While humanistic Marxists see humans as creative beings, able to make history through their conscious actions, for structuralist Marxists, it is social structures that shape human action, and we should be researching structures not individuals.
The most important structural Marxist thinker is Louis Althusser (1918-90), a leading intellectual of the French Communist Party. Althusser’s version of Marxism rejects both economic determinism and humanism.
Criticisms of the base-superstructure model
Instead of being structured into two levels, Althusser argues that society has three levels, or structures:
The economic level – all of those activities which involve producing something or meeting a need
The political level – comprising all forms of organisation
The ideological level – involving all the ways that people see themselves and their world.
In the base-superstructure model, there is one-way causality – the economic level determines everything else. By contrast, in Althusser’s model, the political level and the ideological level have relative autonomy, or partial independence from the economic level, and instead of one way causality, we have two-way causality.
Ideological and Repressive State Apparatus
Although the economic level dominates in capitalism, the political and ideological level still perform indispensable functions – for example, workers need to be socialised into a work ethic, and those who rebel must be punished.
In Althusser’s model, the state performs political and ideological functions that ensure the reproduction of capitalism – he divides the state into two ‘apparatuses’
Repressive State Apparatuses – these are ‘armed bodies of men (such as the police and the army). -which can physically quash dissent and rebellion.
The ideological State Apparatuses – these include the media and the education system. It is, however, difficult to maintain order in this way over an extended period of time – a more effective tactic is to manipulate the way in which people think, instilling false consciousness, and avoid the necessity for physical oppression.
Althusser’s criticisms of humanism
For structuralist Marxists, our sense of free will, choice and creativity is an illusion. The truth is that everything about us is the product of underlying social structures. Society is a puppet theatre, and we are merely puppets – the unseen structure of society is the puppet master determining all of our thoughts and actions.
Thus according to Althusser, socialism will not come about because of a change in consciousness: Gramsci’s theory that organic intellectuals will spring up, develop an intellectual critique, and figure out creative ways of bringing about communism is a myth, because all of our ideas are determined by the Capitalist structure, which ultimately won’t allow any ideas to emerge that seriously threaten its existence.
Instead, socialism will come about because of a crisis of capitalism resulting in a collapse of the entire system – structural, systemic collapse needs to come about first, and only then can something new be built. Or in Althusser’s own words…
For Humanistic Marxists the problem with Althusser is that it discourages political activism because the theory suggests there is little individuals can do to change society.
The theory also ignores the fact that the active struggles of the working classes have changed society for the better in many countries
Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book
Gramsci (1891-1937) was the first leader of the Italian Communist Party during the 20s. He introduced the concept of hegemony or ideological and moral leadership of society, to explain how the ruling class maintains its position and argued that the proletariat must develop its own ‘counter-hegemony’ (or alternative set of ideas) to win leadership of society from the bourgeoisie.
Gramsci rejected economic determinism as an explanation of social change: the transition from capitalism to communism will never come about simply as a result of economic forces. Even though factors such as mass unemployment and falling wages may create the preconditions for revolution, ideas play a central role in determining whether or not change will actually occur.
This can be seen in Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. Gramsci saw the ruling class maintaining its power over society in two ways –
Coercion – it uses the army, police, prison and courts to force other classes to accept its rule
Consent (hegemony) – it uses ideas and values to persuade the subordinate classes that its rule is legitimate
Hegemony and Revolution
In advanced Capitalist societies, the ruling class rely heavily on consent to maintain their rule. Gramsci agrees with Marx that they are able to maintain consent because they control institutions such as religion, the media and the education system. However, according to Gramsci, the hegemony of the ruling class is never complete, for two reasons:
The ruling class are a minority – and as such they need to make ideological compromises with the middle classes in order to maintain power
The proletariat have dual consciousness. Their ideas are influenced not only by bourgeois ideology but also by the material conditions of their life – in short, they are aware of their exploitation and are capable or seeing through the dominant ideology.
Therefore, there is always the possibility of the ruling-class being undermined, especially in times of economic crises when the poverty of the working classes increases.
However, this will only lead to revolution if the proletariat are able to construct a counter-hegemonic bloc, in other words they must be able to offer moral and ideological leadership to society.
According to Gramsci, the working classes can only win this battle for ideas by producing their own ‘organic intellectuals’ – by forming a body of workers who are class conscious and are able to project a credible, alternative vision of what society would look like under communism.
