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  1. 1. AQA AS/A SOCIOLOGYESSAY: CRITICALLY EXAMINE MARXIST PERSPECTIVES ON TODAY’S SOCIETY Classical Marxism is a conflict structural theory which argues that, rather than societybeing based on value consensus as functionalists would contend, there is a conflict of interestbetween different groups (social classes) because of the unequal distribution of power andwealth. Marxists are also interested in the way in which social change can occur, particularlyin sudden and revolutionary ways. However, there are differences between Marxistsespecially over the way which social change can come about. For example, humanisticMarxists like Gramsci give a greater role to the conscious decisions and actions of humanbeings than do structural Marxists like Althusser, for whom social change comes as theproduct of changes within the structures of society. One of the key ideas of Marx was historical materialism. Materialism is the view thathuman beings have material needs such as food, clothing and shelter, and must thereforework to meet them. In so doing, they use the forces or means of production. In the earlieststages of human history, these forces were just unaided human labour, but over time peopledevelop tools, machines and so on to assist in production i.e. there are innovations intechnology. In working to meet their needs, humans also cooperate with one another: theyenter into social relations of production – ways of organising production. Over time, as theforces of production grow and develop, so do the social relations of production change. Inparticular, a division of labour develops, and this eventually gives rise to a division betweentwo social classes: a ruling class that owns the means of production and a subject class oflabourers. From then on, production is directed by the ruling class to meet their own needs. Marx argued that in any class-based society – be it ancient, feudal or capitalist – onegroup gained at the expense of the other. According to Marx, capitalist society – such as theone we live in – is based on the division between two main classes – the Bourgeoisie (rulingclass) and the Proletariat (subject class). The ruling class (or capitalist class) own and controlthe means of production, whereas the subject class (or wage-labourers) own nothing but theircapacity to produce goods and services. These wage-labourers (sometimes crudely referred toas working class) are employed by the ruling class in return for a wage in order to producegoods and services that the ruling class can make a profit from. It works like this: theworking class produce more than they themselves need for subsistence. The excess or surplusis appropriated (taken away) by the ruling class through the process of exploitation. Basically,the workers are paid less than the true value of the good that they produce. The surplus valuecreated – which is the source of profit – is put to the capitalists’ own use. Following on from this, capitalism continually expands the forces of production in itspursuit of increasing profit. Production becomes concentrated in ever-larger units (e.g.factories with specialised machinery). Such technological advances de-skill the workforce.Together with increasing concentration of ownership, class polarisation is the result i.e.society divides into a minority capitalist class and a majority working class. Marx argues thatunder capitalism, workers experience alienation because they have no control and theincreasing division of labour means that work becomes a futile, meaningless activity. 1
  2. 2. The principal reason workers are unaware of the true nature of their situation is due tofalse-class consciousness which is explained through ideology – a set of values and beliefsthat justify (legitimise) the existing social order as inevitable, entirely acceptable and indeed,even desirable. This is because the capitalist mode of production which forms the economicbase of society shapes or determines all other features of society – the superstructure ofinstitutions, ideas, beliefs and behaviour that arise from this base. For example, it shapes thenature of religion, law, education, the state and so on. According to Marx, capitalism sows the seeds of its own destruction. For example, bypolarising the classes, bringing the proletariat together in ever-increasing numbers, anddriving down their wages, capitalism creates the conditions under which the working classcan develop a consciousness (or awareness) of its own economic and political interests inopposition to those of its exploiters. As a result, the proletariat moves from merely being aclass-in-itself (whose members share the same economic position) to becoming a class-for-itself, whose members are class conscious – aware of the need to overthrow capitalism. Themeans of production would then be put in the hands of the state and run in the interests ofeveryone, not just of the bourgeoisie. A new type of society – socialism developing intocommunism – would be created, which would be without exploitation, without classes andwithout class conflict. Marx’s work has been subjected to a number of criticisms. First, Marx’s predictionshave not come true. Far from society becoming polarised and the working class becomingpoorer, almost everyone in western societies enjoys a far higher standard of living than everbefore. The collapse of so-called ‘communist’ regimes like the former Soviet Union, andgrowing private ownership and capitalist growth in China, cast some doubt on the viability ofthe practical implementation of Marx’s ideas. Furthermore, conflict seems over-emphasisedand there has not been any revolution in western societies. Second, Marx’s two-class model of inequality is inadequate. A new middle class hasemerged, consisting of managerial, professional and clerical workers, which falls between thebourgeoisie and the proletariat; Marx’s theory cannot account for all the differences in power,rewards, consciousness and status within the mass of the population who are not capitalists,such as between manual and non-manual workers. In defence, Giddens argues that the two-class model should be viewed more as a theoretical construct around which to build ananalysis of society. Nevertheless, the focus on social class obscures other sources ofinequality such as those based on gender and ethnicity. Classical Marxism has been further criticised as being too deterministic. First, toomuch importance is given to the economy in the economic base-superstructure distinction.Second, it sees individuals as simply passive products of the social system, which socialisesthem into conformity and controls their behaviour. It does not allow for individual choice associal action theorists do. From a postmodern perspective, Marxism - as a grand theory or metanarrative – is nolonger relevant for explaining contemporary societies, where social life is essentially chaotic,values are diverse, social structures have become increasingly fragmented; indeed, rather thanclass being the main social division, more differences arise around individual choices inconsumption patterns and lifestyle. Furthermore, postmodernists contend that the economy is 2
