Let’s talk Marx. Some questions to prompt your discussion: Of the concepts we have studied which are relevant today (give examples)? And what are your reflections on the central thrust of Marx’s argument?
Videos To Use:
Marx Theory of Alienation:
Marx Theory of Class and Exploitation:
Why Marxism is On The Rise Again:
Notes(s) To Use:
This week we plunge more deeply into Marxs thought studying some of the key concepts in his work. So, I thought it might be good to provide something akin to a Cliffs Notes guide to some of these concepts in this weeks introduction.
By now you no doubt have begun to see that Karl Marx is both a complicated person and a complicated thinker whose work sometimes contradicts itself, but is always undertaken in pursuit of a grand vision of what he believes will be a better world. He wants to know why things are the way they are so they can be put aright. As his famous quote which is inscribed on his grave puts it: The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
As we noted last week, Marx drew upon Hegels dialectic to explain the progression of society from one stage to another. Each form of society carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, generating in effect, an antithesis. The tension and conflict arising from this would result in a synthesis, a new form of social organization.
Marx believed the society around him had moved into a form of social organization shaped by capitalist production. This was a system in which money ruled. Those who had money invested it in the production of commodities to sell to make more money. Famously expressed as:
M C M
It seems all well and good, right? The capitalist invests money n the production of goods. That creates jobs. People with jobs can provide for their needs and buy stuff. The capitalist sells the goods they produce, has money to invest back into the business and also turns a profit which rewards him for his role in the process.
So what is wrong with that? What are the seeds of its own destruction buried inside this system?
Well, to get at that, you have to think about what Marx says capital is the product of labor. And to get at that we need to go one step deeper and examine his labor theory of value. Marx thinks the value of a good produced in this system can be defined as follows:
Value = constant capital + variable capital + surplus
Where constant capital is the accumulated labor (i.e., the portion of investment) required to produce a good; variable capital is the wages paid to workers, and surplus is the extra amount of money (above the other costs) people are willing to pay for the item.
Here is where the rub begins. The only thing workers get out of this are the wages paid for their labor, the very labor that makes it possible for the capitalist to produce the good in the first place. They dont get any of the surplus which goes into the pockets of the capitalist as profit and/or accumulated capital for future investment. This, says Marx, is a form of exploitation. The capitalist gets rich and the workers if they are lucky get by. And in Marxs day most just barely got by; to be a worker then was to live a precarious, poverty-filled existence on the edge of calamity. No system built on this sort of exploitation could go on forever before the exploited rose up and overthrew it, Marx reasoned.
Wait, wait, you say. Havent things always been like this?
Not according to Marx. Commodity production, the form of social organization that preceded this capitalist mode of production was fundamentally different on one critical point. It was a commercial system built around individual artisans, farmers and merchants. People produced commodities to sell in the marketplace for money to buy commodities they needed. The formula looks like this:
C M C
Note that unlike the other formula which begins and ends in money meaning money is the driving force this one begins and ends with commodities. Self-employed people make or sell stuff to buy what they need from other self-employed folks.
To illustrate, lets take the example of a cobbler. This person gets to design and make shoes just the way they wish. They pick the color, choose the style and set the price. They determine how many they will make and, thus, how hard they will work.
Things are very different for our cobbler in a system of capitalist production. The capitalist tells them what color and style the shoes will be, as well as how many hours they will work. The cobbler has simply become a cog in an industrial machine producing a product to make more money for the capitalist.
All of which brings us to a second seed of destruction within the capitalist system. Remember our observation from last week that Marx believed humans are creative beings by nature? Well, the cobbler in the second scenario above doesnt get much chance to be creative. In fact the system turns him into a cog on an assembly line, robbing him of control over his own creative capacity. Work becomes a necessary means to earn the necessities of life, not a means of self-fulfillment achieved by the exercise of ones creative capacity. Not only does the worker become alienated, but the very thing necessary for survival the sale of ones labor is the source of that alienation. Thus, the worker cannot escape the source of his alienation without overthrowing the system.
At this point, you are probably wondering if the system is so bad, if it exploits and alienates the workers, why dont they just rise up and overthrow it. The answer, according to Marx, is that the workers have false consciousness. They know something is wrong and that their lives should be better. But they have identified the wrong things as the cause of their problems, focusing on this, that or the other racial or religious minority, etc. as the source. Once they develop class consciousness and understand the capitalist system is the real source of their lot in life, they will revolt.
Wow, thats a lot and it is only the tip of the iceberg. You could spend months studying Marx some folks even make a career of it. But we only have a couple of weeks, so I am focusing on a very broad outline of the main thrust of his work.
In the end, was Marx right? I would say yes on some things and no on others. His ideas certainly had a huge impact on the world, often bent and transmogrified by others into distortions that caused great harm. Some of his observations about the nature of capitalism seem right on target; others are way off base. But 130 years after his death, you cant begin to study sociological theory without exploring the work of Karl Marx. That is a pretty long shadow.
Some key concepts in Marx
As we start this second week of studying about Marx, I thought it might be helpful to post the following thumbnail of a few of his key concepts.
