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: A Place for Ms. Bunting

Sarah Bunting
Sarah Bunting, played by actress Daisy Lewis, on Season Five of Downton Abbey

(Season Five, Episode Five)

On Episode Five we watch Sarah Bunting say her goodbyes. A polarizing figure in the Downton universe, she deserves her own post for her final appearance on the show. So today, I’m making my case for her to join a teachers’ union.

First, a little background: In the 1920s women’s employment opportunities rested in a narrow band of job options.Ms. Bunting was one of the lucky women who made it into the professional ranks. The majority of women worked in the service industry – mainly in domestic service – and those lucky enough to join professional fields were pushed toward “caring positions;” 90% of female professionals worked as teachers, nurses and midwives (Horn 2010 [1995]).   Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: A Place for Ms. Bunting

Economics of Downton Abbey: Service and Identity

We’ve spent some time weekend-ing with the characters upstairs, but now it’s time to turn to those below stairs, where things are much less of a party.

As my introduction to Season Four mentioned, unemployment during the inter-war period in Britain was very high. It’s commonly cited that more than one million men were out of work during this time (Aldcroft, 1967). In 1936, John Maynard Keynes’ famous book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, was published as response to the mass unemployment in the inter-war period, which peaked during the Great Depression.

Immediately after Word War I in Britain, many men fell victim to the decline of once booming industries – like coal mining and work in the ship yards. As exports fell, many traditional industries suffered.  While newer industries cropped up and did well, many working class employees were left without jobs or the skills necessary to transfer to new ones.

Politically, Britain did step up to confront working class unemployment following the First World War – an issue that was surely made hard to ignore by sudden appearance of unemployed and penniless war veterans. In 1921, the government agreed to provide unemployment benefits. Other social services, like access to housing and health insurance, were also provided. Aldcroft (1969) links the expansion of social services to the wartime experience and the high unemployment that followed. Sociologist W. G. Runciman agrees that government involvement on such labor issues would have been ‘unthinkable’ before the war (1993, p. 57). According to Runciman, the proportion of national income spent on social services doubled during this time.

With this season of Downton Abbey, we get to take a close look at two male characters questioning their employment situation in post-war Britain: the ever-underemployed Molesley, and Alfred, who has aspirations beyond Downton.

Continue reading Economics of Downton Abbey: Service and Identity