  3. 3. not the key factor influencing people’s ideas; instead, in what is regarded as a media-saturated society, it is the mass media that forms and dominates people’s consciousness andview of the world. Despite these criticisms, Marx’s theory has been hugely influential, not least in itsimpact on sociological theory in general, such as the work of Weber and of Marxist feminists.Class still remains one of the most important influences on people’s lives – whether they areaware of it or not – in terms of educational success, being a victim of crime, life expectancyand so on. Its focus on private ownership of the means of production provides an explanationfor the extreme social inequalities in wealth, income and power that persist in contemporarysocieties, and for the conflicts and upheavals that periodically surface, many of which arerooted in social class inequalities. In order to counteract some of these criticisms, more recent (neo-) Marxists havefurther developed and modified the ideas of classical Marxism. They tend to reject theeconomic determinism of the base-superstructure model and have tried to explain whycapitalism has persisted and how it might be overthrown. More recent Marxists can bedivided into two broad camps: humanistic or critical Marxism and scientific or structuralMarxism. The most important example of humanistic Marxism is Gramsci who introduced theconcept of hegemony – the ideological or moral leadership of society – to explain how theruling class maintains its position. By hegemony, he was referring to the dominance insociety of the ruling class’s set of ideas over others, and acceptance of and consent to them bythe rest of society. He saw this control of people’s minds (exercising control by changing theway people think) as one of the main reasons why the working class had never rebelledagainst the working class (as well as being coerced into acceptance of capitalist class rule bythe police, armed forces and law courts). He argued that the proletariat must develop its own‘counter-hegemony’ to win the leadership of society from the bourgeoisie. This counter-hegemony would win ideological leadership from the ruling class by offering a new vision ofhow society should be organised, based on socialist rather than capitalist ideas. In a significant departure from classical Marxism, Gramsci argues that ideology has arelative autonomy from the economic base. This is the idea that the superstructure of societyhas a degree of independence from the economy rather than being directly determined by it.The concept of relative autonomy recognises that people’s ideas and institutions in thesuperstructure can impact on the economy, and not simply the other way around. In this way, Gramsci was leaning more towards a social action approach to societysometimes called voluntarism where humans have free will; they are active agents who maketheir own history. Their consciousness and ideas are central in changing the world. Incontrast, structural Marxists emphasise determinism: structural factors determine the courseof history. Individuals are passive puppets – victims of ideology manipulated by forcesbeyond their control. Gramsci argues that socialism will come about when people becomeconscious of the need to overthrow capitalism, whereas structural Marxists like Althusserargue that socialism will come about only when the contradictions of capitalism ultimatelybring about its inevitable collapse. 3
  4. 4. Gramsci has been criticised for over-emphasising the role of ideas and under-emphasising the role of both state coercion and economic factors. Some workers may wantchange but fear unemployment, while others may tolerate capitalism because they feel theyhave no choice rather than blind acceptance. However, some sociologists like Willis, whowork within a Marxist framework, have adopted similar ideas to Gramsci in stressing the roleof ideas and consciousness as the basis for resisting domination. The ‘lads’ in Learning toLabour could see through the school’s ideology to recognise that meritocracy was a myth forthem. From Althusser’s point of view, though, we are merely products of social structuresthat determine everything about us, preparing us to fit into pre-existing positions in thestructure of capitalism. The task of the sociologist, therefore, is to reveal the differencebetween appearance and reality. Althusser, while rejecting economic determinism and humanism, did acknowledgethat the wider structures of society (political and ideological levels) are more complex than asimple dichotomy between the base and superstructure, and may have partial independence orrelative autonomy from the economic level. However, the political and ideological levels arenot a mere reflection of the economic level, and they can even affect what happens to theeconomy. Although the economic level dominates in capitalist society, the political andideological levels perform essential functions. For example, if capitalism is to continue,future workers must be socialised, workers who rebel must be punished and so on. To explain this, Althusser makes a distinction between repressive state apparatuses(RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs): RSAs like the police and armed forcescoerce the working class into compliance, whereas ISAs like education, the media andreligion, ideologically manipulate the working class into accepting capitalism as legitimate.This is similar to Gramsci’s distinction between coercion (the RSAs) and hegemony (theISAs) as different ways of securing the consent of the bourgeoisie. The most notable criticisms of Althusser came from humanist Marxists, for whomnotions of conscious activity were central. However, probably the most direct attack hascome from Thompson who argued that what was central to Marxism was the notion thatpeople are active. In The Making of the English Working Class, he argued that people haveorganised to fight domination and repression and are not just sops to the system. However,Thompson has been criticised himself for underplaying the structural realities within whichsuch lives are lived. In conclusion, Marx’s classic theory is seen as too economically deterministic and toosimplistic in its emphasis on two opposing classes, with gender and ethnic inequalitiesignored. Althusser offers a perhaps more sophisticated conception of social structure, but isaccused of underestimating the intelligence of the working class. In spite of an over-emphasison culture, Gramsci’s ideas continue to be utilised within Marxist circles because they areseen as an effective attempt to come to terms with the ideological and cultural aspects ofcapitalist domination. However, some classical Marxists would argue that Marx himself didrecognise the importance of ideas and meanings, with his discussions of class-consciousness. 4