March 5, 1998
Marxian Structural Approaches - Mr. Prol and the Neo-Prols
Following the neoclassical economic models, Folbre discusses the
Marxian approach, with its emphasis on class structure and exploitation.
In contrast to rational economic man, Folbre introduces Mr. Prol,
the male member of the working class or proletariat. Through Mr.
Prol, the classical Marxian model and some of its implications
are examined. Just as REM has been replaced by IRSEP, so Mr. Prol
has been replaced by the Neo-prols, modified Marxian models that
take account of various theoretical developments and of contemporary
social and economic developments. Some of the characteristics
of these are summarized in these notes.
A. Summary of Marxian Approach
1. Structures and Collectivities. Marx and Engels developed
a political economic approach that showed a different side to
the production of commodities and market exchange than that of
neoclassical economics. As opposed to the exclusively individualistic
emphasis of the neoclassical economic approach, the Marxian approach
emphasizes collectivities such as social classes, the whole
society and economy, the structures that compose these,
and the dynamic factors associated with these structures.
Folbre notes that contemporary Marxian theory provides an "interpretation
of the interplay between collective interests, social institutions,
and individual agency" (p. 29).
2. History. In contrast to the static neoclassical models,
an essential aspect of the Marxian approach is the historical
component. In his writings, Marx painted a very positive picture
of capitalism as a powerful and expansive economic
system, able to destroy previous social, economic, and political
structures, and replace them with a progressive economic system
which could vastly expand human potential. He looked on capitalism
as an economic force that would create the possibilities for true
human emancipation, by laying the foundations for socialism
3. Critique of Capitalism. At the same time as capitalism
had great promise and potential, it created conditions that were
oppressive, miserable, and exploitative for the majority
of the population. But the very expansion of capitalism creates
a working class or proletariat that would be able
to overthrow capitalists and capitalism and begin creating an
economic system that could create a more humane economic system.
Marx developed a political economic model which could explain
these forces and the contradictions within capitalism.
4. Commodities. The economic model begins with Marx's analysis
of the commodity (a good or service that is bought or sold)
and the exchange of commodities. From this, Marx looks
for the origins of the value of commodities and
surplus value. Marx finds the origin of value in human
labour, with surplus value emerging in the process of production.
Commodities are exchanged at their value, the amount of labour
necessary to produce them. But some are enriched and some are
impoverished as this process goes on. For Marx, exploitation does
not come through unequal exchange, price gouging, or monopoly,
but emerges in the process of production itself. There,
workers are hired and paid what their labour power cost to produce.
But labour power (the ability to work) can produce commodities
that have greater value than the cost of creating this labour
power. In Marx's model, there is a reserve of unemployed workers
without jobs who are ready to work. Since workers have no alternative
but to work for capitalists, and given this reserve army of labour,
capitalists are able to force workers to work extra hours, beyond
that necessary to pay for the worker's subsistence. These extra
hours are surplus labour time, and the products produced
by the worker during these extra hours are taken by the capitalist
and sold, producing a surplus value or profit for
5. Exploitation occurs as the products of the labour of
those who do the work (the workers or proletariat) are taken by
those who own property or capital (the capitalists) and this surplus
value is turned into profits, interest, and rent. Beginning with
this model of production of commodities, Marx builds an explanation
of the emergence of capitalism through primitive accumulation
(p. 30), the process whereby the original producers of products
(artisans, peasants, craftsworkers, etc.) had the means of production
taken away from them, and these means of production became concentrated
in the hands of a few as capital. The working class
that emerged continued to be exploited by the capitalist
class, thus leading to the expansion of capitalism through
capital accumulation. Marx shows how this created an economic
system that became much more productive than any before
in history. This system has a certain compulsion to expand
- to enter different geographic regions, and industries, and to
develop new commodities.
6. Contradictions. Marx showed how there are contradictory
forces at work in this model of capitalism, so that the process
of expansion is not a smooth one, but one characterized by continual
boom and bust, decline and expansion in the rate of profit, concentration
of capital, and class conflict in the form of disputes
between capital and labour. The ultimate contradiction
is that capital accumulation creates the gravediggers of capitalism
- the working class who overthrow the system, abolish private
property, and begin creation of a better society through socialism
and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
B. Comparison of the Neoclassical and Marxian Models
1. Differences. Some of the main differences between the
assumption and approach of the two models is as follows, and there
are undoubtedly many more such differences.
|Neoclassical Approach||Marxian Approach|
|individual||collectivities - working and capitalist classes|
|self-centred||class or false consciousness|
|satisfaction maximized||poverty, misery, and degradation|
|economic efficiency||equity and inequality|
|exchange - fair||exploitation|
|constraints on resources, time||structures - limit choices for most|
|preferences given||ideology and culture - control of capitalist|
|minimal state as arbiter||ruling class control of state|
|perfect information||worker without and capitalist with information|
|assets given||assets based on class position|
2. Similarities. While there are great differences in the
two approaches, the differences can be overemphasized, and a feminist
might note that there are a considerable number of similarities
in the two approaches. The similarities are part of the feminist
critique of both of these models.
Notes for March 5, 1998 class. Last edited on March 5, 1998.
Return to Sociology 304 home page.