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Month: June 2019

Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

Barbara Foley
21st Century Marxist Literary Criticism

In 21st century capitalism, Marxist theory remains a crucial means to interpret the socioeconomic present and potentials for political change. But Marxism as a method is also important culturally, in understanding the ideas, attitudes and beliefs that exist today, and how they have developed historically through various social forces. In her recent book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto, 2019), Barbara Foley aims to emphasise the continuing value of a Marxist analysis of literature and culture, and introduce core concepts – historical materialism, political economy, ideology critique – to a new generation seeking to comprehend the ongoing class struggle. In this interview, I discuss with her some of the ideas she raises in the book.

Barbara FoleyBarbara Foley is Distinguished Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. Her research and teaching focuses on US literary radicalism, African American literature and Marxist criticism. Throughout her career, her work has emphasised the centrality of antiracism and Marxist class analysis to both literary study and social movements. She has written six books and over seventy scholarly articles, review essays, and book chapters. Her previous books include: Spectres of 1919: Class and Nation in the Making of the New Negro (University of Illinois, 2003); Wrestling with the Left: The Making of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (Duke University, 2010); Jean Toomer: Race, Repression, and Revolution (University of Illinois, 2014).

Why did you feel a new book about Marxist literary criticism, and specifically an introductory text, was important at this time?

Barbara Foley: For two reasons. First, because there haven’t been any introductions to Marxist literary criticism in many years – since Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism (1976 ) and Raymond Williams’s Marxism and Literature (1977). (I consider Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) to be seminal; but it is a difficult book, hardly an ‘introduction’.) Second, because there’s clearly a revived interest these days – especially among young people – in left ideas, as these pertain not only to culture but also to economics, politics, and history.

Since even the very useful works noted above largely take for granted the reader’s prior acquaintance with fundamental principles of Marxist analysis, though, I decided that my book should outline key features of historical materialism, political economy, and ideology critique before addressing Marxist approaches to literary criticism and interpretation. Besides, since there’s a good deal of confusion these days about what constitutes a ‘left’ political position – or a ‘left’ act of cultural analysis – I wanted to clarify where Marxism overlaps with but is also distinct from a more broadly leftist critical orientation. READ MORE

One Question
Gilets Jaunes

One Question
Gilets Jaunes

One Question is a regular series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This time we ask:

What is the significance of the Gilets Jaunes movement?

With responses from: Nonna Mayer, Gabriel Rockhill, Samuel Hayat, Maia Pal, Philippe Marliere, Julian Mischi, Enzo Traverso, Aurélie Dianara, Prabhat Patnaik, Ivan Bruneau, Diana Johnstone, John Mullen, Richard Greeman, Sophie Wahnich, Joshua Clover.

Gilets Jaunes

Nonna Mayer

The trigger of the Yellow Vests movement, last November, was the 80km/h speed limit on country- side roads and the ‘carbon tax’ raising the price of the diesel fuel – the last straw in a country where 75% of the working population use their car to go to work. But the deeper undercurrent was social insecurity. The protesters are not the worst off. Most of them have a car, a job, a home, and they pay taxes, yet they struggle to make a living. While the elites focus on ‘the end of the world’, their concern, as their posters say, is ‘the end of the month’.

They don’t mobilise the have-nots and the wretched like the ‘poor people’s movements’ analysed by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. Rather they express the revolt of a lower middle class at risk of poverty, resenting the rich above, who do not fear tomorrow, as well as the ‘undeserving’ poor below, on social welfare, whose anger finds no outlet. The feeling that nobody hears them, that nobody cares, drives them against mainstream parties and elites, either towards the extremes or away from politics altogether. The same discontent fuelled the surprise victory of Brexit, the election of Donald Trump or the record score of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 presidential election. However different Brexiters, Trumpists and LePenists may be, they belong to a squeezed middle class afraid of losing the little it has, feeling at the edge of the precipice.

The declining numbers of the French Yellow Vest demonstrators and of their imitators in Europe (Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain), do not mean that the revolt is near its end. Its roots go back to the mid-70s. The end of the post war economic boom marked the return of social insecurity, with the development of mass unemployment, new forms of poverty and atypical precarious employment. Globalisation and then the Great Recession of 2008 exacerbated these trends. And a new risk is developing fast: automation. It first hit industrial blue-collar jobs that could be easily replaced by robots. Now intelligent machines and algorithms are threatening routine white-collar jobs.

These workers, with mid-level skills and education, could be a potential reservoir for future disruptive protests such as the Yellow Vests, and also, to a certain extent, to support the radical Right. Our study in eleven European countries shows that the electoral impact of automation is conditioned by the perceived economic situation. The most likely to vote for radical right parties are individuals in occupations at risk of automation who feel they are still coping financially with their present income, but fear status loss and downward mobility. While those who, facing the same risk of automation, say they cannot cope, do not even bother going go to the polls. READ MORE