Social Theory’s Role in Understanding Capitalistic Competition According to Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim

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Capitalism, fueled by seemingly endless competition, has become a predominant theme and driving force in today’s modern society. By evaluating differences, similarities, and foundational principles underlying the social theories developed by Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim, possible explanations describing the roots and rise of capitalism may be more clearly understood. Moreover, a critical analysis of these philosopher’s social theories exposes underlying psychosocial drivers of the transition from traditional to modern European society. The following analytical discussion will examine the rise of capitalism and transition to modern society in light of these three theorists’ views and drivers of social change, with the objective of more clearly understanding alternatives to rampant capitalistic competition for the betterment of societal unity, participation and sustainability.

Carl Marx’s “conflict theory” attributed societal and individual tension and conflict to unequal resource distribution. Marx theorized that as societal gaps between wealth, power, status and resources increased, so did conflict. Hence, conflict became an “engine for social change” (Crossman 2017). As Marx developed his conflict theory within traditional European society, his study focused upon causes and consequences of social hierarchal conflict between what he called the “bourgeoisie” (capitalistic owners, those in political power and the economically wealthy and therefore powerful) and the “proletariat” (or the poor, oppressed working class). According to Marx, his study and focus revealed the root of conflict as seen in the opposing objectives of social classes, a primary characteristic of capitalism. Furthermore, Marx theorized that as tensions rose and the working class became increasingly oppressed, the poor would unify and instigate a revolution, theoretically resuming social homeostasis or equality. Marx’s theory of socialism is based on the notion that in order for the cycle of inequality and revolt to cease repetition, new non-capitalistic systems must be developed such as socialism in which societal resources were evenly distributed. Marx was also considered a materialist, basing his assumptions heavily on economic status as determined by the distribution of material resources (Crossman 2017).

Contrary to Marx, social theorist Max Weber considered the emergence of capitalism primarily as a byproduct of varying cultural interests and religions. Weber studied many world religions from Taoism and Hinduism to Judaism and Christianity in relation to each religion’s consequential societal structure. Rather than attributing conflict and divided social class to mere unequal distribution of resources, Weber examined causes using a deeper look into motivating cultural values and religious beliefs. In addition, he classified types of social authority he observed, creating a framework in which to define modes of leadership. For instance, forms of authority according to Weber include charismatic, traditional and rational-legal. Weber also studied the structural and functional aspects of bureaucracy, concluding that most modern European governments (as opposed to traditional, Medieval, and/or historical forms of authority) exhibit rational-legal authority (Trueman 2015).

Durkheim has received less scholarly and historical recognition than Marx and Weber yet, as the two former, is still considered one of the three primary contributors to modern social theory. Durkheim’s theory assumes that all societal elements such as socio-economic class, cultural moral beliefs, values, religious beliefs and civil management structures or systems emerge from and can be scientifically explained by historical process. In other words, Durkheim was less of a psychological, philosophical and/or ethereal theorist, and more of a critical scientist. His theory assumes societal elements do not have “transcendent origins” and therefore can be scientifically assessed using a method he created, called the “Sociological method.” For this reason, Durkheim is often considered the founding father of modern sociology. To Durkheim, sociology was the “science of the genesis and functioning of institutions with institutions being all of the beliefs and modes of conduct instituted by the collectivity” (Carls 2017).

Critical Analysis and Application of Theorists

Historians and theorists since Marx’s time have debated the practical validity of Marx’s ideological theory. For instance, Italian scholar Antonio Gramsci criticized Marx’s theory stating that it lacked adequate incorporation of common sense. On the contrary, others have used Marx’s theory of conflict to describe, justify and validate assumptions of authority. For instance, C. Wright Mills attributes his belief of the rise of a “power elite” military and political society ruling America since the mid 1900s to the conflict theory. Additionally, the conflict theory’s widely applicable framework has been used to rationalize everything from feminism, postmodernism, queer theory, globalization and world systems. What was once used to describe primarily class conflicts has now been used to describe racial, sexual and religious conflicts as well. Hence, Marx’s theory continues to evolve when applied to modern society, even after his time (Crossman 2017).

