I wonder what comes up when I google my school? Rip.
If students spend Friday nights at the Reg, finish physics p-sets over breakfast, and sleep 5 hours over 2 days, why would anyone want to come to the University of Chicago? We took a look at what sociologists Karl Marx and Max Weber had to say about the individual and collective motives behind our decision to attend a university that is known mostly for its intense academic environment with a reputation for suppressing extracurricular enjoyment.
1. We’re just a bunch of scared babies trying to cover up our fears in a job well done.
Why on earth would a student willingly go “where fun goes to die?” Weber’s analysis of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism give us a clue.
…the religious valuation of restless, continuous, systematic work in a worldly calling, as the highest means to asceticism, and at the same time the surest and most evident proof of rebirth and genuine faith, must have been the most powerful conceivable lever for the expansion of that attitude toward life which we have here called the spirit of capitalism (Weber 116).
Unlike the doctrine of the Catholic Church, early Calvinist Protestant ideology held that an individual’s salvation or damnation was predestined by God, meaning that no amount of good works could win a damned soul a ticket past the pearly gates. Calvinists encountered a profound psychological crisis of identity as a result of the loss of agency under this new frame, as individuals realized the futility of their worldly actions. Pious Calvinists lived under the constant and complete anxiety over fate in the afterlife, and could not stomach the uncertainty inherent to the faith.
As counsel to distressed souls, Calvinist pastors began to preach the benefits of good works. The new dogma began to resolve the crisis of predestination. The doctrine of work held that if one acted as if she were damned, she was sure to be, but if she acted as though she were saved, the existential angst could be kicked down the road and resolved after death. As a result, Calvinists and other Protestants developed a manic workaholism that stressed doing one’s best in a God-ordained job in the service of God’s glory in an effort to stave off the fatalism inherent to predestination.
“How are you?” “I’m fine.”
The earning of money within the modern economic order is, so long as it is done legally, the result and the expression of virtue and proficiency in a calling (Weber 19)
If one asked UChicago students why they’re here, most answers wouldn’t mention God. Yet the pursuit of academic excellence is closely tied to service to the glory of God, because as Weber explains, the Protestant code of ethics drives the spirit of capitalism, the dominant system of the world in which we confront ourselves with the uncertainty of our cause. UChicago students exist in a society fundamentally molded by capitalism, which is in itself molded fundamentally by the Protestant work ethic. That’s why accumulating high grades brings us pleasure and why UChicago students especially equate being a hardworking, competent worker with being a good person.
UChicago students embody Weber’s spirit of capitalism – we almost religiously value the restless, continuous, systematic work of cultivating learning. The quintessential UChicago dictum that highlights our dogged focus on ideas embodies the calling that UC students serve: “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” Students at the University of Chicago specifically toil at the altar of ideas; there is no higher purpose than advancing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. UChicago is the place where fun goes to die not because of the oppressive regime of the administration (probably) but rather, it is a nod to the value of pure learning. Rather than an epithet, “where fun goes to die” becomes an ideal paradigm that UChicago students try to embrace to the fullest in order to satisfy their calling.
But the reality of a university education isn’t just inward-facing. As much as UC students value academic excellence, we also can’t stomach the uncertainty of our employment within the global economy, the depletion of social security funds, and the ever-increasing cost of living. Though most students aren’t slaving over p-sets and papers to quiet their conscious fear of hell, they certainly are trying to quiet the fear of the disapproval of a society that values making money via workaholism. So despite the fact that capital is ever pushing innovation to happen faster and faster – and thus the job market is changing faster and faster – we tell ourselves that if we get an A in Honors Analysis, we’ll be able to earn the inner satisfaction and societal approval of good hard work (and the money that makes).
Behold, external validation.
2. Because if we’re going to sell out, we want to be hot commodities.
Marx conceptualizes the individual as distinguished from animals due to conscious social activity. Man exists in relationship to nature, society, and himself. As a species-being, man is a free being, and he forms his means of subsistence giving respect to the laws of beauty. Individuals rely on nature to keep their physical existence. However, in the capitalist society, these relationships of free being have been violated and he is alienated from himself and the object he is making. Man’s labor is being forced upon him by the capitalist, who is himself forced by capital.
