A student reflection

This week in WGS 350: Feminist Vision of Justice, we began reading The Politics of Everybody: Feminism, Queer Theory, and Marxism at the Intersection by Holly Lewis. Lewis makes the goal of her book very clear. She hopes to bring together Marxist theorists, feminist theorists, Marxist practitioners, and queer and trans feminist activists into dialogue that informs each group of the intersections between feminist and Marxist thought and practice.

Karl Marx

Before reading this, I had not explicitly considered how the word “everybody” can be politicized in a way that is both unsettling and provocative because of how the system of capitalism is rooted in ideological individualism that displaces blame onto “everybody” at the consumer level instead of on the capitalist system. I feel personally responsible for climate change when I use single-use plastic, when I eat large amounts of meat, or when I travel by plane, but Lewis makes me question whether my individual feelings of responsibility (and the small, specific actions I take to try to live more sustainably) are actually valid and helpful for real change. It makes sense that this is my primary framework for understanding issues, because like Lewis explains, capitalists not only control the means of production itself but also the means of communication. The power in the hands of capitalists reinforces the capitalist ideals that undergird society.

“Marxism requires a group from everywhere – which is also to say from nowhere in particular – to end a foundational historical injustice. In Marxist terms, everybody is a somebody and everybody belongs everywhere.”

Holly Lewis in The Politics of Everybody

In the next section we read, Lewis explores how Marxists view capitalism as a system of social relation that values profit over everything else. She distinguishes between proletariat’s (or laborer’s) exchange and capitalist exchange. Marx described the proletariat’s (or laborer’s) exchange as beginning with a commodity, which becomes money, and then turns back into a different commodity (C–M–C). For most laborers, their labor is the first commodity as mapped in this exchange. The money is their pay check, and this turns back into the second commodity–such as food, housing, entertainment, etc.

In contrast, the capitalist exchange begins with money, which becomes a commodity, and then turns into more money (M–C–M).

The Capitalist Exchange: money is invested, a commodity is produced and sold, and profit (money) is extracted for the capitalist

The capitalist exchange seeks to maximize profit and the commodity itself is the disappearing middle variable, which reinforces the importance of money and profit in a capitalist model.

When reading about this, I immediately thought of how education functions within the capitalist system. Students “invest” money to receive an education (the commodity) in order to extract profit (anticipated higher wages after a college degree). The learning experience itself is turned into the commodity of a degree. Students attend college because a college degree is an investment that can lead to maximizing profit through an increased salary that is offered to college-educated applicants. This exemplifies how capitalism is present in our educational systems and even expands to practically every aspect of society.

Money in exchange for a college diploma.

I think it’s interesting to consider the Hope Forward model in this context, as it is a new funding model that seems to challenge the capitalist exchange in some ways, while still functioning within the larger system of capitalism that is fundamental to higher education. The Hope Forward model is a tuition-free model in which current students’ tuition is fully funded by the generosity of donors. Hope Forward students make an open-ended commitment to “paying-it-forward” after graduation with the expectation for these students to make an annual financial contribution to Hope after graduating. However, there is no required amount or contract that holds students accountable for this exchange of money after graduation, instead the model emphasizes gratitude and generosity as the impetus for donating.

The Hope Forward model aspires to prepare students to pursue positive impact after college, instead of being weighed down by the burden of student debt. It implies that instead of pursuing increased salaries to pay off debt, students will be free to pursue meaningful endeavors.

Additionally, the Hope Forward model wants a student’s college experience to be a transformational relationship, not a transactional exchange. Each of these aspirations are very counter-cultural and seem to go against the capitalist system by making the exchange of money between students and the institution less of an emphasis, but the reality of higher education is that it still functions in a capitalist system. This model is not a “free-tuition” model that gets rid of the exchange, it just alters what the exchange looks like and the time frame of the financial exchange. Someone is still paying for a student’s education, it just isn’t the student herself. In this case, it is the donors and the profit extracted (via the capitalist exchange) from Hope’s endowment (i.e., the stock market). Then, once that student has graduated, she will pay for the next generation of Hope Forward students.

During the original application phases, this new model was advertised to prospective students as the “Pay It Forward” Program, which sounded very transactional because, in the capitalist system we live in, the word “pay” makes us think about money. I like that it was renamed “Hope Forward” because I do think this better represents the underlying values of the program and the aspiration to move away from a transactional model of a college education. However, I think it is interesting to acknowledge that it is still, in many ways, a transactional model, even though it emphasizes gratitude, generosity, and positive impact over profit which is definitely a step in the right direction. This is not meant to merely be a critique of the entire Hope Forward model, as this new model is definitely a step in the right direction that has the potential to positively impact the lives of students at Hope College and change the financial model of higher education. However, I think it’s important to understand how unless there is a more widespread and explicit rejection of the capitalist model, capitalism will continue to affect our educational systems and all aspects of society.

Solidarity with queer, trans, and intersex people is non-negotiable when it comes to the international solidarity of the working class.

Holly Lewis in The Politics of Everybody

Connecting back to feminism, I think it is necessary to think deeply about whether changes implemented actually accomplish what they hope to. It’s important to consider whether the way we think about things are still embedded with inherently capitalist ideals. I see Holly Lewis’s book being important in expanding everybody’s understanding of society so that real changes can be created, as she hopes to bridge the gaps between Marxist and feminist theory and practice by creating meaningful conversations between groups. Real societal change – whether it’s rooted in feminist activism, Marxist activism, or other activism – requires collaboration between all of these groups. It requires interaction between the systems, institutions, and individuals that make up society and thus affect how society functions. As Lewis argues, change requires everybody.

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