Wed May 7, 2003

Marx vs Weber

Continuing this morning’s theme of head-to-head conflict, the Invisible Adjunct has a great post on opposition to graduate student unionization at Penn.

Deputy Provost Peter Conn thinks it “makes no sense” that “an Ivy League graduate student researching Edmund Spenser is to be identified with a sanitation worker.‘” It’s funny how the very mention of “union” is enough to elicit such candid expressions of class snobbery and class anxiety. But this is the Ivy League! We’re not to be equated with—gasp!—sanitation workers. There is Spenser, and there is garbage, and we must not confuse our categories.

Quite. Let us not confuse our categories.

As I see it, there are employers and there are employees. Sometimes their interests will nicely coincide, and sometimes they will not. Increasingly, they do not coincide. And of course it’s not very nice when they don’t.

Here we have a central opposition in twentieth-century social theory. Marx vs Weber. Class position vs status group. Relation to the means of production vs market position and distribution of life-chances. It’s funny that Judith Rosen, Penn’s president, has described herself as “Penn’s CEO” but also rolls out the old “graduate school is a sacred apprenticeship” argument when confronted with the prospect of collective action from the employees. If you want to turn yourself into a CEO, you shouldn’t be surprised if the grad students want to have a union.