The very prudent integration of Marx in U.S. sociology


One can easily imagine how Marx would have reacted to ethnomethodology. Garfinkel claims to be concerned with people's activities and their lives, but in fact he is content with pure speculative thought about the nature of reality. While workers are "doing" digging for coal, the product of their labour is alienated by a few who insist not to work for a living and treat them like cattle. Now that is hard reality; that is what shapes individual minds and collective culture. On a certain level, though, both perspectives posit human activity as the source of the self. The main difference lies in the nature of that self-defining activity.

I have said that Merton's (or Durkheim's, in a less obvious way) assumption that differential material conditions could lead to a unified culture was problematic. Miller's solution of splitting culture saw to the problem, but chose to ignore the process leading to the split, deciding to see it as a given, or at least inconsequential; for Marx, looking into that process and its bases in fact leads to a completely different view of society and history.

For Marx, reality and humans' relations to it start at the most basic level: the simple, quite concrete need to sustain human life: food, drink, shelter, clothing. These needs have to be fulfilled, and ways to produce satisfaction need to be invented immediately. This is the "real reality" of the social world: families working to survive in the immediate material conditions of their environment. At this point, there are no Durkheimian rules or abstract social facts at work. On the contrary, individuals "reproduce" themselves by insuring their continued physical existence, thus expressing this existence through a mode of life directly dependant on the environment as potential life-sustaining product. If there is a social world, it simply is this physical environment -- including the hungry human bodies populating it. In a way, women and men actively integrate themselves in the environment on which they depend, and various ways in which this is possible are available.

Soon, when numbers gather together, it becomes obvious that a certain division of the necessary tasks will be more effective. At this point, this is still a matter of life or death. The farmer depends on the plow maker, and vice versa, to keep herself and her family alive. Division of labour, though, also introduces entirely new ways in which individuals relate to each other. Marx sees as "development of productive forces of the nation"(1) the extent to which labour is specialized among social unit members. And a direct consequence of this development is the appearance and evolution of the concept of property -- because without it exchange is impossible between specialized workers (later, property becomes even more important as production becomes more efficient and surpluses appear). All of the above elements create and shape social relations between individuals; it is clear that if any social facts exist, they have to be understood from the bottom up, from the last level of the coal mine, as they are slowly sculpted with every blow of the miner's hammer. Still, that does not mean that individuals are aware of this creation, even less that they are responsible for it in the conventional sense. But the social is not "more than the sum of its parts", but in a way it is less, a kind of byproduct of the organization of productive work in society.

According to Marx, humans become aware of their distinction from animals when it becomes obvious that they are producing their means of subsistence, i.e. doing conscious work to that end. They soon leave this stage of purely material consciousness as they start interacting with one another in cooperation, producing language (which he calls "practical consciousness", arising from the simple need to communicate in order to produce more efficiently: it is another mean of survival), politics, etc. but since this interaction is directly linked to the way in which production is organized, consciousness itself, as a final outcome, is consequently structured in the same way.

Unlike Hegel, who saw History as the chronological unfolding of essentially teleological events (towards the fulfilment of Universal Reason or Spirit), Marx describes historical progression as largely contingent, but especially as coming from the bottom up, from working individuals and not from some kind of universal spirit or collective consciousness -- or normative/abstract social facts. I will not get into Marxist interpretations of historical evolution beyond a few quick statements. (1) Marx does not say that capitalism is an entirely "bad" system; only, it is just dysfunctional enough to lead to its transformation into a communist organization of labour, which eventually eradicates conflict and reconnects with reality(2). One must note that, like previous systems ("primitive communism", slavery, feudalism), industrial capitalism produced great advances in human culture; however, it also contains the seeds of its demise (the most obvious being the contradiction of having to bring together millions of alienated workers to put them to work in cities, thus producing both "worker consciousness" and strength in numbers), and its eventual rejection is inevitable. One can see right away how difficult this was to integrate to U.S. mainstream thought without massive editing.

(2) History is a product of real life necessities and the way they are met in terms of organization of labour; it is a construction of individual workers, not the story of kings and princes. Consequently, organization of labour contains all the basic elements of explanation of any identifiable social/historical phenomenon, as well as any concepts and all intellectual productions.

(3) Industrial capitalism is characterized mainly by two factors. (1) Concentration of property and appropriation of all production surpluses -- based on the necessities of industrial-type means of production -- in the hands of the few, while the quantity of labour necessary to those means requires masses of dispossessed workers. Dividing property would lead to failure of production on two fronts: there would be too few workers left (one only works because one needs to), and owners would lack the power to organize production. (2) This state of affairs "alienates" workers from the result of their work, to the profit of the owner(3). This does not mean that the owner is any "happier" than the worker. He is also a victim of the system, being slowly detached from reality. For both, true "intellectual wealth" depends on the quality of their conscious connection to "world history" ("reality-rooted" history), as access to both material and intellectual productions of all, without any form of barrier(4).

It is relatively easy to imagine how social order is viewed through that prism: essentially, it is imposed by owners (through an invention of theirs called the State) according to the needs of the organisation of production, and rejected by alienated workers whose needs are drastically different. But the idea of justice itself being alienated, it becomes simply synonymous and directly interchangeable with positive law(5) and the workers' rejection of the imposed order becomes uncertain, if it does not simply disappear, because no alternative seems possible -- while security is still desirable. This is in the end one more example of, in Marxist terms, sub-structure infecting super-structure, i.e. organization of labour shaping consciousness and ideology(6).

This explains deviance and crime (and everything else) in terms of dialectical materialism. I have said before that intuitively, deviance (for example) seems to have to be the product of two or more opposing forces creating it through some form of friction, like passions-rules, propensities-norms, culture-opportunities, culture x-culture y, etc. Dialectical materialism elevates this view into a scientific method, with the qualification that the opposed elements must be concrete facets of social-historical life and not simply "ideas". For Marx, these two elements are (economic) dominators-dominated. A short digression seems to be in order: what is dialectics? Aristotle used to refer to this method as being a waste of time, a string of empty debates where no one would ever change their mind, and no new knowledge would ever appear. Hegel explained that on the contrary, by measuring thesis to antithesis and ending with a synthesis, the thinker could produce new solutions to philosophical problems. Marx observed that Hegel had only used this method in the abstract sense, pitting ideas against one another, and that it would be far more productive to use it on real historical facts.

There are two reasons why I chose to expose Marx without using the word "class". The first one is rather simple: I wished to inscribe his perspective in the larger sociological picture in order to make comparisons -- if there are any -- more available, without "translation" being needed. The second is a bit more complex, and has to do with my fundamental distrust of the concept, which is at least in part due to its obviousness. In a way, the implication that society can be dichotomized in neat exclusive categories seems simplistic, or at least outmoded. In that sense, it is no surprise that neo-Marxists seem content to turn the guns around in terms of criminality, to point out for instance that tobacco companies kill more people in a year than there are criminal murders in three decades and therefore should answer for it. They do not seem to have anything interesting to say about the nature of transgression or the reactions to it. They are still interested in etiological approaches to crime and official solutions to it, content to identify new crimes and new solutions. The "class struggle" perspective ignores the relations of individual to "their class" as well as group political action and institutional action, which have little to do with class struggle.

The problem is, and it starts I believe with Marx himself, that while the perspective is "materialist", it is heavily coloured by ethical concerns: in the time of Marx, small children put in fourteen hour days in narrow mine shafts; something had to be done. While these are laudable intentions, in the end, no matter how one insists that she is looking at hard reality, and that the Marxist logic rises from concrete action and experience, it still needs assumptions about how exactly that experience is perceived from an individual standpoint (i.e. it is still an objectivation of human experience). And this must go beyond "working is hard, collecting money is easy, therefore life is perceived as unfair". The most obvious example is Marx's (totally erroneous) understanding of feudal Europe. There is circularity in saying both that (1) the serfs were convinced that having a lord as protector -- and exploiter -- was a good thing because the super-structure made them believe so and (2) the super-structure was shaped that way because serfs agreed to be ruled. This comes from the feedback effect of ideology in the Marxist model. This does not mean that it is wrong to see ideology as rooted in reality (which by the way is the extent of what is left of Marx in today's Marxism), but it certainly is wrong to postulate how reality is perceived by the subjects.



Thinkers like Lockwood eventually turned to Marx when they ran out of options as to how to explain the existence of conflict and power relations between social groups. They seem to have forgotten that Marx is not in fact a "conflict" theorist: he predicts that history will eventually even out conflict, i.e. conflict is not an element of society, it is a problem. Without going too far into this, I would like to simply point out that it is entirely possible to see conflict as an engine of society, if not as the very nature of social interaction. At the same time, this is not to be some kind of justification for the shape any conflict takes at any particular time. This is why, for instance, the eradication of racism should not take the form of the eradication of differences (skin colour excluded), but in their acceptance (which is quite different from tolerance). This may appear as a nuance, but it is of major importance. It draws the limit between radically normalized societies(7) and progressive (conflictual) ones. For (neo-) Marxists, conflict is too often reduced to a method of explanation of social difficulties.

Traditional North-American functionalist views, with Parsons as their chief interpreter, have essentially limited sociological investigation to epiphenomena of a deeper reality. Like Hobbes, they have assimilated the birth of the social with the birth of conventionality or normativity: the social is functional. That is why the social world of Durkheim seems ethereal and arbitrary: as we have seen, it simply "appears" with the congregation of at least two individuals, and furthermore it remains independent from them. On the contrary, Lockwood, with Marx, argues that to look at the pre-conventional (or extra-conventional, if one doubts the value of the chronology(8)) can give insight into the shape that conventions will take: it is therefore not pre-social, but an integral part of the beginning of social interrelations. If one agrees that the pre-conventional was essentially orbiting around physical sustenance and differential (1) opportunities to achieve it, (2) modes of organization of work towards that goal, then conflict is integrated in sociology, but only (at this point) as an explanation of the organization of conventions. With all of these caveats, however, it seems that the explanatory value of the model is largely compromised.

Besides, I am not sure to what point "historical" regression is useful in the comprehension of social interactions. Would it be interesting to discuss animal societies, the study of which was embryonic at best in the times of Marx? Lions have rules too; they cooperate when hunting; they interact, they "change their minds", etc. To a large extent, the advent of rules, and the marxist "production of subsistence" probably happened so far away in pre-human development that any conclusion is not applicable or relevant to Homo sapiens sapiens(9).

Lockwood sees the norms-substratum effect on persistence and change in the social as more or less synchronistic and available in the present. This is definitely an adaptation of Marx meant to include Parsonian normativity and to leave room for industrial capitalism as a legitimate form of social structure. While Parson views class superiority as ascendance on the evolution of value systems, Lockwood adds that there are such things as material differences also. Marx would surely not have gone along with this marriage of convenience: according to him, material differences are not an add-on, they are the essential cause of any form of ascendancy in the first place (not to mention that the rules it creates lead to basic degeneration of the human mind). To see them separately creates a breach in the circle structure-superstructure. As for my own point of view, I believe that Lockwood's semi-integration of normativity and social substratum is faulty on two levels: first, it lacks a clear theoretical link between the two elements (because it rejects Marx's historical one) and remains ad hoc. Second, it cannot find this link because the categorisation normative-natural is artificial (it comes from a specific interpretation of human development) and simplistic (it assumes that "norms" are only norms and are independent from everyday negotiation of reality).



1. (1846) "The German Ideology", in: The Marx-Engels Reader, New-York, Norton and Co., 1972, p. 114.

2. Marx, being a "scientist", and not and "ideologue" like Hegel, claims to really know what reality is, and this is the basis for his judgment of social progress.

3. This goes much deeper than the common misconception that if salaries are higher and profit margins more reasonable alienation disappears. What is at stake is not simply money or even differential economic power, but the very definition of self as a "productive member of society" (this, not to be taken in the usual sense, however). In short, the forced abstraction (i.e. transformation into currency) of concrete work tends to make the reality-based individual an abstraction. Once this happens, interaction with others is impossible (see "German Ideology, p. 155).

4. "German Ideology", p. 128.

5. Ibid., p. 151.

6. Ideology, in marxist vocabulary, means two things depending on context: in "german ideology", it means the empty exercise of thinking about the social while neglecting to consult reality; in itself, however, it represents the realm of ideas, and more specifically political ideas, that result from the mode of production and its attached modes of social interaction, and are in turn used to politically justify the status quo.

7. Since there is probably no such thing, it might be helpful to think in terms of "active normalization", or the level of agressiveness that a society shows in its efforts towards that goal.

8. Two views are possible here: a simply historical marxist-type account of the formation of the social, which is essentially chronological (i.e. one step has to occur before another can be taken; it cannot be said that B depends on A without assuming that A precedes B), or a more supple, "fuzzier" conceptualization of constant experience/analysis and soft definitions of perceptions.

9. The reader should remember that in the times of Marx, the conceptual timeframe of humanoid development was still extremely narrow. In more ways than one, the universe has greatly "expanded" since then.