Examining Karl Marx, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Emile Durkheim

Within the realm of social theory, the common thread that serves to bind Karl Marx, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, and Emile Durkheim together as valid today, over one hundred years after their deaths, is their collective interest in explaining the ever-present misery lurking within modern society. Though each theorist offers a different perspective on the reasons for this boom of misery, they all agree that this misery, to some extent, stems from capitalism, religion, and society as a force at large.

Karl Marx’s contribution to social theory is his blazing critique of the capitalist society which much of the world is so unhappily entrenched in to this day. Though terms such as Bourgeoisie and Proletariat are not bantered about that often outside of a classroom, it is clear to see that this division does indeed exist: “the whole of society must fall apart into two classes – the property-owners and the propertyless workers” (Marx 1844:31). Currently, society in general seems to label itself according to a three tiered system which assigns individuals into the categories of lower class, middle class, or upper class, but the distinction of working class can easily be assigned to both the lower and middle class, which in turn makes the label proletariat applicable to both. Following Marx’s logic, labor is the force that accounts for the distinction between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, a distinction that is at core historically and presently accurate despite whatever labels might be in place at different points in time.

The problems with labor, however, are numerous and bleak considering that they adversely affect the worker and even society as a whole. Marx claims that not only does the “increasing value of the world of things proceed in direct proportion the devaluation of men” (p. 31), but also that labor “produces itself and the worker as a commodity” as well. This remains noticeable in present day America when materialism runs rampant with little to no regard for the workers exploited within this country and outside of it. Most people do not consider the person or many people which have contributed to the process of making the object even though “the product of labor is labor which has been congealed in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor.”

It may initially seem a stretch to claim that labor becomes manifest within the objects it seeks to produce, but as this production of objects is truly the purpose of labor, it seems fair to argue that where else could this labor go but into its product? And in turn, when the laborers are separated from the objects they have produced and lost a part of themselves within, how else must they feel but alienated and estranged? One can not help but agree with Marx; “so much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer he can possess and the more he falls under the dominion of his product.”

It is a common sentiment in the modern world that the workers who are so central to the acquisition and maintenance of the corporate owners’ wealth get very little in return, despite their importance, and are often treated as though they are just another commodity which is easily replaceable. Because the worker loses control of what he has produced, what he has in a sense given birth to, once it is out of his hands, because “the worker puts his life into the object. . . his life no longer belongs to him but to the object.” Because the worker knows that “if [his] work is a torment to him, to another it must be delight and his life’s joy” (p. 35), this leads the worker to conclude that “the alien being, to whom labor and the produce of labor belongs, in whose service labor is done and for whose benefit the produce of labor is provided, can only be man.”

Another dimension to this misery is the simple fact that this type of labor does not make an admirable contribution to the worker’s life, but actually depletes it due to the fact that work is a type of bondage: “the worker becomes a slave of his object, first in that he receives an object of labor [work]. . . and secondly, that he receives means of subsistence. Therefore, it enables him to exist, first, as a worker; and second, as a physical subject” (p. 32). The full extent of this bondage is, as Marx points out, that “it is only as a worker that he continues to maintain himself as a physical subject, and that it is only as a physical subject that he is a worker.” Basically, there is an element of lack of choice on the worker’s part, for he must work to live, and yet because he must work, he fails to truly live, because “in his work. . . he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.”

The labor that the worker does, then, is a form of forced labor; “it is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy the needs external to it” (p. 33). This is evident within just about every aspect of today’s society, from all the people who are forced to work jobs they hate to just to survive, right down to the phrases that have incorporated themselves into our language, like “working for a living,” which reinforces Marx’s idea that, for the proletariat, working is the only means to living.

What other problems have manifested within our capitalist system due to the “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (p. 38) of the worker? Because modern society at large functions so centrally on money, even emotions have become manipulated by this – the very way in which people view each other has been corrupted. Marx blames the bourgeoisie for “strip[ping] of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. . . convert[ing] the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers,” and for “[tearing] away from the family its sentimental veil. . . reduc[ing] the family relation to a mere money relation.” Currently, at least among the college set, many individuals pursue higher income jobs for little other reason than love of money, or perhaps the absolute and pressing desperation for it, instead of for the love of the actual job. In fact, attending college is often recommended in order to get a better job, while expanding your frame of knowledge seems more likely viewed as a secondary bonus. As for Marx’s assertion that even family is strained by money, this is undoubtedly true, particularly in families where there is not enough or barely enough money and people begin to resent each other and hate themselves because of this lack of wealth. Even in wealthier families, presumably, money becomes an issue due to people’s feelings of entitlement because of the excess money.

Furthermore, “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (1848:37). There stands a great divide between the working class and the upper class in current society which seems unlikely to ever be breached, one that consists of a complex mixture of emotions of injustice, discrimination, and an undercurrent of anger and resentment. Whether or not this ever results in the proletariat uprising remains to be seen.

Offering further criticism of capitalism is Max Weber. Interestingly, Weber seeks to explain the modern work ethic in terms of religious sentiment, claiming that financial pursuit has stemmed from a religious work ethic and has, in turn, become the new religion: “man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life” (1905:102). Weber stresses that though the spirit of capitalism was born “from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (p. 103), work has now been “stripped of its religious and ethical meaning” (p. 104), thus echoing some of the sentiment expressed by Marx. This seems a rather irrational approach to life, considering that “the earning of more and more money, combined with the strict avoidance of all spontaneous enjoyment of life, is above all completely devoid of any eudmonistic. . . admixture” (p. 102).

But regardless of rationality, capitalism has designated money as its new god and this god is a demanding one. As people work harder and harder in pursuit of the almighty dollar, discontent seems to manifest within the seems of America’s capitalist society. When people live in a constant state of desire, always striving towards something that is beyond their immediate grasp and never quite obtaining their goal, unhappiness is inevitable. The immediate goal that many individuals work towards may be as simple as having some extra money left after paying their bills for the month, but the ultimate goal of many is likely that of financial freedom – that is, to have enough money in the bank to not be forced to work in order to live anymore.

As Weber explains, “since asceticism undertook to remodel the world and to work out its ideals in the world, material goods have gained an increasing and finally an inexorable power over the lives of men as at no previous period in history” (p. 103). This echoes Marx further in so far that Weber sees that objects seem to take on a power of their own within the realms of a capitalist society, partly because this is inevitable, but also partly because mankind allows it and encourages it to be so.

Another tool of power within capitalism is the structure of bureaucracy; because “bureaucracy is the means of carrying ‘community action’ into rationally ordered ‘societal action'” (p. 109), it is thereby “an instrument for ‘societalizing’ relations of power. . . and is a power instrument of the first order – for the one who controls the bureaucratic apparatus.” As the main focus of bureaucracy is to control societal action, it is indeed a force to be reckoned with once it does in fact gain this level of control over society. This power relationship is “practically unshatterable” because “a ‘societal action’. . . is superior to every resistance of ‘mass’ or even ‘communal action.'” Once a societal structure is in place and functioning in what the public perceives as a rational manner, it does seem to take on a strength of its own simply through its existence. This is evident in modern society when our “way of life” seems to be set in stone simply because there often seems to be no other option, no way to change the system, and no means to even attempt to do so. Weber says that “if the state is to exist, the dominated must obey the authority claimed by the powers that be” (1918:111). This blind obedience does not serve any purpose except to keep those in power powerful – and though it would be ideal to believe that once society at large realized this, change would be possible, it is fairly doubtful that society will ever come to terms with this knowledge.

Also related to the obedience within modern society is Freud’s idea of the cultural super-ego; as he suggests, “the analogy between the process of civilization and the path of individual development may be extended. . . the community, too, evolves a super-ego under whose influence cultural development proceeds” (Freud 1930:145). Considering that the individual’s super-ego allegedly develops as a result of socialization and is in fact a manifestation of society’s values and morals within one’s self, it seems logical then to infer that society as a whole has its own super-ego that functions similarly to manifest values and morals within its culture. The implication that the cultural super-ego disguises its demands “under the heading of ethics” (p. 146) should arouse a little suspicion that ethics are, at core, yet another means of control exercised over not only the individual, but the whole of society.

