Marx and Social Theory

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Camera Obscura

Two common errors in the explanations of human behaviour 

  • The reversal of causal mechanisms (the camera obscura effect) 
  • The fallacy of individualistic reductionism 

Camera obscura effect - an image and explanation of the social world that presents a vision of it that is the inverse of its real historical development. e.g. that individuals relationships and ties are shaped by their ideas (e.g. social order is based on consensus over values and beliefs) 

  • On several occasions Marx himself used the metaphor to illustrate the mistaken views of both social thinkers and ordinary people in explaining social life. 
  • Hegel's idealism (according to Marx) 
    • Ideas have their own independent existence 
    • The relationships of human beings are products of their ideas 
    • Ideas constitute the true bonds of human society. 
  • Fallacy of individualistic reductionism - means explaining social phenomena as an outcome of an assumed natural characteristics of individuals (e.g. human beings like to trade, exchange and compete). e.g. poverty analysed from the Conservative & liberal points of view. 
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Conservative View

Assumption - people are justly rewarded for both merit and the functionla importance of they do

  • Poverty - reducible to individual level explanations (e.g. lack of accomplishment, intelligence, effort). Themes:
  • Society at large reflects the nature of human beings 
  • The market is the inevitable result of the naturally determined human propsensity to barter and trade. 
  • Social inequality is an inevitable outcome of our natural traits. Therefore there are limits as to what can be done about it. Governmental intervention can only hurt and unjustly penalise the meritorious 
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Liberal View

The liberal frame - holds that individuals tend to be victims of:

  • Economic capital - poverty 
  • Human or social capital - limited access to hegemonic language, mathematical and academic skills 
  • Culture of poverty - access to drugs, sex and other supposedly morally dysfunctional enticements 
  • The result is a general inability to compete. 
  • Since liberalism often admits that the market cannot rid itself of poverty some sort of activist state intervention is advocated 
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Liberalism compared with Conservatism

Shared assumption:

  • Competition for resources is a normal state of human affairs 

Differed view:

  • To the extent that either the market or the state are entrusted to assure "the highest level of good to the largest amount of people." 

Marx's view:

  • He asked us to suspend the question of the extent to which human imperfection, or otherwise error, produces social malaise, poverty and war. 
  • He encouraged analysts to consider the extent to which social phenomena are structurally and historically produced. 
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Historical Analysis of Marx

Capitalism is a historical product and not the outcome of human's natural propensities to compete and trade. 

Capitalism was put into place by:

  • Force. With the great deal of death, violence and expropriation of feudal peasants, ordinary urban plebs and modern indigenous peoples from their lands // or the means of production. 
  • The present case of East Timor, according to Paolucci, demonstrates the historical use of violence to keep the world-economy expanding in the present. 
    • The genocide of East Tmor - fearing Timorese independence would "destablise" the region, military leaders of Indonesia, with massive assistace from US invaded the tiny nation, killing upwards of 1/3rd of the population beween 1975 and 1998. 
    • The CIA worked to destablise the Indonesian government, succeeding in a 1965 military coup and resulting in between half to 1 million deaths and 750,000 imprisoned on a 8 month period. After WWII Indonesia was reluctant to handover its resources to multinational corporate interest. 
    • There was an invasion of Timor because the Timor Gap Treaty, signed by Indonesia and Austrialia, consigns East Timor's oil to western multinational interests. 
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The First Capitalist

"In times long gone-by there were two-sorts of people: one, the diligent, intelligent and above all, the frugal elite; the other, lazy rascals, spending their substance." Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and latter sort had at last nothing to sell except their own skins. 

To generate and accumulate capital, one needs to make profit, and to make profit, one needs to have capital to invest. Vicious circle: profit -> accumlated capital -> profit -> accumulated capital. 

To get out of the vicious circle, one must gain a primitive accumulation preceding capitalist accumulation (not the result of the capitalist mode of production, but its starting point). i.e. Primitive accumulation -> profit -> capital -> profit. 

