Economics of Downton Abbey: Echoes of Marx

(Season Five, Episode Seven)

Portrait of Karl Marx taken in 1875.
Portrait of Karl Marx taken in 1875.

While watching episode seven, I kept thinking about how it could be used to teach some of Karl Marx’s fundamental principles.  Marx is a polarizing figure in a lot of ways – most economists don’t think much of his economic theory – but many of his observations on inequality and exploitation retain a powerful impact. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, Marx continues to be cited in contemporary academic works exploring issues of class, wealth accumulation, economic inequality, and labor.

There are several directions to take this analysis – Downton Abbey is a gold mine for examination of everything Marx saw wrong with capitalism – but I’ll stick with three topics that stood out in Episode Seven: labor, ruling ideas, and property.

Labor

Daisy is thinking of abandoning her studies. She doesn’t see the point, saying “we’re trapped – held fast in a system that gives us no freedom or value.” This seems to directly reference Marx’s essays on the alienation and exploitation of labor. Marx wasn’t against work – he wrote that “productive life is the life of the species” (Tucker 1978, p. 77) and could be fulfilling, but only if it isn’t forced. Labor under a capitalist system was forced, mind-numbing, and reduced an individual to a cog in the wheel of capitalism. This labor alienated the worker from his product, fellow men, and even himself. The plight of the working class, as Marx saw it, was that their labor became the only thing of worth they could offer in the capitalist system, and this labor was exploited.

Marx wrote these essays while witnessing what the development of the industrial system was doing to the British lower class in the 1840s. 80 years later, in 1924, the sentiment still applies to working-class jobs, even ones that don’t involve a factory setting. Daisy works long days as an assistant cook with little leisure time. Her education stopped at age 11 so she could begin working. We learn that Moseley left school at age 12. I am sure the other servants have similar experiences; as members of the working-class they had few other options.This isn’t Marx’s idea of a productive life that led to fulfillment, it’s drudgery.

da-s5-characters-slidenumber-daisy-3-hires-crop-648x327
Daisy at her studies.

In the show, Daisy rarely seems downtrodden. This season, with Ms. Bunting’s encouragement, she realized that there is so much more she could do if given the opportunity, but she’s up against a “system that is slanted against us” and is losing her optimism. Domestic service was still a huge presence in the 1920s, and without education options were slim, especially for women (Horn [1995] 2010). How is Daisy supposed to break out of the system without education? Even with her studying, how much will it help? An intergenerational mobility study found that the majority of women in Daisy’s birth cohort who were born into the lower working-class did not move out of that class (Heath and Payne 1999*). Things do look bleak.

Ruling Ideas

Daisy’s observation of a system “slanted against” the working class echoes another of Marx’s assertions, this time coming from his essay, The German Ideology. In it he wrote, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time it’s ruling intellectual force” (p. 172). In other words, the people who govern the production of goods also govern ideas that translate to laws and norms for society. Despite any rhetoric of inclusion that surrounds these ideas, they are used to benefit the ruling class.

The Labour Government, which brought such great hope to the working class, is unable to make any big changes during their short tenure in 1924, and it’s clear that the wealthy elite remain the ruling class. Daisy feels trapped because she is in a social system with laws and norms that benefit the rich and restrict opportunities for the poor. Even as laws are adjusted following the Great War to tax inheritance, allow women to vote, assist unemployed men, and improve housing, the changes are slow, uneven, and often resisted by the elite.

Property

And now, property.

It seems everyone below stairs this season is considering buying property. Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes and Carson, Anna and Mr. Bates…who’s next? This is in part due to the housing boom and the changing values of the working class, which I previously wrote about here. The idea of owning a place to call your own was very appealing – I imagine even more so for those in domestic service who lived where they worked.

“When you have property, you have choices,” says Anna. This is reminiscent of the importance Marx placed on private property in the capitalist system – not just houses, but ownership of wealth, investments, and so on. To Marx, private property was the result of the aforementioned alienated labor, and the modern state had become dependent upon it as a way to keep the gears of capitalism turning. Marx called for an end to property, and he saw revolution as the only way to stop the inequality that stems from private ownership.

Here it seems that those below stairs are coming to the realization that the easiest way to improve their lives is not to start a revolution but to make capitalism work for them. With a bit of savings, they hope to find properties to rent out and earn a little money to save away.  Their reward will be a place to settle down to enjoy their retirement after many years of hard work. Carson and Mrs. Hughes – and Anna and Bates, it seems – dream a bit bigger: running guest houses where dare I say their labor might be seen as fulfillment of their own happiness, as Marx envisioned work should be.

*See Table 8 on page 18 of the study, which finds that 58% of women born to lower-working class fathers in the 1900-1909 cohort remained in the lower-working class. Fictional Daisy would likely be a part of this cohort. 

Further Reading

Heath, A. and C. Payne. 1999. “Twentieth Century Trend in Social Mobility in Britain.” Center for Research Into Elections and Social Trends Working Paper No. 70.

Horn, P. 2010 [1995]. Women in the 1920s. Amberley Publishing: Gloucestershire UK.

Tucker, R. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader (Second Edition). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.
In particular see: Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, pp. 70 – 81; The German Ideology: Part 1, pp. 146 – 202; Wage Labour and Capital, pp. 203 – 217. 

Here is a great 2-minute video from BBC Radio 4’s “History of Ideas” on Marx and Alienation:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02h7dlv/player

Image 1 via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2 courtesy of PBS.org

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