Marx’s and Weber’s Conceptualizations of Modernity
The choice of how to define and describe ‘modernity’ has always been a contested subject. For Marshall Berman, the concept of modernity may be best expressed in Marx’s line “all that is solid melts into air” because modernity is seen as a “maelstrom of perpetual disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish” (Berman, 15). The progress (as in economic and scientific growth), development (as in building and population growth), and unity (as in political unity) shaping the world in a new era also brought forth many forms of disunity. Therefore, both Marx and Durkheim frequently employs such words as ‘alienation’ and ‘estrangement’ to describe the condition of modernity and modern man. For Marx, this alienation was the result of capitalist exploitation. In Weber’s conceptualization, though, the alienation was the result of a bureaucracy, a rationalized unity, not disunity. For Weber, the fundamental characteristic of capitalism was bureaucracy, which can be seen as more mental exploitation rather than physical. It was a rationalized bureaucracy that then imprisoned man in an iron cage from which he cannot escape. Thus, while both Max and Weber understood that the system of capitalism lay at the root of the modern era and both saw adverse consequences from this economic system, they chose to define modernity and alienation through distinct conceptual differences.
While the concept of alienation, or estrangement, is found in both Marx and Weber, it is necessary to understand that they conceived of alienation as having originated from different sources. It is also important to note that only Marx uses the terms alienation and estrangement. While Weber does not employ the term, alienation is still understood as the condition resulting from an impersonal and overly rational bureaucracy. Berman implicitly describes the Marxist model of understanding modernity as having arisen from the “industrialization of production which transforms scientific knowledge into technology, create new human environments and destroys old ones, speeds up the whole tempo of life, generates new forms of corporate power and class struggle” (Berman, 16). Industrialization has therefore created class struggle which then takes on the multiple forms of alienation. For Weber, modernity is the result of “increasingly powerful national states, bureaucratically structured and operated, constantly striving to expand their powers” (Berman, 16). Bureaucracy is thus the source of alienation in Weber’s model. The Marxist approach to understanding modernity is thus based on the concept of ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement’ resulting from the political economy of capitalism. Capitalism is understood as the system referred to as the ‘political economy’ that creates a system of class struggle and labor exchange based on private property described in “Estranged Labor.” In this essay, Marx reiterates how private property has created workers who are alienated. They are alienated on many levels: alienated from the product of their labor, alienated from themselves, alienated from nature, and alienated from other people including his employer. In this system, the worker even becomes a commodity: “The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increase in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates” (Marx, 37). The way that he becomes a commodity is due to the fact that he creates products and, thereby, wealth for others but not himself: “The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object” (Marx, 37). The worker is also a commodity for property owners because he works for others and can be easily replaced. Within a system based on private property and division of labor, he becomes seen only by what he does...
Bibliography: Marshall Berman, All that is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (Simon & Schuster, 1982). pp. 15-36, 87-129.
Alex Callinicos, Social Theory (NYU Press, 1999). pp. 123-178.
Karl Marx, selections from Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 ("Estranged Labour," "Private Property and Communism," "The Meaning of Human Requirements," and "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society"). pp.
Karl Marx, "Commodities: The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof” in Capital, Volume 1, Part 1. pp. 46-56.
George Ritzer, “The ‘McDonaldization’ of Society” Journal of American Culture (Spring
1983). Pp. 100-107.
Max Weber, "The Spirit of Capitalism and the Iron Cage," "The Bureaucratic Machine" & Types of Legitimate Domination." pp. 109-120, 122-125.
Raymond Williams, Keywords (Oxford University Press, 1985).
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