  • Primitive accumulation is gained by the expropriation of the great mass of the people from the soil, from the means of subsistence, and from the means of labour. This fearful and painful expropriation of the mass forms the prelude to the history of capital.
  • It comprises a series of forcible methods. 
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Structural Analysis of Poverty


  • "Poverty is a historically constant and structurally general feature of capitalism." Thus we need to analyse the structure of capitalism. 
  • Creation of surplus-value (profit): created by the working class; appropriated by the capitalist class. 
    • The idea that in the capitalist mode of production, the socio-structural constant is creation of value, and thus wealth, by the many and its appropriation to the few - Marx's "Das Capital" 

Buying in order to sell M-C-M

  • When money is invested as capital the goal is to increase the profit - when we buy in order to sell, Marx states "the movement becomes interminable" £100 -> £110 -> £120 
  • Money ends the movement only to begin it again the circulation of capital, therefore has no limits. 
  • "M-C-M" this increment or excess over the original value called "surplus value" 
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Surplus Labour

Marx argues that surplus value is created by what he calls surplus labour.

E.g. assuming that one hour of work is paid £10:

  • The number of hours worker: 8 (£80). the number of hours needed to work: 5 (£50) = 3 hours of surplus labour. Profit of £30 (profit) - (£80-£50) 
  • The numbers need to work - what a worker needs in average for living i.e. house, food etc. In terms of salary it means what in average a worker is paid. 
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Criminalisation of the Population

Paolucci argues:

  • Criminality (who commits crime) and crime (what behaviour is criminal) are the outcomes of social conditions rather than "individual responsibility"

USA as an example: population in jail, on probation, or on parole (from 1980 to mid 1990s')

  • 1/3rd black men 
  • 1/8th Latino 
  • 1/5th white men in their 20'
  • Racial factor - Drug users - White men 75%; Black men 13%. % of arrests for drug possession: Black men 35%, (% of convictions - 55%) 
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Crime and Criminalisation

The origin of crime is the criminalisation of some groups by the dominant groups in society

Crime function:

  • To bring more and more of the population under some sort of bureaucratic control, surveillance and discipline. 
  • The state has used police as methods for sending the poor to prison ("street criminals") while ignoring the more socially harmful behavior of capitalist class (white collar and corporate crime) 
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Crime and Criminalisation Example

  • In the 19th century, drugs such as opium and morphine were commonly used throughout society and addiction was seen as a personal problem. Until certain users were seen as problems. 
    • In the US around 1900, the drug addicts were middle-class women and returning northern soldiers addicted to morphine was about 2% of the population (higher than today). 
    • Late 1800's opium smoking was associated with the Chinese, and attempts to control this group as well as their behaviour were to provide the justification for their legislative controls 
    • Late 1960's - Hispanics, blacks, and young people started to demand the US stop imperialist warfare and extend democratic participation. Each group was then associated with a particualr drug and its presumed/claimed evils
    • "war on drugs" - broadened the state's exercise of techniques of maintaing class domination by increasing repression of these groups 
    • Policing and prions are there to make sure that the working class doesn't threaten property or capitalist property relations. 
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Crime and Criminalisation - Marxist view

Marxist have generally agreed that the state is created with the primary function of securing the conditions of constant accumulation of capital. 

Marx and Engel's view: 

  • In the Communist Manifesto, "the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." 

Paolucci's view:

  • Not all Marxists agree with it. Neo-Marxists believe that the state has both a "relative autonomy" and at the same time an "ethical" and "educative function" 
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Marx's Frame of Analysis

Marx's materlistic view - Paolucci's view on poverty and crime are based on the following assumptions developed by Marx:

  • Social structure is defined in terms of relations of production 
  • In the capitalist system the main relation of production is between the capitalist class an the working class
  • There is an inevitable conflict between these two classes e.g. poverty is an outcome of this conflict 
  • Individual's ideas are the product of the social structure rather than being part of human nature 
  • The nature of the state, law and social institutions in general depend on the social structure (e.g. crime, criminality and criminal law are all created in order to promote the interests of the capitalist class)

"In the social production of their existence, men enter into define relations... Real foundations, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which corresponds define forms of social consciousnes." 

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Marx's Frame of Analysis (2)

Mode of production -> forces of production -> relations of production -> class conflicts -> legal, political, ideal, consciousness 

Forces of production - the means of production (land, machines, tools), labour power, raw materials. 

Relations of productions - in the capitalist system this consists in the ownership of either: means of production (capitalist class) or labour power (working class) 

Legal, political, ideal, conscioussness SUPER STRUCTURE -> means of production (steam power, big factories) -> relations of production (capitalist relations) STRUCTURE 

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