Evaluation of Gramsci
It is true that many members of the working classes see through bourgeois ideology, for example the lads in Paul Willis’ study realised that education was not fair.
Gramsci has been criticised for under-emphasising the role of coercive political and economic forces in holding back the formation of a counter-hegemonic bloc – for example workers may be unable to form revolutionary vanguards because of the threat of state-violence.
Sources: Adapted from Robb Webb et Al’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book
Criticisms of Parson’s systems theory have come from both outside and inside Functionalist. Within Functionalism, the most significant criticisms come from Robert K. Merton (1968). He criticises three key assumptions of Parsons.
Indispensability – Parsons assumes that everything in society – the family, religion and so on – is functionally indispensable in its existing form. Merton argues this is an untested assumption and he points to the possibility of functional alternatives. For example, Parsons assumes that primary socialisation is best performed by the nuclear family, but one-parent families or multi-generational families may do this just as well.
Functional unity – Parsons assumes that all parts of society are tightly integrated into a single whole or ‘unity’ and that each part is functional for all the rest. Similarly, he argues that if one part changes, it will have a knock on effect for the others. However, Merton argues that some parts of society may be relatively independent from others – maybe society wouldn’t collapse if the nuclear family disappeared altogether.
Universal functionalism – Parsons seems to assume that everything in society performs positive functions for society as a whole. However, Merton argues that some aspects of society may be dysfunctional for certain groups, which relates to Conflict perspectives.
Manifest and Latent Functions.
Merton also contributes a useful distinction between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. He cites the example of the Hopi Indians who, in times of drought, perform a rain-dance with the aim of magically producing rain. This is its manifest, or intended function. From a scientific viewpoint, however, this goal is unlikely to be achieved.
However, the ritual may also have an unintended or latent function – such as promoting a sense of solidarity in times of hardship, when individuals may be tempted to look after themselves at the expense of others. Merton’s distinction is here useful for helping us to identify functions which members themselves might not be aware of.
Source: Adapted from Robb Webb’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book.
A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – chapter two – in which he focuses on the psychological aspects of identity
Chapter 2 – The Self – Ontological Security and Existential Anxiety.
An account of self-identity should be based on a stratified model of the psychological make-up of the individual.
(Following Wittgenstein) to be human is to know what one is doing. Reflexive awareness is characteristic of all human action, and most people when asked can give a discursive account of why they are doing what they are doing.
The social conventions which are produced and reproduced through social interaction are reflexively monitored by individuals. However, much of what allows us to ‘go on’ with our daily lives is carried on at the level of practical consciousness – this is non-conscious, bound up with the taken-for-granted routines of daily life. We do not ‘keep in mind’ most of what we do most of the time, we just act in ways because they are conventional, we do not question many of our social conventions.
Ontological Security and Trust
Following Garfinkel, we interact in accordance with a number of conventions which essentially bracket out existential questions and allow us to ‘go on’ – we bracket out questions about the nature of time, space, continuity, identity and the self, which are fragile constructs, because if we were to subject the premises of our day to day assumptions about our attitudes to such things to philosophical enquiry, we would find that such ideas lack stable foundation.
Practical consciousness, with its day to day routines, help bracket out existential questions so that we are freed from a level of anxiety and so that we may ‘go on’ with life. We need to invest a level of trust in these routines so that we may be free from anxiety and are actually capable of living in the world. Trust involves both an emotional as well as a cognitive commitment to certain forms of practical consciousness.
Following Kierkegaard – dread and anxiety are a fundamental part of the human condition, and we need to develop a sense of trust in something in order to ‘go on’. Developing trust in routines is fundamentally tied up with the interpersonal organisation of time and space.
Giddens now switches to the development of personality in infants – he seems to be arguing that infants need to develop a ‘protective cocoon’ which is basically a bracketing out of all the things that could harm the security of the individual, which is provided by the caregiver in the early stages of life – in this sense the protective cocoon is an unreality. As well as needing the security of the protective cocoon, infants also need to be creative enough to develop an independent sense of self, a sense of space between themselves and caregiver.
Anxiety and Social Organisation
Acquiring routines and learning how to act are constitutive of an emotional acceptance of the reality of the external world, and are a pre-requisite of developing self-identity. We all develop routines for the sake of our ontological security.
