Differing Views on the Status Quo: Stability Versus Change
Together with Karl Marx. Max Weber, and Georg Simmel, Durkheim established the course for modern sociology. We Will Look first at Marx's and Weber's Divergent thoughts about conflict and social change in societies, and then at Georg Simmel's Analysis of society. Karl Marx In sharp contrast to Durkheim's focus on the stability of society,German economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) stressed that history is a continuous dash between conflicting ideas and forces'. He believed that conflict-especially class conflict is necessary in order to produce social change and a better society. For Marx, the most important changes were economic. He concluded that the capitalist economic system was responsible for the overwhelming poverty that he observed in London at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (Marx and Engels, 1967/1848). In the Marxian framework, class conflict is the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class, The capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, comprises those who own and control the means of production the tools, land, factories, and money for investment that form the economic basis of a society The working class, or proletariat, is composed of those who must sell their labor because they have no other means to earn a livelihood. From Marx's viewpoint, the capitalist class controls and exploits the masses of struggling workers by paying less than the value of their labor. This exploitation results in workers' alienation=a feeling of powerlessness and estrangement from other people and from themselves (see a contemporary discussion of alienation based of Marx's perspective in Sociology Works!). Marx predicted that the working class would become aware of its exploitation, overthrow the capitalists, and establish a free and dassless society. Can Marx provide useful insights on the means of consumption] Although Marx primarily analyzed the process of production, he linked production and consumption in his definition of commodities as products that workers produce. Marx believed that commodities have a use value and an exchange value. Use value refers to objects that people produce to meet their personal needs or the needs of those in their immediate surroundings. By contrast, exchange value refers to the value that a commodity has when it is exchanged for money in the open market. In turn, this money is used to acquire other use values, and the cycle continues. According to Marx, commodities playa central role in capitalism, but the workers who give value to the commodities eventually fail to see this fact. Marx coined
the phrase the fetishism of commodities to describe the situation in which workers fail to recognize that their labor gives the commodity its value and instead come to believe that a commodity's value is based on the natural properties of the thing itself. By extending Marx's idea in this regard, we might conclude that the workers did not rebel against capitalism for several reasons: rn they falsely believed that what capitalists did was in their own best interests as well, (:!) they believed that the products the}' produced had a value in the marketplace that was independent of anything the workers did. and (3) they came to view ownership of the commodities as a desirable end in itself and to work longer hours so that they could afford to purchase more goods and services. Although Marx's ideas on exploitation of workers cannot be fully developed into a theory of consumer exploitation, it has been argued that a form of exploitation does occur when capitalists "devote increasing attention 10 getting consumers to buy more goods and services' (Ritzer. 1995: 19). The primary ways by which capl alists can increase their profits are cutting costs and selling more products. To encourage continual increases in spending (and thus profits), capitalists have created mega-shopping malls. cable television shopping networks. and online shopping in order to provide consumers with greater opportunities to purchase more goods, increasing the consumers' credit card debt and forcing them to continue to work in order to pay their bills. but also raising privacy issues (see Box 1.3). Perhaps the ultimate agents of consumption are the industries that produce desire and make it possible for people to consume 'beyond their means.
These include the credit card, advertising, and marketing industries, which encourage consumers to spend more money. in many cases far beyond their available cash, on goods and services (Ritzer. 1995, 1999). Marx's theories provide a springboard r"r neo- Marxist analysts and other scholars to examine the economic, political, and social relations embedded in production and consumption In historical and contemporary societies. But what is Marx's place in the history of sociology? Marx is regarded as one of the most profound sociological thinkers, one who combined ideas derived from philosophy. history. and the social science! into a new theoretical configuration. However. his social and economic analyses have also inspired heated debates among generations of social scientists. Central to his view was the belief that society should not just be studied but should also be changed. because the status quo (the existing state of society) involved the oppression of most of the population by a small group of wealthy people. 'Those who believe that sociology should be value free are uncomfortable with Marx's advocacy of what some perceive to be radical social change. Scholars who examine society through the lens of race, gender, and class believe that his analysis places too much emphasis on class relations, often to the exclusion of issues regarding race/ethnicity and gender. In recent decades, scholars have shown renewed interest in Marx's social theory, as opposed to his radical ideology (see Postone, 1997; Lewis. 1998). Throughout this text. we will continue to explore Marx's various contributions to sociological thinking.