External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification… the worker’s activity is not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self (Marx 74).
Capitalist society inevitably alienates individuals from nature, their species-being character from their source of physical existence. Humans still need to eat and drink, still need that relationship to nature in which they harness nature for their own benefit, even if our relationships do distinguish us from animals in other ways. The capitalist society divides the world into two categories, capitalists and workers, away from nature. The only way workers can keep their existence is through being exploited by capitalists, instead of interacting freely with nature. Hence they are dominated by their own labor.
There are many reasons that will make people accept the exploitation of our labor as students here. As a student in the University of Chicago, an individual has to accept the fact he is there because capitalist society esteems high-level education. By pursuing education there, individuals make themselves more appealing commodities to offer to capitalists, this is the only way by which they can get money to sustain their physical existence. But the capitalist will hire you to pay you what you need, working you beyond that and accumulating the surplus-value. You have to submit yourself to exploitation just to survive.
I’m a good candidate for this job, because I’ve always been passionate about not starving.
3. We’re all just hosts for the reproduction of capital.
All that science is for a good cause, according to Capital…
For Marx, the collective values scientific advancement due to capital’s dominion over them. Capital, in its quest for self-valorisation, invests in scientific advancements in order to make production more efficient and so surplus value more abundant. Therefore, capital’s domination of us all means it gently nudges you into a role in life that is likely to help improve its production process, which is a key priority for capital.
The capitalist society places merit on institutions such as UChicago that produce laborers who can lead scientific advances and improve manufacturing. So Marx might say you attend UChicago because of the societal benefits of doing so (higher wages in jobs, status in society, improved prospects) and these stem from capital’s need for scientific advancement in order to better create surplus-value.
Machinery is intended to cheapen commodities, and, by shortening that portion of the working day, in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gived, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, machinery is a means for producing surplus-value (Marx 403).
Marx explains that by virtue of it being an efficient and productive way of producing commodities, machines allow labourers to produce more commodities per day than without them. Therefore, after the point at which they make enough commodities to reproduce their labour, they are effectively labouring for free. This is favourable for the capitalist because it means they can extract maximum surplus-value from their labourers. It is therefore also favourable to capital because more surplus-value is created and so more valorisation takes place. Therefore, there is clearly an incentive for capital to make its hosts (capitalists, i.e. people) invest in the development of machinery to improve the production process to make more surplus-value.
The development of the means of labour into machinery is not an accidental moment of capital, but is rather the historical reshaping of the traditional, inherited means of labour into a form adequate to capital (Marx 280).
Here, Marx suggests that capital using machinery is an inevitability of the development of capitalism, and that capital is inevitably going to reshape the labour process to make the most surplus-value possible. This provides further motivation for the fact that capital is likely to want to invest in research and development in order to make better machines to fulfil its inevitable tendency to improve its rate of self-valorisation by a more efficient production process.
On the one side, then, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent ( relatively) of the labour time employed on it (Marx 285).
The creation of wealth being independent of labour time is dependent on the use of machines, as discussed here:
The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency (Marx 280).
And this is a key process in Capital’s strive for self-valorisation, and so the powers of science and nature are being called together to form better machines so that the productive force of labour can be increased as much as possible. This explains why capital wants the increased advancement of science because scientific advancement leads to better machines that improve the production process and produce more surplus-value. There is the “the tendency of capital to give production a scientific character” (281) leads to the investment by capital in research and development, and the emphasis placed on the training of labourers to allow them to make more scientific advancements and improve the process of production.
It is, firstly, the analysis and application of mechanical and chemical laws, arising directly out of science, which enables the machine to perform the same labour as that previously performed by the worker (Marx 283).
This type of labor – creating machines to do all the tasks workers can do – all the way up to computer programming machines that can think – is a part of the education students at UChicago can receive. Eventually, these machines will be able to think for us, and the production process will continue to become more efficient. Furthermore, as industry becomes modernised even more, the reliance on wealth creation from the advance of science increases. Therefore, as the world becomes more reliant on mechanised manufacturing processes, the reliance on science to continue improving processes also increases.
