EDPS 360 (A2) Fall 2013

Posts Tagged ‘the fetishism of commodities’

The Fetishism of Educational Credentials (and the secret thereof)

In Commentary on October 28, 2013 at 7:53 pm

(by Liz, Adam, Shaylene, & Alannah)

Karl Marx was born in 1818 to middle-class parents in Trier. He was a German philosopher, economist, sociologist, historian, journalist, and revolutionary socialist. He is the founder of the theory known as Marxism, which holds that societies advance through class struggle. He is the author of Capital Volume 1, which for our purpose discusses fetishism, which is the power an object is believed to hold over other objects. In particular, it discusses how society’s values determine the importance of commodities.

Looking at Fetishism in terms of the value or derived pleasure of an object, one may become entirely removed from the actual value or reality of that object.  There may be great social status placed on a very expensive wedding dress, and it can be said that wearing a beautiful dress would bring undeniable pleasure to the bride. But does a fancy wedding dress add value to the outcome of a marriage? (See David Harvey’s discussion of this topic on YouTube…Marx’s concept of fetishism…not wedding dresses)

Now let’s take this same fetishism and place it on education.  The value of a good education is held quite highly in most societies and is often attached to a higher title or status.  People work hard to get into University thinking that once they graduate they will have a fantastic job and make a lot of money.  This idealistic outcome is not the same as placing value on education for the purpose of expanding knowledge.  Educational institutions seem to perpetuate this ideal of school equalling success in society in order to stimulate enrollment.  The reality is that merely obtaining an education does not guarantee a career or success and, although it does open doors, most people do not realize that education is just a tool.  Here the true value of knowledge is replaced with the idealistic dreams of prestige and money.

Objects and services take on inherent values above and beyond their objective value. Education is one of, if not the single most important feature in social mobility, and due to this it arises as a positional good as people clamor to distinguish themselves from the pack. A cruel reality in our society is that once everyone has an education, the important distinguishing-factor that confers so many advantages becomes the standard. We can see this today in our societies, youth unemployment in Europe reaching 26 million(1 in 4 eligible workers under 25), many graduated with postsecondary degrees, despite there being 8 million less youth in Europe than there was in 1989 (Dorling, 2013). A degree itself no longer guarantees a job , so people are going above and beyond. The article about the kindergarten test prep shows this concept; when education is available for all, then students must be  exceptional or from private ,elite institutions (think Harvard, Princeton, etc) to maintain  education as a political good by differentiating themselves relative to the pack.

What power or value do humans attribute to objects in society? What forms does this ‘object’ take? Consider a person without an ‘education’. What is their demand in society? Are they valued, in terms of wage, at a similar status as those who have a formal education? Would they be able to find a ‘desirable’ job? If society did not place such high value on education, would you be here right now?


Dorling, D(August 2013). Generation Jobless: The worst youth employment crisis in European history should be blamed on its millionaires. Retrieved from http://www.newstatesman.com/economics/2013/08/generation-jobless-worst-youth-unemployment-crisis-european-history-should-be-blam


Education as a “Positional Good”

In Activities on October 26, 2013 at 11:00 am
Do you ever feel caught up in a “rat race” in your education? In generations before yours (assuming you are a 20-something), post-secondary education was much more a rite-of-passage: an opportunity to explore the world and learn about oneself. But many young adults today are instead pre-occupied with the anxiety of positioning themselves for entry into a tough labour market. Teachers and parents may have fuelled this anxiety for you and/or your peers with dire warnings that adulthood without some sort of post-secondary credential is a dead end. Under such conditions, education can become an exercise without joy.
In our next class, we’ll spend some time thinking about and discussing the conditions that have led to education as a tenuous defense against what Barbara Ehrenreich (1989) described as a middle class Fear of Falling. Ultimately, we hope you’ll be able draw on the readings below and  some of your own experiences and observations to think about the link between formal education and social mobility. To this end, we’ll unpack two questions:

1) What are positional goods, and how do they relate to education and credentials?

Once we’ve got that sorted out:

2) How does education relate to social mobility?

Start with Marx’s “The Fetishism of Commodities and the secret thereof,” taken from Capital Vol. I, Ch. 1. It’s a brain buster, but see if you can work out what it means to “fetishize” something (still not sure? see herehere, and, less obviously here). Also, try to figure out the distinction between “use value” and “exchange value” in commodities (or “goods” – we’ll use those terms interchangeably).

The two short articles on weddings and test preparation for elite kindergartens (no kidding!) are current examples of “positional competition,” a concept which will be taken up in more detail in an excerpt from a 2002 Keynote entitled “The Opportunity Trap: education and employment in a global economy.” In this lecture, Phillip Brown challenges the rhetoric of governments and international organizations like the OECD that “knowledge economies” demand increasing levels of education. As you read this excerpt, see if you can deepen your understanding of “positional conflict” and make connections to the two short pieces you’ve just read (Administrators note: oops! forgot to link to this great blog post!) . How does this lead to the “opportunity trap,” and (just for fun,) why is this a particular problem for the middle class? Also, give some thought to how education and credentials “sort and select” people for occupations.

Finally – and this isn’t directly addressed in the readings but we’ll take it up in class – give some thought to why different occupations are differently valued. Because people wouldn’t chase “good jobs” if we didn’t have some sense of what a “good job” is. Being paid well is kind of a no-brainer, but is that all that’s going on? Why do some occupations have lots of status even though they don’t pay as well as others? See if you can think of some examples of “high status” and “low status” occupations, and ask yourself what, besides pay, causes people to make these distinctions?

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