The concept of social class
Marxism is a method of social inquiry which looks at economic, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical aspects of society. According to Karl Marx, people are producers and products of the society in which they live. According to him, society is made up of different parts that influence each other. He argues that the history of human society is that of tension and conflict. As per the manifesto written by him and Friedrich Engels in 1848, ‘the history of all existing societies is the history of class struggle, that of free men and slaves, lords and serfs, who stand in a relationship of an oppressor and oppressed and are therefore in constant opposition to one another’(Heslop 2014).
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Karl Marx presents two-class models of society, namely the bourgeoisie and the workers. The bourgeoisie is the capitalists and the owners of capital. They are also few, rich, powerful, oppressors, exploiters, and they always win elections in democratic countries. On the other hand, the workers are the majority and owners of labor. However, they are powerless, and as a result, they are oppressed and exploited by the bourgeoisie. The workers never win elections in democratic countries due to a lack of political support. Marx describes the workers as ‘a class in itself’ in the sense that they share the same objectives and relationships to the means of production, that is, they are laborers who are paid in wages (Binkley & Littler 2014).
The two classes are always in conflict with each other because their interests are not compatible. While the bourgeoisie has the interests of maintaining the status quo, which ensures their dominance, the workers are interested in changing the status quo, which deprives them of good life. However, the two classes are not aware of the nature of the circumstances which they live in, but they assume that it is natural and nothing can be done to change the circumstances, a situation which Karl Marx calls false class consciousness (Stephens 2013).
The bourgeoisie is not aware that they are the oppressors, while the workers are not aware that they are the oppressed. The workers are also not aware that they are poor, but they assume that they are naturally supposed to be poor. However, when the workers become aware of the reality, that is, when they know that they are exploited by the bourgeoisie, what follows is a revolution. Marx argues that the Russian revolution of 1917 was as a result of the realization by the workers that they were being oppressed by the bourgeoisie.
According to Karl Marx, the defining features of social class are the ownership or lack of ownership of the means of production. He argues that those who own the means of production are able to exploit those who do not own them. Marx further argues that both labor and capital are essential in the stability of the economy. The reason is that the capital cannot transform itself into wealth without labor, while the labor cannot create wealth without the capital.
It, therefore, follows that the bourgeoisie and the workers must work together because none can exist independently of the other. What this means is that both the bourgeoisie and the workers are equal shareholders in the wealth which is created through their interaction. However, it is not always the case. The reason is that at the end of the production process, the sharing of the profits is not fair since the supply value is appropriated by the bourgeoisie at the expense of the workers.
Social class and consumption
As outlined by Veblen and Bourdieu in their various works, consumerism has undergone radical changes that have culminated in a new form of consumerism known as conspicuous consumption. This new form of consumerism is characterized by irrational desires to spend income on luxuries instead of meeting basic needs. They argue that the average UK citizens today are more extravagant than UK citizens of the 1950s and 60s.
During those days, consumerism was characterized by peer influence at the neighborhood level, that is, people used to compare themselves with their peers in their immediate neighborhoods, and as a result, consumption was largely based on basic needs, not on luxuries. During those days also, it was hard to find people living beyond their means because they only desired those social statuses, which were in line with their income (Kent 2015).
However, the emergence of the new media, globalization, cultural diversity, and the modern workplace has brought a new dimension of consumerism. As Veblen and Bourdieu point out, the new media has played a big role in fueling the new consumerism, which is characterized by the desire of UK citizens to spend beyond their means. The reason is that many media advertisements tent to promote the culture of spending without providing alternatives to luxurious lifestyles. In most cases, the new media promotes affluent lifestyles that are affordable to the middle-class but beyond the reach of low-income earners. UK citizens have also detached themselves from their immediate neighborhoods and chosen the new media as their agent of socialization, and as a result, both middle-class and low-income earners live beyond their means for fear of being isolated by their peers (Chaney 2012).
Many UK citizens have also shifted their relationships from the neighborhoods to the workplace, where they tend to compare themselves with their workmates. This shift has contributed to the desire to overspend because many people at the workplace have multiple sources of income and are able to afford affluent lifestyles. It means that those who depend on one source of income are not able to cater to luxurious lifestyles, and as a result, they strain to emulate their peers at the workplace who have many sources of income (Kaufmann, Fateh & Panini 2014).
According to Veblen and Bourdieu, the new consumerism is based on cultural and symbolic capital. Cultural capital has to do with the desire to enhance an individual’s social mobility beyond the individual’s means (Bell & Hollows 2013). For example, after acquiring university degrees, many people tend to adopt luxurious lifestyles such as expensive attire, the desire to own a car and buy a home, among other desires. However, acquiring a university degree does not necessarily mean that an individual has a sustainable income to enhance his or her social mobility.
Symbolic capital has to do with the resources which enhance an individual’s social status. The resources may be material (money) or immaterial (fame) (Bell & Hollows 2013). For example, many international footballers are not only wealthy, but they are also recognized by many people across the globe. This recognition compels them to adopt luxurious lifestyles so as to match their social status. As a result, they tend to purchase the latest fashions of clothes, cars, electronic gadgets, and furniture.
