Marxists such as Engels and Zaretsky acknowledge that women are exploited in marriage and family life, but they emphasise the relationship between capitalism and the family, rather than the family’s effects on women. Marxist feminists use Marxist concepts, but they see the exploitation of women as they key feature of family life.
The reproduction of labour power
‘The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would involve a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour power of two people’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
In other words, all of the chores associated with the traditional, expressive role, such as domestic labour, child care and emotion work are necessary to ‘keep the family going’ and so women’s unpaid work ultimately ends up benefiting the Capitalist class, because they only have to pay one person in the family– the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husbands needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free, and women also do most of the child care for free, thus reproducing the next generation of workers for free.
A related point here is made by Fran Ansley who sees the emotional support provided by men as a safety valve for the frustrations produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system:
‘When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.’
(NB This analysis is essentially a more critical view of Parson’s ‘warm bath theory’ – the theory of the stabilisation of adult personalities – in Marxist-Feminist terms this is not ‘different but equal’ roles, it is a case of different an unequal – and this inequality benefits capitalism)
Finally, because the husband has to pay for his wife and children he cannot easily withdraw his labour power even if he is exploited. This reduces his bargaining power in relation to his employer and makes it more likely that he will put up with a low wage rather than risk being sacked by striking for a higher wage.
‘As an economic unit the nuclear family is a valuable stabilising force in capitalist society. Since the husband-father’s earnings pay for the production which is done in the home, his ability to withhold labour is much reduced’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).
The traditional nuclear family not only physically reproduces cheap labour for the the ruling class, it also teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.
Diane Feeley (1972) argues that the family is an authoritarian unit dominated by the husband in particular and adults in general. The family has an ‘authoritarian ideology which teaches passivity, not rebellion and children learn to submit to parental authority thereby learning to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and control in capitalist society.
Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family
David Morgan argues that the traditional nuclear family is becoming less common and so this theory is less applicable today
They also ignore the fact that women have made progress in family life – life is better within families today for women, as Liberal and Difference Feminists point out.
Eight ways in which Marxism is still relevant today
A class based analysis of global society is still relevant if you look at things globally.
Exploitation still lies at the heart of the Capitalist system if you look at the practices of many Transnational Corporations.
If you look at the recent bank bail outs it appears that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.
If you look at how individualised we have become it appears that many people are still under ideological control – but we don’t realise it.
Work is still Alienating for many people.
Economic crises are still inherent to the capitalist system and that in recent years these crises have become more severe and more frequent.
Capitalist exploitation is so bad in some parts of the world that there is vehement resistance to it.
In Britain there are tens of thousands of people who call themselves Communists and who sympathise with Marxism and the wider anti-capitalist movement. Left Wing criticisms and the anti-capitalist movement is still very much alive today.
Bourgeoisie, Proletariat, ideological control, false consciousness, revolution and communism.
The Marxist Perspective is a central theory within A level Sociology. This post outlines some of the key concepts of Karl Marx such as his ideas about the social class structure, his criticisms of capitalism and communism as an alternative.
Karl Marx (1818- 1883) was alive in the middle of the 19th century, and it’s important to realise that his theories stem from an analysis of European societies 150 years ago.
Marx travelled through Europe during the mid and later half of the 19th century where he saw much poverty and inequality. The more he travelled the more he explained what he saw through unequal access to resources and ownership of property, wealth. He argued that the working class (proletariat) in Britain (and elsewhere) was being exploited by the ruling class (bourgeoisie).
The ruling class paid the working class less wages than they deserved, made them work long hours in poor conditions, and kept the profit from the sale of the goods produced. Thus, the ruling class got richer and the working class became increasingly poor, and had no way of improving their prospects, unless… Marx argued, they all came together to overthrow the ruling class in a revolution. Equality for all in the shape of Communism would replace an unequal capitalist system.
students in their very first two weeks of study. I would deliver this as part of a two to three week-long module ‘introducing sociology‘.
