Eight Criticisms of the Traditional Marxist View of Society

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Related Posts

The Traditional Marxist Perspective on Society – Eight Key Ideas

Eight Ways in Which Marxism is Still Relevant Today

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The Marxist Perspective on Society

Includes some of the Key Ideas of Karl Marx, including Bourgeoisie/ Proletariat, exploitation, false consciousness, ideological control, and revolution.

This is a simplified version of Marxist Theory designed for second year A level students

In order to fully understand Marxism, you need to understand the work of Karl Marx, who produced most of his writing between 1840 and 1870.

  1. Under Capitalism there are two basic classes- The Bourgeois and The Proletariat

  1. The relationship between these two classes is exploitative because the amount of money the employer pays the worker is less than the total value of goods that worker produces. The difference between the two is called surplus value. Marx thus says that the capitalist extracts surplus value from the worker. To Marx, Profit is basically the accumulated exploitation of workers in capitalist society.

  1. Control of the Economic Base means control of the superstructure… According to Marx those who have economic power control all other institutions. During Marx’s day there was some evidence to suggest this was true – Voting was restricted to men with property; Press Barons used their papers to spread propaganda; and only the children of the wealthy could get to university.

  1. The Bourgeois use their control of institutions to keep the masses ignorant of their exploitation – this is known as ideological control. According to Marx this was mainly done through the Mass Media and Religion. Ideological control results in False Consciousness – individuals not being aware (conscious) of their true class position or their exploitation by the ruling class. They are in a state of illusion.

  1. Capitalism causes alienation- Under Capitalism the worker becomes alienated from the process of production, from the people he works with and from the products they produce. This is because he lacks control over his work and becomes a ‘machine’, and thus work appears as ‘alien’ to him.

  1. Marx’s ideas on Capitalism and social change – Competition leads to increasing levels of exploitation – Marx argued that the Capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction – it would eventually create the social conditions that would lead to its downfall. In order to stay competitive, Capitalists would have to sell goods at lower prices, which would mean reduced profit. This would then encourage Capitalists to seek to reduce wages and increase efficiency– making the working conditions of the proletariat ever worse. Marx theorised that increasing numbers of increasingly exploited proletarians crammed into ever expanding cities (where factories were based) would eventually lead to a violent revolution – in which the proletariat would throw off their oppressors.

  1. Revolution and Communism – Marx argued that following the overthrow of the Bourgeois – society would eventually organise itself along Communist lines – where the means of production are collectively owned (no private property) and everyone has equal wealth. Marx was vague about exactly what the Communist society would look like but argued that in this society ‘each would give according to their ability and take according to their needs’ and that there would be a lot more free time for all.

  1. The point of ‘Social Research’ according to Marx – Marx spent the last decade of his life sitting in the British Library analysing how Capitalism worked and discovered that over time, the degree of exploitation of workers increased. He thus theorised that Capitalism would gradually lead to an increasing amount human misery and exploitation and that it must, one day come to an end.

As far as Marx was concerned, he had realised the truth, and he believed that political action was necessary to ‘wake up’ the proletariat and bring them to revolutionary class consciousness. He spent much of the middle and later parts of his life engaged in efforts to bring about revolutionary change.

Related Posts (for A2 Sociology – criticisms and counter-criticisms)

Eight Criticisms of Traditional Marxism

Eight Ways in Which Marxism is Still Relevant Today

Related Posts from other Topics Within Sociology

One way to approach Marxist Theory in second year Sociology is to look at what Marxists say about specific areas of society such as the family and education.

The Marxist Perspective on The Family

The Marxist Perspective on Education

Dependency Theory

World Systems Theory

Find out more about Marxism – Good external sites

The Marx and Engels Archive – This is a comprehensive site which provides access to Marx’s major works, as well as biographies and articles about Marx, and a picture gallery!

The Communist Manifesto – Published in 1848 this is Marx’s most famous work – the one which contains the classic line ‘Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains’.

Marxism 2016 – Ideas for Revolution – This is the homepage of the latest Marxism festival, which is held in London every year over several days, where you can go to hear contemporary Marxists speak and argue amongst themselves.

