Karl Marx saw society as clearly structured into two classes, and very exploitative, and believed that economic determinism would result in a revolution.
This post offers up some criticisms of these ideas.
Before reading it you might like to read up on the key ideas of Marx here: The Traditional Marxist Perspective on Society and this post: Eight Ways in Which Marxism is Still Relevant Today
The class structure today is more complex than Bourgeois-Proletariat.
In most Western Nations and increasingly in developing nations there is an extensive middle class who have stocks and shares invested in Corporations run by what Marxists would call the ‘Capitalist Class’. Also in Britain 70% of people own their own homes and see these homes (our private property) as ‘economic assets’ so many of us are, in a sense, petit-capitalists.
Capitalism today is less exploitative
Two historical examples of this are when Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer, realised that paying his workers good wages would generate demand for the cars he produced – a process which lead to workers being less exploited and ‘buying into’ the Capitalist system.
A second example is the move towards ‘Keynsian Economics’ in which the state came to play a more central role in regulating Capitalism to ensure that worst excesses of exploitation, inequality and insecurity that pure Capitalism generates were minimised.
Part of this involved the introduction of the welfare state in many European Countries after the Second World War. In the United Kingdom the state now provides universal health care, education, pensions and social security, as well as guaranteeing a minimum wage.
All of these things acts as a safety net to ensure that the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation are ameliorated.
Control of the Economic Base does not mean control of the Superstructure
Marx argued that those who control the economic base controlled the economic superstructure – yet many of our institutions today have at least relative autonomy from Bourgeois control – it is quite obvious, for example, that huge sections of the press are critical of the Elite and many popular music artists are extremely critical of the Capitalist system.
Criticisms of False Consciousness
Given the above three points, it seems ludicrous to argue that the superstructure is controlled by the Bourgeoisie and is used to create false consciousness.
Firstly, post-modernists argue that culture (mainly the media) exists independently of Bourgeois control and is used by people in different for a variety of different purposes. If institutions are not controlled by the Bourgeois, then there can be no False Consciousness.
What we really have in post-modern society according to Post-Modernists is free individuals who correctly see class as irrelevant and who do not feel exploited and who are happy to identify themselves through the products they buy – products that are themselves the final outcome of a successful Capitalist system of production.
There is less Alienation today
There is much less Alienation in modern companies. Workers have a lot more say, partly due to unionisation and partly due to enlightened management techniques. In addition, there are four million self employed people who directly control the terms and conditions of their working lives.
Capitalism has changed and works for many
Classic Marxist theory has been criticised for being economically deterministic. Marx argued that ‘economic laws’ determined not only the shape of society but also the direction of history itself.
On reflection, however, it is clearly the case that other factors shape history too – different societies have responded differently to the global spread of Capitalism – some have pushed neo-liberalism (America and Britain under Thatcher and Bliare) others have taken a social democratic line and used the state as a buffer to protect citizens from the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation (Scandanavian countries); China has developed a form of autocratic- capitalism and other countries (Cuba and more recently Venezuala) have rejected it in favour of a Socialist dictatorship.
Communism didn’t work
The Communist Revolutions in Eastern Europe did not lead to greater equality and freedom as Marx would have hoped. Given the failures of communism it is difficult to see what the alternative to Capitalism might be. NB – As a counter critique, contemporary Marxists would argue that the state communism of Eastern Europe was hardly true communism.
Traditional Marxism was a Metanarraitve
Finally, many sociologists today would argue that Marx’s ‘grand theorising’ about the world is no longer relevant – rather than researching with the intention of creating the perfect society, we should really be focussing our attention of much more specific and localised social issues.
This post has primarily been written for A-level sociology students focussing on the Theory and Methods module in the second year.
Two related posts include: