Stratification Philosophy– A Conversation Between Marx and Weber

In a time when the inequalities of our society are more rampant than ever, and most political and legislative solutions seem ineffective, it may serve us well to approach the problem from a philosophical viewpoint. And perhaps there are few political analysts whose theories help us understand the problem of unequal privilege better, than Karl Marx and Max Weber.

This article aims to start a conversation between the different, but overlapping theories of Marxian and Weberian philosophy, and their approach towards understanding and alleviating inequality and privilege.

On looking at inequality as a force in modern history, Marx and Weber arrive at different conclusions. In Marx’s view, two things create class solidarity- ownership of property, and a common experience of deprivation. In his view, ruling classes are aware of their common interests and have the organizational means to promote them. On the other hand, oppressed classes lack class consciousness and organizational cohesion. Moreover, the propertied class’ hegemony over the government, entrepreneurship, education, and other institutions prevents the workers from uniting by dividing them amongst themselves by creating competition. Marx felt that a point will come when the working class will be so steeped in their abject poverty that their common bitter experience will make them politically conscious to bring about a political revolution. Marx distinguished between class as a condition of social life and class as a cause of social action. He recognized that individuals do not form a group capable of collective action merely because they have certain attributes in common. However, he maintained that when the workers lost everything they would rise to regain their humanity. Today, though, we see that the proletarian revolution Marx spoke of has given way to less mainstream revolutions; he seems to have underestimated the role of social differentiation in the fragmentation of interest by rank. Another reason for the limited spread of the labour movement is the tendency of economic interest and the quest for prestige to reinforce each other. Both classes and status groups endeavor to maintain or improve their opportunities in society. One group of competitors tend to take an external identifiable characteristic of other group of competitors as a pretext of exclusion. Such monopolization or “closure” is probably why Marx’s theory of the labour movement proved false.

Max Weber agrees with Marx’s basic analysis that relatively similar control over goods and skills bestows a similar social position leading to a common class situation. But for Weber, a common class situation does not necessarily lead to concerted action unless there are immediate economic opponents with clear goals. For Marx, the link between class and collective social action is clear and absolute. For Weber, a common class situation might only lead to an amorphous mass reaction and not a political organization. He interpreted Marx’s concept of class as an ideal definition, which did not reflect reality.

In the debate about the importance of economic groups versus status groups in fostering solidarity, Marx and Weber diverge again. Weber defines classes and status groups as mutually exclusive. According to him, where the market situation dominates, personal and familial distinctions are discounted and where considerations of prestige dominate, economic class as an organizational construct loses force. These two trends move in an ebb and flow over the course of history, based on whether the means of acquisition in each era are stable or unstable; periods where technological and economic transformation takes place push class at the forefront, while times when means of acquisition are stable, see prestige and familial solidarity play a bigger role.

Weber also visualized classes beyond the land-labour-capital trichotomy of which Marx spoke. For Weber, class situation was ultimately a market situation and hence was as fluctuating as the shifting economic constellations. Marx maintained that bourgeoisie ideologists would contribute to political radicalization of labour– Weber on the other hand felt a solidarity of this kind would be hindered by the different ethnic, cultural and religious sensibilities of the workers. Weber stresses that the very process of organizing a class creates status inequalities as the process of inclusion in an in-group is also the simultaneous process of exclusion and defining an out-group.

Another difference between the two is that Marx viewed all culture as a dependent variable arising out of conditions of material existence. Weber recognized that culture had material conditions of its own and that ideas propagated by intellectuals could shape and influence material conditions.

The difference between modern and pre-modern inequalities lies in the fact that in pre-modern times there was a fusion of prestige and economic groups within households, as the household was the unit of production as well as a status group. In modern societies, with the separation of the household and the economy and that of the state and society, economic position and status act as conflicting variables.  Therefore, to understand better the nuances of the current structure of inequality, maybe what we need is to ask Marxian questions but rather than seeking Marxian answers, stress on Weber’s distinction between structural tendencies and organizational capacities.

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