A comparative analysis of the capitalist views of Durkheim, Marx and Weber

Sociology is a complex term to be defined in its entirety, even by masters on the subject. Broadly speaking sociology relates to society and the factors that retain or influence its characteristics. This when interpreted practically will be seen to cover behaviour, relationships, not just as individuals but also as groupings. Sociology can be further divided into narrower disciplines based on politics, religion, economy, race, gender etc., which are generally related to one another. Although certain aspects of sociology were known or used earlier, sociology as an independent field of study and application, evolved in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Emile Durkheim is one of the earliest sociologists who used a scientific approach in studying sociology. In his book Division of Labor in Society (1893), Durkheim talks about relationship and bonding among individuals within a society. Society is likened to a live organism having various systems to perform the essential functions of the society. The social state is maintained by the people through their adherence to social rules associated with strong beliefs. He reveals two types of social bonding or cohesion in a society, which he termed as mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. According to Durkheim, the mechanical solidarity was more applicable to pre-industrial societies in which individuals had similar or nearly similar work, thus ruling out inter-dependence. Here the cohesion was formed and sustained by the existing social system and was therefore dependent on the system as a whole. On the other hand, increased industrialization in developing societies; find people taking to various activities. People begin to diversify in their work and related activities, with some getting more and more sophisticated or specialized too. Demarcation of labour is more visible here, resulting in interdependence of individuals within a society; and Durkheim calls this bonding as organic solidarity.

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According to Durkheim, society to a big extent is controlled by integrity or morality, which ensure that people’s aspirations are within reasonable and socially accepted limits. In individualistic societies, the level of social integration is low which is further lowered as the individualism factor rises. Durkheim was of the view that organic solidarity is more cohesive than mechanical solidarity because we depend more on the differences existing between us rather than the similarities between us. He also noted that the rate of suicide is inversely proportional to the level of integration existing in the society. He reasons out that the suicide rate fell during the Second World War because war played the role of a social integrator. Durkheim was of the view that only a stable and hierarchical society would be suitable for us, given our emotional and psychological framework.

On the other hand Marx, held that people need to interact or establish relationships with one another irrespective of ones choices, since they have to work together for a living. To Marx, it is this relationship and interaction among individuals that make a society and not mere individuals themselves. The basis of society rests on labour, as labour is actually the foundation for relationships between human beings. Thus Marx argued, any affect on the work process or workflow would have a corresponding effect on the society itself. Work, work improvement, production, surplus production; all contributed to the formation class society. The need to be involved in direct production was no longer required for a class of people, when society started surplus production. This class, upon its exemption from direct work, began to live by controlling other labourers. The producers, who constituted the majority of the society, were no longer in control of their labour. Class society and alienation of labour was started.

In his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Karl Marx suggests that alienation of labour progressed with the development of capitalism. The more the labourer toils, the stronger is the hostile system he develops above him and the poorer he becomes; as he owns lesser. Under capitalism, the products produced by a worker do not belong to him; the labour being transformed to become a product or object to exist independent of the worker who created it. The worker gives life to the object he creates, which becomes independent of him; emerge as a hostile and dominating power to the worker itself. The work process is not controlled by the workers themselves but by capitalists who make the workers work harder and for longer hours. Marx saw mass production of products as creating newer needs and newer ways for the exploitation of the workers. The more goods a worker creates, he becomes an increasingly cheaper commodity. Under capitalism, the ability to produce more, increased considerably but the ones that created the wealth do not enjoy its benefits. Giddens (Giddens) considers this emphasis of social progress and social conflict on economic production as a main drawback with Marxism. Giddens saw Marxism as reducing labour to instrumental concepts and avoiding environmental degradation resulting from industrialisation.

For Weber, capitalism originated from rationality winning over tradition. He saw capitalism as a regulated, orderly workforce in a systemised environment for capital investment. Weber held the view that modern capitalism has its roots in ascetic Protestantism, without which it could not have flourished in Europe. Amintore Fanfani, an economic historian from Italy disagrees with this saying that Europe was familiar with capitalism much before the Protestant revolt. To Fanfani modern capitalism had its origins in Catholic Italian merchant states; although he dismisses the idea that any religion had any effect on the growth of capitalism. Fanfani goes further to say that it now needs to be studied whether Protestantism had encouraged or opposed capitalism, since early protestant leaders including Luther and Calvin had opposed capitalism.

Although Marx and Weber had divergent views, they approached modern capitalism with certain similarities. Both held that modern capitalist economic system replaced personal relationships of dependence among people by dependence on objects, culminating in the amassing of capital. Sociologist Sayer believes that Weber’s criticism of capitalism is to some extent much more emphatic than the views of Marx (Sayer).

Durkheim saw social facts as being different from psychological facts and maintained that social life is not purely based on psychological facts (Smelser). He saw social solidarity as a pure moral phenomenon, which cannot be observed or evaluated, but suggested that it could be studied using an external index. The social solidarity factor could be studied by correlating and interpreting external parameters relating to tastes in art, costumes etc. Weber attached considerable importance to psychological levels in determining sociology and social actions for he felt that the individual behaved according to his assessment of his environment. He felt that social sciences are more based on the psychological and intellectual aspects and therefore socio-cultural trends cannot be related to external objects.

A comparative study of the writings of Marx with those of Durkheim and Weber cannot be complete without reference to their agreement and disagreement on political and social changes (Giddens). The theories of Durkheim and Marx are mainly connected with the structure, emergence and development of the society. What Durkheim saw as labour system and social solidarity, Marx considered them as labour processes, and class struggle. Marx viewed ownership and non-ownership of production as the basis of social relationships and society. Durkheim considered division of labour and solidarity as being important while Weber saw status, religion and class too to have their respective independent effect on social relationships. Marx wanted his writings to be more than mere academic theories, to serve as a foundation for an action plan. Durkheim and Weber on the other hand, separately directed their writings to counter Marx views and provided alternate viewpoints.

In his analysis of capitalism Sennett (Sennett) sees more faults with capitalism than its benefits. Character according to him is an expression of loyalty and reciprocal commitments, pursuing future oriented long term goals; which capitalism does not accommodate or have any scope. Sennett therefore concludes that capitalism does not allow workers to have a personal agenda and only permits erosion of character. For Durkheim, however this claim that capitalism does not permit individual agenda does not seem acceptable. Capitalism offers choices for the worker to seek other suitable venues to pursue personal agenda. The struggle for existence has only resulted in the division of labour, where rivals have to coexist and not eliminate each other.

The differences between Marx, Durkheim and Weber may be attributed to the many critical situations that had confronted England, France and Germany respectively. All three theories attempt to analyse and understand transformation to modernity. Although incomplete, these insights need to be integrated into all further theories of social structuring.