Anxiety has to be understood in relation to the overall security system the individual develops. Its roots lie in the separation of the infant from the caregiver. Anxiety is a natural part of life and much of what we do can be seen as developing coping mechanisms to overcome anxiety – such as civil indifference in public spaces, and the various rituals associated with day to day life in public spaces.
To be ontologically secure is to possess, on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions.
Anxiety stems from human liberty. Freedom is not a given characteristic of the human individual, but derives from the acquisition of of an ontological understanding of external reality and personal identity. The autonomy which human beings acquire derives from their capacity to be familiar with events outside of their immediate settings – anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is ‘the possibility of freedom’.
There are four existential questions which the individual must answer (not cognitively, but through being in the world, at the level of practical consciousness and the unconscious). These are questions to do with:
Existence and being
Finitude and human life
The experience of others
the continuity of self-identity.
It is the later which I’ll go into here:
What exactly is self-identity? It is not something that is just given, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual…. Self-Identity is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography.
It is easiest to analyse SI by looking at cases where an individual’s identity has been fractured (following Laing) – where individuals either lack a consistent feeling of biographical continuity, or are paralysed in terms of practical action because of an external environment full of changes (experiencing an inner deadness) or feel a lack of trust in their own self integrity.
A normal sense of self-identity has all three of the above – a sense of biographical continuity, a protective cocoon of practical consciousness which ‘filters out’ several options of how to be in the world and finally there is sufficient self-regard to sustain a sense of the self as ‘alive’ –a feeling of being in control of things in the object-world, at least to a certain extent.
Self-identity is reliant upon the capacity to keep a particular narrative going, and presupposes the other elements of ontological security. Self-Identity is both fragile and robust and the form and content of keeping a narrative going differs enormously in late modern society.
Body and Self
The self is embodied, and in contemporary society the body is of particular importance in keeping a self-narrative going – such that we have developed regimes of control, most notably diets.
Shame is anxiety about the integrity of the narrative through which one sustains a coherent biography. Shame (or rather its avoidance) takes over from guilt as the primary ‘motivator’ in late-modern society – Shame is to do with integrity of the self, guilt is to do with wrong doing.
Shame derives when we cannot live up to the vision of the ideal self – when we fail to achieve our goals, but also when trust is violated and we have to go back to those fundamental questions such as ‘where do I belong’ or ‘who am I’?
Pride (of which narcissism is the extreme expression) is the opposite of shame, and derives when we have a lack of worthwhile ideals to pursue.
‘Post-modernity’ refers to the view that the institutions and ways of living characteristic of modernity have been replaced by new institutional features to such a profound extent that it is no longer plausible to look at the 21st century as a continuation of modernity.
Postmodernism is a term that refers to new ways of thinking about thought – to new ways of understanding ideas, beliefs and knowledge, rather than to new ways of living and organising social affairs.
From Modernity to Post-modernity?
There are many social problems which Marx, Weber and Durkheim did not address, but need addressing today – such as the environmental crisis, and the risks surrounding new scientific and technological advances.
Social Life in the Twenty-First Century
What have been the dramatic changes which have led some to talk of contemporary life as a time of post-modernity?
Globalisation is one of the most fundamental changes which according to Jones has five key characteristics
The rise of global capitalism
The declining power of the nation state
Population growth and urbanisation
The globalisation of markets and marketing
The rise of the network (information) society.
Identity in post-modernity
Postmodern analysis of social life tend to focus on issues of identity. In the past, work was one of the most important aspects of an individual’s identity – people tended to see themselves as what they did for a living – and two key features of modernity in terms of identity were class membership and trades union membership.
For may post-modernists, one of the central features of post-modernity is they way work and production have given way to consumption as the lynch pin of social cohesion and as the source of individual identity.
This is linked to the fact that jobs have become less stable, the idea of a job for life has disappeared, and thus work no longer provides an ‘identity’ we can just slip into.
As a result, we need to be more creative in the way we construct ourselves, and we do this through the consumption of consumer goods, to the extent that consumption has become the central feature of our existence and the main means of expressing who we are.
This has two major consequences – Firstly, it produces a new form of stratification – based on people’s ability to consume – those able to consume have the choice of a huge range of lifestyles, but those unable become disenfranchised – Bauman calls these flawed consumers, and they end up with outsider status. Secondly, post-modern life brings new uncertainties and insecurities – the individual has to ‘keep on consuming’ in order to ‘go on’ in post-modern society – to keep up with new products – to keep discarding the old and purchasing the new.