Six Key Ideas of Karl Marx
Capitalist society is divided into two classes
The Bourgeoisie exploit the Proletariat
Those with economic power control other social institutions
Revolution and Communism.
Capitalist society is divided into two classes:
The Bourgeoisie or the Capitalist class are the ones who own and control the wealth of a country. These control the productive forces in society (what Marx called the economic base), which basically consisted of land, factories and machines that could be used to produce goods that could then be sold for a profit.
The majority, or the masses, or what Marx called The Proletariat can only gain a living by selling their labour power to the bourgeoisie for a price.
The bourgeoisie increase their wealth by exploiting the proletariat
Marx argued that the bourgeoisie maintain and increase their wealth through exploiting the working class.
The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the Capitalist pays his workers (their wages) is always below the current selling, or market price of whatever they have produced. The difference between the two is called surplus value. Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. Because of this extraction of surplus value, the capitalist class is only able to maintain and increase their wealth at the expense of the proletariat. To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.
Marx thus argues that at root, capitalism is an unjust system because those that actually do the work are not fairly rewarded for the work that they do and the interests of the Capitalist class are in conflict with the interests of the working class.
Those who have economic power control all other institutions in society
Marx argued that those who control the Economic Base also control the Superstructure – that is, those who have wealth or economic power also have political power and control over the rest of society.
The Economic Base (The Mode of Production): Consists of the forces of production (tools, machinery, raw materials which people use to produce goods and services)and the relations of production (social relations between people involved in the production of goods and services). Together these make up the mode of production
The Superstructure: all other institutions: The legal system, the mass media, family, education etc. These are then used to bring about Ideological Control and ultimately False Consciousness.
Marx argued that the ruling classes used their control of social institutions to gain ideological dominance, or control over the way people think in society. Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling classes were presented as common sense and natural and thus unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm.
The result of the above is false class consciousness
The end result of ideological control is false consciousness – where the masses, or proletariat are deluded into thinking that everything is fine and that the appalling in which they live and work are inevitable. This delusion is known as False Consciousness. In Marxist terms, the masses suffer from false class consciousness and fail to realize their common interest against their exploiters.
Commodity FetishismA fetish is an object of desire, worship or obsessive concern. Capitalism is very good at producing ‘things’. In capitalist society people start to obsess about material objects and money, which is necessary to purchase these objects. Material objects and money are worshipped in capitalist societies. Some people even need material objects to construct identities – this is partly responsible for keeping most of us in ‘false consciousness’
Revolution and Communism
As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth – Capitalism was unjust but people just hadn’t realised it! He believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. Eventually, following a revolution, private property would be abolished and with it the profit motive and the desire to exploit. In the communist society, people would be more equal, have greater freedom and be happier.
Criticisms of Traditional Marxism
Marx’s concept of social class has been criticised as being too simplistic – today, there are clearly not just two social classes, but several; moreover, most people don’t identify with other members of their social class, so it is questionable how relevant the concept of social class is today.
Clearly Marx’s predictions about capitalism ending and the ‘inevitable success of communism’ have been proved wrong with the collapse of communism.
Capitalism has changed a lot since Marx’s day, and it appears to work for more people – it is less exploitative, so maybe this explains why it still continues to this day?
Evidence that Marxism is still Relevant Today
Contemporary Marxist sociologists argue that Marxism is still relevant in many ways. For example:
In the Family
Parents want the perfect family and they compete with one another for the best house, car, holiday and the best dressed/most successful children etc. This is encouraged through advertising and TV programmes. Significant sums of money are spent in pursuit of the “perfect” family.
This benefits the bourgeoisie in two ways 1) Parents work harder at work improving profits for their companies owners – the bourgeoisie 2) Parents spend more of their salary on providing this lifestyle – this benefits the bourgeoisie as they can make more profits by selling goods and services to the parents.
Furthermore, it makes parents feel “happy” about family life and society generally, even though they might work 13hr days for an average salary, rarely seeing their family. Lastly, children grow up watching their parents behave in this manner and then replicate it as adults with their own families.
