March 28, 2016

Understanding the Ideological Underpinnings of Capitalist Reproduction with Batman, Robin, Donald Trump, and Karl Marx

Howell_ABy Aaron J. Howell, Assistant Professor of Sociology, SUNY-Farmingdale

In some introductory sociology classes and in any classical sociological theory course, students grapple with the ways in which capitalist society reproduces itself. This was an especially pertinent social and political question outside of the classroom during the early industrial revolution of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the relationship between capital and labor animated political conflict.

A variety of scholars observing the emerging capitalist economic system wondered how a system introducing private property, and the inequities that inevitably derive from private control of resources, could survive.

These scholars spanned the political spectrum from philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was concerned with the ways that privatization might undermine the "general will" to Sir Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, who feared that individualism and cronyism might go unchecked, to Karl Marx, a political radical, who argued that the capitalist system was inherently inhumane due to its alienating conditions.

To say the least, there was popular discontent in what was a rapidly changing world. In the face of so much resistance and fear, how did capitalism cement itself as the economic system that now spans the globe?

The emerging wage labor system was not a given and, at times, elites in society utilized explicit force and coercion to solidify it, but brute force was no way to gain the consent of the masses, a necessary condition for the system to flourish. Ideas developed to legitimate the system allowing for its reproduction around a consensus instead of through conflict. From the Marxist perspective, any prevailing material condition in society requires justification otherwise it will be viewed as illegitimate and therefore likely to be undermined. In other words, cultural scripts and beliefs developed to validate capitalism. So, what were they and how might some of these scripts look today?

Capitalism requires the constant circulation of capital and therefore, profit making. Profit making for the sake of profit became virtuous under capitalism (nod to Max Weber). It has not always been this way; in fact in the Italian city-states of the fifteenth century, profit making was considered sinful and morally repugnant (see chapter 1 of the edited volume The Ghetto).

In contemporary capitalism however, profit making takes on a moral guise; it becomes prestigious. "Work ethic" becomes a moral imperative and the honorable worker under capitalism puts in the long hours assumed necessary to demonstrate commitment and acceptability. From the narrow perspective of capital, these ideas are quite functional to its reproduction.

The symbolic world has an important part to play in the legitimation of the economic system. Consider the leading Republican nominee for President of the United States, Donald Trump. Part of his appeal is in his symbolic power as an icon of capitalism. He retains popularity with a large section of the population because he is a "deal maker" and his experience in the business world (profit making) is for some people enough to outweigh his lack of political experience and propensity to offend large portions of the population (women, Muslims, and Mexicans to name a few). There are certainly other factors at play, but the pure symbolic power he holds, which evokes notions of capitalist success, cannot be underestimated.

Finally, take a look at this image of a Batman and Robin cartoon from a great sociology webpage, The Sociological Cinema.

Robin states a fairly common view about human nature – that humans are naturally greedy. Batman responds with what could be considered a Marxist retort that humans are not in fact naturally greedy, instead society has created conditions under which human beings are incentivized and compelled into greediness and competition.

So, following Marx, Batman is essentially arguing that the social conditions under which ideas are generated is key to understanding the idea. It is not that humans are naturally greedy; it is that social arrangements encourage patterns of self interested behavior exist.

Marx would go on to state that those who own the material conditions of production (the commodities we buy, the natural resources we need, and the land that all production takes place on) also have outsized influence on the conditions of knowledge production (most easily seen through mass media) and that this creates a context under which ideas can be generated and diffused that support the conditions of capitalist relations. The belief that human greed is inherent is functional to capitalism and can legitimate its competitive framework, never mind that the scholarship on this question remains up for debate and, at best, suggests that humans are naturally pro social and selfish.

From a Marxist perspective, the consent of the working class is fundamental to the reproduction of capitalism and it, in part, is achieved through cultural scripts and dominant beliefs. These exist in a variety of ways, a few highlighted in this post – a) the profit maker as virtuous; b) the desire to be a "hard worker" on the job, regardless of what you are putting up with; and c) the view that humans are naturally greedy.

Comments

Can somebody explain how privatization might undermine the "general will"
from Rousseau's point of view?

Batman is essentially arguing that the social conditions under which ideas are generated is key to understanding the idea. It is not that humans are naturally greedy; it is that social arrangements encourage patterns of self interested behavior exist.

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