Furthermore, conflict theory is used by sociologists to not only explain existing social conflicts, but also as a foundation from which to study many modern social issues such as environmental pollution (and how it is formed by socio-economic class), minority oppression and most important to the discussion at hand, how capitalism perpetuates societal inequality through rampant competition. Marx initially began to use his own theory to shed light upon the issue of capitalism’s self-perpetuation of negative consequences and widening gaps during Europe’s industrialization and transition to a modern society. Marx concluded, based upon his conflict theory, that capitalism created poverty thereby ostracizing those affected, and hence, an applicable and alternative societal model was needed to replace capitalism. Crucial to capitalism’s function was the idea of power as an economic and political exploitation tool. According to author Crossman, Marx is described as having believed capitalistic actions of authority “in the name of economic necessity disguise political decisions [exploitations]” (Crossman 2017). Crossman gives the example of how rising interest rates protecting the wealthy yet raising poor-class unemployment levels are justified as a necessary means of navigating inflation.

Considering Weber’s focus upon cultural and religious influences, Weber’s “social action theory” evaluates the subjectivity of societal-subgroups as a result of human activity, in contrast to Marx’s structural or holistic view of governments and societies. Whereas Marx identified human actions as consequences of social structure, Weber identified social structure as the consequence of varying human actions (Trueman 2015). Interesting to consider however, is the possibility that both are true and perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive, but rather just as actions create social structures and modes of operation, those structures also perpetuate their actions, forming a societal functioning “feedback loop.” This methodology seems to align with the logic Marx applied when explaining the perpetuating cycle of inequality capitalism created. According to Weber, class is merely a component (of many) of social structure, whereas Marx emphasized class as perhaps the most important component. Weber recognized that social conflict could result from class or other types of social discrepancies. Thus, Weber’s view seems more flexible (Shortell n.d.) and potentially accommodating of a reformed and “blended view” of the two theories.

Durkheim’s theory, as mentioned, perhaps provides the scientific basis by which to evaluate the other two, if the theories are to be considered congruently. Arguably, all three theorists helped shape modern social theory (Giddens 1971), proposed valid ideologies and perhaps possess more similarities than has been previously recognized.

Each theory provides insight as to primary psychosocial drivers towards Europe and the west’s transition to modern society. For instance, consider the course of the later 1900s in America. During the 1990s rapidly advancing technology instilled hope within citizens for an “adaptive economy” promising the traditional capitalistic “grind,” only to be broken again by a recession in 2008, justifying Marx’s theory discussing the flawed system of perpetuated capitalism. Many theorists of the early 2000s are re-emerging with socialist ideas after a cold war era of un-acceptance toward socialism (Sunkara 2013). Weber on the other hand, differentiated modern society from past repetitive cycles by identifying a prevalent shift in individual behavior. New individual behavior, according to Weber, was characterized within increasingly industrialized societies, as goal-driven and rational rather than being determined by traditional values and/or emotions, which traditionally determined previous behaviors of cultural and religious groups. He also theorized that throughout Europe’s shift to modern society, human motivation occurred in and was determined by interaction with fundamental organizational societal shifts (Elwell 2005).

Marx viewed technological advances such as new forms of communication, transportation and production as engines of tremendous monetary gain that was increasingly hoarded by those who had created industrialized facilities and methods. As this happened, wealth became concentrated among the top ten percent and the middle class eventually fell into poverty, composing society’s poor majority (Menand 2016). Marx’s solution to this issue was socialism. Weber on the other hand, proposed a solution to societal dysfunction based upon a new mode of bureaucratic management standardizing procedures and creating chains of command as a means for improving efficiency. However, Weber also expressed caution in that technology and efficiency ought not to be exercised at the expense of emotions and/or personal values (Terry 2017).

