Marx and Weber's Theories on Social Class &
The Class Position of Celebrities in Western Society
In this essay I will examine the social class theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber, and how these relate to Australian society. Marx argued that class was determined by income and the relationship a group had to the means of production, which created a distinction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While Weber argued that class was created according to an individual's own abilities and skills and through this they would be rewarded by their income and status. His approach was more individualistic and allowed for a more flexible and less ridgid class structure. Using these theories the modern social group known as celebrities will be explored, showing that this group has not fully been adopted under Marx's ridgid class structure, but has more in common with Weber's theory of a combination of income and status to determine class.
Karl Marx argued there are two major social classes, the ruling class who own the means of production and the subject class, who don't own the means of production and are a diverse group of people controlled by and working for the ruling class. These two groups are better known as the bourgeoisie and proletariat. In particular, the bourgeoisie use a mode of production, in the form of capitalism, to oppress the proletariat. Whereby the owners of production (bourgeoisie) use the (proletariat) workers labour to produce their surplus value. In turn they pay their workers the smallest amount possible to make a profit, thus exploiting the working class. The defining factor in what makes them a separate class is the bourgeoisie's ownership of the means of production, not their wealth, because they don't produce the surplus value, the proletariat do. The bourgeoisie only appropriate the surplus. In essence the bourgeoisie are a 'class for itself' whereas the proletariat are a 'class in itself'. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, p. 56)
Marx identifies that the reason we have classes is due to a group sharing a common interest and economic position. The bourgeoisie own the capital of land, machinery and raw materials. Whereas the proletariat own nothing, they can only sell their labour power in an attempt to survive and provide for their families. This in turn results in the social/power relations between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. With such oppression placed upon the proletariat this creates a struggle, as the proletariat are constantly in conflict with the bourgeoisie over their wages and working conditions.
Yet, and in contradiction to this, both groups are also dependant on each other. The bourgeoisie depend on the proletariat to provide labour to increase their surplus value, and the proletariat depend on the bourgeoisie for financial survival. So through this forced union of common interests for each of the groups, such as the pursuit of personal gain by the bourgeoisie pulling one way, and the proletariat attempting to survive financially pulling the other, this conflict creates a division and through this class is born. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, pp. 54-55)
Stemming from these two major groups, Marx recognised the middle or intermediate class, which he termed the petty bourgeoisie. This class contributes to the capitalist surplus, by using their skills to administer and keep the capitalist system functioning effectively, but unlike the other two classes, is considered as a transitional class. Marx considered it to be transitional as he believed that it would eventually be absorbed into both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as its function in society was not sufficiently different from the other classes for it to survive in the long term. In this respect they represent a median between the two. As such it is suggested that they are a class of their own. One that indirectly contributes to the surplus value through their service to the capitalists. This class also provides the possibility for social mobility for the working class, as with increased skills they can increase their income and move up the social ladder. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, p. 62)
While Weber agrees with Marx's theory of the class distinction between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, he is more interested in the individual's market value. For Weber, an individual's class position is determined by their current market value. This market value is established by the individual's level of education, natural talent, skills and acquired knowledge. With these skills the individual is opened to numerous life chances and opportunities to further their career and increase their standard of living. Their market value equals their economic gain. Market value is defined by their ability to market themselves to a particular job opportunity. For instance, a university degree makes an individual more marketable and as such they have greater chances to work in their preferred field. They are given greater financial rewards and in turn move up the social ladder. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, pp. 57-58)
Weber did not fully agree with Marx's theory of class, instead he believed in status groups. He defined class as being an 'unequal distribution of economic rewards', whereas a status group was an 'unequal distribution of social honour'. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, p. 58) The status group comprises a group of individuals who are rewarded similarly in social honour and share the same lifestyles and professions. In other words, they are rewarded for their skill as much by social honour or status, as by economic reward. Weber concentrated on an individual's market value, what things the individual did to acquire and deserve rewards. Whereas class was such a generalisation of people, it defined them only by economic constraints, not their social honour. Weber's market value identified and recognised the individual as an individual, rather than as Marx's faceless and nameless member of a mass class.
