Friday, September 18, 2009

Class Society and Structure

Marx and Engels’ (1952) most renowned statement – that which opens Manifesto of the Communist Party – reads, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (p. 473). The dawn of capitalism has greatly increased production, yet Marx and Engels argue that this increase of wealth has not been distributed evenly to the detriment of the working class poor. The system operates narrowly, with the only focus on increasing property and wealth trickling up to benefit the upper class. Marx and Engels assert that the more wealth the worker produces - “the more his production increases in power and scope” (p. 133) - the poorer he becomes.

This message resonates today. In many societies, the struggles of the poor and inequalities of power are a matter of life or death. The impoverished pregnant women who is unable to access health care, the worker who is not paid a living wage, the young girl who is denied access to education all provide examples of structural inequality, which have dire circumstances for life outcomes. This unequal distribution of “wealth” (e.g., health care access, wages, education) leads to decreases in quality of life and increases in morbidity and mortality.

Those who struggle are acutely aware of the injustices they experience, with struggle influencing each of their worldviews. Mills (1959) remarks that individuals are greatly influenced by the world around them: “What ordinary men are directly aware of and what they try to do are bound by the private orbits in which they live” (p. 3). In other words, they work within structures, but are also at the mercy of these structures. Mills refers to “personal troubles of the mileau” (p. 8) related to internal mechanisms as opposed to “public issues of social structure” (Ibid). The latter can become a form of “structural violence” (Farmer, 2005), forces of poverty, racism, and socioeconomic inequality that impact impoverished populations. Structural violence represents existing constructions such as gender, religion, race, or class that may shape risk and influence an individual’s life outcome. This concept is often oversimplified as inequality, but it is actually a much stronger and prevalent force that persists day-to-day, transnationally. Structural violence includes the result of the inequality - marginalization, discrimination, stigma, restricted access, victimization - and the context in which inequalities develop and are addressed.

Structural violence is a helpful mechanism to view class society and structure because it focuses on the societal factors outside of the individual’s control. In order to overcome structural barriers, social work interventions must understand and address the complex social issues that keep individuals from utilizing their full resources, understanding that these social issues are weighed differently in different settings. Empowerment of individual agency, fortification of communities, and an increase in access to social services combined with an understanding of existing structural barriers add to our understanding and denouncement of systems, structures, and mechanisms that create conditions where the rich get richer and the poor get even poorer.

Farmer, P. (2005). Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1952). Alienation and social class. In. R.C. Tucker (Ed.) (1978), The Marx-Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 133-135.
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1952). Manifesto of the communist party. In. R.C. Tucker (Ed.) (1978), The Marx- Engels Reader. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, p. 473-500.
Mills, C.W. (1959). The promise. In C.W. Mills, Sociological Imagination. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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