Karl Marx Explains College

I grew up in a CMC family, and not merely because my father was a machinist for Continental Motors Corporation.

In Marx’s Das Kapital, he lays out the idea that there are essentially two economic classes, labor and capital, and uses the letters C and M as a form of diagram to explain their different relationships in an economic system. C represents a commodity that has economic value—an hour of labor, for instance, or a pair of shoes, or a sushi dinner—and M is money.

In his famous formulation, the exchange cycle of workers is C-M-C: that is, we exchange a commodity (our labor) for some money, which we then exchange for some other commodities like food and housing and a new pickup. Our error is in thinking that’s how everybody lives, and it is not.

The exchange cycle of the capitalist is reversed: it’s M-C-M. That is, the capitalist and his surplus of money goes in search of a commodity that he can use to create even more money. He might set up a gold mine, selling the gold for far more than the cost of production. He might start… oh, maybe Microsoft, and parlay a multi-millionaire’s origins into a billionaire’s life. The idea is that a surplus of capital allows for investment in commodities that further increase that surplus. Including, and especially, purchasing the labor commodities of others.

So what does this have to do with college?

For most families sending their kids to college (or trying to scrape together a degree while working and raising a family independent of their parents), college reflects the C-M-C model. We work to make a little extra money, and a fair bit of that money goes to purchasing the commodity that is higher education. In many cases, it has the same economic structure as most of our commodities; we go into significant debt to acquire it, and whatever benefit it brings us through having indoor, white-collar jobs is more or less offset by what it cost.

But historically, and still for the families of the elite, college has been an M-C-M endeavor. Families use their excess money to buy their children not merely an excellent education but also further social access, both of which will be parlayed into even greater income and power later. (And Ivy families have plenty of excess money—the median family income of Harvard parents at $169,000, Brown at $204,000. But the hyper-elite liberal arts colleges are even more rarified: Washington University at $272,000, Colgate at $270K, Colby at $236K. This is not a group of students taking out Stafford loans and setting up repayment schedules stretching into their mid-50s.) Elite education is not a consumer product; it’s an investment strategy, ensuring that generational benefits are passed along to the children of wealth.

Let’s state it plainly. The vast majority of American colleges offer the opportunity to purchase a commodity that we hope will bring a little comfort. The uppermost few dozen offer the opportunity to enter an investment club that we know will multiply our wealth.

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