Karl Marx gave his well-known work Capital the subtitle “A Critique of Political Economy”—not “how to be a communist,” or “why the Soviet Union is the best,” or “what is wrong with religion, freedom, and democracy.” Those non-existent subtitles describe some of the preconceptions many in the U.S. have about Marx and Marxisms, while the actual subtitle reminds us that Marx and Marxisms at their root simply try to examine the problems with both capitalism and the political and economic discourses that justify or ignore those problems. Today, many around the globe, including in the U.S., have once again been reflecting on capitalism’s problems, in the hope of imagining and realizing a better future. This course will trace some of the origins of that renewed inquiry, and allow us to discuss its limits and possibilities.
This will be an introduction to the works of Marx and some of the varied traditions that have spun out of them; no prior familiarity with that work or those traditions is required. By reading Marx’s own writings as well as social theory influenced by them, and by reading literature and watching film, art, and popular culture from around the globe, we will consider a diverse array of answers to questions like: how does racial, economic, and political inequality emerge and increase? What was the relationship between slavery and capitalism? What are ideology, alienation, and fetishism? How are activism and theory connected? Why does shopping make us feel so much pleasure, pain, or numbness? Can culture help us imagine our way out of the violence and inequality of social relations?