The mainstream media is controlled by few wealthy individuals who promote the ideas and beliefs that maintain the bourgeoisie’s wealthy position in society. This encourages people to accept beliefs which benefit capitalism and legitimise (justify) the exploitation of the proletariat (workers) as normal. The media justify exploitation and even make it into games shows.
Encourages people to accept hierarchy and to be obedient. This is good for capitalism as it creates students who will later become good workers. Also, schools emphasise high achievement and high flying jobs – implicitly this means highly paid jobs, better profits for company owners and more exploitation for the workers. Schools also encourage the idea people get what they deserve in education, when in reality educational achievement is primarily a result of the chance circumstances of your birth i.e. who your parents are.
Signposting and Related Posts
This post has been written as an introduction to Marxism for A-level sociology students in their very first two weeks of study. I would deliver this as part of a two to three week-long module ‘introducing sociology‘.
Related posts for the first year of A-level sociology include:
There are a lot of videos on YouTube on basic Marxism, but to my mind the two below are the most useful as introductions. Having said that, they both still contain A LOT of complex information, so don’t worry too much if you find you don’t understand everything in either or both videos!
Crash Course – Karl Marx and Conflict Theory
This is probably better for a first year university student, but it’s still a reasonably easy introduction.
The School of Life – Karl Mark Political Thought
This is a little heavier going than the video above, but maybe more accessible as the narrator speaks slower, and it also comes to the firm conclusion that Marxism is still relevant today!
This post is a brief summary of the Dependency Theory view of Development and Underdevelopment. It is, broadly speaking, a Marxist theory of development.
Andre Gunder Frank (1971) argues that developing nations have failed to develop not because of ‘internal barriers to development’ as modernization theorists argue, but because the developed West has systematically underdeveloped them, keeping them in a state of dependency (hence ‘dependency theory’.)
The World Capitalist System
Frank argued that a world capitalist system emerged in the 16th century which progressively locked Latin America, Asia and Africa into an unequal and exploitative relationship with the more powerful European nations.
This world Capitalist system is organised as an interlocking chain: at one end are the wealthy ‘metropolis’ or ‘core’ nations (European nations), and at the other are the undeveloped ‘satellite’ or ‘periphery’ nations. The core nations are able to exploit the peripheral nations because of their superior economic and military power.
From Frank’s dependency perspective, world history from 1500 to the 1960s is best understood as a process whereby wealthier European nations accumulated enormous wealth through extracting natural resources from the developing world, the profits of which paid for their industrialisation and economic and social development, while the developing countries were made destitute in the process.
Writing in the late 1960s, Frank argued that the developed nations had a vested interest in keeping poor countries in a state of underdevelopment so they could continue to benefit from their economic weakness – desperate countries are prepared to sell raw materials for a cheaper price, and the workers will work for less than people in more economically powerful countries. According to Frank, developed nations actually fear the development of poorer countries because their development threatens the dominance and prosperity of the West.
Colonialism, Slavery and Dependency
Colonialism is a process through which a more powerful nation takes control of another territory, settles it, takes political control of that territory and exploits its resources for its own benefit. Under colonial rule, colonies are effectively seen as part of the mother country and are not viewed as independent entities in their own right. Colonialism is fundamentally tied up with the process of ‘Empire building’ or ‘Imperialism’.
According to Frank the main period of colonial expansion was from 1650 to 1900 when European powers, with Britain to the fore, used their superior naval and military technology to conquer and colonise most of the rest of the world.
During this 250 year period the European ‘metropolis’ powers basically saw the rest of the world as a place from which to extract resources and thus wealth. In some regions extraction took the simple form of mining precious metals or resources – in the early days of colonialism, for example, the Portuguese and Spanish extracted huge volumes of gold and silver from colonies in South America, and later on, as the industrial revolution took off in Europe, Belgium profited hugely from extracting rubber (for car tyres) from its colony in DRC, and the United Kingdom profited from oil reserves in what is now Saudi Arabia.