Durkheim, on the other hand, took a different approach in explaining the transition toward modern society and rationales for human behavior. Rather than focusing on reforming societal structure, Durkheim employed his scientific approach to studying human behavior as a byproduct of historical religious practices. Ironically, although he did not consider himself aligned with the study of psychology because of his methodical approach, his contextual evaluations seem strikingly applicable to fields of social psychology. For instance, Durkheim began by studying totemism, a simple form of religion practiced among the Australia’s early Aboriginal groups. Studying religion, in Durkheim’s view, provided understanding into man’s core essence and nature. For example, he heavily explored the human need for interpersonal connection, contact and relation as manifested in religion, which in turn according to Durkheim shapes evolving societal morale (Durkheim 2008).

Both Marx, Weber, and Durkheim’s approaches toward understanding social theories and the transition to modern society may be applied in understanding the rise of capitalistic competition, though each theorist examines the idea from a different angle. As mentioned, Marx examined the flaw in capitalism’s perpetual nature: economic rises and falls during the later half of the 20th century left citizens hopeful followed by bouts of disappointment, as the idealized theory of globalization proved to only result in crisis of insurmountable debt, incomes not keeping pace with inflation and rising unemployment levels. As Marx himself stated, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is at the same time accumulation of misery…slavery…degradation at the opposite pole” (Shuman 2013).

Weber contributes to a broader, perhaps more inclusive understanding of capitalism’s roots. Rooted in historical critical analysis, Weber attributes capitalism in part to Protestant ethics, or the “spirit of an economic system” (Alkins 2014). In this way, his explanations for the origins of capitalism are less definitive than Marx’s. Capitalism may be a byproduct of a way of thinking about the world as constructed by religious and cultural contexts, rather than functionality alone. For instance, the Protestants fought fiercely for independence from the Catholic Church. This same competitive and “independent” nature, or value system seems to drive capitalism. Therefore, perhaps there is truth in Weber’s assumption that capitalism, was in part, born of Protestant religious mindsets. Similarly, though from a slightly different perspective, Durkheim analyzed societal functional differences through evaluating religious rituals. Many current scholars criticize Durkheim’s approach as lacking logical causal and functional characteristics (Turner 1990) and as a result he has been less popularized than Marx and Weber, however, his work still holds credible as founder of modern sociological thought.

For instance, Durkheim differed from other theorists of his time regarding his view and explanation towards crime. In a sense he justified crime, or at least held a neutral stance towards crime as a normal function of any society, assuming that a society “exempt from it is utterly impossible” (Lunden 1958). This stance seems rationally conflicting considering his studies of aboriginal tribes, a people who exhibited likely little to no crime, depending on Durkheim’s definition of crime. Furthermore, he stated that crime is not a defect or pathological issue any more than “birth” is to society (Lunden 1958).

Marx, Weber and Durkheim’s perspectives all exhibit overlapping and converging theoretical characteristics, despite systematic and structural differences. For instance, crime (defined as neither pathological nor helpful by Durkheim) may in actuality be in part a byproduct of capitalism, attributed to inequality and the struggle of the poor; as inequality rises, so may dissatisfaction and “crime” or revolts against the “ruling class” (in alignment with Marx’s theory). In this way, crime is still neither “right” nor “wrong” in honor of Durkheim’s view, rather crime is merely a byproduct of capitalism and the expression of revolt Marx anticipated. Durkheim separated crime from the often polarized moral ideology in which it is viewed. Hence, modern analysts may apply his perspective by asking the question “what is a particular crime’s root cause” rather than “what punishments ought to be enforced.” In this way, all three theorists’ work may be integrated in practice, including Weber who allowed for a more flexible perspective.

