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Karl Marx and Max Weber offer two very different but valid approaches to social class in modern capitalist society. In a capitalist society the private ownership of the means of production is the dominant form of providing the things needed to survive. What distinguishes capitalism from other types of society is the emphasis on the rights of property and the individual owner’s right to employ capital, as she or he thinks fit. Karl Marx’s approach was, at first, the most convincing theory of social class.
However, the Neo-Marxists have reinforced and expanded on Marx’s original theories and today there is no single Marxian standpoint.
Marx believed that economic processes, such as the harnessing of natural resources, producing goods, developing new technologies and establishing a division of labor in the workforce, are of great importance in society. According to Marx, these economic processes are crucial because in order for these any of these things to happen, people in society come together and enter into social class relationships.
Marx posited that there are two main classes in any capitalist society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and that the two classes are defined by their relationship to resources specifically the means of production.
The bourgeoisie own and control the means of production. Therefore, they have a high, economically powerful position in society. The proletariat or workers class can only subsist by offering their labor to the upper class. This division between the classes is what drives class conflict. According to Marx’s labor theory of value, the value of a product is not it the raw materials, but in the labor of the worker who produced it.
Consequently, in Marx’s eyes, the worker deserves most of the profit from the sale of that product. Yet, in a capitalist society, the owner or employer receive most of the economic rewards.
Marx contended that over time class divisions would become even more polarized as the bourgeoisie exploited the workers for their own economic gain. Eventually, he believed that the working class would achieve class consciousness and act together to solve their common problems. In Marx’s view all social change is brought about by class conflict. Though Max Weber also sees social class as an economic matter, he takes a more complex approach. He did not agree with Marx’s ‘two class model’. While Marx defined class based on relationship to the means of production,
Weber postulated that class is more dependent on economic consumption and position in the economic market According to Weber, societal position is determined by more than just wealth. In actuality, class, status, and party determine societal position. Class refers to the economic measure of wealth, status refers to social clout, and party refers to political power. Weber posited that a combination of these factors is what decides societal position, not simply wealth. Weber also disagreed with Marx’s idea class conflict is the sole factor in social change.
While Weber did not discount the role of class struggle in societal change, he believed that there are other factors at play, namely religious and political ideologies and ideas. While both Weber and Marx define social class as an economic matter, they have fundamentally dissimilar approaches. Marx’s approach is strictly economic, defining class by relationship to means of production. Weber takes a more holistic approach, including social status and political influence as determinants of social position. Both approaches are valid; however, Weber’s approach to perhaps more realistic and complex than Marx’s singularly economic approach.
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