Each summer the Marxist Literary Group membership meets for its annual Institute for Culture and Society. Over several days members convene to present papers, hold reading groups, and conduct business. Everyone from tenured faculty, graduate students, and independent scholars participate in all activities. There are no concurrent sessions, which allows for conversations to develop over the course of the institute.
This year's Institute on Culture and Society will be hosted by University of California, Irvine from June 21-25 and will ask what the Marxist theory of immiseration might tell us about our current conjuncture, and what new tasks, questions, and claims might emerge in response. As always, this year's focus is not exclusive: all proposals bearing on Marxism will be considered.
INSTITUTE FOR CULTURE AND SOCIETY
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA IRVINE
JUNE 21-25, 2020
In the epic Chapter 25 of Capital Volume 1, Marx describes the process that would come to be known as immiseration:
[W]ithin the capitalist system… all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a [human], degrade [the worker] to the level of an appendage of a machine …. they transform life-time into working-time, and drag [the worker’s whole household] beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation … Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery … at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.
Never before has Marx’s description felt so urgent. We live amidst the wreckage of precisely this historical process: a world in which survival depends on access to wages that provide less than ever before; in which households thus dragged “beneath the wheels” are further exploited by pressures ranging from high-interest debt to increasingly punitive forms of state intervention; in which racialization, carceralization, and the intensified militarization of borders serve as a force to push wages ever downward while opportunities for collective response are attenuated or foreclosed; and in which the earth itself is being devoured and exhausted by rapacious demand for profit. Indeed, what is arguably most distinct about the present is that it reveals what immiseration looks like when accumulation doesn’t expand or extend or speed-up, but rather slows or even halts. If for Marx immiseration was a consequence of development and growth, in our moment it is also the first sign of development’s stagnation. Even as more of the world’s population than ever before must sell their labor to purchase the means of their survival, their wages stagnate, the conditions of their labor worsen or grow more uncertain, and capital throws more and more workers into low-waged service work or informal labor, sectors where the technologically surplus try to eke out a meager survival.
In this context, we need new ways of thinking about social relations, technology, and the natural world. We need to attend to the complex relations among race, gender, sexuality, citizenship, and class, including as those relations might be registered or refracted by culture. If we are to be adequate to the urgent challenges our moment sets before us, we must to be willing to reimagine our own extant models for criticism, for utopian thought, and for collective action.
This year’s Institute on Culture and Society will thus ask what the Marxist theory of immiseration might tell us about our current conjuncture, and what new tasks, questions, and claims might emerge in response. As always, this year’s focus is not exclusive: all proposals bearing on Marxism will be considered. Topics might include, but are in no way limited to:
Borders, migration, and rising nationalism
Surplus populations, informal employment, “wageless life”
Social reproduction, gender, household economies, housing/homelessness
Environmental crisis, energy, ecological Marxism
Automation and technological unemployment
Race, carceralization, and structural immiseration
Aesthetics of immiseration/aesthetics of utopia
Ideology and ideology critique
Class struggle and revolutionary movements
The task of critical theory today
Please send proposals for papers, panels, and roundtables to email@example.com by February 15, 2020.
Proposals for reading groups must be accompanied by full PDFs of required and optional readings. We particularly welcome reading groups pairing a selection from Marx’s writing on immiseration with more contemporary material(s). For examples from Marx, see Capital Volume 1 (especially parts 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, and the “Results”), in Capital Volume 3 (especially parts 1, 2, and 3), the Grundrisse (especially the relevant sections on machinery, the technical composition of capital, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, and surplus populations from the “Chapter on Capital,” e.g Sections 2 and 3).
Invited participants thus far include: Morgan Adamson, Sarah Brouillette, Shane Boyle, Chris Chen, Joshua Clover, Colleen Lye, Amy De’Ath, Sophie Lewis, Chris Nealon, Dan Nemser, as well as writers/editors from Blind Field (Madeline Lane-Mckinley), Commune (Chloe Wattlington), and Endnotes (Aaron Benanav), and representatives of the Los Angeles Tenants Union.