Marx’s theory of social change and its relevance of the increasing global nature of today’s society
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The increasing global nature of today’s society has been a great interest to sociologists such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Political, social, economic and cultural relations now take place on a global scale. This change has strongly influenced everyone’s experiences and everyday lives. This process is known as Globalisation. All Social theorists have influenced our understanding of modernity. This essay will focus on the relevance of Karl Marx’s theory to the global nature of today’s society. Karl Marx was a philosopher and political economist.
His writings and his theorising developed from trying to understand huge changes and upheaval in the nineteenth century. Factors included industrialisation (the move from an agricultural system to the mass production of goods in a factory), urbanisation, (the process by which an increasing number of people leave the countryside to live in cities) and secularisation, (the decline of religion). (Fowler 1990) He was concerned with two things; social change and the relationship between the individual and society. (Elliot 1981).
Marx wanted to achieve a theory that would assist radical transformation of society. He thought that by making it possible to adequately comprehend capitalism, his theory would provide the conceptual tools for overcoming it and for freeing industrial society from the nature of capitalism, (Marx & Engles 1968). Capitalism is defined as an economic system in which the means of production are privately owned and organised to accumulate profits within a market framework, in which labour is provided by waged workers, (Fowler 1990).
According to Marx it is not the values or ideas of humans that lead to social change. Marx thought that change was driven by economic influences. He saw class conflict, between rich and poor, as the drive for historical change and development. (Marx & Engles 1968) Marx was seen by some, as a humanist who was keen to rid of capitalism (Ritzer and Goodman 2003). Marx believed that capitalism created the oppression and exploitation of the lower classes.
He was particularly interested in the analysis of societies as organised social classes. He cited many types of classes but thought that two were referred to as the dominant class who owned the means of production (such as capital, land, raw materials, machinery and labour power). The later were the oppressed class who only owned their own labour power. (Stones 1998) Marx maintained that economic production underlies and shapes the entire society. Marx created a Base/Superstructure of society.
He suggested that both the forces and relations of production (the economic base), determine the social elements like religion, education, family, ideas and values which make up the superstructure. (Bilton et al. 1996) In other words he would explain that people’s values, ambitions and ideas are related directly to their economic position, i. e. their function in capitalist society. Marx found that “conflict between economic groups is the major engine of chance”. (Macionis ; Plummer 1997, p79). Marx has seen class division to be a major negative result of modernisation.
He argued that exploitation was a defining characteristic of capitalist production and that the extraction of surplus value from the collected labourers in the factory was the bases of profit and accumulation. According to Marx if a capitalist fails to make profit, they are simply driven out of the market. Marx thought that in his thinking he had uncovered the dynamics of capitalism. Marx felt that revolutionary change was the way to resolve the contradictions within society. He suggested that the working population are unaware of the true nature of exploitation and oppression.
The ideology of the Bourgeoisie creates a false consciousness and a false picture of the relationship between the classes. Marx argues that a social group only becomes a class when they become a class ‘for’ itself and not continue to be a class ‘in’ itself. This is where all members of a social class share the same relationship to the modes of production. Marx predicted that the working class would become a class for itself by realising the true nature of the relationship between the classes, and therefore the conflict of interest is no longer disguised.
Resulting in class- consciousness. They would develop a common identity, recognise shared interests and take collective action to further those interests. This would result in the proletariat overthrowing the Bourgeoisie and seizing the mode of production which is the source of power. Property would become commonly owned and a classless society would emerge, as all members of society would then share the same relationship, this being the mode of production. Marx’s theory suggests that this revolution is inevitable.
It has been said that Marx was “A thinker whose ideas were an invaluable contribution to the establishment of the welfare state in western European democracy” (Manual 1995 cited in Kivisto 1998, p. 15) Marx’s work had a big impact on the 20th century. According to Giddens (1997) prior to the fall of the Soviet Communism more than one third of the earths population lived in societies whose governments claimed to derive their inspiration from Marx’s ideas (Giddens 1997, p10) In Marx’s theory capitalists are not happy unless they are making a profit.
This is true today as the exploitation of lower classes is still widespread. As well as providing the complex and relevant ideas on capitalism and thought on how contradiction in society can lead to change, Marx also highlighted labour being a commodity. A commodity is any product that can be bought or sold. Marx has helped in the advancement of labour movement, in helping to increase bargaining power of workers. This has meant an increase in pay. For example workers have more rights through schemes such as Trade Unions.
This is an organised association of workers in a trade, group of trades, or a profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests. (Fowler 1990). When friction and disputes arise between individuals of the working class and departments of the working state, the trade unions aim to facilitate the fastest and smoothest settlement to the maximum advantage of the workers they represent, taking care not to prejudice anyone. The trade unions act as mediators with both sides.
As the role of Trade Unions became more and more effective throughout the twentieth century the exploitation and oppression of the lower class was reduced. For the Bourgeoisie this meant less profit as wages and working hours had to be made more ethical. According to Marx Bourgeoisie are not fulfilled unless they are making maximum profits. This is once again true today. The desire for high profits has lead to the creation of Multination and Transnational Corporations (TNC’s and MNC’s). These are companies that operate in several countries. Examples of MNC’s and TNC’s are Coca-Cola, Nestle, Nike and GAP.
All of these companies sell and produce products in more than one country. It is the production of these goods that Marx’s work has relevance to. Companies like GAP and Nike now have their product made in third world countries. (Needham & Dransfield 2000) The cost of production is much less, which means they are able to make more profit. So called ‘sweat factories” exist where the workers are exploited as Marx suggested. Marx also suggested that any skill differentials within the proletariat would be removed. He predicted that the use of technology would reduce the labours role.
The deskilling of the workforce would create a homogeneous working class. Some parts of the middle class become absorbed into the working class. Marx called this proletarianisation. Now the availability of clerical skills on offer is greater in comparison to the Marxist period. In 1851 there were only 60000 clerks, now there are over 14 million, working throughout the tertiary sector. This includes all office, administration, retail and ‘personal service’ workers. Today some sociologists argue that the work carried out by this sector is similar to the traditional work by proletarians.
However for others such as Goldthorpe (1987) this group is now part of the intermediate class spoken of earlier. This suggests that sociologist have differing views on how similar Marx’s view is on today’s structure. (Bilton et al. 1996) The technological advances in the UK and other developed countries means that many manual workers are put out of jobs. This together with many companies moving their production abroad means that there are fewer jobs for the unskilled, who then become poorer whilst the opposing class is gaining profits. This means that the gap between the rich and poor increases.
However, new classes have emerged, the middle class. These are those who do not necessarily own land and modes of production, but those who work and earn a good wage. The lower class are those who have few skills and make up most of the unemployed workers. It was the discovery of America that allowed for the world market to arise. The Bourgeoisie developed it and increased its capital. We can see from Marx’s theory that modern day society is a product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange.
Elliott 1980) In conclusion this evidence would suggest that Marx’s work has been relevant to today’s increasing global market. His theory explains the development of multinational and transnational corporations. As discussed Marx spoke of lower classes being oppressed and the ruling class not being fulfilled unless they are making profit. These corporations enable this trend to continue. However, as we have seen Marx has also been the source of various criticisms. Consensus theories challenge Marx’s view that conflict is normal and will lead to change.
Marx tried to base all social theory on a single factor, economics, this was a major downfall as society involves many other factors, which are all interdependent of one another, and these need to be taken into account. We must also take into account that it could be argued that there are various interpretations of Marx and he may have been misinterpreted by others. Marx himself once claimed that “if these are accurate representations of Marxist ideas” then “I for one am not a Marxist” (Marx & Engles 1968).