In other parts of the world (where there were no raw materials to be mined), the European colonial powers established plantations on their colonies, with each colony producing different agricultural products for export back to the ‘mother land’. As colonialism evolved, different colonies came to specialise in the production of different raw materials (dependent on climate) – Bananas and Sugar Cane from the Caribbean, Cocoa (and of course slaves) from West Africa, Coffee from East Africa, Tea from India, and spices such as Nutmeg from Indonesia.
All of this resulted in huge social changes in the colonial regions: in order to set up their plantations and extract resources the colonial powers had to establish local systems of government in order to organise labour and keep social order – sometimes brute force was used to do this, but a more efficient tactic was to employ willing natives to run local government on behalf of the colonial powers, rewarding them with money and status for keeping the peace and the resources flowing out of the colonial territory and back to the mother country.
Dependency Theorists argue that such policies enhanced divisions between ethnic groups and sowed the seeds of ethnic conflict in years to come, following independence from colonial rule. In Rwanda for example, the Belgians made the minority Tutsis into the ruling elite, giving them power over the majority Hutus. Before colonial rule there was very little tension between these two groups, but tensions progressively increased once the Belgians defined the Tutsis as politically superior. Following independence it was this ethnic division which went on to fuel the Rwandan Genocide of the 1990s.
An unequal and dependent relationship
What is often forgotten in world history is the fact that before colonialism started, there were a number of well-functioning political and economic systems around the globe, most of them based on small-scale subsistence farming. 400 years of colonialism brought all that to end.
Colonialism destroyed local economies which were self-sufficient and independent and replaced them with plantation mono-crop economies which were geared up to export one product to the mother country. This meant that whole populations had effectively gone from growing their own food and producing their own goods, to earning wages from growing and harvesting sugar, tea, or coffee for export back to Europe.
As a result of this some colonies actually became dependent on their colonial masters for food imports, which of course resulted in even more profit for the colonial powers as this food had to be purchased with the scant wages earnt by the colonies.
The wealth which flowed from Latin America, Asia and Africa into the European countries provided the funds to kick start the industrial revolution, which enabled European countries to start producing higher value, manufactured goods for export which further accelerated the wealth generating capacity of the colonial powers, and lead to increasing inequality between Europe and the rest of the world.
The products manufactured through industrialisation eventually made their way into the markets of developing countries, which further undermined local economies, as well as the capacity for these countries to develop on their own terms. A good example of this is in India in the 1930s-40s where cheap imports of textiles manufactured in Britain undermined local hand-weaving industries. It was precisely this process that Ghandi resisted as the leading figure of the Indian Independence movement.
By the 1960s most colonies had achieved their independence, but European nations continued to see developing countries as sources of cheap raw materials and labour and, according to Dependency Theory, they had no interest in developing them because they continued to benefit from their poverty.
Exploitation continued via neo-colonialism – which describes a situation where European powers no longer have direct political control over countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, but they continue to exploit them economically in more subtle ways.
Frank identities three main types of neo-colonialism:
Firstly, the terms of trade continue to benefit Western interests. Following colonialism, many of the ex-colonies were dependent for their export earnings on primary products, mostly agricultural cash crops such as Coffee or Tea which have very little value in themselves – It is the processing of those raw materials which adds value to them, and the processing takes place mainly in the West
Second, Frank highlights the increasing dominance of Transnational Corporations in exploiting labour and resources in poor countries – because these companies are globally mobile, they are able to make poor countries compete in a ‘race to the bottom’ in which they offer lower and lower wages to attract the company, which does not promote development.
Finally, Frank argues that Western aid money is another means whereby rich countries continue to exploit poor countries and keep them dependent on them – aid is, in fact, often in the term of loans, which come with conditions attached, such as requiring that poor countries open up their markets to Western corporations.
Strategies for Development
Breaking away from dependency
Associate or dependent development
Breaking away from dependency
This view argues that dependency is not just a phase, but rather a permanent position. The only way developing countries can escape dependency is to escape from the whole capitalist system. Under this category, there are different paths to development:
Isolation, as in the example of China from about 1960 to 2000, which is now successfully emerging as a global economic superpower having isolated itself from the West for the past 4 decades.