Marx and Weber differ in their thoughts on social mobility. Marx argues that there are two main groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and that it is a predictable relationship and the only way to end this power relationship is through the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, pp. 56) Whereas Weber argues that social mobility is possible through the individual acquiring marketable skills. These skills through education, life chances and subsequent occupational choices can lead to movement in the class structure for the individual. (v. Krieken, R. et al, 2001, pp. 57-58, & p. 65) For instance, a boy has grown up in a working class family and his father is a tradesmen. But the son, through education and attending university, graduates as an accountant. The son is now considered to be middle class.
Weber argues that social mobility can either move us upwards or downwards depending on our choices and opportunities. While Marx does recognise social mobility, he relates this mainly to the petty bourgeoisie, and its likelihood of being absorbed by the other two classes due to its transitional nature. For Marx, class is a clearly defined and ridgid structure with little in the way of social mobility being possible or likely. This is particularly the case with the working class, due to the oppressiveness of the capitalist system itself. (v. Krieken, R., 2001, p. 80)
In Australia there 4 main classes, upper, middle, working and underclass. The upper class people, as Marx's argues, own the means of production. They are either CEO's of large national or international corporations or inherited their fortunate from previous generations. This group is very exclusive and make up 5-10% of the population. (v. Krieken, R., 2001, p 59) They are often associated with a number of large corporations and as Encel (1970) shows "The Baillieus alone were connected with 7 out of the top 16 companies in 1967." (v. Krieken, R., 2001, p 59) As Weber argues these people go to the best schools and their life chances of success is marketability high.
The middle class makes up the majority of the population. There is the upper middle class whom comprise of judges, solicitors, doctors, accountants and scientists, who are highly paid in respect of their marketability and the services that they provide the upper class. The lower middle class are primarily office workers, as such managers, administration assistants and secretaries. These people are paid much like the working class, but earn above the basic wage.
"Working nine to five (with flexitime), married, wife or husband, one or two kids, second-hand car,
mortgage, and a belief that acting decently will produce a decent life, is statistically closer to the truth".
(McGregor, 1993, p. 14)
The working class are primarily tradespeople, factory labourers and truck drivers. They are financially stable and are being paid at or slightly above the basic wage. (McGregor, 1997, pp. 181-182)
The underclass are categorised as living below the poverty line. They are usually the unemployed, homeless, unskilled and often receive welfare payments to survive. Their opportunities and life chances are limited, due to a lack of education and skills. (McGregor, 1997, p. 261)
What the above examples of the class structure of Australia shows, is that this structure is based upon Marx's class theory of Western capitalist societies. However, there are some groups in Western society, including Australia, that do not fit in with this model.
One example of this is the social group generally known as celebrities, such as actors, models and the like. These people, particularly the most successful ones, live a lifestyle much like the upper class, sometimes even surpassing them, due to their very high incomes, yet without usually owning the means of production which Marx would claim is the defining character of the upper class. Whereas, Weber attributes their unusually high incomes to their natural skill or talent, not just education acquired skills, which allows them to substantially increase their market value beyond anything Marx would consider valuable. Therefore, their very high status in society is from their natural talents, which are usually highly respected, improves their lifestyle dramatically and in turn allows them to move up the social ladder. This shows that Weber's theory on status and income defining class is equally as valid, and in some cases sometimes even more so, than Marx's of income alone. So, using Weber's theory, it is clear that the highest paid celebrities are in fact in the upper class due to their high income and status, which gives them a lifestyle and standard of living equal to the traditional upper class. As Flemming sees it:
[A celebrity] is well-paid because he is a famed entertainer known to millions. Wealth goes
hand in hand with TV fame, and the media ceremoniously extoll these wealthy celebrities as
heros to emulate. "Our aristocrats" obviously must live royally, as fame itself is not considered
reward enough. (Flemming, 2003, sourced from website)
This shows that membership of the upper class is a combination of income and standard of living, along with their status as individuals, while not being entirely based upon whether the individual owns the means of production. Subsequently, class is not defined as one of Marxist rigidity, but one of Weber's more flexible and less clearly defined model.
