Karl Heinrich Marx, better known as Karl Marx, was one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Together with Friedrich Engels, he published The Communist Manifesto in 1848 which became the most well-known pamphlet for the socialist movement. He is also the author of Das Kapital, or Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, regarded as the founding text of political economy and materialist philosophy which also formed the basis of Marxism. In his works, Marx propagated the vision of a classless, egalitarian society which was far from the historical reality in his era, and seemingly even further in the 21st century. Thus, it is only appropriate to question if his ideas are still relevant today.
In Marx’s view, a society is divided into different social classes based on their relationship with means of economic production (Bottomore, 2006). Owners of means of production, like land, machinery or capital, are the industrial bourgeoisie who exploit the labour of the proletariats by appropriating the profits from the ‘surplus value’ they created while keeping their wage minimal (Giddens, 2014). Specialisation fragments the production process and narrows down the workers’ skillset, resulting in the ‘alienation from the self’ (Tucker et al., 1978), depriving labourers of the human experience of creation and innovation. Social interactions are structured around economic incentives — the production relations of different classes, regulated based on the capitalist ‘superstructure', cultivating the cultural and social norms that support production. Social conflict arises when workers start to gain a ‘class consciousness’, an understanding that they should not be competing against each other but struggling against the exploitation of the capitalists (Giddens & Held, 1982). Ultimately, Marxist theory of historical materialism dictates that the ‘changes in the modes of production and exchange’ are the driving forces of change throughout human history, and Marx predicted the implosion of capitalism through a proletariat revolution to end their subjugation.
However, more than a century has passed since the publication of Marx's Capital. After the fall of the Soviet Union as the first communist state, and the survival of capitalist economies in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, the proletariat victory seems nowhere in sight. Groundbreaking changes to economic structures within national borders and across the globe bring into question the defining characteristic of class relations, the definition of capital, and whether its distribution in the material form is still the primary source of conflict and basis for social stratification.
First of all, scholars like Michael Burawoy have challenged the unidirectional social interaction characterized by the mechanism of exploitation, and alienation of workers by the owners of factors of production. In Manufacturing of Consent (2010), Burawoy used the analogy of games to illustrate the hegemonic nature of the class relationship, where the dominant class enshrines their interest-driven ideologies in the rules of the game, setting rewards and sanctions to create the appropriate amount of challenge. Workers tacitly consent to the rules by merely playing along and deriving relative satisfaction from temporary rests and distractions from boredom. Instead of a hierarchical class conflict between the exploited and the exploiter, capitalists cunningly encourage lateral competition between workers themselves as they try to outperform each other and gain access to the illusional reward system of bonuses, promotions, or the prestige and respect based on the exploitative conceptions of hard work and social worth. Such games therefore boost productivity, suppress wages, and add a collaborative dimension to relations of production between the employer and the worker. The class stratification therefore persists because it ‘not only becomes the object of consent but is taken as given and immutable’ as workers follow the rules of the game, demand a ‘fair play’ from their counterparts, and even develop a sense of allegiance to firms as they feel protected by the barrier of entrance to the ‘internal labour market’ (Burawoy, 2010).
Burawoy’s theory sheds light on the role of ideology in the social reproduction. This is corroborated by Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, who postulates that power arises from the domination of sociocultural norms in a cultural hegemony established by the ruling class (Adamson, 2014). Values and beliefs of the ruling class are normalised and diffused through social institutions like schools, courts, and especially, media. Individuals are initiated into a constructed world view that reproduces social structures and reinforces the legitimacy and authority of those in power. Here, Gramsci further developed Marx's idea of the dichotomy of an economic base and a political superstructure, but his argument emphasised more clearly on the circular relationship between the relations of production and ideological dominance. This offers an insight to the way neocolonialists employ humanitarian or developmental rhetorics to justify economic and military intervention.
