Marx was born in 1818 into a world in the throws of intense industrialisation in modern societies, massive factories implementing new manufacturing technologies dominated the skylines of cities which were expanding exponentially. Armies of workers were needed to fill these factories and mass produce goods to sell to the emerging new markets, floods of people flocked to the new urban centres leaving behind, for many, their traditional agricultural lifestyles in the countryside.Marx set out to explain what he saw around him, poverty for the masses and unbelievable wealth for a tiny minority. He asked himself enormous historical questions, why do things change? What are the patterns of change? Can change be controlled for better? And what, if at all, is the role of the individual in this change?Now in present contemporary societies industrialisation (for most advanced countries) is behind us, heavy industry has been replaced by service economies, the factories of the Victorian era by the office space of present day, the churning of cogs and gears by the churning of a hard drive, physical labour by mental labour. The aim of this essay is to explore Marx's ideas on class struggle and to see if it is relevant to the social political divisions in the United kingdom today. 'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.
' (Marx ; Engels: communist manifesto:1)Marx argues that at every stage of history there has been complicated societal arrangements which divide it's populous into various orders he explains in the communist manifesto: 'in ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the middle ages feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, serfs; in almost all of these classes subordinate gradations' (Marx, 1848, p. 2). Marx goes on to say that modern society rose from the ashes of feudal society but class structures did not diminish, on the contrary, they polarised to into two strong economic classes, 'it has simplified the class antagonisms.Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: the bourgeosis and the proletariat' (Marx, 1848, p. 2). Here we can introduce Marx's idea of class, he understood these two classes not how we understand class today through occupational means, it was solely based upon peoples relationship with the means of production.
In every stage of history human beings have at their disposal productive forces such as tools, animals, land, machinery etc that by which they can produce their basic means of survival: food, shelter and clothing.However he observed that historically one class has always monopolised these means of production and it is this key feature which separates people into different economic classes: the owners (bourgeosis) and the non-owners (proletariat). In Marx's time identifying these two great 'hostile camps' would have been relatively easy, the owners of the super factories and the workers who were forced to sell their labour in them, but can we still see this relationship in contemporary society?Afterall Marx predicted that these classes in a capitalist form of organisation should be becoming more and more split into the two 'the other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry; the proletariat is it's special and essential product' (Marx, 1848, p. 13). Critics have suggested that this boundary has become blurred from the massive expansion of the middle classes, the great number of people are now in white-collar jobs in service industries rather than toiling to survive in massive Victorian factories.
Marx writes 'the bourgeoisie has stripped of it's halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into it's paid wage-labourers' (Marx, 1848, p. 5). Marxists will argue that the majority of middle class workers do not own or have access to productive resources, except for the important exception of their own labour force and therefore this still makes them proletarian.
However I think Marx underestimated the power of the middle classes, their capital from selling their labour can buy investments in shares, as well as a pension, gives them an indirect stake in the means of production. Their education gives them some degree of choice over where and when to work and their job allows some control over investment decisions and work setting, this may not be said for the less educated slice of the population though whose limited skills might leave them unattractive to employers, but still they cannot be described as Marx puts it, 'a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work.The emergence of welfare states have given the unemployed a means of survival, even a means to lead a certain degree of normality this then has undermined Marx's thinking, people are no longer 'trapped' in wage labour contracts this together with trade unions take some power away from capital into the hands of labour. Social democratic welfare states are even able to de-commodify labour creating relative harmony between capital and labour.
Having said this some thinkers believe that continued globalisation of capitalism creates external pressures on governments to increase competitiveness making welfare states unsustainable, leading eventually to a 'race to the bottom' when it comes to social spending (Rhodes, 1995). So the age of welfarism and class compromise might just be a temporary hiatus to class struggles.Where there was at one point a position in society that a mass of people could relate to, there now exists a field of competition and the lines have all been blurred. There is no solid working class that can identify with the mass collectivised movements that characterised earlier class struggle. Even if such a group did exist, there are few means of productions remaining for them to take over. There is undoubtedly a large portion of the population, just within the belly of the beast, who would definitely constitute a poor 'class'.
The entire notion of work has been completely revamped to fit with the new economy, the almost fully automated workplace, and the ever-expanding realm of the service sector. It is very unlikely to find a solid mass of working class enthusiasts working in supermarkets and super outlet stores. There is a reason behind this, that simply is that the exploitation is all still there, but there no longer remains a massive community of consistency that those workers can relate too.The entire face of work has been changed, the increase in casualised and sub-contracting has done away with the solidarity that the working class used to wield against the forces of capitalism. According to the British Social Attitudes survey of 1991, when asked what class they belong to, 46 percent of people simply said they were members of the working class and another 18 percent said they were members of the 'upper working class'.So obviously this shows that class is still an important issue in contemporary society and that people still proudly form their identities from it, however I would argue that Marx's ideas of class struggle aren't any longer relevant, his description of class was solely based upon peoples relationship with the means of production today's conception of class has very little to do with this it is purely devised from the occupation of the individual such as higher professionals, managerial and technical, skilled non-manual, skilled manual, semi skilled and unskilled.
This is what people form their identities from and to simplify the abstract idea of class into two 'sides' is an oversimplification which looses the complexity of just how many factors go into the boiling point to form their status and class. Marx emphasised that capitalism is an inherently expansive system and that although in his time it did not stretch across the globe he did however predict that it would. 'The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.The cheap prices of it's commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate.
It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i. e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one it creates a world after it's own image' (Marx, 1848, p. 7).
This is an extremely accurate prediction of the contemporary world, free market liberalism has become a contagious phenomena throughout the eastern underdeveloped world.Freeing up of their economies has not only created a larger market for the strong products of the west but has also created a new army of cheap labourers, who, without support of strong unions, governmental sanctions, or any welfare state are selling their labour for wages that they can hardly survive on and are in no way able to gain access to the means of production, apart from their own labour. In conclusion, I would say that Marx's prophecies of the inevitable break down of capitalism as a form of economic governance from the result of a proletariat victory over the bourgeois so far has proven unfounded.He did predict the phenomena which is globalisation, however he underestimated the important role it is now playing in the contemporary world. Globalisation has the power to strip away forms of welfare which holdback the destructive tides of capitalism by creating external pressures on governments to increase international competitiveness.
It seems that the social conditions which gave rise to Marx in the first place could possibly return. If so his analysis of capitalism and his ideas class and class struggle could stage a come-back. For now all is quiet on the class conflict front.