The Victorian Slum is a BBC recreation of slum life from the 1860s, which was one of the decades when Marx was writing and conveys some of the privations working class slum dwellers had to endure – basically wages just about covered lodging and food. NB – According to this article, the level of squalor was almost certainly worse than in the video. There’s a good level of sociological commentary running through this.

Sociological Perspectives on Education Summary Grid

A Level Sociology – Perspectives on Education Summary Grid

A summmary of the Functionalist, Marxist, New Right, Late Modern/ New Labour and Postmodern Perspectives on the role of education in society – focusing on Key ideas, supporting evidence and criticisms. (Scroll down for ‘test yourself’ link)

Key Ideas about Education

Supporting Evidence

Criticisms/ Limitations

Functionalism

  • Education performs positive functions for the individual and society.

  • It creating social solidarity (value consensus) through teaching the same subjects.

  • Teaching skills necessary for work – necessary for a complex division of labour.

  • Acting as a bridge between home and soceiety – from paricularistic to universalistic values.

  • Role Allocation and meritocracy

  • School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low.

  • Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees.

  • Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – Extended Tutorials – (‘cringing together’?)

  • Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses.

  • Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer).

  • Marxists – the education system is not meritocratic (not fair) – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.

  • Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school –

  • Many schools fail OFSTED inspections,

  • Not all pupils succeed

  • Negative In school processes like subcultures/ bullying/ teacher labelling

  • Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.

  • Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful. The education system tends to work for them. (because they can send their children to private schools) and it suggests there is nothing to criticise.

Marxism

  • Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. The education system performs three functions for these elites:

  • Reproduces class inequality.

  • Legitimates class inequality.

  • The Correspondence Principle – School works in the interests of capitalist employers.

  • Neo- Marxism – Paul Willis – A Classic piece of Participant Observation of 12 lads who formed a counter school cultur. Willis argued they rejected authority and school and just turned up to ‘have a laff’ (rejecting the correspondence theory). However, they ended up failing and still ended up in working class jobs (so supports the reproduction of class inequality).

  • To support the reproduction of inequality – Who gets the best Jobs. And there is no statistically significant evidence against the FACT that, on aggregate, the richer your parents, the better you do in education.

  • To support the Legitimation of class inequality – pupils are generally not taught about how unfair the education system is – they are taught that if they do badly, it is down to them and their lack of effort.

  • To support the Ideological State Apparatus – Surveillance has increased schools’ ability to control students.

  • There are many critical subjects taught at university that criticise elites (e.g. Sociology).

  • It is deterministic – not every child passively accepts authority (see Paul Willis).

  • Some students rebel – 5% are persistent truants (they are active, not passive!).

  • Some students from poor backgrounds do ‘beat the odds’ and go on to achieve highly.

  • The growth of the creative industries in the UK suggest school doesn’t pacify all students.

  • The nature of work and the class structure has also changed, possibly making Marxism less relevant today.

Key Ideas about Education

Supporting Evidence

Criticisms/ Limitations

Neoliberalism and The New Right

  • Created an ‘education market’ – Schools were run like businesses – competing with each other for pupils and parents were given the choice over which school = league tables.

  • The state provides a framework in order to ensure that schools were all teaching the same thing – National Curriculum.

  • Schools should teach subjects that prepare pupils for work: New Vocationalism!

  • Their policies seem to have raised standards.

  • Their policies have been applied internationally (PISA league tables).

  • Asian Countries with very competitive education systems tend to top the league tables (e.g. China).

  • Competition between schools benefited the middle classes and lower classes, ethnic minorities and rural communities ended up having less effective choice.

  • Vocational Education was also often poor.

  • There is a contradiction between wanting schools to be free to compete and imposing a national framework that restricts schools.

  • The National Curriculum has been criticised for being ethnocentric and too restrictive on teachers and schools.

Late Modernism and New Labour

  • Government needs to spend more on education to respond to the rapid pace of change brought about by Globalisation.

  • People need to reskill more often as – government should play a role in managing this.

  • Schools are also necessary to keep under surveillance students ‘at risk’ of future deviance.

  • New Labour Policies – the purpose of school should be to raise standards, improve equality of opportunty, and promote diversity and equality.

