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Where some possess much, and the others nothing, there may arise an extreme- either out of the most rampant democracy, or out of an oligarchy. This was once said by Aristotle who was probably the first to recognize the importance of a middle class. A powerful debate whether the middle class is essentially defined by cultural or economic factors still remains an issue. A rich tradition is devoted to disentangling economic from cultural components of a class. According to Karl Marx, the middle class is an outgrowth of economic factors, primarily capitalism. Many people tend to disagree with Marx that capitalism is the only important factor in the outgrowth of the middle class. Judith R. Blau argues that her understanding of the middle class has much to do with inclusive cultural values. Blau demonstrates her opinion though her ethnography, Social Contract and Economic Markets. I believe that Karl Marx s economic factors and Judith Blau s cultural factors together define the middle class.
Karl Marx believed class was a matter of economics, that is, how the individual fits into the pattern of modern capitalist society. Marx argued that the whole of capitalist society was constructed in order to support this idea including the society s infrastructure. Marx believed that social classes arise when a group gains control of the means of production. This group also has the power to maintain or increase its wealth by taking advantage of the surplus value of labor. Many people question why a worker would labor under such conditions. The reason is quite simple according to Marx. The reason is political and social representation. Members of this class elect representatives who pass laws that serve their interests. Landlords and factory owners were able to use their control of resources to exploit the unlanded laborers in the newly emerging factories.
Karl Marx looks at human societies as a whole, and asks how they reproduce themselves, and as a result, change. For Marx a fundamental question about any society is whether it can produce more than it needs to reproduce itself, that is, a surplus product. Karl Marx believed that the middle class is based upon economic factors and rooted in solely that perspective. Many people have examined his work closely arguing that economic factors could not possibly be the only definition of the middle class.
Judith Blau examined Marx idea that the extent of the middle class is defined by economic factors. Blau believes that although economic factors defined class lines, the real differences were not so much economic as linked to the cultural significance of differences in lifestyles and occupations. The middle class increasingly defined a cultural basis for itself, and cultural roles played an increasing role in shaping institutions. Lifestyles and institutions that provided the vital cultural identity of the American middle class in the early origins were contingent on a set of unique historical conditions. These conditions initially involved great economic inequalities, with the concentration of wealth in the hands of a small minority and a substantial proportion of the population living at or below subsistence wages. This was followed by rapidly increasing affluence and declining inequalities.
Judith Blau explains how having roots and cultural heritage became a part of the class lifestyle. Rules regarding class identity became increasingly flexible as middle class lifestyle and the cultural codes of the middle class became widely shared while sufficient numbers of people were close enough to immigrant origins to celebrate diversity.
Many factors after the Great Depression made the celebration of diversity possible. First, New Deal provisions improved the income of workers and expanded jobs. Second, economic growth helped to reduce the differences between the average salaries paid to white-collar workers and blue-collar workers. Third, family incomes were improved by having two members of the household employed. Fourth, joint earning in a family often makes a family status ambiguous. Fifth, family members say over two generations are extremely diverse in terms of education, income and occupation. And finally, lifestyle differences were increasingly eroded owing to the broad participation in recreational activities such as travel abroad, camping, going to rock concerts, and owning a VCR.
Judith Blau agrees with Karl Marx point of view that economic conditions created by industrial wage labor and high rates of immigration combined with growing wealth of private capitalists, created glaring contrasts between the lives of the rich and of the poor. Estimates of wealth distribution around 1870 suggest that the top one-tenth of one percent had fifteen percent of the wealth, and over 50 percent of the population had no real or personal assets. This increasing prosperity generated a need for services- retailers, wholesalers, proprietors, teachers, professionals- that were distinct from both the classes composed of bankers and industrialists and from the large class of wage earners.
According to Judith Blau, the middle class was made possible by exactly the same economic conditions that created the wage earning manufacturing class. What distinguished the middle class from the working class were differences in occupational surroundings and family configurations. Judith Blau states-
I contend that these are the very structural conditions under which cultural factors became increasingly salient in he development of class identity. The very fact of glaring inequalities between, on the one hand, workers in sweatshops, slaughter houses, and factories and, on the other had, wealthy industrialists and bankers enabled the middling folk to extract and overprice the cultural codes of white-collar lifestyle.
Karl Marx idea that the middle class is an outgrowth of economic factors is completely correct in my opinion. The idea that the development of social classes occur when one gains control of the means of production is understandable. This is an example of the way social hierarchies arise. According to the integrative theory of social stratification, a social hierarchy is necessary for the smooth functioning of modern society. In my opinion that statement is correct. Through economic factors this hierarchy constructs a class system. A class system is developed and the middle class is then derived. However, does this mean that the middle class is defined solely on economic factors? I believe that there is much more to the way a class system is established beyond the initial economic components.
In my opinion economic factors create a society however the culture defines it. The idea of diversity that Judith Blau explains displays her point quite well. Diversity is what makes people different and allows people to explore their own culture and lifestyle. After the middle class was established people were able to explore their own heritage. Ethnicity and religion residentially segregated urban working class members. The middle class, which when first started, began growing in number were less divided by these lines. They were able to establish neighborhoods based more on life style by creating their own community. The middle class created it s own social institutions, such as public University s, newspapers, department stores, libraries and business clubs. This was a way that essentially defines a class. Using economic and institutional affiliations that of which requires cultural edgework defines the middle class system.
The controversial debate as to whether the middle class is defined by cultural or economic factors has been supported successfully by both sides. Karl Marx states his opinion clearly that economic factors are the basis of a class system. Marx explains that through a capitalist society where the means of production and social and political representation are the structure of the society. Judith Blau agrees with Marx that economic factors create a society however, cultural reasons define it. Blau explains how having roots and cultural heritage shape s a social class. I believe that the middle class was established by economic factors however, the diversity of people through their culture is what defines a society.
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