Social conflicts

1. Karl Marx and the class struggle: conflicts are necessary to get a better society

According to Karl Marx (1818-1883), class conflict, frequently referred to as class warfare or class struggle, is the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests and desires between people of different classes.

The conflit between two classes

  • Bourgeoisie: the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of production and employers of wage labor. Their profit depend on the wealth created by workers.
  • Proletariat: the class of modern wage laborers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labor power in order to live. The working class.

Capitalism is the competitive economic system (that we currently live under) in which all or most of the means of production are privately owned (concentrated in the hands of a few individuals) and operated for profit. Under Capitalism investments, production, distribution, income, and prices are determined by the quest for profit rather than by the needs or desires of the majority of the people or by the real value of the commodity.

Means of production: Refers to physical, non-human, inputs used in production. That is, everything that is needed to produce something except human labour. This includes factories, machines, tools, raw materials, infrastructure and natural resources. Under Capitalism the means of production is owned by the ruling class (Bourgeoisie).

Key features of the class war



  • higher wages, lower profit
  • a greater distribution of wealth
  • less inequality


  • strikes
  • demonstrations
  • lock-out


  • workers represented by unions ("proletariat")


  • corporations. The capital owners ("bourgeoisie")

And what about now? Is the class war over?

Neo-liberalism is a set of economic policies that have become widespread during the last 25 years or so.

That's why some people think that class war is not over.
“Neo” means we are talking about a new kind of liberalism. The old kind was the liberal school of economics which became famous in Europe when Adam Smith, an English economist, published a book in 1776 called The Wealth of Nations. He and others advocated the abolition of government intervention in economic matters. No restrictions on manufacturing, no barriers to commerce, no tariffs, he said; free trade was the best way for a nation’s economy to develop. Such ideas were “liberal” in the sense of no controls. This application of individualism encouraged “free” enterprise,” “free” competition — which came to mean, free for the capitalists to make huge profits as they wished.
Economic liberalism prevailed in the United States through the 1800s and early 1900s. Then the Great Depression of the 1930s led the economist John Maynard Keynes to a theory that challenged liberalism as the best policy for capitalists. He said, in essence, that full employment is necessary for capitalism to grow and it can be achieved only if governments and central banks intervene to increase employment.
But the capitalist crisis over the last 25 years inspired the corporate elite to revive economic liberalism. That’s what makes it “neo” or new. Now, with the rapid globalization of the capitalist economy, we are seeing neo-liberalism on a global scale.
For those who think that class war still exists, the main points of neo-liberalism include:
THE RULE OF THE MARKET. Liberating “free” enterprise or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government (the state) no matter how much social damage this causes. Greater openness to international trade and investment. Reduce wages by de-unionising workers and eliminating workers’ rights that had been won over many years of struggle. No more price controls. All in all, total freedom of movement for capital, goods and services.
CUTTING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE FOR SOCIAL SERVICES like education and health care, because the market is supposed to be more efficient than public investments.
REDUCING THE SAFETY-NET FOR THE POOR, and even maintenance of roads, bridges, water supply — again in the name of reducing government’s role.
DEREGULATION. Reduce government regulation because it is supposed to increase costs of production.
PRIVATISATION. Sell state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water. Although usually done in the name of greater efficiency, which is often needed, privatization has mainly had the effect of concentrating wealth even more in a few hands and making the public pay even more for its needs.
ELIMINATING THE CONCEPT OF “THE PUBLIC GOOD” or “COMMUNITY” and replacing it with “individual responsibility.” Pressuring the poorest people in a society to find solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security all by themselves — then blaming them, if they fail, as “lazy.”

US: the return of social war?

"Well, there’s always a class war going on. The United States, to an unusual extent, is a business-run society, more so than others. The business classes are very class-conscious—they’re constantly fighting a bitter class war to improve their power and diminish opposition. Occasionally this is recognized... The enormous benefits given to the very wealthy, the privileges for the very wealthy here, are way beyond those of other comparable societies and are part of the ongoing class war. Take a look at CEO salaries...."
-- Noam Chomsky in OCCUPY: Class War, Rebellion and Solidarity, Second Edition (November 5, 2013)

UK: the return of social war?