A second solution is to break away at a time when the metropolis country is weak, as India did in Britain in the 1950s, following world war 2. India is now a rising economic power.
Thirdly, there is socialist revolution as in the case of Cuba. This, however, resulted in sanctions being applies by America which limited trade with the country, holding its development back.
Many leaders in African countries adopted dependency theory, arguing that and developing political movements that aimed to liberate Africa from western exploitation, stressing nationalism rather than neo-colonialism.
Associate or dependent development.
Here, one can be part of the system, and adopt national economic policies to being about economic growth such as
Import substitution industrialisation where industrialisation produces consumer goods that would normally be imported from abroad, as successfully adopted by many South American countries. The biggest failure of this, however, was that it did not address inequalities within the countries. ISI was controlled by elites, and these policies lead to economic growth while increasing inequality.
Criticisms of Dependency Theory
1. Some countries appear to have benefited from Colonialism – Goldethorpe (1975) pointed out that those countries that had been colonised at least have the benefits of good transport and communication networks, such as India, whereas many countries that were never colonised, such as Ethiopia, are much less developed.
2. Modernisation theorists would argue against the view that Isolation and communist revolution is an effective path to development, given the well-known failings of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. They would also point out that many developing countries have benefitted from Aid-for Development programmes run by western governments, and that those countries which have adopted Capitalist models of development since World War Two have developed at a faster rate than those that pursued communism.
3. Neoliberalists would argue that it is mainly internal factors that lead to underdevelopment, not exploitation – They argue that it is corruption within governments (poor governance) that is mainly to blame for the lack of development in many African countries. According to Neoliberals what Africa needs is less isolation and more Capitalism.
4. Later on we will come across Paul Collier’s theory of the bottom billion. He argues that the causes of underdevelopment cannot be reduced to a history of exploitation. He argues that factors such as civil wars, ethnic tensions and being land-locked with poor neighbours are correlated with underdevelopment.
The New Rulers of the World – summary of the documentary by John Pilger, which seems to be a pretty unambiguous dependency theory perspective on the role of the World Bank, the IMF, and Transnational Corporations in globalisation. The video focuses especially on their role in underdevelopment in Indonesia.
According to Traditional Marxists, school teaches children to passively obey authority and it reproduces and legitimates class inequality.
Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. According to the Marxist perspective on education, the system performs three functions for these elites:
It reproduces class inequality.
It legitimates class inequality.
It works in the interests of capitalist employers
The main source for the ideas below is Bowles and Ginits (1976): Schooling in Capitalist America. These are the two main sociologists associated with Traditional Marxist perspective on education.
1. The reproduction of class inequality
This means that class inequalities are carried from one generation to the next.
Middle class parents use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced
2. The Legitimation of class inequality
Marxists argue that in reality money determines how good an education you get, but people do not realize this because schools spread the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – in school we learn that we all have an equal chance to succeed and that our grades depend on our effort and ability. Thus if we fail, we believe it is our own fault. This legitimates or justifies the system because we think it is fair when in reality it is not.
This has the effect of controlling the working classes – if children grow up believing they have had a fair chance then they are less likely to rebel and try to change society as part of a Marxist revolutionary movement.
If you’d like to find out more about the above two concepts please see this post on ‘the illusion of educational equality‘ in which I go into more depth about educational realities and myths, as theorized by Bowles and Gintis.