Ethics are further disguised as “a therapeutic attempt – as an endeavor to achieve, by means of a command of the super-ego, something which has so far not been achieved by means of any other cultural activities.” The problem with this cultural super-ego, then, is that it demands what is perhaps impossible for society to achieve: “in the severity of its commands and prohibitions. . . it takes insufficient account of the resistances against obeying them – of the instinctual strength of the id, and of the difficulties presented by the real external environment.” As a result of the cultural super-ego’s harsh demands, a neurosis may develop in individuals which serves to revolt against the super-ego’s tyranny, or at the very least the individual “will be made unhappy” (p. 147). Evidence supporting this in modern society could perhaps be seen in the increasing number of individuals seeking psychological therapy for depression or other neuroses. Freud advances this idea a step further when he suggests that “under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations. . . possibly the whole of mankind – have become neurotic.”

It becomes irresistible, though slightly redundant, to wonder who is responsible for the demands imposed by the cultural super-ego; it seems that it is almost a phenomenon born of itself, a result of some residue of the past carrying over into the present, something almost magical. Freud believes it stems from “the impression left behind by the personalities of great leaders – men of overwhelming force of mind, or men in whom one of the human impulsions has found its purest and strongest. . . expression,” (p. 146) which makes the cultural super-ego seem to possess a religious, mythical element. Indeed, Freud points to Jesus Christ as one of these men who “did not attain divinity until long after he had met his death by violence.”

Emile Durkheim draws further on Freud’s idea of a collective unconscious, without ever referring to it as such, when he argues that “society is not made up merely of the mass of individuals who compose it, the ground which they occupy, the things which they use and the movements which they perform, but above all is the idea which it forms of itself” (Durkheim 1912:91). This idea that society holds of itself as a group can be seen as an extension of the collective unconscious particularly because “it is under the form of collective thought that impersonal thought is for the first time revealed to humanity” (p. 93) and because society exists at all, “there is also, outside of individual sensations and images, a whole system of representations which enjoy marvelous properties.”

Durkheim concludes, similarly to Freud, that “human activity naturally aspires beyond assignable limits and sets itself unattainable goals” (1897:75). Because of this never-ending pursuit of the impossible, Durkheim contends that humankind has “condemn[ed] [it]self to a state of perpetual unhappiness.” Freud, however, claims that this unhappiness stems from the cultural super-ego’s repression of the individual’s id, while Durkheim explains this unhappiness in terms of human nature’s inability to “assign the variable limits necessary to our needs.” Indeed, Durkheim views this as “irrespective of any external regulatory force, our capacity for feeling is in itself an insatiable and bottomless abyss.”

But despite the power of collective thought and society itself, despite Durkheim’s idea that “social institutions have been born in religion” (p. 89), he ultimately feels that society at large “is only feebly ruled by morality” (p. 71) because “the greatest part of [its] existence takes place outside the moral sphere.” Durkheim tends to agree with Marx, then, that human potential is in a sense wasted or neglected due to the importance of economics within the capitalist system. Economic factors become so important in a capitalist society that “there are a multitude of individuals whose lives are passed almost entirely in the industrial and commercial world,” which allows little time for other pursuits and manifests in the decline of respect for other institutions as well: “in the face of the economic, the administrative, military, and religious functions become steadily less important.”

The role of capitalism, religion, and society at large in the misery of modern life becomes apparent when examining the contributions of Marx, Weber, Freud, and Durkheim to the world of social theory. Furthermore, it is ultimately clear that man is to blame for the oppression of his own kind, as has always been the case historically and continues to be as time marches forward. Humankind, in turn, can point to that which is larger than themselves alone – be it capitalism, religion, or society in general – but regardless of all the blame that can be assigned, what remains is the basic truth: we live entrenched in economic and social systems, based at least partially on religion, that make very few people happy and millions miserable.

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