Alienation – One of the fundamental assumptions upon which Karl Marx built his theory is that man is by nature a creative being capable of altering the environment to suit his needs and desires. It was this characteristic, Marx believed, that set man apart from the other members of the animal kingdom. Work is a means to provide for the necessities of life, but it is also something much more than that for Marx. It is a way for an individual to transform the substance of the world into the product of his or her imagination. This engagement in an activity so fundamental to our human nature brings fulfillment, a sense of meaning and joy — as well as our daily bread.
In earlier, pre-capitalist societies people exercised great control over their work life. The cobbler decided what style shoes he would build, how many he would make, and was free to spend as much time as he wished to produce an excellent product. Work not only filled his tummy, it filled his soul as well. In a capitalist society, our cobbler no longer owned the means of production. Instead, he was one of many workers in a factory producing shoes. Someone else told him what style to make, in what color and how many shoes he must make in a day. Our cobbler was reduced to being a cog in an industrial machine geared to make money for someone else. Gone was the fulfillment that once came from being the master of his own work. With each day in the factory, the worker felt more and more alienated from his true nature.
The insidious thing about capitalism, according to Marx, was that it created a trap for the proletariat. To provide for their material necessities, most people had to work in settings where they did not control the means of production. The very work necessary for survival also denied them the fulfillment, satisfaction and joy that work should have provided. Thus, alienation was built into the system.
Commodification – Marx argued that it was inherent in the nature of capitalism to turn everything and anything into a commodity that could be bought and sold. This is one of his most prescient insights, I think. Here we are nearly 150 years after the publication of Capital and we are engaged in a frenzy of commodification. Crime and punishment? We have turned prisons into real estate investments. Companies that once made their money running prisons now entice wealthy investors to turn a profit off building and owning prisons. Water? Water rights are bought and sold as companies move to privatize this natural resource. Clean air? There is always cap-and-trade.
False consciousness Marx faced a conundrum. If things were so bad why didnt the workers of the world unite as he urged them to in The Communist Manifesto? The problem was certainly not that the proletariat was not conscious of the fact that life was not going as it should for them. The problem, Marx said, was rooted in false consciousness; i.e., the tendency of the proletariat to blame the wrong things (people of other races, religions, nationalities, etc.) for their lot in life. The counter-point to false consciousness is class consciousness, a realization that capitalism is the root cause of their problems and that consequently the proletariat must stand united.
Means of production The things such as land, natural resources, technology, etc. that are necessary to produce material goods are known as the means of production.
The means of production fit hand-in-glove with the relationship of production or the social maneuverings that people enter into in order to produce material goods. Together the relationships of production and the means of production create what Marx referred to as a mode of production.
It is the mode of production, i.e. the interplay between means and relationships of production that defines a historical age. Remember, Marx took an evolutionary view of history in which each historical age paved the way for a higher order. Capitalism was a mode of production that would ultimately give way to socialism.
My own take on all of this is that if you squint and look at this process of means of production and relationship of production giving rise to mode of production, you can see the influence of the dialectic. Thesis and antithesis giving rise to synthesis means and relationships of production giving rise to mode of production with very real-world factors like changes in technology and the shifting importance of land as a catalyst for the process.
Social Class For Marx social class essentially revolved around one thing ones relationship to the means of production. If you owned the means of production, you were a capitalist. If you did not, you were a member of the proletariat. As they used to say in the South: You either own the farm or you pick cotton for the man. (Although, I would be remiss if I didnt mention the bourgeoisie, the affluent middle class who did not own the means of production but maintained a comfortable standard of living by serving the interests of the capitalists.)
As we move through this second week on Marx, I wanted to offer this brief review of the dialectic. It is a key idea and one that under-girds Marx’s idea that human society will evolve toward a higher state until it ultimately reaches a communist utopia. This line of thought, the idea of progress, stands in marked contrast to Khaldun’s cyclical theory of the rise and fall of empires.
Darwin envisioned evolution as adaptation that made an organism better fitted to survive in its environment. If life forms evolved from simple to complex, it was because complexity made them better suited for survival. Subsequently, however, we have often come to think of evolution as a progression toward higher orders of life. For Marx, social evolution was driven by dialectical materialism. Each age bore the seeds of its own destruction, and in the conflict between thesis and antithesis a new synthesis – a new age — is created.
Many scholars argue that as a young student Marx was heavily influenced by Hegel from whom he borrowed this thesis-antithesis mechanism. Hegel believed this process was drawing humanity ever closer to God. But where Hegel thought this pattern was driven by a clash of ideas, Marx saw it as being powered by material conditions.
Oddly, while Marx rejected the idealism of Hegel and argued for a more material view of the world, he kept the idea that this process was leading humanity toward a utopia. Marx seems to have thought he had found the mechanism driving human history, and he believed there was definitely a predetermined destination. To me there is something rather messianic about Marx’s vision of the communist society.
Edles, Laura D. and Scott Appelrouth. 2010. Sociological Theory in the Classical Era. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Grenfell, Michael James (ed). 2012. Pierre Bourdieu: Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.
Scott, John. 2014. A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Marx Theory of Alienation:
Marx Theory of Class and Exploitation:
Why Marxism is On The Rise Again: