and Weber’s Ideas of Class, Power, and Capitalism

Conflict is a natural trait that
characterizes interpersonal interactions. Various factors promote the
development and maintenance of this phenomenon. In capitalist populations, this
struggle is often attributed to the existence of social classes with varying
levels of access to economic and political resources. Consequently, various
scholars have attempted to examine the interaction between socioeconomic
classes with the aim of understanding the core elements that underpin the
operations of capitalist societies. Concepts posited by Karl Marx and Max
Weber’s provide the most significant insights into this economic form. Due to
his emphasis on both political and economic elements, Weber’s stratification theory
presents a more comprehensive analysis of capitalism.

There is a marked difference in
the definitions of the class systems proposed by both scholars. According to
Karl Marx, the class system is maintained by disparities in access to and
ownership of means of production and labor. These discrepancies result in the
establishment of three distinct societal civilizations slave societies, feudal
societies, and capitalism (Holt 2014, p. 92). The first two civilizations are
characterized by ownership of the labor of other humans. For instance, in
feudal societies, lords owned the work of their serfs, and in slave societies,
slave owners directed the activities of their slave. Due to the enactment of
various policies that recognize fundamental human rights, feudal and slave
civilizations are almost non-existent today.

Interestingly, Marx’s view about
the ownership of forces of production offers a continuum that facilitates
increased quality of access to resources. Consequently, the third element in
the continuum, capitalism, outlines significant levels of equality when
compared to the first two civilizations described above. According to Marx,
this transitory mode of production contains internal contradiction that
threatens its efficacy and sustainability (Callinicos 2012, p. 122). Similar to
its predecessors, the class system in this form of society is tied to wages and
control. According to Marx, this phase is characterized by increased
competition that fosters conflict between the two primary society classes, the
bourgeoisie, and the proletariat.

Due to the conflict in
disparities in political and economic power, the bourgeoisie and the
proletariat exist in a constant state of struggle. This struggle is a result of
the antagonism in objectives and discrepant levels of control of states. While
the proletariat class seeks increased access to forces of production, the
bourgeoisie is intent on maintaining its established socioeconomic status
primarily via economic means.

Max Weber, on the other hand,
provides a more complex view of social stratification. In his works, he outlines
four distinct groups created by varying levels of mobility. The broader
classification offered in his work presents a more comprehensive view of
society and stratification compared to the view shown by Karl Marx. Notably,
Weber’s definition of social classes allows for a less polarized light of
society. According to Karl, capitalist mechanisms only allow for the
establishment of the rich and the poor socioeconomic classes. To some extent,
this view is reflected by the widening wage gap demonstrated by the worsening
economic condition of the underprivileged and the improving financial situation
of the rich.

Recent statistics indicate that
there is a marked disparity in access to factors of production. This
discrepancy is evident in the current income gap, which indicates that
individuals from affluent backgrounds, on average, earn approximately 88% more
than those from low socioeconomic backgrounds do (Chu 2017). While this
difference in earnings illustrates the view posited by Karl, it also reflects tenets
of Weber’s arguments. Notably, Weber’ social stratification model provides a
means of understanding this wage gap. However, unlike Karl’s theory, this
framework accounts for differences in wealth fostered by family wealth. By
doing so, it implies that observed differences in society are inherent elements
of capitalism that are maintained by primarily political factors.

Moreover, Weber accounts for the
emergence of the middle class. Karl’s framework as mentioned above emphasizes
the development of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, creating the perception
that these are the only classes that exist in capitalist nations. Arguably, the
broader definition provided by Weber allows for the exploration of an
in-between class, the global middle-income population. According to Kharas, the
global middle-income population is growing, primarily due to improved economic
growth in developing and emerging countries (2017). While this population’s
access to forces of productions fails to rival that of the rich, it is still
significant. Arguably, the economic and political autonomy fostered by this
access is demonstrated by the fact by 2030, the global middle-income population
is anticipated to spend approximately a third of the expected GDP growth

Besides, Weber’s definition
transcends economic stratification. To some extent, his society stratification
theory takes into consideration the fact that individuals in capitalist
countries share different cultural aspects. The appreciation of cultural
differences promotes examination of capitalism from different perspectives. The
recognition of this diversity provides a feasible platform for understanding
and resolving economic challenges fostered by increased immigration due to
globalization and other factors.

Additionally, the perspectives
adopted by both scholars in their examination of capitalism differ. As
illustrated above, Karl Marx adopts a historical context in his analysis of the
phenomena. Notably, in this continuum, which includes slavery and feudal societies,
he explores the increasing access to elements of production and labor. This
view leads him to conclude that capitalism is a transitional civilization phase
and that communism is the end stage of this evolution as it facilitates equal
access to means of production and distribution of wealth.

