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.
For more than 99% of our existence, humans have lived in foraging societies.
Living together in small, self-sufficient groups, humans subsisted solely on
hunting and gathering. Kinship was the central organizing feature.
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-
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
Pastoral and Horticultural Societies
About 10,000 years ago, horticultural societies emerged. 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.
Agrarian Societies About 5,000 years ago, population growth coupled with such innovations as the
plow led to the rise of agrarian societies, in which the concept that land could be
owned outright by a private group of people emerged. This private group had
enormous power over and heavily taxed the peasants, who were the primary
producers. Kinship ties were replaced by clear and strong divisions between
ethnic, gendered and geographical lines, but also, and more importantly between
those who owned or control the means of production and those who did 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 oninheritance 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.
Source: Joanne Naiman (2004) How Societies Work: Class, Power, and Change
in a Canadian Context. Toronto: Thomson/Nelson (Chapter 3: Culture, Society,
and History. pp. 47-75).
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 profits. 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 ideological spheres.
Capitalists make profit primarily because the cost of purchasing labour power is
always far less than the new value that workers produce.
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.
According to Karl Marx, there were three classes in modern capitalist
1. Bourgeoisie--the capitalist or owning class. Its members own and/or control
the principle means of production (e.g. lands, factories, tools, etc.), distribution or
exchange of goods and services.
2. Working Class--the producing class. Its members must work for wages and
do not have much control over the means of production.
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?
It's the major strategy for the manipulation of the masses by the ruling class, it
involves the production of ways of thinking and seeing. The ruling class carries
out hegemony through such things as popular culture, which encourages the
lower classes to ignore class inequalities.
Key to understanding hegemony is consent--the lower classes consent to let
themselves be exploited by the ruling class. They accept the ruling class'
worldview as legitimate.
Reading and Viewing Read "Neoliberalism and the Realities of Reality Television (Opens new window)"
by David Grazian. Bear in mind what Grazian means by neoliberalism: a set of
principles "associated with global free trade and the deregulation of industry, the
weakening of union labor, a decline in welfare assistance and social service
provision, and the privatization of publicly-owned resources" (68).
Then watch an episode of a reality-TV show. Any reality-TV show will do,
although try to watch one mentioned in Grazian's article (reruns are
fine): Survivor, American Idol, Hell's Kitchen, The Apprentice, The Amazing
Race, The Biggest Loser, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Does your episode fit Grazian's theory that reality-TV is a hegemonic tool
designed to encourage viewers to accept neoliberalism's problematic worldview?
Difference Between Class (Marx) and
Socio-economic Status (Weber)
When asked to define class, most people will refer to their class
position (working class, middle class, upper class, etc.) in relation to a
combination of income, occupation, and education.
Weber's Theory of Socio-economic Status:
According to Weber, a person's socio-economic status depends upon three
1. Class--the person's relationship to the means of production. Does he own the
means of production? Or does he work for someone who owns the means of
2. Status--the person's social prestige. Although the person might not be an
owner, she might have a certain level of social prestige which improves her life
3. Power--the degree of political influence. Although the person might not be an
owner, she might have ties to an organization who can lobby on her behalf.
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'sclass. To focus simply on status differences, however, 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
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 people are primarily responsible for the wealth that
is generated but only receive a small portion of this wealth. To Marx, the value
that a produced object (commodity) has is the amount of labour used in its
creation. For Marx, the value should rightly belong to the workers whose labour is
expended in making the commodity. But under capitalism, workers exchange
their labour power for wages that amount to less than the value of the object
when sold in the marketplace. Think of a pair of Nike shoes produced for a few
dollars in a developing country but sold for over $100. The difference between
what is paid to produce them and what they are sold for is the measure of
surplus value that goes to Nike, not the workers.
