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.



Wealth in daily life

Adam Davidson’s NY Times magazine essay about Edward Conard’s view of wealth has been on my mind for a few days. There is much to criticize here, not the least of which is Conard’s application of a discredited functionalist model of society that says stratification is a function of occupational importance, such that the most important players receive the most lavish rewards.  Clearly this is Conard’s argument, and he would like more inequality because he believes it would generate the motivation for those who are currently ‘wasting’ their talents on things like art to move into other, more productive lines of work.

In particular I’ve been thinking about the primary players in Conard’s model of investor driven capitalism, which I take to be ‘investors,’ and ‘consumers,’ and the relations between these actors.  In this model, the risks of investors pay off in better lives for consumers.  Another category of actor which is really only hinted at is ‘workers.’  Workers in Conard’s ideal capitalism appear to serve at the pleasure of investors who are driven to improve the lives of consumers.  Conard shared an example of improvements to soda cans which make all of us richer because increased efficiency means each can costs a few cents less.  He also shared examples from computing technology, Davidson himself writing that even progressive economists believe the economic success of companies like Google spreads ‘value’ throughout the economy. (more…)