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. Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Echoes of Marx


Economics of Downton Abbey: Financing a Wireless

Season Five, Episode Two

This week Downton was abuzz with talk of the wireless. They set up a wireless at Downton and we hear the first broadcast speech by King George V at the opening of the 1924 British Empire Exhibit. The exhibit was a tribute to modern scientific achievements. Having the King deliver a speech over the wireless while at the event was, as one Times reporter wrote, “another marvel of modern science which helps to knit the Empire together.”

The wireless had potential for people of all backgrounds to come together to listen. As the Times noted after the event, “More wonderful still was to think that even while we who were present were hearing [the speech]…it was being heard…all over London, the United Kingdom, and the Empire.”

Header from the first issue of the Radio Times, September 28, 1923.
Header from the first issue of The Radio Times, September 28, 1923.

At the time of the King’s broadcast, the use of the wireless for entertainment was just taking off. The BBC formed in 1922 and, as Rose notes, broadcasts were improving in clarity and quality. Bowden and Offer (1994) note that the need for a radio quickly became seen as “imperative” (p. 735). With even this small snippet of Downton Abbey showing the discussion surrounding the King’s speech on April 24, it is easy to see why. If the King is supporting the wireless, so must the Crawleys…and all of Britain.

Diffusion of the Home Wireless

The home radio became the first entertainment consumer durable that penetrated the majority of households, regardless of class (Todd 2005). Bowden and Offer argue that this is due in part to the idea of the home wireless as a “status display.” Unlike other durables, like washing machines or vacuums, the radio (and later, the television) is on display for visitors and has important implications for the social standing of the household. Furthermore, as Bowden and Offer note, “as the medium became a staple of discourse…access to a radio…was required to avoid social exclusion” (p.740).

Diffusion studies, which track the spread of an innovation through a population, are used to gain insight to societies through examination of responses to and implementation of the innovation.  One of the most interesting things about the wireless is that home radios began to fill houses all over England, regardless of economic background. Compared to the diffusion of other home appliances, the diffusion of the wireless was rapid – within 10 years, fifty percent of British households owned a radio. The vacuum cleaner, on the other hand, took 40 years to get to that level of penetration in England and Wales (Bowden and Offer, 1994). Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Financing a Wireless

Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class

Season Five, Episode One

“When did we last have a Prime Minister who understood the working class? Never. That’s when,” says  Jimmy as the servants sit down to eat.

The formation of the Labour Government in 1924 marked an unprecedented time in Great Britain. To the upper class, it indicated that their marriage of social and political power might be crumbling. No wonder Lord Grantham was unsettled by the village offering Carson chairmanship of the committee for the new war memorial: at the local level he was being cast aside for someone who more closely understood the townspeople, and on the national front he could no longer trust the government had his interests in mind. “What worries me is that our government is committed to the destruction of people like us and everything we stand for,” he says.

Resolutely Working-class

Poster Issued by the Labour Party in 1910
Poster issued by the Labour Party in 1910, depicting the Labour Party ramming the doors of the House of Lords

Prior to the creation of the Labour Party in 1900, political (and social, and economic) power largely rested with the privileged. Indeed, membership in Parliament remained unsalaried until 1911, perpetuating the idea of membership as a gentleman’s occupation.

The working class remained a distinct social stratum in the early 20th century, separate and apart from the middle and upper classes, where perhaps lines blurred a bit more easily. For the leaders of the Labour Party, it was important to identify with workers and speak to their needs.

Leon D. Epstein (1962) argues that the working class background served as a source of pride and potentially even as an advantage for Labour MPs. This is in contrast to stories often told of people climbing the social or occupational ladder who shed their pasts to fit in. Typically those rising in the ranks make use of social and cultural capital, concepts heavily featured in academic work on social mobility. Sociologist James Coleman (1988) defines social capital as the quality and types of relationships that allow for otherwise difficult achievements. Cultural capital relates to the social assets and status of an individual (see for instance, DiMaggio 1982). It’s about who you know and how you act. Social and cultural cues are critical for integration into a group you wish to be a part of, and getting them right is hard to do. Remember when Sir Richard wore the wrong hunting tweeds in Season Three? As someone with ‘new money’ he could afford to dress to the nines, but the Crawley family – always appropriately attired thanks to their ‘old money’ upbringings – noticed when the clothes didn’t quite fit the occasion.

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: A Party for the Working Class

Race, Money, and Marriage in ‘Belle’

I saw ‘Belle‘ over the weekend and loved it. Based on a true story, the film has neatly tied loose ends and liberal embellishments that give the story an Austen-esque feeling, but it’s more than just another period piece.

I recommend reading two great background pieces before seeing the movie to get a better sense of who Dido Elizabeth Belle was and what makes her story so remarkable:

My thoughts on the movie contain some plot spoilers, so feel free to come back after you have seen the movie.

Continue reading Race, Money, and Marriage in ‘Belle’

The ‘Downton Abbey Economy’

This week, I got a lot of traffic from the query “what is a ‘Downton Abbey’ economy?” The question was linked to a Sunday op-ed written by Larry Summers for the Financial Times, “America risks becoming a Downton Abbey economy.” In his article, Summers addresses inequality and the “excess of a privileged few” in the United States today; themes that are quite apparent in Downton Abbey.

While Summers makes a comparison between the two, his article focuses on today’s American economy and does not go into detail about that of early twentieth century Britain. For the past two seasons, I’ve been writing about a mix of specific economic and social issues brought up in Downton Abbey the Grand Trunk Railway failure, for example – and broader issues, like the general lack of social and economic mobility in early twentieth century Britain. Below, I take a quick look at how the ‘Downton Abbey economy’ relates to today, using Summers’ op-ed as a guide.

Continue reading The ‘Downton Abbey Economy’