  • See Evaluation of New Labour Policies

  • All developed economies have governments who spend large amounts of money on education, suggesting more (not less like Neoliberals suggest) state education is good.

  • It is difficult to see what other institution could teach about diversity other than schools.

  • There did seem to be more equality of opportunity under New Labour rather than under the 2015 Neoliberal/ New Right government.

  • Postmodernists argue that government attempts to ‘engineer’ pupils to fit society kill creativity

  • Marxists argue that whatever state education does it can never reduce class inequalities – we need to abolish global capitalism, not adapt to it!

  • Late-Modern, New Labour ideas about education are expensive. Neoliberalists say that we can no longer afford to spend huge sums of money on education.

Postmodernism

  • Stand against universalising education systems.

  • See Modernist education as oppressive to many students – especially minority groups

  • Believe the ‘factory production-line mentality of education kills creativity

  • Ideas of education which fit with a postmodern agenda include – Home Education, Liberal forms of education, Adult Education and Life Long Learnin and Education outside of formal education (leisure)

  • Many people agree that schools do kill creativity (Ted Robinson, and Suli-Breaks)

  • Sue Palmer – Teaching the test has resulted in school being miserable and stressful for many pupils.

  • Do we really want an education system more like the Chinese one?

  • The National Curriculum has been criticised as being ethnocentric (potentially oppressive to minority groups).

  • Late-Modernists – we need schools to promote tolerance of diversity.

  • Neoliberalism – we need a competitive system to drive up standards in order to be able to compete in a global free market!

  • Marxists would argue that home education would lead to greater inequality – not all parents have an equal ability – if we leave education to parents, the middle classes will just benefit more, and working class kids will be even further behind.

  • Liberal forms of education may result in the survival of the fittest’

 

Test yourself:

Functionalist or Marxist? (Quizlet Test)

Assess the Marxist View of the Role of Education in Society

Assess the Marxist View of the Role of Education in Society

sociology-of-education-coverAccording to Marxists, modern societies are Capitalist, and are structured along class-lines, and such societies are divided into two major classes – The Bourgeois elite who own and control the means of production who exploit the Proletariat by extracting surplus value from them. Traditional Marxists understand the role of education in this context – education is controlled by the elite class (The Bourgeoisie) and schools forms a central part of the superstructure through which they maintain ideological control of the proletariat.

Firstly, Louis Altusser argued that state education formed part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’: the government and teachers control the masses by injecting millions of children with a set of ideas which keep people unaware of their exploitation and make them easy to control.

According to Althusser, education operates as an ideological state apparatus in two ways; Firstly, it transmits a general ideology which states that capitalism is just and reasonable – the natural and fairest way of organising society, and portraying alternative systems as unnatural and irrational Secondly, schools encourage pupils to passively accept their future roles, as outlined in the next point…

Secondly, the second function schools perform for Capitalism is that they produce a compliant and obedient workforce…

In ‘Schooling in Capitalist America’ (1976) Bowles and Gintis suggest that there is 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’, which 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.

For example passive subservience of pupils to teachers corresponds to the passive subservience of workers to managers; acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers) corresponds to the authority of managers; and finally there is ‘motivation by external rewards: students are motivated by grades not learning which corresponds to being motivated by wages, not the joy of the job.

A third Marxist idea is that schools reproduce class inequality. In school, the middle classes 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

Fourthly, schools legitimate class inequality. Marxists argue that in reality class background and 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.

Finally, Paul Willi’s classic study Learning to Labour (1977) criticises aspects of Traditional Marxist theory.

Willis’ visited one school and observed 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school and attitudes to future work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ and that the objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible.

Willis argued that 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. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system, so they are clearly not under ideological control.

However, the fact that the lads saw manual work as ‘proper work’ and placed no value of academic work, they all ended up failing their exams, and as a result had no choice but to go into low-paid manual work, and the end result of their active rebellion against the school was still the reproduction of class inequality. Thus this aspect of Marxism is supported by Willis’ work.

Traditional Marxist views of education are extremely dated, even the the new ‘Neo-Marxist’ theory of Willis is 40 years old, but how relevant are they today?