If a more flexible and inclusive perspective is taken, validating all three theorists’ works, productive and effective alternatives to repeated historical hubris and societal crashes are likely to be uncovered. Perhaps neither pure socialism, nor pure capitalism is the key, but rather a new integration of positive aspects of both (Weber & Marx). And perhaps in order to allow integration to structurally take shape, underlying cultural and religious values need be taken into account (Durkheim 2008) to ensure practical congruency between personal motivation to follow reform and proposed reformed systems.

Summary and Conclusion

The social theories discussed above are clearly relevant today, and furthermore, each theory continues to evolve and merge as new ideas are born. Particularly relevant to persistent economic instability are explanations offered by Marx pertaining to why inequality and capitalism crisis continue to recur. During his time as a financial correspondent for the New York Tribune in the mid 1800s, he attributes the 1857 economic recession to the world’s first investment bank. Similar to today’s critics of investment banks as seen in books such as “the Creature from Jekyll Island,” Marx criticized banks’ methodology in borrowing multiple times their capital, using the borrowed funds to purchase investment shares of corporations, hence “greatly increasing output.” However, the flaw was and is in the fact that banks essentially “de-valued” the dollar by selling what they did not have; by borrowing dollars and selling those “non-existent” dollars at a higher rate than they purchased them for. In 1857, as relayed by Marx, this flaw was exposed when banks could not find adequate customers to purchase these borrowed funds, the funds then fell in value, and the banks could not repay their loans, hence, the recession occurred (Sperber 2013). Consider a similar situation of “poor quality lending” that occurred during the 2008-housing crisis. These situations are both examples of the wealthy within capitalism exploiting the working class and furthering the economic, materialist divide.

The flaw in Marx’s theory however, is that he seems to assume all social and societal ills will evaporate by replacing capitalistic mechanisms with communistic or socialistic systems (Heiskala 1986). However, though this may work in theory, methods must be developed addressing the question: “what if socialism’s ideologies are abused in practice and what are solutions to the possible flaws presented within socialism and/or communism?”

Weber’s views are also quite applicable within today’s world, specifically as noted by professor Beer, who relates Weber’s analysis of cultural ideologies and the shift to methodical industrialized behavior to the example seen in the film “Food Inc.” Food Inc. undoubtedly exemplifies the dominating role efficiency plays in today’s modernized food production (Beer 2013), a characteristic Weber cautioned against. Although Weber praised the perfection of efficiency, he warned against practicing efficiency at the expense of emotions; a practice that industrial food production has obviously undertaken to the detriment of animal welfare, environmental protection and societal health.

Scholars have applied Durkheim’s thought to modern society by considering his theory of moral individualism and its implications for “reconciling individual freedom with collective restraint” (Bowring 2015) or the reform of modern capitalism. As the “father of modern sociology,” Durkheim was “obsessed” with understanding the way social realities molded individual beliefs (Lukes 2015). His methodology may be used to draw correlations between societal structures emerging from cultural or religious patterns and beliefs. For instance, just as he attributed capitalism’s roots to Protestantism, perhaps competition stems from a western societal nurturing of “individualism” and emancipation from one’s biological family, unlike many Latin American cultures.

Moreover, as globalization continues to evolve, and perhaps enter a new phase, it has been suggested that traditional social sciences are “ill equipped” to reform or replace defunct systems (Postone and Sewell n.d.), suggesting the dire need for radically new thought. This is not, however, to nullify ideologies set forth by these pioneering social theorists. Rather, threading elements of each theorist’s work together to weave a new and more complete pattern of integrated understanding may provide a more clear and effective road map to progress. Capitalism likely leads to industrialization, and neither occurrence can be divorced from the other. Truthfully, both Marx, Weber and Durkheim’s theories hold some degree of relevancy in assessing different aspects of the same issue: flawed social function within capitalism. Marx attributed the perpetuation of capitalism to the functional material acquisition of power, Weber defined capitalistic social structure as a consequence of cultural custom while defining modern power as increasingly bureaucratic and legal, and Durkheim studied individual values and beliefs that gave birth to religion, culture, and hence, capitalistic gain.


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