Moreover, according to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, instead of looking at the social structure as a reflection of how economic capital is distributed among different strata of society, the two other forms of capital namely, cultural and social capital, are also increasingly relevant to class stratification (Bourdieu et al., 2021). Cultural capital can be hereditary and embodied in one’s ‘habitus’ — the totality of internalised social norms that guide one’s behaviour and rule of conduct in different social settings, or objectified through symbolic consumption or material production. It is also increasingly institutionalised through academic qualifications, which can be converted back to economic capital through employment. Meanwhile, social capital is the collectivisation of capital shared by those in the same network of effective social relationships, which is maintained and regulated through social institutions like marriage. Bourdieu believed that the control and sanction on the transmission of economic capital, like inheritance tax, has incentivised the conversion to and reproduction of a more ‘clandestine circulation of capital’ in the form of cultural and social capital which are becoming more instrumental ‘in the reproduction of the social structure’ (Bourdieu et al., 2021). This can be seen in the rising income premium on college degrees and the phenomenon of crony capitalism, where entrepreneurs and politicians collude to amass assets. Therefore, the class fault lines are gradually branching out, or even shifting away, from the division of factors of production across different groups in the society.
It is arguable that social classification and stratification nowadays have more to do with identity instead of ideology or capital. This resonates with German sociologist Max Weber’s idea of class based on wealth, status, and power (1946). The way one interacts with another is informed and guided by symbols and signals that are conveyed across, like one’s accents, choice of words, fashion choices, social credentials like education degrees. One constantly aligns oneself with the norms pertaining the racial, gender, and political groups that one identifies with and wishes to be identified as, even though the distinctions between the normal and the abnormal in each category is in constant flux. Class, in this case, is not only about the submission of the self to a wider social structure dictated by mode of production or capital distribution, rather it involves the redefinition of the self against the backdrop of a homogenising force in global exchange.
Despite its historical significance, Marx’s materialist theory of social stratification does not acknowledge interclass cooperation, the ideological indoctrination of the powerless by the powerful, the diversification of forms of capital, and the stratification based on individual identity. Nevertheless, his foresight on economic inequality remains relevant. As Thomas Piketty has shown in Capital in the 21st Century (2017), the rich are getting richer faster because of the increasing share of return on capital. We may only wonder what kind of revolution will happen in a mature capitalist society where the middle class might be the new alienated proletariat.
Adamson, W. L. (2014). Hegemony and revolution: A study of Antonio Gramsci's political and cultural theory. Echo Point Books & Media.
Bottomore, T. (2006). A dictionary of Marxist thought. Blackwell.
Bourdieu, P., Champagne, P., Duval, J., Poupeau, F., Rivière, M.-C., Collier, P., & Bourdieu, P. (2021). Forms of capital. Polity Press.
Burawoy, M. (2010). Manufacturing consent changes in the labor process under monopoly capitalism. University of Chicago Press.
Giddens, A. (2014). Capitalism and modern social theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber. Cambridge University Press.
Giddens, A., & Held, D. (1982). Classes, power, and conflict: Classical and contemporary debates. Macmillan.
Machin, S., & Van Reenen, J. (1998). Technology and changes in skill structure: Evidence from seven OECD countries. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 113(4), 1215–1244. https://doi.org/10.1162/003355398555883
Piketty, T., & Goldhammer, A. (2017). Capital in the twenty-first century. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Tucker, R. C., Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1978). The marx-engels reader. Norton.
Weber, M. (1946). Class, Status, Party. In H. H. Girth, & C. W. Mills (Eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 180-195). New York: Oxford University.
French School. (1850). A Wedding at the Coeur Volant. [Painting]. Retrieved https://fineartamerica.com/featured/a-wedding-at-the-coeur-volant-french-school.html
Kotcherguin, N. (1920). Through the Ruins of Capitalism to the Universal Brotherhood of Workers! [Poster]. Retrieved https://www.reddit.com/r/SovietUnionPosters/comments/cf1r5a/1st_of_may_1920_through_the_wreckage_of/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3
Rugendas, J. M. (1843). Study for Lima’s Main Square. [Painting]. Retrieved https://www.meisterdrucke.ie/fine-art-prints/Johann-Moritz-Rugendas/692519/Study-for-Lima%E2%80%99s-Main-Square.html
Unknown Artist. (n.d.). Rule Britannia. [Poster]. Retrieved https://www.alamy.com/rule-britannia-vintage-world-war-one-propaganda-poster-image229279263.html