Feelings of worthlessness, alienation, and emptiness, at one point or another have overwhelmed many blue-collar workers within the workplace. This has particularly troubled the revolutionist and conflict theorist, Karl Marx. Many of his studies focused primarily on the social injustice of labourers within a capitalist economist society, and the cruel realities, which they endure. Marx was born and raised in Germany during the nineteenth century and witnessed the emergence and “rise of the middle-class owners of capital.” When the feudal system began to crumble, people started deserting their traditional rural occupations and entering the cities into factory labour. Workers were offered a “pittance for their labour, dressed in rags, went hungry, and slept under bridges and in shacks.” In contrast, the factory owners were able to live in luxury and profit from the work and production of their employees. It was “seeing this great disparity between owners and workers, that Marx concluded that social class depends on a single factor-the means of production-the tools, factories, land and investment that capital used to produce wealth.”
Karl Marx believed that within a capitalist society there are those that own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and those who work for those who do (the proletariats). Marx felt that societies needed to experience certain stages of advancement and instead of going from a simple society to a complex one, he believed the opposite. Marx's ideal society was a simple
communist society, and capitalism was nothing but a complex society filled with conflict and inequalities. His theme of the antagonism of capitalists and labours are shown in his concepts of historical materialism, alienation, ideology and the fetishism of commodities, within critiques of other theorists, and his workings used in society today.
“Historical materialism is not the way that human beings gain money and have more material comfort neither their material desires to gain satisfaction. It is the way that human beings produce that determines their thinking and desires.” Marx believed that within a given society ones' social class was based on their production capacities. He had the notion that human beings' ways of thinking, principles and values are shaped by their material activities, as well as the relationships they have with others. Marx's ideology of historical materialism, therefore, demonstrates how members within a given society, cannot live without the interactions of one another. Marx's stresses how all humans are social and therefore cannot be isolated from their social context.
He argued that since human beings are living organisms, and need basic necessities to survive, they must produce material and build social relationships with other members of society, in order to maintain their existence. It is the continual need of material necessities that the working class are being exposed and exploited by those that own the means of production. Moreover, material production is the main factor to Marx's concept of historical materialism. He felt that human beings are intertwined together based on their needs and the means of production. It is through the persistent need of material goods and increase of productivity that there becomes an
established division of labour and class conflict between owners and workers of production. Marx believed that human beings are exposed to certain modes of production within the stages of societies (feudal, classical, etc).
He argued that all modes of production constrained human beings and contained hints of conflicts and struggles, but it was the capitalist society, which ultimately held the most antagonism and social inequality between the classes. Historical materialism is also associated with the dialectic since it deals with two opposing forces; owners and laborers of the material world who clash with one another. Marx's dialectic dealt with the dependence of workers on the owners of production, and how they must struggle sufficiently with each other until such a time that the struggle comes to a complete end. The ultimate result of this would be a classless society, that being communism.Such exploitation and social inequality of the classes, more often then others, contributes to what Marx called alienation. According to the concept of alienation, workers not only “sell their labour power, but also their souls, and have no control over the product they are producing while their work is devoid of any redeeming human qualities.” This quote displays how workers are alienated from their labour and treated more like machines then actual humans. They have no control over their labour; and are viewed as “just another number” to which they are to make their employers profitable.
There are several alienations that Karl Marx outlines in his concept of alienation, the first being alienation of the product. In the feudal era, labourers were able to bring home their fruits of labour and the creativity that was involved in the production process. However, in capitalist societies, one is not able to bring home their material production and creativity but their wok
becomes a means to an end by the direct control by the owners of production. An example in today's society is the production of package food, such as bread produced in a factory. We do not bring our labour home, whereas, in feudal times those that produced bread were able to bring it home to their families.
The second concept of alienation is alienation from the production process. Within a capitalist society, there are specialized production of labour and specialization of tasks, leading to feelings of inequality. This type of alienation leaves the worker feeling more like a number with assigned tasks. There is no personal connection to the worker, the product or even the owner. For instance, in the feudal era, workers had control on how they produced their goods or labour, but within a capitalist society you are told the means of production. The outcome of this capitalist ideology results in labourers producing their goods or services to satisfy only their employer and not themselves.
The last alienation outlined by Karl Marx is man to man. This concept assumes that during the feudal era, everyone was equal and people respected each other and regarded one another as human beings. However, in a capitalist society, the Bourgeoisie looks down on the proletariat and respect is lost and forgotten. The working class are perceived as zombies and some men feel more like animals rather then people, based on the treatment and lack of recognition they receive from the capitalist. Furthermore, in capitalist societies we are defined by what we do rather then in feudal society where everyone is equal and has the same social status. Therefore, they are not only alienated from each other but from themselves by the feelings of estrangement and hostility they feel.
The antagonism of capital and labourers are not only portrayed in Marx's idea of historical materialism and alienation but also illustrated in the concepts of ideology and fetishism of
commodities. Karl Marx's ideology focuses on the way of thinking that distorts the working classes' sense of reality and how the capitalist are the owners of ideas and therefore own the ruling ideas. The bourgeoisie, who own the ruling ideas in capitalist societies, create an illusion that there are no other means of survival and that their notion or ideals are the `right' and most beneficial principles for society. This keeps workers reminded of their status as subordinates. It is through all of this that the working class adapts what Marx calls the “false consciousness.”
