When he visited Sydney a few years ago I met Bill Carroll, Professor of Sociology at the University of Victoria in Canada. We talked about teaching political economy and in particular, how he taught Marx’s theoretical concepts. Carroll told me about an experiential classroom exercise ‘Playdough Capitalism’ that he had designed, and pointed me to his article Playdough Capitalism: An Adventure in Critical Pedagogy, which details how the game is run.

I have run versions of Bill’s playdough factory exercise a number of times now, both at UTS and the University of Sydney. In the School of Communication at UTS, the activity has been run in the second-year subject Economy, Society and Globalism—which is part of the Social and Political Sciences major. Students begin this political economy unit familiar with the notion of class, but few have a more specific understanding of Marx’s notion of capitalism as a mode of production. Of course, most UTS students work to support themselves and so they are familiar with the process and problems of waged labour.

The experiential factory

Carroll situates his activity, a simulation of capitalist production, within radical economics pedagogy and Marx’s critique of capitalism as a class-based system based on the exploitation of labour. He developed Playdough Capitalism as an exercise where ‘students learn through participation in (and reflection upon) practices that reach beyond texts and lectures’. A small-scale version of capitalism is created in the classroom, in the form of a factory producing goods out of playdough, and the simulation provides a demonstration of a number of ideas central to Marx’s analysis. In the version I run, I focus on: the appropriation of surplus value; economic crisis and overproduction; and, power in the workplace and classroom.

The simulation is embedded in the UTS flipped learning framework, and builds on several pre-class preparatory tasks. Before coming to the tutorial, students complete a scholarly reading on growth, accumulation and crisis, watch the RSA Animate video of David Harvey’s lecture on economic crisis, and engage online in small group discussion about the topic which forms part of their first assessment.

As discussed in my previous post about the ’walk around your neighbourhood’ task from this same subject, experiential learning (as imagined by David Kolb) consists of four iterative phases—concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. It is through this that a learner gains new knowledge. Carroll constructed Playdough Capitalism to bring together elements of experiential education and critical pedagogy. He argues—citing Mary Breunig’s paper ‘Turning Experiential Education and Critical Pedagogy Theory into Praxis’—that both experiential education and critical pedagogy:

‘conceive of teaching, learning, and the project of schooling in ways that focus teaching on the development of a moral project(s) for education as social transformation’. And that fulfilling the potential of both ‘requires educators to turn pedagogical theory into “purposeful classroom practices”’.

In the Social and Political Sciences at UTS this is central to our teaching, as the major has been developed to educate students ‘to ask questions and conduct research, to understand social issues, and to become an effective advocate, communicator and change-maker’. Many of our students come to UTS to study the program because they want to work in social change.

What happens?

The set-up of the task is described in detail in Bill’s journal article. I have the benefit of two hour tutorials, but I have run the exercise in under an hour with some tweaking from what Bill sets out in the original design—although this narrows the scope of the exercise.

In the version I run, in basic terms, a staff member oversees workers (students) producing two types of commodities in a factory—subsistence goods and luxury items. Workers are given playdough, a rolling pin and two cookie cutters to work with. The staff member appoints a police officer and production supervisors to ‘encourage’ workers to produce more efficiently. The tutor oversees everything and effectively acts as both the state and employer, including paying workers (with paperclips or some other money substitute). Work occurs for a day (60 seconds), and then there is a rest period (60 seconds). Workers, the police officer and supervisors receive wages, but have to buy staples (food) in order to survive. If they build savings they can buy a luxury item. Importantly, commodities rapidly accumulate because workers get more productive over time (they learn how to divide up tasks more efficiently) but are not paid enough to buy them all back (surplus value is extracted).

As Bill notes, the task also functions as an exercise in analytical abstraction to consider how we might examine concealed aspects of social reality. As Bill notes in his article:

It is a fully reflexive exercise, which presents, in advance, both the premises of capitalism and the logic of simulation as a means of analytical abstraction through which participants can experience the essence of the social system under scrutiny… the simulation opens a space not only for substantive analysis and critique but for a methodological discussion of the use of abstraction in social science.

One key element excluded from the simulation is competition between capitalists. In the UTS subject we discuss this in the reflection, but come back to it in the later week on corporations and competition.

Over the years I have made a few changes to the Playdough Factory activity from that set out by Carroll, mostly to focus the activity more closely on the concept of the labour theory of value and to include more student volunteers in the exercise. An addition I made is to discuss both the issue of power in the workplace and power in the classroom. Bill said in our initial conversation, that in running the exercise over several decades there had never been an ‘uprising’ in the factory by students against their working conditions. I have had the same experience, despite students thinking work in the factory was unfair and my attempts to provoke a revolt.

Power at work, power in the classroom

When we ran the Playdough Capitalism exercise in 2017, a highly experienced tutor and myself both ‘sacked’ people in our respective classes. We intervened at several points during the ‘days’, in relation to the poor quality of the work performed, and ultimately sacked people for poor skills and performance. We recruited replacements from the ‘reserve army of labour’ (i.e. other students who are watching the simulation). Although some students felt uncomfortable with the unfairness of the dismissals, there was no revolt of the workers/students within the exercise. At the same time, there were also a number of eager volunteers to replace the student, and on both occasions the new worker performed the job to a higher standard. The failure of students/workers to revolt opens space for a considered discussion of why workers might not push against unfair treatment in workplaces. Students typically draw on their own workplace experiences and relate it to the exercise.

In one of my tutorials at the University of Sydney, I hand-picked an older student I knew to have been an activist and trade unionist and appointed her to work in the factory. I pushed her and the other workers to produce faster and faster each round, and still there was no revolt despite her political experience. The student who was a trade unionist, said that she thought about refusing to work but was concerned about disrupting the exercise and upsetting me—opening the way for a discussion about power in the classroom. I always tell students in subsequent iterations of the exercise what she said, as a way to underline that even older, confident and politically experienced participants can be reluctant to disrupt things when unequal power relations are in play—as much in a workplace as in a classroom.

Bill’s discussion and instructions in his journal article are detailed, and they are all you need to get yourself going. The exercise can feel a bit out of control the first time you run it, and sometimes a bit messy with the playdough, but you quickly get the hang of it. My hot tip is to take a small pack of face or baby wipes to help with the clean-up. Over time you will find you tweak the exercise to suit the cohort of students, their level of study, and what key concepts you want to focus on.

It does not matter what happens in the task as there is always a lot to discuss in the reflection and particular concepts the students will find useful in analysing their factory experience. And finally, through this task I always learn a great deal from my students about how they understand their experience of paid work. This is valuable information for later weeks in the subject.

Feature image by: Aidan Bartos

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