From Modernism to Post-Modernism?
Postmodern thinking applies to all sorts of human activity – to production, art and literature – and the focus is on pluralism, and on competing accounts of the nature of virtue, style, and truth (relatively in other words!). It is also on the transience and impermanence of definitions.
Postmodernism thus represents a reaction to the Enlightenment-sponsored modern search for THE truth, ultimate meaning and nature of reality.
In Postmodernism, because of the transient nature of truth, fashion and trend are just as important.
In postmodernism, the cultural dominance of the mass media are also emphasised – because the media constitutes most of what we know, and because there are so many images and sources of knowledge which we are exposed to, our sense of reality is impermanent – what we know is only here temporarily, until it is replaced with the next transient story.
According to postmodernism the social construction of knowledge works in the same way as the fashion industry promoting a new line of clothing – there is no objective or inherent beauty which makes one item of clothing better than any other – it is merely a matter of what the trend setters judge to be beautiful – which in turn is influenced by how much money/ power is expended through advertising – the same is true of knowledge – one set of ideas is not more correct than any other set – they just seem more accurate because more power is being excercised to promote one set rather than the other.
Modernism versus Postmodernism
For Modernist thinkers we can only be free if we live as we should, for post modernist thinkers we can only be free when nobody else tells us how to live.
Modernist thinkers believe that their analysis of existence – their metanarrative – is the correct one – thus they tend to be truth merchants – there are both religious versions of this, and secular versions – e.g. Marxism.
The postmodern critique of the above is that what ‘truth merchant’s do in the name of truth has too often resulted in oppression or death of those who do not agree with them.
A better solution than looking for the truth according to postmodernists is to accept that there is no ultimate truth and allowing other people the freedom to be different, to be tolerated even thought they are ‘other’.
A final reason why we can never get to the ‘truth’ is because postmodernists believe we cannot step outside the culture which made us – humans can every know via languages and discourse, and these can never be ‘true or false’ – think of the idea of a ‘true language’ – it doesn’t make sense!
This was a brief summary of one chapter of Pip Jones’s ‘Introducing Social Theory’
Critical Responses to Post-Modernity (A summary of the next chapter of Pip Jone’s Book)
Below is an extended summary adapted from Bauman and May’s (2001) work ‘Thinking Sociologically’ which to my mind remains one of the best introductions to Sociology there is!
What is Sociology?
Sociology is a disciplined practice with its own set of questions for approaching the study of society and social relations. It is important for understanding ourselves, each other, and the social environments in which we live.
In search of Distinction
As well as being disciplined set of practices, it also represents a considerable body of knowledge that has been accumulated over the course of history…. it is a site of constant flux with newcomers adding new ideas and studies.
Sociology has the following similarities with ‘cognate’ disciplines such as anthropology, psychology and history –
They aim to collect relevant facts and to check them for validity and reliability
They aim to present information in a clear and unambiguous way
They aim to make clear propositions which are free of contradictions and stand up against the evidence.
‘Sociology is distinguished from other disciplines through viewing human actions as elements of wider figurations: that is, of a non-random assembly of actors locked together in a web of mutual dependency.
Individual actors come into view of sociological study in terms of being members or partners in a network of interdependency. The central questions of Sociology concern how the types of social relations and societies that we inhabit relate to how we see each other, ourselves and our knowledge, actions and their consequences.
Thinking Sociologically also opens up the possibility for thinking about the same world in different ways.
Sociology and Common Sense
Thinking Sociologically is also distinguished by its relationship with so called ‘common sense’. This is because the objects of study of Sociology ( the family, education, media, and so on) are tightly bound up with our ordinary day-to-day routines, and thus everybody already has common sense understandings of these things.
However, in common-sense understanding, we tend to only see these things in terms of our own individual, private, experiences, we rarely pause and ask questions about the social-settings in which we live our lives. ‘Sociological thinking asks us to ‘step back’ and to ask ‘how do our individual biographies intertwine with the history we share with other human beings’.
It is important to draw a boundary between common sense and sociology, and Bauman and May see four ways this can be achieved:
Sociology, unlike common sense, subjects itself to ‘rigorous rules of responsible speech’ – Sociology tries to confine itself to statements that can be baked up by reliable, valid and representative evidence which others can verify, rather than making untested propositions.