But to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and […] rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production (Marx 284).
What this means is that, in our modern world with already-mechanised processes of production, we as a community are heavily reliant on science and technology to keep improving on what they have already improved, and we see this concretely in the emphasis placed on artificial intelligence and self-driving cars (very advanced pieces of technology) to improve upon computers and cars that science already created.
Maybe this guy should be dressed as a scientist; Marx doesn’t seem to think being a chef is what creates wealth
Therefore, increased amounts of training for students in the fields of science and technology is required, but also in other fields that help inform the progress of science and technology. This could explain why we are at UChicago – the collective finds it important that we are trained in a wide range of fields because capital with its dominion over the collective needs new minds to innovate scientifically and create more wealth by advancing the progress of technology. This include industries not directly linked to science since these have the potential to create surplus value that can then be invested in scientific industries. Despite individuals possibly not engaging in science, the collective acts to prioritises it, by ensuring it has the input of capital from other fields. Think Elon Musk – he invented PayPal, made loads of money, then used that money to fund SpaceX. SpaceX is the first privately company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft with their Dragon craft. So, y’know, even an Econ major like Musk contributes to science. Plus, there are many Econ, or political science, or philosophy, majors out there who indirectly contribute capital to the advancement of science.
So according to Marx, you (on a collective level) are a student at UChicago because you, as part of the collective dominated by capital, are implored to improve the state of science in order to improve the mechanisation of the manufacturing process, and to therefore create more wealth – more surplus-value – which capital is constantly aiming to do. The collective therefore places a value on higher education because it benefits capital, which they are dominated by.
4. If we leave, we’re screwed.
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force (Weber 123).
Even if UC students decide they no longer want to buy into the “where fun goes to die” paradigm, the collective stipulation to pursue excellence in a Chicagoan manner necessitates participation within it. Weber provides the framework with his broader generalization to the spirit of capitalism as a whole. Protestant ethics were appropriated by capitalist society, and thus labor in a “calling” became a widespread life goal, therefore today we cannot escape it. Because collective society operates under this accepted framework, the passion of the individual is co-opted into the general societal trends. UChicago students can’t opt out of this system on the level of our society as a whole, because we’re all subject to a fundamentally capitalist society. But the University itself is a representation of that same subjugation to a system that individuals themselves did not create.
An individual student at the University of Chicago may decide that the “where fun goes to die” ideal is not worth pursuing, and attempt to live up to paradigmatically deviant values. But within the frame of UChicago, there is no such opt-out mechanism. For so long as one is a student at the University, no matter how she may try to rig the classes to find the easiest ones, take the minimal required courseload, spread out requirements, and fill in electives with classes that are supposed “GPA boosters,” one will ultimately find that every class is intellectually rigorous. There is no class that operates outside the fundamental archetype of “where fun goes to die.” Moreover, the workload of these classes combined with hopes for future employment keep the student continually postponing enjoyment. In this manner Weber’s comparison of the dominion of capital to an iron cage is especially apt. No matter how much a student may try to escape the pursuit of academic excellence, it always drives actions at the university. “Where fun goes to die” thus tracks with the development of capitalism. Weber elucidates,
In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport (Weber 124).
The same is true with academic excellence at the University of Chicago, the most developed manifestation of the pursuit of knowledge in the service of learning. Stripped of its individual meaning, the individual first-years entering the College associate “where fun goes to die” with a quotidian self-deprecative nod at the workload of UChicago, granting any cynic of the UC idealism social currency on campus. Yet for all the surface-level rejection of the University’s spirit, the collective student body still remains driven by it. Regardless of an individual’s actions, she fundamentally never escapes the societal framework inherited from the social fabric of the University of Chicago.
So remember next time you’re settling down for a long night in the stacks, this isn’t your fault, it isn’t your pushy parents’ fault, it isn’t even UChicago’s fault. It’s capitalism’s fault.