European capitalism emerged under different historical conditions than in non-European
countries. Caste rather than class initially divided India, for example, while representing a feudal
system. We will be looking through a Marxist sociological lens for this lecture.
What is Social Class?
Under a capitalist system, society is divided into different classes - what class you are in depends
on your relationship to the means of production.
Earliest human society was the foraging society, where people lived together in small groups.
Each group was basically self-sufficient. Kinship was the central organizing feature.
Hunting and gathering was the sole means of subsistence and generally meant that the band or
tribe moved following the food that nature provided.
The many different jobs or tasks performed in the society are referred to as the division of
labour. In foraging societies the division of labour was largely egalitarian and based solely on
sex and age, not on believed strength or perceived status of job. Women needed to stay close to
'camp' due to pregnancy and/or nursing small children so they were the main gatherers of food
found close by. In contrast, the men were able to roam for days trying to perform big-game
This gendered division of labour meant that men and women were interdependent for survival
and for the maintenance of solidarity within the group.
Key Features of Foraging Societies:
Cooperative, egalitarian, non-hierarchical society
Population growth, herding of animals and the cultivation of plants were the most important
changes during this period. Horticulture became the primary source of subsistence. As advanced
horticultural technologies (like the plough) were developed, there was the ability to have a surplus of food. In order to control the distribution of this surplus, a political structure was
developed. With these changes came the rise of structured social inequality.
Advanced Horticultural Society
Powerful leaders or chiefs controlled and claimed ownership of large areas of land. Wars became
more common as the struggle to acquire more land became a focus.
Land is owned by a private group or class, who have enormous power over and heavily tax the
peasants, who are the primary producers. Kinship ties are replaced by clear and strong divisions
between ethnic, gendered and geographical lines, but also, and more importantly between those
who own or control the means of production and those who do not.
Land is divided into manors with villages. Serfs or peasants work on the farmland and are under
the control of the feudal lord. Land could not be bought or sold; it was based on inheritance only.
By the 15th century, if you couldn't pay your rent, you would lose the land you worked on and
your family would most probably starve. The landlord would replace you with another serf
family. Thus competition also emerges as competitive pressure to increase labour productivity.
The decline of feudalism is linked to changing class relations, the growing push for labour
productivity, the accumulation of capital, an increasingly available labour force, advances in
technology and the rise of nation-states.
Emergence of early Capitalism
By the 15th century, markets emerged as a key site where the exchange of goods and a money
economy developed. Merchants would bring goods acquired elsewhere to the market for sale.
This provided the lords with luxury items that went beyond the means of survival. Objects
produced for the purpose of exchange (i.e. selling) in the market place are called commodities.
These merchants initially just bought and sold items - bought cheap and sold at a profit.
Gradually, they started to control the entire production process - providing the raw materials,
labour needed, and later the tools to those who made the products for them. They became a class
of owners that is called the bourgeoisie.
Capitalism is a mode of production with private ownership of the means of production. In capitalist
societies, as compared to earlier class formations, all production is subordinate to the imperatives of the
market (meaning the market rules everything) and all things become potential commodities. The insatiable drive for profits on the part of capitalists is due to the fact that the very nature of
capitalism is competition. The goal of every capitalist is not just profits, but the maximization of
The relationship between the owning class and the working class in capitalist societies is one
based on domination. The owning class controls the power in the economic, political, and
Capitalists make profit primarily because the cost of purchasing labour power is always far less
than the new value that workers produce.
Modern Global Capital:
Before capitalism, class relations were very visible and were reinforced by laws, religious beliefs
and traditions. Everyone knew his or her place in the rigid society. It was very difficult to change
your position. Today capitalist societies are not as rigid or as visible. However, despite the fact
that we really don't "see" it, class still has an enormous effect on our lives. Because we willingly
agree to work, the relationship between workers and owner appears to be an equal
arrangement. In other words, I get wages and the owner gets my labour power. Slave labour no
longer exists in industrialized nations.
Classes in Modern Capitalist Society (Marx):
1. Bourgeoisie - capitalist or owning class - owns or controls the principle means of production,
distribution or exchange of goods and services.
2. Working Class - producing class - must work for wages. Does not own significant means of
3. Petite Bourgeoisie - found in between the other two - small-business owners, self-employed
professionals - have a small amount of capital, may or may not employ a few workers, but still
survive through their own labour.
How do capitalists maintain power over workers today? Through hegemony. Remember what hegemony is?
Major strategy for the manipulation of the masses by the ruling class, it involves the production
of ways of thinking and seeing. Hegemony connects questions of culture, power, and ideology.
Key to understanding hegemony is consent - the worldview of the ruling class is accepted as
legitimate and not questioned.
Difference Between Class (Marx) and Socio-economic Status (Weber)
When asked to define class, most people will refer to their class position in relation to a
combination of income, occupation, and education.
Weber's Theory of Socio-economic Status:
Three dimensions of Inequality:
1. Class - socio-economic status or individual life chances
2. Status - level of social prestige
3. Power - degree of political influence
Under this theory, property is seen as something that provides status. Productive property is not
distinguished from personal-use property (like a house or car). Power is connected to
occupational categories. Larger power held by those who own or control the means of production
is not discussed.
Interrelationship between class and socio-economic status:
It is important to note that both class and status differences exist in capitalist societies. The
ability to acquire a high status occupation or a high-level education is correlated to one's class.
To focus simply on status differences or merge class and socio-economic status is to ignore the
main power arrangements in capitalist systems. We must always keep in mind who owns the
means of production.
Bourgeoisie have Property, Proletarians have
Labour is the lynchpin of class conflict and the basis of Marx's critique of capitalism. For Marx,
all humans possess the ability for productive labour. Under capitalism people (proletarians) must
sell their labour power in the market in exchange for a limited and finite paycheck, whereas the
owners (bourgeoisie) not only own the means of production (land, technology), but they also
possess the ability to make infinite amounts of money or generate surplus wealth. The problem
with this exchange, as Marx saw it, is that it is the workers' labour that is the primary source of value in the commodities that are sold (this is also referred to as the labour theory of value).
However, the worker does not reap the full benefits of his/her labour. It is the bourgeoisie who
reaps the full benefits of the labour through the profit they make over and above the cost of
labour. Think about who is rich in our society and why.
Through their labour, working peop