Sociology aims to ‘broaden horizons’ and to examine individual biographies in the context of wider social processes. In this sense Sociology encourages people to lift themselves above the level of their daily concerns and see what we share in common with others, and what these commonalities have to do with our particular historical social context.
Sociology is not about understanding things from the individual’s perspective – it stands against the view that someone’s biography is purely down to their own motives, efforts and intentional action. Thinking Sociologically is to make sense of the world through looking at the manifold webs of human dependency.
Sociology involves examining ordinary life in a more fully conscious way – and going through a process of defamiliarisation – looking at society in new ways and realising that ‘this is not the only way we could do things’ – this will not be to everyone’s liking, especially those who benefit from existing social relations.
It involves constantly examining the knowledge we have of selves and others – this is an ongoing process. If we open ourselves up to this processes then it should have the following benefits –
It should make us more tolerant of diversity
It should render flexible that which may have been oppressive
It should make individuals more effective agents of social change – realising that society does act as a restraining force in many ways should enable the individual to direct their efforts more effectively at making changes. (A nice quote here – ‘Sociology stands in praise of the individual, but not individualism’)
It should enhance social solidarity – as it makes us realise that many of our private troubles are shared by several (possibly billions) of other people.
Action, Identity and Understanding in Everyday Life
‘Possessing feelings of being free and unfree at the same time is one of the most confusing issues that gives rise to feelings of ambivalence and frustration, as well as creativity and innovation.
You could now choose to carry on reading this, or abandon it and do something else. The ability to make conscious decisions is an exercise of your freedom.
Choice, Freedom and Living with Others
Our choices are not, of course, always the product of conscious decisions, many are habitual.
We are often told that we are responsible for our decisions and their outcomes – the way Unemployment is talked about is a good example of this – the discourse surrounding unemployment is very much one of ‘if you try hard enough you can get a job’. However, if one lives in an area of high unemployment and cannot afford to move, this is simply not the case.
There is thus a difference between one’s ability to reskill and look for a job and the actual capability of making one’s desires manifest in reality (actually getting a job). We are limited by the following things (sticking to the unemployment example):
Scarcity – there may be a lack of jobs available
Material constraints – we may lack the money to be able to broaden the area in which we search for work.
Cultural Constraints – we may live in a sexist/ racist/ classist/ homophobic area – and thus not be able to get a job because of prejudiced views held by employers
Our accumulated experiences as part of a particular group – our own norms and values may limit the range of possibilities open to us – we may not feel comfortable interacting with people who we perceive are very different to us.
How we act and see ourselves is informed by the expectations of the groups to which we belong – we are born into various groups (e.g. class/ gender/ ethnicity) and we have no choice over this – these groups give us a set of norms and values which both give us skills which can use to be creative (and express our freedom) but they also constrain us in certain ways.
First – there are ideas about what goals are worth pursuing
Second – there is the matter of how we should pursue these goals
Third – we are expected to identify with certain people and against others – those who might assist and prevent us from meeting expectations one and two.
Being part of a group assumes a huge amount of unconscious knowledge – a ”natural attitude” to do with the minutiae of every day life – from how we dress, to how we speak and our more general value-set. We learn this ‘natural attitude’ through growing up with others, and we generally don’t question the norms and values that we are socialised into, as revealed by the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel.
Oneself with Another: Sociological Perspectives
For Mead ‘who’ we are is not something we are born with, but something we acquire through time, through interaction with others. In order to understand how this occurs, Mead divided our sense of self into two parts – the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ – the ‘I’ is best thought of as a conversation that takes place within ourselves where we use language to think of ourselves as a whole, the ‘Me’ on the other hand refers to how we organise the expectations of groups within our actions.
To my mind this is better understood as follows:
The ‘I’ – is the internal dialogue you have with yourself about who you are. ‘I’ is your stream of consciousness’
The ‘Me’ is the various ‘social selves’ or ‘roles’ you need to play in day to life and the norms and values you have to make that self conform to. ‘Me’ is the self as others see you.
Our reflexive character is built up by treating ourselves as objects of our own actions as they are understood through the responses of others.
Following Paul Ricoeur, in the course of the acquisition of self-identity we ask questions of ourselves and the first reflexive question of selfhood is ‘who am I’? Here we first experience the contradiction between our inner desires and what we feel obliged to do because of the presence of significant others and their expectations of us.
