Sociological Theorists: Karl Marx

By | January 12, 2017

If Marx would have baulked at the idea that he was a sociological theorist, his inclusion in my series cannot be gainsaid: he has been a catalyst for so much thinking about the nature of modern society. There are of course hundreds of summaries of his work, so what more might a single blog accomplish? Well, I shall at least attempt to be selective on issues and topics and concise.

Marx has been described as anti-philosophy. This is because he rejected Hegelian idealism, which (exclusively) inhabited the realm of ideas accessed through consciousness. By contrast Marx stressed that ideas and consciousness are alike part and parcel of material activity and interaction. It is not that ideas cannot be open to debate, rather that this presupposes a set of material conditions, for example academies based on a separation of mental and physical labour. Only when a society has achieved an economic surplus over material necessity, releasing some of its members from the demands of productive labour, can such debate occur. Marx, then, is interested in the material causes and conditions of thought itself.

The assembly and institutionalisation of ideas – or culture – is for Marx rooted in labour, and therefore in exploitation. Capitalism is characterised by a fundamental distinction between those who own capital, or the bourgeoisie, and those who have to sell their labour for wages, or the proletariat. I shall return to this. Initially capitalism was progressive, overthrowing a static and moribund – land-owning noble versus serf – mediaeval order. The Communist Manifesto cuts to the quick:

‘the bourgeoise, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitylessly torn assunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation … In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation … It has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation … The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the courgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudoices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’

Acknowledging the mid-19th century sexist parlance, I would add that capitalism remains resolutely patriarchal, but that this is largely due to its inheritence of, and indifference to, prior ancient-mediaeval-mercantalist structures and divisions. It continues to run along deep historical and structural grooves.

Marx insists that what we think or say is largely determined by what we do. In the social production of our lives we enter into ‘relations of production’ that creep up on us unawares and are independent of our will. These relations correspond to stages of development of the ‘forces’ of material production. He distinguishes between base and superstructure: all social and political forms, and all significant social change, have their roots in material production. Marx’s point is that in capitalism the ‘base’ of social relations is unjust and contradictory, with the result that the ‘superstructure’ of ideas functions politically to legitimate or conceal this (‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas’). Thus the ‘ruling ideas’ constitute an ideology, that is, they amount to a view of the world that rationalises (bourgeois) vested interests. Personally, I would reject the current generalised usage of ideology to denote ‘any’ worldview as ideological. Otherwise, why do sociology?

Adam Smith was aware of the only too predictable polarisation of Marx’s bourgeoisie and proletariat in ‘free-market’ capitalism, whereby the rich become richer and the poor poorer (and he commended ameliorative intervention). What Marx added was a theory of exploitation. This crystallised in his theory of surplus value. This can be captured by the claims (uncontroversial perhaps through Fordist industrial capitalism, and, arguably if more controversially, thereafter) that: (1) objects and services have a ‘use value’ and an ‘exchange value’; (2) what wage-labourers are paid to produce these objects and services is less than accrues to their capital-owning employers via their sale – that is, their exchange value – thereby generating a surplus for the latter; and (3) wage-labourers therefore fund grandiose lifestyles for the bougeoisie via exchange/surplus value to which they can themselves can never aspire. Moreover,

People come to see the exchange-value of any particular object or service not as a product of labour, but as a naturally given fixed property of the commodity. Commodities assume ‘thing-like’ relations with each other. What is social comes to be viewed as natural. ‘Commodity fetishism’, in short, disguises real social relations of production: they do not appear for what they are.

It is the commodification of labour power that was for Marx the distinguishing feature of capitalism. Wage-labourers may have formal freedom, but in the absence of any alternative means of subsistence they effectively become ‘wage-slaves’. Moreover what might be considered ‘value-added’ is entirely down to labour power. Whether in fact labour power comprises a process of value-adding depends on capital’s capacity to control workers in the labour process: productivity is critical. Control and productivity are essential for the ‘exploitative’ appropriation of the surplus value created by labour. Bob Jessop summarizes:

‘the struggle between capital and labour to increase productivity (by extending the working day, intensifying effort during this time, or boosting output through cost-effective labour-saving techniques) is the fundamental basis of the economic class struggle in capitalism. Class struggle is not simply about relative shares of the capitalist cake. It is rooted in the organization of ‘production’ itself (the labour process) and not just in ‘market relations’ (including struggles over wages) or ‘distribution’ (including distribution through the state). It concerns not only the accumulation of money as capital but also the overall reproduction of capital’s domination of wage-labour in the economy and wider society.’

There are after all functional needs to be satisfied in all modes of production. But Marx emphasized the relations of domination that have characterized all forms of society (excepting primitive communism). These are based on the contradiction between the dominant and the dominated.

Capitalists pursue their profits through accumulation, but this can only be achieved at the expense of those who provide the labour power. Over time, Marx insists:

‘if … the income of the worker increases with the rapid growth of capital, there is at the same time a widening of the social chasm that divides the worker from the capitalist, an increase in the power of capital over labour, a greater dependence of labour on capital.’

It is a structural contradiction sits at the core of capitalism in all its guises.

This is space enough for a quick word on ‘alienation’ before I stop. It was primarily in his earlier works that Marx developed an account of worker estrangement or alienation under capitalism. He distinguished four types. First, workers are alienated from the product, over which they have neither ownership nor control. Second, they are alienated from the labour process, over which they have no say and which is experienced as a compulsory pursuit of extrinsic but not intrinsic worth. Third, they are alienated from their fellow workers, with whom they are essentially competing. And fourth, they are alienated from ‘what it is to be human’, since any natural human solidarity is overcome by correlates of the relentless pursuit of profit.

I can only conclude with a reminder that although Marx argued (a) that different capitalist societies had different class compositions, (b) that these would over time witness a ever starker polarisation into bourgeisie versus proletariat, (c) that these polarisations would ultimately unleash revolutionary proletarian impulses, and (d) that these revolutions would, in turn, see a transition to post-capitalist or communism societies, he was subtle and nuanced enough not to parade the kind of economic determinism that his critics accuse him of. As it turned out he was over-optimistic, if that is the right phrasing. But there remains a strong case to take his analysis of (later contemporary forms of) capitalism seriously.




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