and I don’t know that we need to duplicate compensating for that labor with additional funds. Whereas it may well be that the person doing the most mundane, dull labor – that that person does need additional compensation to make up for the fact that it’s a service, that the particular value that we take for granted isn’t there. Reverse that, or at least factor that into the way income distribution happens – that would be a moral gain and a cool thing.