To criticise the idea of the Ideological State Apparatus, 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. Also, education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated, so clearly they do not control the whole of the education system.

However, the recent academisation programme, which involves part-privatisation of state schools suggests support for the idea that Businesses control some aspects of education.

It is also quite easy to criticise the idea of the correspondence principle – Schools clearly do not inject a sense of passive obedience into today’s students – many jobs do not require a passive and obedient workforce, but require an active and creative workforce.

However, if you look at the world’s largest education system, China, this could be seen as supporting evidence for the idea of the correspondence principle at work – many of those children will go into manufacturing, as China is the world’s main manufacturing country in the era of globalisation.

The Marxist Theory of the reproduction of class inequality and its legitimation through the myth of meritocracy does actually seem to be true today. There is a persistent correlation between social class background and educational achievement – with the middle classes able to take advantage of their material and cultural capital to give their children a head start and then better grades and jobs. It is also the case that children are not taught about this unfairness in schools, although a small handful do learn about it in Sociology classes.

In conclusion, while Marxist theory might be dated, all of the four major ideas still seem to have some relevance, especially their ideas about the reproduction and legitimation of class inequality, so I would say Marxism is one of the more accurate perspectives which helps us understand the role of the education system today, both nationally and globally.

Related Posts

The Marxist Perspective on the Role of Education in Society

Social Class and Educational Achievement Essay Plan

For more essay plans please see this main post of links….. ‘sociology revision and exam advice‘… all tailored towards AQA A level sociology.

Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education

A brief video I put together to help revise the Functionalist, Marxist and New Right Perspectives on Education – basically just some key points and evaluations for each of these sociological theories.

Functionalism – Social solidarity, skills for work, bridge between home and society, role allocation and meritocracy

Marxism – The reproduction and legitimation of class inequality and the correspondence principle

The New Right – Marketisation, league tables, the National Curriculum and New Vocationalism

The slide show goes through each perspective three times – each repeat has less information. The idea is that you can test yourself as you go….. It’s deliberately designed to be ‘no frills’ btw!

Learning to Labour by Paul Willis – Summary and Evaluation of Research Methods

Participant Observation in the Context of Education

Given the practical and ethical problems of conducting participant observation in a school setting, there are only a handful of such studies which have been carried out in the UK, and these are mainly historical, done a long time ago. They are, nonetheless interesting as examples of research. Below I consider one classic participant observation study in the context of education – Paul Willis‘  Learning to Labour (1977)

Learning to labour

learning-to-labourLearning to Labour by Paul Willis (1977) is an ethnographic study of twelve working class ‘lads’ from a school in Birmingham conducted between 1972 and 1975. He spent a total of 18 months observing the lads in school and then a further 6 months following them into work. The study aimed to uncover the question of how and why “working class kids get working class jobs” (1977: 1) using a wide range of qualitative research methodologies from interviews, group discussions to participant observation, aiming to understand participants’ actions from the participants’ point of view in everyday contexts.

Sampling

Willis concentrated on a particular boy’s group in a non-selective secondary school in the Midlands, who called themselves ‘lads’. They were all white, although the school also contained many pupils from West Indian and Asian backgrounds. The school population was approximately 600, and the school was predominantly working class in intake. He states that the main reasons why he selected this school was because it was the typical type of school attended by working class pupils.

Data Collection

Willis attended all school classes, options (leisure activities) and career classes which took place at various times. He also spoke to parents of the 12 ‘lads’, senior masters of the school, and main junior teachers as well as careers officers in contact with the concerned ‘lads’. He also followed these 12 ‘lads’ into work for 6 months. NB He also made extensive use of unstructured interviews, but here we’re focusing on the observation aspects.

Participant observation allowed Willis to immerse himself into the social settings of the lads and gave him the opportunity to ask the lads (typically open) questions about their behaviour that day or the night before, encouraging them to explain themselves in their own words…which included detailed accounts of the lads fighting, getting into trouble with teachers, bunking lessons, setting off fire extinguishers for fun and vandalising a coach on a school trip.

