The individual vs the collective: Karl Marx and Daniel Bell on social class theory

A major preoccupation of political philosophers and social scientists has consisted in the divination of the origin, causes, and effects of inequalities between persons and groups of a nature that do not readily admit to differences in intelligence or ability—that is, inequalities based (primarily) on class and economic circumstances, or, as has been more recently understood, disability, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, and creed. This blog examines the approaches of two such social scientists, Karl Marx and Daniel Bell, to this study of class. Their respective views concerning the origin of classes are first examined, before the two conceptual frameworks proffered for this understanding are compared. The implications for the individual and the collective are then assessed, with particular reference paid to the political economic transformations observed in mereological constitutions of class analysis. That is to say, transformations of class structures and mobility within these structures that are the result of interactions between parts, or individuals, and the whole, or the collective. Comparing the ideas of Marx with those of Bell shows that the distinction between complexity and simplicity comprises a fundamental point of departure in studies of class structure. This is the key conclusion of the analysis presented in this blog.

Political philosophers and social scientists have always been preoccupied with class, though not always as a unit of analysis in its own right. For the classical political economists who preceded Marx—the Physiocrats and Adam Smith among them—classes were subordinate to the technical distribution of the national product. When the roles of individuals in building the economy were separated into distinct functions, then the notion of classes emerged—not as historically contingent, but by definition. An idea of autonomy, then, would on this view be tantamount to supposing the organs of the body move where whichever. In this mechanistic Descartes-like physiology (Caton 1985: 839), the flow of goods could modelled like the flow of blood. ‘The physiocrats’, wrote Bell (1973: 33), ‘attempted to draw an economic grid that would array all exchanges among men’, a tableau entier or economique (Figure 1). This vision would be extended upon, and then turned on its head, by Smith and Marx respectively.

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Figure 1 Schema of the economic flowcharts of the Physiocrats. Source: Gehrke & Kurz (1995: 65)

Marx’s contribution to political economy, it turns out, consists in an extended and direct response to these very ideas and the personalities who furnished them. As Marx ([1852] 1978: 220) notes in a letter to Weydemeyer, ‘as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic anatomy of classes’. He points to three key innovations in his approach to the study of class: (1) the historical contingency of classes; (2) the ascendancy of the proletariat; and (3) the abolition of classes to ensue. These pillars of Marxist class analysis are informed by a wider philosophical and literary milieu. Yet equally they are, perhaps more than anything, a repudiation of the ‘bottom-up’ approach that marked early thinking on class. And here, too, is a debate with which Bell is directly engaged.

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Figure 2 Pre-Marxist model of class analysis (RHS) and Marxist model of class analysis (LHS)

Marx’s predecessors, taking as their starting point the individual, built a complete picture of political economy in which Mandeville’s paradox—that private vice begot public virtue—could be solved. Smith, for instance, begins the Wealth of Nations with the central idea of the division of labour, because it forms the mechanism by which an economy transitions from an assortment of individuals to a fully-functioning system. Classes, then, are determined by the way in which the whole thus produced, or the national output, is ‘naturally distributed’ (Smith [1776] 2003: 29). Merchants and manufacturers were hailed as indispensable to the capitalist system, though they were prone to summoning the ‘spirit of monopoly’ (Smith [1776] 2003: 292). The landlords were considered parasitic, characterised by ‘indolence’ and lack of mental exertion. Wage-earners, pitted in between, were marked by ‘dexterity’ (Figure 2).

These classes are in perpetual conflict, but an optimal outcome is always achieved as each political economic line is contested, and therefore hardened (orange arrows, Figure 2). Here the direction of causality runs from the national product, through its derivative endowments, to classes, ending on values. Smith outlined only a cursory theory of class conflict to be sure. Yet here we witness the beginnings of a transition away from analysis of national products, competition, markets, and an economic order, towards one concerned with distribution, inequality, monopoly, and economic disorder: a transition, in other words, from methodological individualism, to methodological holism.

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Picture 1 Karl Marx

Marx takes as his starting point the whole, or the collective, and plots his way down to the individual, primarily because this is the only level of analysis from which change can command viable effect. Here the direction of causality runs from the values dominant in the society, through the three main economic functions, to the national product and its distribution into profits, wages, or a combination of both. Profits go to the bourgeoisie, who are exploitative. Wages are afforded to the proletariat, who value fellowship. And all remaining endowments are distributed among the reactionary and conservative middle class, who are expected to decline and assimilate into the bourgeoisie or proletariat. Marx’s claim is that, beginning with the values of the proletariat, the mereological constitution of classes can be transformed, and then ultimately abolished. He develops a framework which codifies the character of these dynamics, clarifying the role of values in guiding the holist trajectory.

The base-superstructure hypothesis is fundamental to the development of Marx’s critique of capitalism and its organisation of class structure—forming the ‘guiding principle’ of his work (Marx [1859] 1994: 211). The values prevailing in society, on this view, are the product of a more fundamental substrate—the economic base (or substructure)—consisting of the social relations and material means of production, which are defined respectively as: property relations between owners of labour and capital; and the instruments of production, ranging from land, to raw materials, tools, factories, and machines. Capitalism, as a stage of historical materialism, constitutes a mode of production. At first sight this makes for a counter-intuitive response—theorising that values are beholden to the economic culture—given it is values that propel the transformation of society. But this is to conflate the dominant values of society with those of human nature. The latter values of humankind are suppressed by the former figments of the capitalist imaginary. Such popular deceit is necessary to sustain confidence in, and secure the reproduction of, the substructure. The task of philosophy, then, is to awaken people’s class consciousness, so that they may rally against their false or ‘social consciousness’ (Marx [1859] 1994: 211).

The central logic of this substructure—capital accumulation—is governed by property relations and the division of labour. ‘In the social production of their existence’, writes Marx, ‘men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will’ ([1859] 1994: 211). That participation in the division of labour is involuntary ensures the continuation of capitalism and technological progress. At some point, however, this structure will no longer facilitate the ‘development of the productive forces’, but will fetishise itself, marking the point at which ‘begins an era of social revolution’ (Marx [1859] 1994: 211). Bell reaches a different conclusion. When taken to its logical end, the division of labour will, upon becoming aware of itself, render historical determinism superfluous. In the post-industrial society, such anticipation is superseded by technical and computational planning (Figure 4). Bell draws upon a theory of axial principles and structures to further these ideas, but not before the issue of values and its relationship to class is reappraised.

‘The attitude to scientific knowledge’, argues Bell (1973: 44), ‘defines the value system of a society’. Before Marx, the individual’s occupation or role in economic society was thought to influence their values and character-structure. For Marx, values were shaped by a person’s standing to property—whether they owned it or served it. How do these views square with Bell’s? The common thread is arguably couched in the distinction between complexity and simplicity.

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Figure 3 Sub-structure and super-structure; axial principles and axial structure (abstract)

If the class structure exhibits little complexity (or high inequality), scientific knowledge is concentrated in the hands of a few, subject to privilege and concealment. If the degree of complexity in constitutions of class analysis is high, then scientific knowledge is dispersed. In this way the distribution of classes as a share of the population predict the values prevailing in any given period, but as to whether they actually determine them, Bell reserves judgement: ‘I do not believe that the social structure “determines” other aspects of the society’, he writes, ‘but rather that changes in social structure (which are predictable) pose management problems or policy issues for the political system’ (1973: 38).

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Figure 4 Flow diagram of Brookings-SSRC econometric model. Source: Duesenberry, et al. (1965: 23)

For Marx, the economy and its socially-mediated values are inextricably tied, so that the arrow of causality between the means and relations of production and the ‘legal and political superstructure’ (Marx [1859] 1994: 211), runs in both directions (Figure 3). This differs from Bell’s approach to class, which is concerned with specifying ‘not causation (this can only be done in a theory of empirical relationships) but centrality’ (1973: 10). In Figure 3, this is represented by an undivided structure, in which the axial point, denoted by rotation alpha, is relational to parameter lambda, defined as the space between two axial principles, running across ideological lines (e.g. communist vs capitalist), geographic boundaries (e.g. Soviet vs American) or temporal stages (e.g. pre-industrial vs post-industrial). In modelling political economic transformations in this way, the overriding implication for class structure is that predictions of its causal trajectory now become increasingly difficult.

Where does this leave Marx, a prediction-bound thinker for whom change is necessary for establishing ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ ([1848] 1978: 491)? Bell appears to dodge the question of how change of this sort is to come about, by dispensing with the presupposition that it is predictable—instead, it is multi-perspectival and counter-intuitive (Bell 1973: 32). ‘I do not believe’, writes Bell, ‘in a deterministic trajectory’ (1973: x). To return to a debate rehearsed earlier, Bell here adopts a ‘bottom-up’ view of class constitutions. He argues that a reconsideration of social change is necessary ‘for a real ideological crisis does exist’, questioning how, given the decline of the working class, ‘can Marx’s vision of social change be maintained?’ (Bell 1973: 40). Bell here does not mean to deny the desirability of change or the very fact that we could engineer it. On the contrary, the individual in post-industrial society seeks ‘to substitute a technical order for the natural order’ (Bell 1973: 45). Rather, Bell is making a distinction between mereological transformations of class structures—i.e. widescale revolutions—and mobility within these structures—i.e. tinkering of social planning—that are the result of interactions between parts and the whole. However, in his observation of nature, Bell is not too distant from Marx.

One of the key reasons why Marx argued constitutions of class analysis necessitated transformation, was because of alienation. ‘The worker sinks to the level of a commodity’, claims Marx, ‘and becomes indeed the most wretched of commodities’ (Marx [1844] 1978: 74). He proposes a fourfold theory of alienation, entailing alienation of the worker from (1) their products, (2) the act of production, (3) their species-essence, and (4) their colleagues. What tied this system of alienation together was private property, as the more perverse faculties of human nature (Figure 5)—characterised as ‘alien’, ‘hostile’, ‘powerful’, and ‘independent’—were channelled into the insatiable accumulation of property. Bell adapts this view, arguing that ‘the two major axes of stratification in Western society are property and knowledge’ (1973: 43). He emphasises that ‘a tightened social framework’ (or division of labour), has ‘brought isolated regions and classes of a nation into society’ (Bell 1973: 42). The result is that this interdependence ‘has made individuals feel more helpless within larger entities, and [has] broadened the span of control over the activities of any organisation from a centre’ (Bell 1973: 42). As to why Bell does not then agree with Marx in his prescriptions, namely, that private property should be abolished, goes to the heart of the matter here concerning the respective conceptions of society adopted.

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Figure 5 Sub-structure and super-structure; axial principles and axial structure (reified)

Fundamentally, a conception of society is either simple or complex. The ‘simple view’, associated with methodological individualism, holds that the basic unit of reality is simple. Therefore, understanding society’s constituent elements can explain the whole. The ‘complex view’, associated with methodological holism, holds that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, exhibiting phenomena that are conceptually irreducible (Thalos 2011: 12). Marx must surely count among the latter. His predecessors certainly adopted the former, with their emphasis on the individual. Bell, however, appears to be neither, if only because he is sympathetic to both.

‘Any single choice may be as unpredictable as the quantum atom responding erratically to the measuring instrument’, argues Bell, ‘yet the aggregate patterns could be charted as neatly as the geometer triangulates the height and the horizon’ (1973: 33). The key difference, then, lies in Bell’s insistence that a singular account of class in society, be it couched in the aggregate or its parts, is unattainable. His work is ‘an attempt, methodologically, to use a new kind of conceptual analysis, that of axial principles and axial structures, as a way of “ordering” the bewildering number of possible perspectives about macro-historical change’ (Bell 1973: xi). In theorising class structure, Bell makes sense of the individual and the collective, but does not offer any prescriptions.

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Picutre 2 Prof. Daniel Bell WM James 602, 6-6509 10/26/92 1226, #26 Photographer: Jane Reed

In his reticence, Bell aligns himself more with Smith than Marx. ‘Any new emerging system creates hostility among those who feel threatened by it’, he argues. ‘The chief problem of the emerging post-industrial society is the conflict generated by a meritocracy principle which is central to the allocation of position in the knowledge society’ (Bell 1973: 44). That is to say, inequalities between persons based on intelligence, but entrenched in class. This exploitation-free view marks a key point of departure for the two camps that Bell situates himself between. On the one hand, there are Marx’s predecessors—proponents of the ‘simple’ or ‘bottom-up’ view—who state that this conflict will sort itself out through the division of labour. On the other hand, there is Marx, whose ‘complex’ or ‘top-down’ view binds him to a vision of implied trajectories and historical laws. The real debate, then, rests not on which theory is correct or incorrect, but rather on which approach will take our conception of class structure from where it is now, to somewhere better.

Reference List


Bell, D. (1973), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting, New York: Basic Books, Inc. Publishers.

Caton, H. (1985), ‘The Preindustrial Economics of Adam Smith’, The Journal of Economic History, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 833-853.

Duesenberry, J.S., Fromm, G., Klein, L.W., and Kuh, E. (1965), The Brookings Quarterly Econometric Model of the United States, Chicago: Rand McNally.

Gehrke, C. and Kurz, H.D. (1995), ‘Karl Marx on Physiocracy’, The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 53-90.

Marx, K. (1978), ‘Class Struggle and Mode of Production (Marx to Joseph Weydemeyer)’, in Tucker, R. (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, p. 220.

———(1978), ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts’, in Tucker, R. (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 70-101.

———(1978), ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Tucker, R. (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, pp. 469-500.

———(1994), ‘Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in Simon, L.H. (ed.), Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., pp. 209-213.

Smith, A. (2003), The Wealth of Nations, Cannan, E. (ed.), New York: Bantam Dell.

Thalos, M. (2011), ‘Two Conceptions of Fundamentality’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 41, no. 2, pp. 151-177.

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