3. Teaching the skills future capitalist employers need
Bowles and Gintis suggested that there was a correspondence between values learnt at school and the way in which the workplace operates. The values, they suggested, are taught through the ‘Hidden Curriculum’. The Hidden Curriculum consists of those things that pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the main curriculum subjects taught at the school. So pupils learn those values that are necessary for them to tow the line in menial manual jobs, as outlined below
SCHOOL VALUES Corresponds to EXPLOITATIVE LOGIC OF THE WORKPLACE
Passive subservience (of pupils to teachers) corresponds to Passive subservience of workers to managers
Acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers) corresponds to Authority of managers
Motivation by external rewards (grades not learning) corresponds to being Motivated by wages not the joy of the job
Evaluations of the Traditional Marxist Perspective on Education
There is an overwhelming wealth of evidence that schools do reproduce class inequality because the middle classes do much better in education because the working classes are more likely to suffer from material and cultural deprivation. Meanwhile, the middle classes have more material capital, more cultural capital (Reay) and because the 1988 Education Act benefited them (Ball Bowe and Gewirtz),
The existence of private schools is strong supporting evidence for Marxism – the wealthiest 7% of families are able to buy their children a better education which in turn gives them a better chance of getting into the top universities.
There is strong evidence for the reproduction of class inequality if we look at elite jobs, such as Medicine, the law and journalism. A Disproportionately high number of people in these professions were privately educated.
Henry Giroux, says the theory is too deterministic. He argues that working class pupils are not entirely molded by the capitalist system, and do not accept everything that they are taught – Paul Willis’ study of the ‘Lads’ also suggests this.
There is less evidence that pupils think school is fair – Paul Willis’ Lads new the system was biased towards the middle classes for example, and many young people in deprived areas are very aware that they are getting a poor quality of education compared to those in private schools.
Education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated for example.
The correspondence principle may not be as applicable in today’s complex labour market where employers increasingly require workers to be able to think rather than to just be passive robots.
Neo- Marxism: Paul Willis: – Learning to Labour (1977)
Willis’ research involved visiting one school and observing and interviewing 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school during their last 18 months at school and during their first few months at work.
Willis argues pupils rebelling are evidence that not all pupils are brainwashed into being passive, subordinate people as a result of the hidden curriculum.
Willis therefore criticizes Traditional Marxism. He says that pupils are not directly injected with the values and norms that benefit the ruling class, some actively reject these. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system.
BUT, Willis still believes that this counter-school culture still produces workers who are easily exploited by their future employers:
The Counter School Culture
Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. Their value system was opposed to that of the school. This value system was characterised as follows:
1. The lads felt superior to the teachers and other pupils 2. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ 3. The objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible, the reward for this was status within the group 4. The time they were at school was spent trying to win control over their time and make it their own.
Attitudes to future work
They looked forward to paid manual work after leaving school and identified all non-school activities (smoking, going out) with this adult world, and valued such activities far more than school work.
The lads believed that manual work was proper work, and the type of jobs that hard working pupils would get were all the same and generally pointless.
Their counter school culture was also strongly sexist.
Evaluations of Willis
Very small sample of only working class white boys
Overly sympathetic with the boys – going native?
For a more in depth summary of Paul Willis, please see this post which focuses more on the research methods.
This video shows a hypothetical dialogue in which two middle class parents discuss how they might translate their material and cultural capital into educational advantage for their offspring, thereby reproducing class inequality.
material capital is basically money and resources,
cultural capital refers to the store of skills and knowledges middle class parents might have which give their children an advantage in life over working class children.
The reproduction of class inequality through education may be defined as the process whereby middle class children succeed in education and go on to get well-paid middle class jobs, and vice versa for working class children. As a result class inequality is carried on across the generations.
This was one of the first educational videos I ever uploaded to YouTube, but since the company decided to demonetize my account I am deleting everything from YouTube and bringing it to Dtube – a decetralised, blockchain based social media platform – get on the chain, I say!
Class notes on Engel’s theory of the relationship between capitalism, private property and the family; and contemporary marxist views on the family.
Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism – the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches passive acceptance of hierarchy. It is also the institution through which the wealthy pass down their private property to their children, thus reproducing class inequality.
This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and household option as part of A-level sociology.
Marxism is a ‘structural conflict’ perspective. They see society as structured along class lines with institutions generally working in the interests of the small elite class who have economic power (the ‘Bourgeoisie’) and the much larger working class (the ‘Proletariat’). The Bourgeoise gain their wealth from exploiting the proletariat. There is thus a conflict of interests between the Bourgeoise and the Proletariat.
