Class society in a melting pot
Beyond Marx - The historical development of class stratification within sociology
Marx's class theory identified three primary classes:
2. capitalists, and
3. wage laborers.
Theodor Geiger critically evaluates Marx’s work.
Marx's definitions and terminology evolved over time, leading to ambiguities and contradictions in his work. Marx believed that class struggle, driven by changes in the means of production, would eventually lead to a classless society. This turned out a utopia, as socialist countries, too, often exhibit economic interest conflicts and bureaucratic class structures. Removing the historical-philosophical aspect from Marx's theory leaves a more scientifically relevant statement about the layered structure of society.
According to Marx, economic factors, particularly production relations, are decisive in shaping the class structure. Societal class structure changes over time due to shifts in production relations but factors like race and ethnicity also determine social positions. Furthermore, political democracy plays a great role in improving the economic situation of the working class, with progressive taxation, social welfare policies, and education.
Despite Marx's anticipation of a growing working class due to industrialization, the share of the working class in the labor force has declined historically. Administrative and office roles within industries, as well as the growth of the commercial sector, have contributed to this decline. Also, groups emerged that do not fit neatly into the traditional Marxist class structure, such as public sector employees and intellectuals. Qualifications, skills, and hierarchical positions within organizations should also be considered when determining an individual's social position. Further, economic dependence is not the sole factor in the working class's situation; continuous livelihood insecurity plays a crucial role. Specialized skills can provide job security within the working class.
In contrast to Marx's predictions, the rise of independent small-scale farming was a counter-trend to proletarianization. The decline of small-scale retail was due to oversaturation and intense competition among small retailers. Shifts in income distribution turned out to impact class divisions. And finally, the situation of the working class improved a lot over time.
The cushion theory argued for a healthy middle class to balance the conflict between capital and labor. The middle class's responsed to challenges and created self-defense measures and political parties. The middle class experienced a resurgence after World War I, partially due to technological advancements, electrification, and the mechanization of daily life. Small retailers regained importance, and corporate structures began to replace the traditional image of individual capitalists.
Marx thought that class consciousness would emerge from objective class interests and this would engage workers in a unified class struggle against capitalism. This presupposition lacks a psychological basis supported by modern psychology, as individuals' goals and interests are not entirely determined by their social situations. Marx's historical materialism was more metaphysical than empirically scientific; it’s challenging to establish a direct causal relationship between economic factors and historical events. Friedrich Engels attempted to empirically support historical materialism but started with predetermined beliefs. Class consciousness is a noological construct which represents the class itself rather than individual members. Ideology plays a crucial role in motivating class struggle, and the correctness of class ideology is relative to historical circumstances.
Marxist analysis often focuses on industrial urban society but acknowledges that the situation in rural areas was different. In rural areas, there was a growing middle class of small independent landowners alongside a labor force with personal service relationships with landowners. This rural class structure did not fit neatly into Marx's framework, which was more applicable to urban industrial settings. Industrialization led to rapid population growth in cities, shifting the numerical ratio between urban and rural populations. Urban and industrial interests gained prominence, while rural society was economically and culturally neglected.
Workers began using collective organization, such as labor unions, to counter the power of capitalists. This led to the formal recognition of labor unions and collective bargaining as legitimate institutions in society, institutionalizing class conflict. Government regulations and interventions in the economy have become integral, stabilizing the economy and protecting consumers, despite complaints from some business sectors.
Price controls during emergencies aim to maintain reasonable profits for retailers. The high costs of fragmented selling have been institutionalized, guaranteeing each retailer a fail-safe existence without competition.
In the urban-industrial society, there was a growing affinity of interests between capital (owners and managers) and wage labor. Class antagonism became less prominent as economic leveling took place. The Managerial Revolution marked a shift of economic power from owners (capitalists) to managers overseeing production. This shift was ongoing since World War I.
Property rights are social relationships defined by the legal system and societal norms. The content of property rights can be altered through public interventions, and the distinction between private and collective ownership becomes less significant. If political power shifts towards favoring a planned economy and they successfully implement it, political power will shape class structure, reversing the traditional Marxist causal relationship between economic factors and class structure.
Marxism was an anti-ideology that responded to the liberal reality of its time.
Geiger, T. (1949), Die Klassengesellschaft im Schmelztiegel, Köln/Hagen: Gustav Kiepenheuer.