Sociology 304

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 Just as REM has been replaced by IRSEP, so Mr. Prol has been replaced by the Neo-prols, modified Marxian models that take account of various theoretical developments and of contemporary social and economic developments.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 and communism.

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 the capitalist.

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 ApproachMarxian Approach
individualcollectivities - working and capitalist classes
self-centredclass or false consciousness
satisfaction maximizedpoverty, misery, and degradation
economic efficiency equity and inequality
exchange - fairexploitation
constraints on resources, timestructures - limit choices for most
preferences givenideology and culture - control of capitalist
minimal state as arbiterruling class control of state
perfect informationworker without and capitalist with information
assets givenassets 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.

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