However, there is a problem with this perspective, in that although the celebrities have the income and lifestyle of the upper class, they do not fit in with the traditional Marxist view of the capitalist as the upper class. This is because the traditional upper class is, according to Marx, the upper class due to their ownership of the means of production and the economic and political power this creates. (v. Krieken, R., 2001, p. 55) When seen from this perspective the celebrities would not be in the upper class, because they lack this economic and political power which is derived from owning the means of production. Or as Flemming says, "celebrities are only the most superficial aspect . . . ." of the modern upper class. (Flemming, 2003, sourced from website). In other words, they are the politically less powerful of the upper class. So the celebrities, while having as Weber suggests, some of the attributes of the upper class, also lack some of the other elements of the Marxist traditional upper class, such as the political power of owning the traditional means of production. So the celebrities are only partly in the upper class when seen from Marx. So, if the celebrities don't have the economic and political power of the upper class, then they must be categorised as being in the middle class. In terms of their jobs, they are very like the middle class managers that assist the capitalists in running capitalism and making profits, while being substantially better paid than the working class. The celebrities do this through their marketability. That is, like managers, they market themselves and their skills to the capitalists. The difference here is that the capitalist in turn use the celebrities' status as a marketable product by which to make a profit. Flemmings shows this clearly when he writes:
They have "entertained millions," and have millions of fans. Their faces are recognizable worldwide.
The entertainment ethic, though such popular notions do not run deep on theory, seems to say that
celebrities are very productive, earn extraordinary salaries commensurate with their extraordinary creation
of economic activity, such as movie-going, tuning in to broadcasts, concert-going, purchase of the heros
' memorabilia, and so forth. In the conversion of fame to gold, celebrities are so closely associated with certain
products as to be marketed like aftershave or motor oil. (Flemming, 2003, sourced from website)
In this way the celebrities become both the assistants to the capitalists, and the product sold by the capitalist at the same time. In this respect the celebrities can be said to be in the middle class as defined by Marxist theory.
So the celebrities, when seen from a Marxist perspective, can be said to be in two classes at the same time. They are in the upper class due to their economic position and their status, while at the same time they are also in the middle class due to their actual economic function of assisting the capitalists, who do own the means of production, (in this case the entertainment industry and the media), and from their level of political power derived from their work. This would appear to undermine the Marxist perspective on class, with its ridgid divisions between the classes and class membership. Rather, the celebrities fit in more with Weber and his recognition that class membership is more flexible and less clear by being defined as much by status and standard of living, as to whether or not an individual owns the means of production.
In conclusion, this essay shows that Marx and Weber's theories do have relevance in today's society. Australian class structure is indeed based partly on Marx's theory of the bourgeoisie and proletariat and their struggle and conflict with one another to secure their separate common interests for personal gain, which in turn created the upper, middle, working, and underclasses in Australian society. Weber however takes a different approach with his idea of natural talents and skill and the income and status this provides, which in turn determines class position. This is shown clearly in the case of celebrities, where using only a Marxist perspective, they appear to belong in two classes at once. This shows that the traditional Marxist theory of the upper class, based primarily on their economic wealth from owning the means of production, is increasingly inaccurate for today's society in determining class. While Weber's more flexible theory allows for a more realistic and modern understanding of how class is determined. However, class structure appears to be alive and well in Australian society, and while some parts of the theories have aged and to a degree have become outdated, the structure still stands reasonably intact.
J. Flemming: "Greed and The Social Creation of Wealth", 26/0/2001. Pravda On-line http://english.pravda.ru/main/2001/09/26/16289.html
v. Krieken, R., Smith, P., Habibis, D., McDonald, K., Haralambos, M. and Martin Holborn, 2000, Sociology Themes and Perspectives, 2nd Edition, Melbourne, Longman, pp. 54-65, & p. 80.
C. McGregor, 1993, A Report from the Heartland, in Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald (Australian newspaper), December 11, 1993, p 14.
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