Teaching Marx: The Creative Class and the Ikea Effect

This morning we discussed a selection of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in Social Theory (the selection in Peter Kivisto’s Social Theory: Roots and Branches, Vol 4). We spend about a week reading and discussing Marx, and it’s never enough. In general, I think the students get the basic argument about the bourgeoisie and proletariat because they are likely exposed to this in other sociology classes. As important as that argument is, I’ve personally always been a lot more interested in what Marx has to say about alienated labor, how his work can lead into a discussion of consumption, and his general claims about the political implications of revolutions of the system of production.

I’m always looking for good ways to make Marx’s writing relatable to students. Many have had, or are working, jobs that are unsatisfying because they don’t allow them to be creative. These are jobs that are a means to an end, just like Marx writes about. I’ll ask them to think about the value of various commodities like iPhones. Who made that iPhone, what is its use, and why is it valuable? I’ll talk a little about advertisements that encourage us to want things we don’t even know exist. They get this point too, I think.

Today, to illustrate Marx’s claim that “the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” I made reference to TARP and some recent news about our area’s Representative Dan Maffei. Here the students don’t relate as well. In fact, at this point I got a little perturbed and told them that if they just paid attention to the news they wouldn’t even need to read Marx because what he writes would be so obvious. I don’t really (completely) believe that, but you know, it was the excitement of the moment!

Still, as evidence that paying attention to the day’s news can be a great way to understand what Marx, and other classical theorists, had to say, I’m sharing two links to today’s Morning Edition on NPR. The first story is a discussion with Richard Florida about his notion of the ‘creative class.’ It turns out that when cities attract members of the ‘creative class’ it can be really good for some people (Bobos maybe), but not necessarily for the service laborers who make coffee and sandwiches, and then clean up the messes the coffee cups and sandwich wrappers leave behind. The conversation ends by asking how we might increase the wages of these laborers. How might we better pay these slaves, right, Karl?

About 30 minutes later, Morning Edition aired a piece about what they were calling the “Ikea Effect.” We hear that people might like things they make (yes, even prefabbed things from Ikea) because the thing is the “fruit of my own labor.” This clearly speaks to Marx’s thoughts on labor time and how human labor gives value to products. Maybe the sense of accomplishment is part of the commodity, right, maybe that’s part of what Ikea is selling? Now, I’m not arguing that making an Ikea table is the same as making a table from scratch, but still I understand why anyone might enjoy the feeling. In the story we hear that it is people with low self esteem who are most at risk of suffering from the “Ikea Effect.”

In a series of experiments, they have demonstrated that people attach greater value to things they built than if the very same product was built by someone else. And in new experiments published recently, they’ve discovered why it happens: Building your own stuff boosts your feelings of pride and competence, and also signals to others that you are competent.

There is an insidious element here: People made to feel incompetent may be more vulnerable to the Ikea Effect. On the other hand, Mochon has found, when people are given a self-esteem boost, they appear to be less interested in demonstrating to themselves and to others that they are competent.

Hearing this made me wonder: Maybe these folks are alienated from their daily work? Marx tells us that most work in capitalism is absent a sense of craft, that it is monotonous and uninspiring. Maybe putting some labor into that Ikea table actually is rewarding? I didn’t like that a hook of the story was that people would like the table even if it was obviously “shoddy workmanship,” and that the final advice was essentially to make sure your work (all work now, not just prefabbed bookshelves) is valuable by having an independent observer let you know. You know, that independent appraiser of the most sacred value – market value.

It’s a good reason — and this is true whether you are running a big complicated project involving millions of dollars or finishing a third-grade craft project — to have someone from the outside, who isn’t invested in you or your work, give you some objective feedback before you show your project to the world.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to get this into our class discussion today, but maybe on Friday. Do you have good strategies for teaching Marx?

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Whoa, two posts in a row with links to David Brooks!

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3 comments

  1. Interesting writing. Haven’t read the Ikea Effect yet, but boy does Karl Marx hit home for me on a personal level. I could write quite a story of my past career in manufacturing that could coincide with class discussion and the view’s of Marx. Maybe one day I will have that opportunity.

  2. Perhaps my favorite assignment as an undergrad was to review a film from the perspective of a social theorist in my Social Theory class. (Have you met Fr. Bucko in any of his trips back to Le Moyne over the years?) I chose to review Reality Bites using Marx’s theory of alienation. It might be worth a rewatch to see if there are clips that could be used in class.

    J Z-H

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