“Heather” has been a repeat client, usually coming to work with me on accounting memos in the writing center. The memos she brings are always group writing, but none of the other members of the trio of writers have ever participated. While I feel that Heather is doing the right thing in taking the initiative to having consultations on these projects, I question how to go about working with writing that isn’t necessarily solely Heather’s, because her group’s strategy is to have each writer address one question and section for the assignment. Once we move to a partner’s section in a memo, and I start suggesting improvements, Heather always hesitates, saying this was what her partner had written. While she wants to improve the paper as a whole, she is never comfortable changing what she feels is the property of her partner. I find this a strange situation. If this paper is the property of the group, then who has the control of the decisions over it? Furthermore, what constitutes private and public property in the Western Academy? When considering this situation, academic notions of belonging and property are salient to Marxist analysis.
Marx and Engels principally write about political economy in The Communist Manifesto, and to them, all of life and history is a class struggle only shaped by economic decisions. When they discuss the notion of property, Marx and Engels say that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property,” but this not just any property, it is specifically and very clearly “the abolition of bourgeois property” (Marx 23). For them, a piece of private property is just something owned by someone, whether proletarian or bourgeois, who has sole access to it and the capital it may produce. In an ideal Communist world, this would be “hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property” or the property of the artisan and peasant which “preceded the bourgeois form,” and the Communist party has no intention of destroying that kind of property (Marx 23). Marxist thought actually takes no issue with the relations of private property, unless it is being used by the bourgeoisie to abuse the typical Marxist proletarian workers such as the artisan, the peasant, and the wage-laborer. The example given by Marx and Engels of the abuse of private property is how the French Revolution removed feudal property in favor of making it bourgeois property, and developing all the way into the total privatization of all land by the bourgeois, which started “producing and appropriating products . . . based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few” (Marx 23). In summary, Marxist thought says that if private property is rightfully earned, properly distributed among wage-laborers, and ethically used, then it is perfectly feasible in a Communistic society.
Unfortunately, that is not the truth Marx and Engels see in society. As they say, private property is not being used to the benefit of all workers, only the bourgeoisie, who have “concentrated property in a few hands” (Marx 13). Self-earned private property, that is based on the uniting of the isolated, independent worker with the conditions of his labor determined by himself, has been appropriated by capitalist private property upon post-French Revolution redistribution. Capitalist private property, or more truthfully, bourgeois private property uses its agglomerations for capitalist modes of production in the capitalist market, “under which the laborer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only insofar as the interests of the ruling class requires it” (Marx 24) which Marx and Engels feel is a dour state, and wish only to remove this view and appropriation of labor and production. Their defense of removing private property is that “private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population,” and that putting private property back into the hands of those nine-tenths will mean that the values of the bourgeois will be removed, that the concept of working for “capital, money, or rent” as a monopolized force will be obsolete, and the exchange value of work will change (Marx 24).
Furthering this connection of property and labor and exchange value, Marx and Engels feel that modern industry has gotten out of control, to the point of which even the bourgeoisie isn’t even benefiting from capitalism. Wage-laborers “must sell themselves piecemeal” (Marx 15) for the commodity of their ability to work in order to accumulate capital to exchange for private property, which is what Marxism believes is the main drive in a capitalist society. The Communist Manifesto proposes that “there can no longer be any wage labour when there is no longer any capital” once bourgeois private property has been done away with and Communist society established (Marx 26). A Communist means of productions means that man will be able to use what society produces without appropriating the labor of others.
The Western canon of composition has valorized writing largely as an individual activity, with the exception of maybe a single close partner in the form of a collaborator with one being largely in control, or an editor who has permission to make changes. As scholars in the setting of the academy, “writing provides cultural capital, [and] composition classrooms become a seat for production of the ‘practical’ skills necessary for doing academic work and preparing for employment in the marketplace” (Blair 179). In a Marxist interpretation, writing and writers are thus commodified by the academy to produce original content that will gain them capital in the form of a career. With writing as capital in academia, it is then key to not appropriate the work of other writers, so Marx and Engels would agree with the consequences of plagiarizing work that academies have put in place. But by emphasizing individual, privatized writing, the academy then has to contend with writing’s natural collaborative nature, and how the institution of the writing center within the academy operates while simultaneously upholding writing support and honesty.
By privatizing writing, the academy has made it very clear that writing is a bourgeois practice, that writing academically is only the work of one and the profit of that work is only for that owner. However, writing is inherently a social activity between writers and readers, and the readers benefit from reading and synthesizing the thoughts of the “owners” of the written pieces in question. Is this not a Communistic act, having an outside text influence thought, or using the assertions of another text to support a thesis within academic writing? If this is a Communist act, then writing is the property of the public, which complicates the tense relationship between collaboration and the rules of academia. This puts the writing center in a tenuous place in the academic world because there is necessary collaboration, sometimes more directive than not, that “problematize[s] the traditional conception of intellectual property” (Blair 170). This means the individual commodities (publications for CV’s, résumé padding) writing that the academy so desires becomes not so individual. In other words, the writer no longer has the sole access to it and the capital that writing produces.
Consultations in the writing center can be viewed as problematic due to the added capital of collaboration between the consultant and patron, or the too heavy influence of the consultant that changes the patron’s original work. The latter is clearly not the ideal situation, and writing center rhetoric actively works against this to avoid a consultant putting their words on a writer’s paper, because of the adamant nature of independent thought and writing. Given that Marx valorizes a Communist version of public property, writing centers cannot value “the Communist modes of producing and appropriating intellectual products” in the same way Marx does (Marx 26), because the intellectual capital of writing is not public property: it is the incontrovertibly individual thoughts of the student, as the academy has defined it. However, if Marx believes in “centraliz[ing] all instruments of production in the hands of the state” (Marx 30), because in the nature of productivity, and in the center, process is more important than product, then what is the purpose of having writing be private property? Especially considering that purely private thought and writing “is difficult to manage in an open market in which information is increasingly commodified” (Blair 170). This creates a disconnect between the obvious public and collaborative nature of writing and the academy’s desire for privatized, individual writing as a sought-after commodity.
More so, when writers are faced with a group paper, does this not also go against the academy’s insistence on solo efforts? The exclusive use of private property is given up for the coherence of one voice, one thought, despite many writers contributing to it. It is perhaps ironic to note that this method of writing is used most often in business and accounting courses, going against the notions of both the individualistic capitalism taught in those courses and promoted by the academy. The notion and negotiation of using writing support on this kind of project is still difficult, given the introductory example of Heather’s memos. Group writing is Marxist empowerment for the writers, and abolishes the notion of bourgeois private property, but ultimately can be exploited by one of the participating writers controlling the editing and finishing process, even if that is making a more rhetorically sound paper.
The commodification of writing in the Western academy makes it difficult to produce the kind of writing it valorizes. While the emphasis of individual, critical thought is not inherently negative, it puts writers in a precarious position to use the writing support they are provided. It is impossible to have truly privatized writing, but writing that is public property also does not necessarily make bourgeois, capitalist education any easier to overthrow and make into a proletarian education.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York, International Publishers, 1948., pp. 12-30
Blair, Cheré H. "Panic and Plagiarism: Authorship and Academic Dishonesty in the Remix Culture." MediaTropes, vol. II, no. I, 2009, pp. 159-92.