Findings

One of Willis’ most important findings was that the lads were completely uninterested in school – they saw the whole point of school as ‘having a laff’ rather than trying to get qualifications. Their approach to school was to survive it, to do as little work as possible, and to have as much fun as possible by pushing the boundaries of authority and bunking as much as they could. The reason they didn’t value education is because they anticipated getting factory jobs which didn’t require any formal qualifications. They saw school as a ‘bit cissy’ and for middle class kids.

Willis does not include an account of how he approached the ‘lads’ and built rapport with them. However considering the responses of the ‘lads’ during discussions and interviews, seeing that the ‘lads’ openly talk about their views and experiences and allow access to work at a later stage of the research, Willis seems to have built rapport effectively.

For more details the findings of this study see the Neo-Marxism section of the ‘Perspectives on Education Hand-Out’

Practical Issues with Learning to Labour

The research was very time consuming – 2 years of research and then a further 2 years to write up the results.

It would be very difficult to repeat this research today given that it would be harder to gain access to schools (also see reliability)

Funding would also probably be out of the question today given the time taken and small sample size.

Ethical Issues with Learning to Labour

An ethical strength of the research is that it is giving the lads a voice – these are lads who are normally ‘talked about’ as problems, and don’t effectively have a voice.

An ethical weakness is that Willis witnessed the lads getting into fights, their Racism and Homophobia, as well as them vandalising school property but did nothing about it.

A second ethical weakness is the issue of confidentiality – with such a small sample size, it would be relatively easy for people who knew them to guess which lads Willis had been focussing on

Theoretical Issues with Learning to Labour

Validity is widely regarded as being excellent because of the unstructured, open ended nature of the research allowing Willis to sensitively push the lads into giving in-depth explanations of their world view.

Critics have tried to argue that the fact he was obviously a researcher, and an adult, may have meant the lads played up, but he counters this by saying that no one can put on act for 2 years, at some point you have to relax and be yourself.

Something which may undermined the validity is Willis’ interpretation of the data – he could have selected aspects of the immense amount of data he had to support his biased opinion of the boys.

Representativeness is poor – because the sample size is only 12, and they are only white boys.

Reliability is low – It is very difficult to repeat this research for the reasons mentioned under practical factors.

 Related Posts

You might also like this summary of more recent research on why the white working classes continue to underachieve in education.

Marxist Feminist Perspectives on Family Life

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.

marxist feminism
Marxist Feminism

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).

Ideological conditioning

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.

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Radical Feminist perspective on the family

Sources used

The material above is adapted from Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives.

Is Marxism Still Relevant Today?

Eight possible ways in which some aspects of Marxist Theory and concepts might still be relevant today… Relevant to A2 Sociology Theory and Methods (details to follow)

  1. A class based analysis of global society is still relevant if you look at things globally.
  2. Exploitation still lies at the heart of the Capitalist system if you look at the practices of many Transnational Corporations.
  3. If you look at the recent bank bail outs it appears that those with economic power still have disproportionate influence over the superstructure.
  4. 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.
  5. Work is still Alienating for many people.
  6. Economic crises are still inherent to the capitalist system and that in recent years these crises have become more severe and more frequent.
  7. Capitalist exploitation is so bad in some parts of the world that there is vehement resistance to it.
  8. 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.

 

Marx: Key Ideas for AS Sociology

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.

This is a slightly modified version of the AS Sociology intro handout on the basics of Karl Marx’s thought.

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.Marxism class structure

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. 

Because Marx’s theory is based on criticising Capitalism, you really need to understand what Capitalism is – see the separate Handout/ blog ‘what is Capitalism’?

   Key Ideas of Karl Marx

1.    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.

2.    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.

3.    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.

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
Superstructure All other institutions: The legal system, the mass media, family, education etc.

4.    Ideological Control

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.

5.    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’

6.    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:

1) 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.

2) Media = 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.

3) Education = 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.

Useful videos introducing Karl Marx’s thought 

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!

 

Related Posts

The Marxist Perspective on the Family

The Marxist Perspective on Education

 Find out more-

Dependency Theory

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.

Neo-colonialism

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 

  1. Breaking away from dependency

  2. Associate or dependent development

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Related Posts 

Evaluate explanations of development and underdevelopment put forward by dependency theorists – essay plan

World Systems Theory

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.

Neoliberalism

People Centred Development