The concept of false consciousness focuses on the exploited working class, and the fixed conception they have of themselves and their unjust circumstances. The Bourgeoisie creates an illusion for the working class as if there is no other means of survival, and brainwashes them until they start viewing themselves through the lenses of the dominant group. Marx felt that the dominant's conception is a false consciousness and not based on a “real” truth and only serves to benefit the interests of some, over others. Marx believed that once the working class came to the realization of this false consciousness, class division and the antagonistic nature of a capitalist society that they would revolt against those powering over them. The result would be the collapse of capitalism and the supremacy of the ruling class.
The final concept in relation to the relationship of capital and labourers is the idea of the fetishism of commodities. By “fetishizing commodities, Marx argues that we treat the goods we buy as if they have magical powers. We lose the fact that we create commodities and, in doing so, grant them power over us that in reality they do not hold.” According to Marx, people tend to put value on objects, which are produced through isolated work conditions and labour. He believes that production involved with capitalism is motivated by money and revenue. Marx, felt that the
sole motivation of capitalists were to make profit, also known as surplus. Surplus involved taking a portion of the working day of the worker and converting it into profit and wealth for those already wealthy, the capitalists. For instance, if a labourer works six hours to earn compensation, the remaining two hours of their workday would be converted into surplus therefore profit. To further profit themselves, capitalist employers would reduce wages to equal the amount of eight hours thus reducing employee compensation. Moreover, the fetishism of commodities not only deals with surplus value, but also demonstrates the power material goods attain and the lack of recognition those who make them get. Consumers buy products but do not consider the conditions or wages of the labourers producing them.
Karl Marx viewed his changing western European society through the lens of a revolutionist, conflict theorist unlike other theorists. In contrast to Emile Durkheim, a order theorist, Marx viewed capitalist societies in light of inequality. He wanted to focus on `who you are', rather then Durkheim who wanted to focus on your social status. Durkheim, unlike Marx, was an order theorist and did not wish to expose conflict within this type of society nor want a communist society. In contrast, Durkheim was concerned about achieving order within the capitalist society rather then hoping for another social realm to emerge. Durkheim viewed capitalism as an advanced society, which needed tweaking and reinforcement of moral bonds. Unlike Durkheim, Marx drew his ideas from theorists such as G.F. Hegel. Durkheim on the other hand, borrowed the quantitative methods used in the natural sciences to study his theories on moral bonds by studying the rate of suicide.
Karl Marx was quite optimistic for his theories and believed that a utopian society awaited once the workers of production overthrew those that oppressed them. Some limitations to Marx's theory today focus on his assumption that there are only two classes. He speaks about the
Bourgeoisie and Proletariat, as if they are homogenous groups. He fails to talk about racial labourers or even females, which have not only been oppressed as labourers, but in addition, for their race and gender throughout the past and present. The lack of indication regarding other classes of labourers would act as a limitation to today's societies in which workers are facing a double consciousness by the owners of production and within themselves. Today racial and gender groups are still looked down upon in society by traditional stereotypes and prejudice linked back to history. Marx failed to addressee other types of groups and those facing much greater oppression then Caucasian male labourers. There are also many sectors to our society such as politics, religion, and family that influences a person's consciousness and who they are. However, another limitation to Marx displayed in our capitalist society today is the lack of recognition of these other sectors. Marx only focuses on the economy, which does not make up the whole of society.
There is certain usefulness and value based on Marx's theories, which can help sociologists bring awareness to members of society. Marx's idea of fetishism of commodities focuses on the lack of recognition of labour put into commodities. An example of this could be famous name brands such as Gap or Addidas. When people purchase shoes or shirts from such stores as these, they do not consider the location or working conditions where these goods were manufactured. Marx's theories help sociologists and even people become aware of the exploitation of workers. Today there is an increase in awareness through the use of educational documentaries and boycotts of major brand labels supporting such class division. Another example of the usefulness of Karl Marx's ideas in today's society is that it has inspired workers who have faced exploitation by capitalist to fight for better work conditions, security, union, capital and rights.
An example of this is shown in the ninety-nine day ford strike that occurred in Windsor, Canada in 1945. The UAW Local 2000 was a union at the Ford plant who hoped that their labour demands would be met by management. The company refused to make concessions and remained reluctant to meet the unions demands and “wanted to remain the master in its' own house.” However, capitalists did not give in to their demands and workers went on strike and stuck it out for ninety-nine days. Although ford's management did not meet all of their concerns, they were able to get a number of their requests met. This example of a labour strike shows the usefulness of Marx's theory in today's society. It proved that a revolt or rebellion by the working class could result in better conditions for them as well as wage increases. Moreover, it portrayed the transfer of power and how the working class, by stopping labour, could strain the profit of capitalists and result in better quality of work.
To conclude, Marx's concepts and works of historical materialism, alienation, ideology and the fetishism of commodities also portrayed in comparison to Emile Durkheim, and a critique were all essential to the rift between the social classes. Marx's theories have inspired and educated many, and now are the topics and research of many present day sociologists and the focus study of many students throughout the world. He truly demonstrates the struggle that owners and labourers of production face or will face in their lifetime, by a capitalist society. Therefore, if drastic actions such as a labour strike in today's society, like the Ford strike or York University strike could put such strain and force on the capitalist, what could be said or transformed by a complete revolution, one that Marx hoped for, for workers and society.