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O.O.P.S. vs M.O.O.C.s: Midterm Report, Part 1

“The proponents of M.O.O.C.s (Massive Open Online Courses) look for the magic bullet, hoping to find a technological solution to the crisis in education. The O.O.P.S. (Open Online Public Seminar) project is to use the new technology, the potential of the web, to extend education’s promise.”

With these words, I closed my introduction to a New School for Social Research experiment, using the resources of Public Seminar to realize the intellectual mission of engaged social science in and beyond the classroom. Since then we have been pushing forward. Eli Zaretsky has been posting regular reports on the progress of Rethinking Capitalism, the collaborative course he is coordinating. Along with Nancy Fraser and Johanna Oksala, the students in their course on Feminism, Capitalism and Social Transformation, are regularly posting their takes on the central problematics of their course, and the students in my class on “The Social Condition” have started to post their projects on the various dimensions of our discussions on the dilemmas and tensions knitted into the social fabric, as I have been reporting on our progress. I believe these courses are interesting in and of themselves, but also speak to each other in provocative ways. O.O.P.S. not only moves beyond the walls of the New School to the outside world. It also breaks down the classroom walls that separate classes.

Rethinking Capitalism brings together a diverse group of colleagues with heterodox views of capitalism. New School colleagues and invited quests all examine capitalism as an historical and not a natural phenomenon, critically analyzing it from a variety of different perspectives.

Zaretsky’s O.O.P.S. posts have summarized the progress of the course, as he has offered his running commentary and criticisms. In Duncan Foley’s session, Zaretsky reports an advance in understanding of the concept of capitalism, but wonders about the role of consumption and of banking, and the development of inequality. Eli sees the two dimensions of Nancy Fraser’s presentation, the analysis of the economy and of the preconditions of the economy, but he is concerned about the dangers of conflating of the exchange and use values, leading to the possibility of missing where the political is in the political economy, referring to the work of housewives to underscore his point. Moishe Postone’s reading of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital, dazzled Zaretsky. He deeply appreciated how this reading leads to a critique of capitalism from within, seeing this as a guide to political action. On the other hand, Eli also appreciated Sanjay Ruparella’s “lucid and compelling talk on the global South,” an outside perspective that helps clarify the meaning of capitalism as a global system. And in his report on the Daniel Boscov-Ellen’s presentation on capitalism and ecology, Zaretsky reflected upon the parallel between science and capitalism, and wondered whether some of the contradictions of our time when it comes to the ecological crisis may have more to do with democracy than with capitalism. I should add at this point Zaretsky surprised me, which is always a good thing.

And when Johanna Oksala, in her presentation to the Capitalism Reconsidered class, asked “Is capitalism good for women?”, she addressed issues of long concern to Zaretsky, author that he is of a classic work on capitalism and the family, and also linked all three of the O.O.P.S. classes. Eli questioned the idea of the totality of women’s oppression, positing that the separation of social production and the family, of public man and private woman, may not be only oppression. Such complexities were central to the reports from Oksala and Fraser’s class, as it provides an example of what my class is exploring as “the social condition.”

Oksala herself joined the debate directly in her lecture for the capitalism series, reflecting upon the Marxist distinction between productive and unproductive labor. On a technical Marxist note, she observes that this is not supposed to be a moral distinction, but a scientific one concerning the creation of surplus value. Yet, it would seem that being productive in this sense does translate into being economically and political consequential, and for this reason, she argues that labor in the service industry, which is disproportionately women’s work, is every bit as productive today, though not in Marx’s times, as other forms of productive labor. I wonder, then, what is the difference between working in an nursing home and nursing loved ones at home? Following Zaretsky’s concerns, I would like to understand how the move to formal institutions is both empowering and disempowering.

From student contributors to the O.O.P.S. class, it is evident that the complexities of the relations between Marxism and feminism and their potential contributions to critical thought about and action toward social transformation has been the focus of Oksala and Fraser’s course. Derek Baron points out that “the task of reproduction-as-productive is simply not enough.” By providing a critical reading of Engels on the family, he focuses attention upon that part of women’s oppression that exists beyond capitalist relations, calling for “alternative genealogies of gender oppression.” Mayra Cotta in her contribution  goes further. She asks the fundamental questions that the interested observer might have about this course: when thinking about social transformation what do feminism and Marxism have to contribute, and how might they be related? She frankly questions the relevance of Marxism, considering its possible continued promise and its possible irrelevance. She is open to complexity, revealed in her final observations: “It is time to critically analyze our practices so that they do not merely function as reproductions of the oppressions typical of the system we aim to oppose.” Kelly Gawel’s contribution addresses this and related issues by turning to classic Marxist feminists, Kollontai, Pankhurst and Goldman, pointing out that for each of them the problems of reproduction has to be critically analyzed along with the problems of production. She maintains that their theoretical and politically engaged positions provide a guide for avoiding a narrow Marxist economism on the one hand, and a “merely liberal” feminism on the other. Alix Jansen in her piece reflecting on a classic article by Margaret Benston further develops this theme, suggesting that in order to deal with the interaction between gender and class oppression, a return to the biological dimension needs to be addressed, more specifically the cultural accounting of the biology.

I admire the theoretical and political engagement of the lecturers and students in these classes. I think they demonstrate that they are grappling with the complex relationship between social theory and engaged informed political commitment. But I must admit that I have questions about the direction of their inquiries, which is revealed in the progress of my course. I will pick this up in my next post, part 2 of this progress report. I will also consider more fully how these courses are confirming the value of the O.O.P.S. experiment and highlighting what next needs to be done.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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