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Radical Pedagogy: Political Economy through Student Films

by Damien Cahill on November 28, 2017

For many years I’ve taught a unit called ‘The Social Foundations of Modern Capitalism’ in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Its premise is that capitalism is a socially embedded system of value production. The unit encourages students to examine some of the ways in which heterodox economists tried to conceptualise this, and to compare such ways of knowing with those of neoclassical economics.

As a result of some of the practices I’ve introduced in this and other units I was recently awarded a 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney. One example of such practices is that this year students were required to produce a short film, of no more than two minutes in duration, explaining the central propositions underpinning a key concept from the ‘Social Foundations of Modern Capitalism’ unit. Students could choose from three key concepts: ‘Market Dependence’ (Ellen Meiksins Wood), ‘Fictitious Commodities’ (Karl Polanyi) or ‘Commodity Fetishism’ (Karl Marx).

My thinking behind this assessment task was to allow students to work in a medium with which they are familiar (film), in which images and metaphors can be used as effectively as words. Overall the average marks were higher than for regular essay-based assignments, and some of the films were exceptional. Below are three such exceptional pieces of work, each on commodity fetishism. The student who produced each film has also written an explanation of what they hoped to convey through the film.

Film 1, by Isabella Devine-Poulos

When Damien gave us the video assignment, I decided to choose the topic of commodity fetishism because I think it’s one of Marx’s most interesting and important concepts, linked to his labour theory of value, his base/superstructure model, Marxist conceptions of ideology & social reproduction and market dependence, and of course Marx’s critiques of classical political economy. My concept was basically just to use all my own footage, so I set about filming images around Sydney and Fisher library that I thought conveyed something about the script I had drafted for the short film, and that I felt were aesthetically interesting/consistent. I hope you enjoy it!

Film 2, by Joe Ballesteros

Of the three concepts, commodity fetishism seemed the most widely misunderstood. I aimed to say two things. First, that commodity fetishism is inescapable where capitalist market economies exist, because of the centrality of waged labour to social reproduction, and the fact that commodification means relationships between people (values) appear as relations between objects. Second, that this fetishism isn’t synonymous with consumerism—it isn’t a cultural phenomenon resultant from advertising and mass consumption—it reflects the nature of commodity production itself (although commodity fetishism certainly shapes consumerist culture). Nicotine addiction seemed like a much less deceptive counterpoint.

Film 3, by Dexter Duckett

By the contrast of sequences in my film, I sought to juxtapose the essence and appearance of the commodity, the essence which is obfuscated by the commodity’s fetish. The Tayloristic assembly line of a Foxconn factory followed by the anarchy of Black Friday shopping sprees, and a workers’ riot at a Samsung plant in Vietnam led by a recuperative Black Lives Matter-themed Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner; the essence, followed on by the appearance of a commodity on the market, which glosses over the exploitation and the resistance resulting from the production of value. Commodity fetishism therefore reifies capitalist social relations à la the smoothing over and co-opting of its inherent contradictions. This consolidates Margaret Thatcher’s mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ to the present state of things, symbolised in the film with the dystopic skyscrapers of finance capital in London which emerged with the neoliberal turn. 

Damien Cahill

Damien Cahill is an academic and trade union activist based at the University of Sydney. His main area of research examines neoliberalism, in all its manifestations: theory, practice, history and contemporary debates. He also writes about capitalism as a social system (as distinct from orthodox economics which views the economy as separate from the state and other social institutions). Before entering academia, Damien worked variously as a shop assistant, labourer and political adviser, and spent several periods of time on the dole. He lives in Sydney with his partner and two daughters. In his free time, he runs.

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