However, this conflict of interests rarely boils over into revolution because institutions such as the family perform the function of ‘ideological control’, or convincing the masses that the present unequal system is inevitable, natural and good.
Something else Marxists suggest about the family (like the Functional Fit theory) is that the family type generally changes with society – more specifically, the nuclear family emerges not because of the needs of industrialisation, but because of the needs of the capitalist system.
Explaining the emergence of the nuclear family – Engels
According to Engels, the monogamous nuclear family only emerged with Capitalism. Before Capitalism, traditional, tribal societies were classless and they practised a form of ‘primitive communism’ in which there was no private property. In such societies, property was collectively owned, and the family structure reflected this – there were no families as such, but tribal groups existed in a kind of ‘promiscuous horde’ in which there were no restrictions on sexual relationships.
However, with the emergence of Capitalism in the 18th Century, society and the family changed. Capitalism is based on a system of private ownership – The bourgeois use their own personal wealth to personally invest in businesses in order to make a profit, they don’t invest for the benefit of everyone else.
Eventually the Bourgeois started to look for ways to pass on their wealth to the next generation, rather than having it shared out amongst the masses, and this is where the monogamous nuclear family comes from. It is the best way of guaranteeing that you are passing on your property to your son, because in a monogamous relationship you have a clear idea of who your own children are.
Ultimately what this arrangement does is to reproduce inequality – The children of the rich grow up into wealth, while the children of the poor remain poor. Thus the nuclear family benefits the Bourgeois more than the proletariat.
Criticisms of Engels
Gender inequality clearly preceded Capitalism….. The vast majority of tribes in Africa and Asia are patriarchal, with women being barred from owning property, having no political power, and having to do most of the child care and hard physical labour.
Wealthy Capitalist economies such as the UK and USA have seen the fastest improvements in gender equality over the last 100 years. Capitalism, increasing wealth and gender equality within a nation seem to be correlated.
Contemporary Marxism – The family as an Ideological Apparatus
The modern nuclear family functions to promote values that ensure the reproduction and maintenance of capitalism. The family is described as an ideological apparatus – this means it socialises people to think in a way that justifies inequality and encourages people to accept the capitalist system as fair, natural and unchangeable.
One way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families which teaches children to accept there will always be someone in “authority” who they must obey, which then mirrors the hierarchy of boss-worker in paid employment in later life.
Contemporary Marxism – The Family as a Unit of Consumption
Capitalists/business owners want to keep workers’ wages down so they can make a profit, but to do so they must also be able to sell the workers goods i.e. they must create demand for their products. The family builds demand for goods in a number of ways
1) Families must keep up with the material goods/services acquired by their neighbours and peers e.g. family holidays, cars – this is known “Keeping up with the Joneses”. There are significant amounts of advertising and TV programmes influencing parents in this way.
2) The media and companies target children in their advertising who then persuade their parents through pester power to buy more expensive items. This is particularly bad in the UK where there few legal restrictions on adverts aimed at children; in Sweden advertising aimed at children under 12 is illegal.
Overall Criticisms of Marxism
It’s too deterministic – it assumes people passively accept socialisation and family life, and that the future is pre-determined. There are plenty of families who reject the consumerist lifestyle and many families bring their children up to be independent thinkers.
The Marxist perspective ignores family diversity in capitalist society, the nuclear family is no longer the main type of family. In fact, family breakdown may be better for Capitalism – as divorce is expensive and more money has to be spent on maintaining family relationships and later on forming new families.
Feminists argue that the Marxist focus on social class inequalities downplays the role of patriarchy, which is the real source of female oppression. Feminists would point out that sex inequalities exist within all families, irrespective of social class background.
Marxism ignores the benefits of nuclear family e.g. both parents support the children. The New Right point out that this is the most functional type of environment in which to raise children, and the nuclear family is found in most societies around the world, suggesting it is something people choose.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
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