The difference between the wages and the value of the object when it is sold
represents a surplus that goes to the capitalists as profit. In most cases the
workers do not share in the benefits of the profits. Marx argues that this value
(profit = surplus value) should rightly belong to the workers whose labour is
expended in making the object. However, in capitalism, all of the surplus goes to
the capitalist. For Marx this is the basis of class-based social inequality as he
sees the surplus as rightfully belonging to the workers from whom it is derived
and essentially stolen. For Marx, surplus value is the measure of exploitation in
the capitalist economic system.
In 1979, the top 1% of American income earners took home 10% of national
income. In 2011, they took home 20% (Opens new window).
Meanwhile, Canada's top 1% saw their share of national income go from 7% in
the early 1980s to 12.1% in 2006 (Opens new window). Role of the Media
There are fewer studies examining class in television than there are about race
or gender. Class permeates media content. It is interesting to examine both the
class distribution of people in the media and the roles given to characters of
different class status.
Commercial media is driven by a profit-oriented ideology. Media outlets want to
attract wealthy audiences/consumers and generally design the programming to
attract that clientele. We are no longer "audiences," we have become potential
"clientele" being sold not only a product but a way of life.
Further, on TV, there is a business report but no labour report, and yet most of us
watching sell our labour rather than sell stocks.
To improve the demographic profile (in terms of average household income) and
to satisfy advertisers (which make up 2/3 of newspaper revenues), newspapers
will manipulate the content (major business sections with extensive stock market
reports, fashion and culture and consumer sections).
Newspapers will also make it more difficult for poorer neighbourhoods to have
access to their paper. In some cases even raising the price in poorer areas while
lowering it in wealthier areas.
The Los Angeles Times raised the price of their paper in inner-city
neighbourhoods from 35 cents to 50 cents, while reducing the price to 25 cents in
surrounding areas. The sole purpose was to prove to advertisers that the
readership demographic was affluent.
In 1970 ABC created a demographic profile of its audience called "Some People
are More Important than Others" (source: Croteau and Hoynes, 2011).
Possible Discussion Board Questions:
Character portrayal in the mainstream media is more affluent than in reality. The
media portray mostly middle-class professionals. Representations of the working
class are rare. Can you think of any on TV currently?
Read Richard Butsch's essay, "Ralph, Fred, Archie, and Homer: Why Television
Keeps Re-creating the White Male Working-Class Buffoon (Opens PDF
document)." According to Butsch, how are these working-class stereotypes a
product of the commercial media's profit-driven ideology?
According to Butsch, TV networks reduce risk by relying on tried-and-tested
formulas, which result in homogenous programming. They also, he notes, create
content designed to please advertisers. What sort of stories and character
representations do advertisers tend to want?
Video After reading Butsch's article, watch this excerpt from Class Dismissed: How TV
Frames the Working Class
Class Dismissed(Opens new window)
Pause and Reflect
Sitcoms are generally about home-life away from work. Blue collar, clerical, or
service workers make up only 14% of comedies.
High-paying jobs outnumber low-paying jobs
Doctors outnumber nurses 9-1
Professors outnumber teachers 4-1
Lawyers outnumber accountants by 10-1
"All these high-paying jobs for television characters meant lots of disposable
income, and families in these situation comedies overwhelmingly lived in
beautiful middle-class homes equipped with the amenities" (207).
If there is a comedy with working-class family main characters, the characters
are rarely seen working and generally dream of becoming middle-class. Because
they make up the minority, it signifies that it is their own fault that they are "poor"
and not "successful." Further, the fathers are represented as being lovable
simpletons, females are sensible. The message is clear - working class people
are responsible for their own fate because they are incompetent and stupid. Such
sitcoms ignore structural conditions that shape society.
Source: David Croteau, William Hoynes, and Stefania Milan
(2011) Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Pine Forge Press.
By not drawing attention to the existence of class inequality, the mainstream
media perpetuate the myth of a classless society. By believing this myth, the
lower classes are unable to recognize the sources of their own oppression and
become more likely to blame themselves. Source: mediamatters.org(Opens new window)
Evidence that we do not live in a classless society abounds:
The top 1 percent of earners mor