Key Concepts, Modes of Production/Historical Materialism, Captialism, Social classes, Class relationships under captialism etc etc

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Marxism is a structuralist theory that emphasises conflict in society.

As a structuralist theory, Marxism emphasises the way behaviour is directed by the social structure, we can only understand social actions in terms of the social structure.

Unlike functionalism, Marxism sees conflict rather than consensus as the over-riding characteristic of society.

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Key Concepts

Economic Base


Modes of Production

Social Class

Contradictions within Capitalism



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Modes of Production/Historical Materialism

Marx argued that social behaviour is determined by economic factors 'the iron laws of economy'.

The structure of society (the social superstructure) is determined by the economic base, the dominant mode of production in that society. All aspects of social behaviour are structured in terms of the economic base, politics, religion, family life, education etc.

According to Marx there are five modes of production (systems of economic organisation). These are primitive communism, ancient, feudal, captialist and communist. Each mode of production leads historically to the next, the inherent weaknesses of a mode of production leading to its own downfall. This is Marx's notion of historical materialism.

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In Marx's time, the dominant mode of production he saw as existing in Europe and North America was capitalism.

The system of production under capitalism is based on the pursuit of profit.

Capital, the dominant means of production, is owned by the bourgeoisie, the ruling class. The capitalist class employ workers in return for pay. The key to this relationship as far as the ruling class is concerned is that the value created by workers (the proletariat) the greater than the pay they are given. The difference, the 'surplus value', is taken as profit by the capitalists.

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Social Classes

A social class is formed by virtue of their relationship to the means of production. Owners of capital (property, land, shares, etc.) from the capitalist class. Those who have only their labour to sell form the proletariat, the working class.

It is their economic position that determines their social class.

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Class Relationships under Capitalism

The relationship between the ruling class and the proletariat under capitalism is based on exploitation.

The ruling class, because they own capital, the means of production, are in a position of power. They exploit the 'wage slaves' of the proletariat.

The economic interests of capitalist and the proletariat are fundamentally opposed.

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Why Does The Majority Proletariat Not Take Power?

Despite being in the numerical majority, the proletariat is in a weak position.

The ruling class maintains it position via system of social control. This takes several forms including ideological and physical control.

The ruling class makes sure that through its control over education, the mass media, religion and its ability to determine family relationships, the working-class are distracted from the realities of their exploited situation. This ideological control creates 'false consciousness' within the proletariat. Through this distracting smokescreen, the proletariat are made less aware if their situation.

If ideological control falters or fails, the ruling class has its control over the courts, police, armed services etc. to fall back on.

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The Future of Capitalism

Marx believed that capitalism was doomed. Capitalism is inherently contradictory. One is the way that in order to maintain profits, the proletariat will have to be paid less and less.

This will lead to pauperisation and a polarissation with the gap between classes growing greater. This in turn will mean that the two classes will become internally stronger. The proletariat might start to become a 'class for itself'. In other words, the power of the ruling class to control and distract the proletariat will become weaker as their messages are less and less in tune with the reality of the poverty-stricken proletariat.

The result will be a social revolution and capitalism will disintegrate.

Capitalism will be replaced by a communist society in which the proletariat will take control of the means of production and the state. This will become a classless society.

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Although his analysis of capitalist society might be accurate, Marx's predictions about the future of capitalism don't appear to have been accurate. Communist revolutions, where they have occurred, have taken place in societies with no or limited industrial development, not as a result of pauperisation created by capitalism. The apparent failure of these societies to maintain a communist system also suggests that at the very least, Marx underestimated the strengths of capitalism.

The concept of 'false consciousness' is something of an 'escape clause'. Any failure of the proletariat to act in terms of its own needs and interests is 'explained' in terms of their 'false consciousness'. Yet it is impossible to prove/disprove the existence of 'false consciousness', who is to say when awareness is 'right' and when it is 'wrong'?

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Weber argued that the decisions within society are not only based on economic class. He argues that status is also important and can cut across social class divisions. Weber also claimed that the example of Protestantism contributing to the rise of capitalism was an example of a situation in which social institutions could influence economic developments rather than, as Marx claimed, it always being the case that social institutions and relationships are determined by economic relationships.

How appropriate is Marxist theory to modern industrial society which is typified by a much bigger 'middle-class' than in Marx's time? The middle-class cannot be dismissed as of minor importance any more. Marxists have been divided over the role of the new middle-class, is it a prop of capitalism or are middle-class workers simply as exploited as the proletariat?

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Antonio Gramsci

He used to the concept of hegemony or ideological and moral leadership to describe how the ruling class keep control of society.

He argued that controlling ideas of the masses was how capitalism survived but it might not continue for ever.

The working class have a dual consciousness in that they accept the ideas and values of the ruling class but also develop their own world view as a result of the struggles they engage in against their bosses. 

Gramsci claimed that if the working class could develop enough thinkers who could challenge ruling class ideas eventually the class as a whole would reject the rule of the bosses and be ready to overthrown them.

The major problem with Gramsci's work is that he may have underestimated just how powerful a grip the ruling class has over the working class, not just by controlling their ideas but also having the ability to ruin them economically if they object to their rule.

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Louis Althusser

He divided the state into two areas he called apparatuses, one was the repressive state apparatuses who use force to control the population (such as police and courts), and the ideological state apparatuses who control how they think and this would include the media and the education system.

He disagreed with humanist theorists that people can change society by their own ideas because he believe people do not have free will, but are controlled by social forces outside of their control.

Althusser has been accused of providing a pessimistic version of Marxism which suggests capitalism will only disappear when it destroys itself which seems to reduce the power of individuals to change the course of history.

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Bethh Oliver


On the first slide I have seen a quote in which I believe I could use for my coursework.  Do you know where these quotes are from?

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