Veblen and Bourdieu further argue that the new consumerism has led to many problems for individuals, countries, and the international community. To start with, research has shown that there has been a remarkable decline in savings by employed and self-employed UK citizens. During the 1950s, more UK citizens were able to save than today. The decline in savings by UK citizens is largely attributed to the competitive consumption associated with new consumerism (Bell & Hollows 2013).
The other problem with new consumerism is that there has been an increasing aspirational gap, which is responsible for the declining quality of life for many middle-class UK citizens (Kent 2015). The majority of them are constantly worried about their future due to the ever-increasing gap between incomes and consumption desires. Many middle-class UK citizens today aspire to take their children to private instead of public schools. They also live in prestigious residents so as to emulate their reference groups in the global society (Kent 2015).
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The need to emulate the reference groups in the global society has also brought other cost-related problems such as the need to own more than one car, inflated budgets for domestic chores such as dry cleaning, career wardrobe, and unending holidays. These have led to a huge disparity between income and consumption.
For the low-income earners, these problems are magnified by the fact that the low-income earners are an easy target of credit card vendors who take advantage of the new media to convince the low-income earners to get credit to meet their irrational consumption desires. The low-income earners are also hard hit by the inability to meet their desires due to job instability, poor wages, and increased inflation of goods and services. As a result, the stress levels of the low-income earners are higher than those of the middle-class earners (Hodge 2014).
The new consumerism is also characterized by the up-scaling of spending norms and a relatively constant or declining income. As Veblen and Bourdieu point out, there has been an upsurge in private consumption of income at the expense of public consumption (Brewer & Porter 2013). There are also many UK citizens who engage in conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste despite their inadequate incomes. The implication is that many UK citizens are becoming individualistic than before. The up-scaling of spending norms has forced many UK citizens to work for many hours so as to get the income to cater for private consumption. There has also been a remarkable decrease in savings, especially among the low-income earners due to huge financial burdens (Baird 2014).
These problems have been exacerbated by the conventional view that the consumer knows it all. This view is based on the idea of democratization and pluralization of consumption, which views the consumer as a sovereign entity with the ability to manipulate the production and supply of products and services (Smith, Wen-Ng & Popkin 2013). The conventional view makes it hard for the government to control the forces of demand and supply because the products which are not preferred by consumers are not produced at all. Companies that ignore consumer s’ desires are forced to exit the market due to stiff competition (Mansvelt 2011).
As opposed to a few decades ago, it is becoming increasingly difficult for MNEs to meet the needs and preferences of their customers, especially due to increased transparency in the free market economy. There are also increased levels of awareness among the customers on the current global market trends, and as such, customers are constantly looking for the ‘next big thing’ from different MNEs (McGary 2010).
The conventional view also makes it hard for the government to legislate on how people should spend their income. Even though it is illogical for people to own two cars when they are not able to maintain them, it is not possible to enact policies that prevent them from owning the two cars. The inability to control irrational spending further magnifies the problems of new consumerism discussed above.
Veblen and Bourdieu provide some recommendations for these problems. First of all, they argue that there is a need for the government to partner with agencies that educate people on the need to focus on the quality of life, not on the quantity of ‘stuff.’ If people are made to understand that the quality of life is not measured by the number of items they own, the majority of them would be able to live within their means and resist the temptation to emulate their reference groups for them to be happy in life.
Another recommendation offered to address the problems is for the government to reinforce ecologically sustainable consumption through the enactment of policies that protect the environment from pollution and global warming. The government may do so by increasing the taxes for the high-end products and making the low-end products tax free (Veblen 2011).
Another strategy to deal with the problems is for the government to regulate the employment industry by banning all companies which allow employees to work overtime. The government may also ensure that no employees are denied their right to go for leave or holidays. Veblen and Bourdieu also recommend that the government should come up with policies that regulate access to credit by ensuring that people get credit to cater to their basic needs, not for luxuries (Wallace 2013).
Further to that, they recommend a reduction of private services and an increase of public services in the education, health, and transport sectors to curb the increasing demand for such services in the private sector, which encourages irrational spending. The government can increase the demand for public services by improving the quality of services in the education, health, and transport sectors (Graziano & Forno 2012).
There are some authors who agree and disagree with Veblen and Bourdieu on the issue of consumption. For instance, George Simmel argues that the problems of new consumerism are entrenched in the structures of social inequality in society, and therefore, there is a need to fight social inequality so as to eliminate the problems of new consumerism (Simmel 2011). However, he argues that the irrational desire by the low-income earners to spend their income on luxuries does not always lead to poverty. The reason is that some low-income earners, through hard work and diversification of sources of income, are able to climb the ladder and attain the status of high-income earners.
Just like Veblen and Bourdieu, Tonnies agrees that conspicuous consumption always trickles down along the social hierarchy. Tonnies also shares the view that the government should put in place policies to ensure sustainable consumption. He also argues that the government should come up with ways of increasing the levels of income and educating people about the dangers of irrational consumption. However, he holds the view that the rate of conspicuous consumption is higher among the high-income earners because they have more disposable income than the low-income earners (Bond 2013).
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