Freud suggested that the whole process of self-development and the social organisation of human groups may be interpreted in the light of the need and the practical effort to tame sexual and aggressive instincts – but these instincts are never tamed, rather they are ‘repressed’.
The question of exactly how society tames individual instincts and balances these with obligations has been further theorised by the likes of Nancy Chodorow and Norbert Elias.
Socialisation, Significance and Action
The process of how our selves are formed and how instincts may or may not be suppressed is often given the name socialisation.
This is a complex process which involves assigning differential significance to expectations, and goes on from childhood through to adult life.
Making a selection from our environments means choosing reference groups against which we can measure or actions and find the standards to which we aspire.
We may, of course, aspire to be like groups apart from the ones we are born into, increasingly likely in the age of the mass media, where we are exposed to a range of potential groups which we might aspire to, but not actually be part of.
Socialisation is a never ending process which involves a constant rebalancing of freedoms and dependencies.
Neoliberalism is a pro-capitalist economic theory which believes that the ‘free market’ in capitalist economies is the best basis for organising society. Free market economies are based upon the choices individuals make when spending their money. The general principle is that if you ‘leave everything to the market’, then businesses will provide what people demand – because businesses want to make a profit and they can’t make a profit if they don’t provide what people want.
Market forces also encourage competition – when people see high demand for a product, they are encouraged to produce and sell that product – and the better product they can make and the cheaper they can sell it for, then the more profit they make.
According to Neoliberalism – the advantages of a free-market system are as follows:
Individual Freedom – They are based on the principle of allowing individuals to be free to pursue their own self-interest – this is seen as the best way to pursue the maximum good in society.
They are efficient – businesses try to be efficient in order to maximise profit.
Innovation – Competition and the profit motive encourage people to produce new products to stimulate demand – we probably wouldn’t have had the iPad without Capitalism!
Economic Growth and jobs – The end result of leaving businesses free to do do business is more wealth and more jobs.
Neoliberalism and Social Policy
Neoliberals believe that governments should play a reduced role in managing the economy and in controlling people’s lives. In Neoliberal thought, the free market knows best, and individuals should be allowed as much freedom as possible to go about their businesses should be allowed more freedom to compete with each other in order to make profit.
Deregulation – Removing restrictions on businesses and employers involved in world trade – In practice this means reducing tax on Corporate Profits, or reducing the amount of ‘red tape’ or formal rules by which companies have to abide – for example reducing health and safety regulations.
Fewer protections for workers and the environment – For the former this means doing things like scrapping minimum wages, permanent contracts. This also means allowing companies the freedom to increasingly hire ‘flexible workers’ on short-term contracts.
Privatisation – selling to private companies industries that had been owned and run by the state
Cutting taxes – so the state plays less of a role in providing welfare – social security, education and health for example.
IMPORTANTLY – In most neoliberal theory, the state does have a minimal role to play – it needs to protect private property – given that profit is the main motive, the system won’t work if anyone can steal or vandalise anyone else’s property – and so the state needs to maintain control of law and order.
The New Right
The New Right is a political philosophy associated with the Conservative Government (1979-1997 and 2010 to the present day). The New Right adopted and put into practice many of the ideas of Neoliberalism, but there are some differences (indicated below).
There are Five Key Ideas associated with New Right thinking:
The introduction of free market principles into many areas of life (Like Neoliberalism) – The best example of this is the Marketisation of Education, and we also see it with academies.
Reduced Spending by the State (Like Neoliberalism) – The 1979 Conservative government cut taxes on the highest income earners and the current conservative government is cutting public services massively.
An emphasis on individual freedom and responsibility (Like Neoliberalism) – The New Right have cut welfare spending enormously – believing that welfare breeds dependency. Similarly, tax breaks for the rich are seen as promoting self-interest.
A strong state in terms of upholding law and order – we see this in ‘Right Realist’ ideas of crime control – with Zero Tolerance Policing and increasing use of Prison as a form of punishment – this links with the above idea of holding people responsible for their own actions (rather than blaming their backgrounds like other perspectives might).
A stress on the importance of traditional institutions and values(unlike neoliberalism). The New Right believe in maintaining some traditions, as they see this as the basis for social order and stability – they strongly support the traditional nuclear family as the backbone of society for example, and still support the idea of a National Curriculum, set by the government, which sets the agenda in education.
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.
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
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!
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