Weber, in turn, views capitalism
as a persisting form of civilization. Arguably, his perception is more attune
with society today. Most states and organizations are working towards creating
more equity within capitalist mechanisms rather than establishing an entirely
different form of production. Furthermore, the 20th century efforts
aimed at promoting communism rather than illustrate its merits, – as indicated
by the limited growth of Cuba and the eventual collapse of East Germany, –
demonstrated its shortcomings and consequently, undermined its adoption.

However, the disparities in
accounts aimed at tracing the origins of capitalism indicate that Weber’s
explanation is more attune to modern capitalism. While Karl emphasizes the
impact of economic inequality in fostering the emergence of capitalism, Weber examines
the role of American Protestant cultural values in bolstering the development
of modern capitalism. By referencing the works of religious leaders such as
Martin Luther, Weber argues that the Church’s preoccupation with money rather
than spiritual matters precipitated the establishment of the fundamental tenets
of capitalism (Weber 2012). Arguably, Weber’s explanation reflects the
political processes that create and maintain economic inequality. This
political orientation facilitates understanding of gender and racial
disparities in the workplace.

The disparity in the theories
posited by both theorists is also evident in their perception of the
phenomenon. Karl’s view of capitalism also encompasses the commodification that
defines the production type. According to him, rather than create value and
facilitate the satisfaction of human needs, the system is primarily oriented
towards the realization of monetary values via the exchange of commodities
(Ingham 2013, p. 15). Today, corporations in various sectors have to contend
with competitive pressures from existing companies and new entrants. Due to
this significant level of competition, the focus across all industries is on
commodifying all aspects of life in a bid to maintain a competitive advantage. However,
Weber, assertion that capitalism provides an avenue that facilitates the
realization of human needs and wants (2013, 25) is not wholly without merit. To
some extent as indicated by the success of social networking sites such as
Facebook and Twitter, capitalism promotes both economic viability and meets
fundamental needs.

Interestingly, both theorists
acquiesce that exploitation is inherent to this form of production. Karl argues
that employees in this type of production have the freedom to determine where
to work. However, they are often compelled to sell their labor to a segment of
the population that encompasses the traits of the bourgeoisie. Consequently,
they are likely to experience exploitation. Undoubtedly, this exploitation is
illustrated by labor and tax policies that merit the corporate rich at the
expense of the workers. Weber, on the other hand, asserts that disparity in
power and control are essential in ensuring the sustainability of capitalism
(Ingham 2013, p. 28). According to him, accurate cost calculations are crucial
to ensuring the achievement of the overall objectives of meeting basic needs
and guaranteeing favorable profit margins. Arguably, this cost calculation is
exemplified by the significant number of layoffs during economic downtimes.

Moreover, both Marx and Weber, to
varying extents, use their models to expound on financial crises. Various
nations in the world including the US and Greece have experienced economic
crises in recent times. Marx ties the occurrence of these crises to the
existence of social classes. He posits that inequality in income, fostered by
varying access to resources, promotes the creation of conditions where there is
an imbalance between production and consumption due to surpluses (Ingham 2013, p.
28). Today, these situations due to the advent of banking may undermine the
currency value resulting in inflation. Though Weber does not go into details
about this phenomenon, he does refer to debt deflation in his works.

Arguably, Weber’s theory accounts
for the co-existence between the classes. While Karl asserts that social
classes are in constant disharmony, Weber suggests a more harmonious view. He
argues that the state and economic elite accommodate each other to facilitate
the accomplishment of specific objectives (Ingham 2013, p. 32). Undoubtedly,
this accommodation is demonstrated by the involvement of philanthropists such
as Bill Gates in government efforts aimed at alleviating the condition of
citizens across the world.

In conclusion, both Karl and Weber
present useful insights into the working of capitalism. The theorists via their
respective models of social classes examine the characteristics, and primarily,
the limitations of the mode of the production. However, Weber’s perspective is
more comprehensive. This is because apart from focusing on both the economic
and political elements of the system, it also provides a more extensive
definition of social stratification that accounts for the emergence of the
global middle-income population.



Callinicos, A 2012, The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx,
Haymarket Books, Illinois.

Chu, B 2017, Income
gap between people from rich and poor backgrounds has almost doubled, IFS
figures reveal, Independent, viewed December 8, 2017,

Holt, J 2014, The social thought of Karl Marx, Sage,
Thousand Oaks, CA.

Ingham, G 2013, Capitalism: With a new postscript on the
financial crisis and its aftermath, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Kharas, H 2017, The
unprecedented expansion of the global middle class, Brookings, viewed
December 8, 2017,

Weber, M 2012, The Protestant
ethic and the spirit of capitalism, Unabridged Edn., Dover, New York.


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