"The old class division between “middle” and “working” class, which historically mapped on to non-manual and manual jobs, or between those on a wage and those on a salary, is now far less important. In the middle layers of the class structure there are much more fluid boundaries and it is harder to pinpoint a threshold at which point one passes from “working” to “middle” class. It is the fracture between a smaller, wealthy elite and everyone else that now forms the prime class divide. The 6% who fall into the top “elite” class have, on average, a household income of £89k, savings of £142k and houses worth £325k." Read more...

2. New social movements

Since the mid-1960s the social conflicts have changed.

The class struggle still exists.

But New Social Movements have emerged.

NSMs (New Social Movements) are movements wich have challenged the established political and cultural order in capitalist societies.

This includes:

  • feminism
  • environmentalism
  • the Civil Rights movements
  • the anti-racist movements
  • the LGBTQ social movements
  • the autonomist movements...

Key features of the New Social Movements


NO more materialistic and economic issues  but conflicts about values / moral issues:

  • Human rights
  • Equality
  • Quality of life
  • independence, autonomy
  • lifestyle
  • identity
  • environment...


  • flash mob
  • public provocation
  • petition
  • decentralized organization
  • far from traditional political parties or unions
  • globalized movements
  • social networks
  • legal action
  • online communities


  • communities
  • educated people
  • young members
  • middle class

The film Pride:

when the good old class struggle and the New Social Gay movement collided in the 80s Britain...

"Public engagement with politics has changed dramatically since 2008. Discover how graphic design and technology have played a pivotal role in dictating and reacting to the major political moments of our times"

Design Museum of London


The conflict approach to sociology focuses its attention on those aspects of society that do not work or cause instability. Marxists, Feminists and some symbolic interactionist theories focus on the factors that cause society to be dysfunctional. However, the functionalist perspective is known as a consensus theory as its focus of attention is on what causes society to work, to be functional and highlights the positive aspects of any given society.

As stated in item C, Marxists believe that there is conflict in society due to the divide between the bourgeoisie (the owners) and the proletariat (the workers). Marx and Engels stated that capitalism is the key problem in most societies as it causes those at the top to exploit those at the bottom. Neo-Marxists such as Hall also state that many of the problems of society in relation to money, crime and racism all stem for the inequality between the rich and the poor.

However, Functionalist sociologists such as Durkheim would argue that most societies are based on shared values, he uses the organic analogy to highlight that agents of socialization are all interconnected and as it states in Item C, these institutions are all ‘parts working harmoniously together to meet the needs of the social system’. For Durkheim, society works in the same way a human body does with all its organs serving an important function helping to keep the organism alive.

The views of Max Weber tend to support claims made by the Marxist perspective, like Marxists, Weber focused on the impact of capitalism on individuals in society and  as stated in Item C, how it causes a clear divide of ‘conflict and power’. Weber believed that Capitalism came as a result of religion and indeed he states that religion itself is another cause for both divide and conflict between individuals.

Other functionalist researchers such Parsons and Murdock however would argue that religion actually brings people together, they believe that institutions give clear directions for roles. One such example being the family whereby the male takes on the instrumental role of the breadwinner and the female takes on the caregiving, expressive role. For Functionalists, this shows social solidarity by everyone playing a role or part in the family so that it can function on a day to day basis.

Feminist sociologists would disagree with these roles in the family and therefore fall into the conflict side of the debate, they believe that conflict derives from patriarchy, the view that societies and systems in societies are driven and dominated by men. Liberal feminists such as Oakley note that the family and the workplace are key locations for patriarchy as men hold the power of money and females work without gaining any personal income, this causes a continual power imbalance. Radical feminists such as Dworkin take the argument even further by saying that conflict comes from the physical power and intimidation men use to oppress females into a lower status.

Functionalists such as David and Moore however state that different levels of status and power are important for a society. Without hierarchy there can be no consensus. For example, in any society you need people at the top to make the rules as well as people in the middle and the bottom. They refer to this as role allocation. In other words, different power levels are needed in order for society to correctly function.

Symbolic interactionists such as Mead and Becker however state that these differing levels of power simply lead to conflict through negative labelling. For example the poor are often labelled for being the problems of society, that their crime levels and low education are the catalyst for financial problems. This negative labelling further reinforces the prejudices and stereotypical views of others.

In conclusion then, there is strong evidence from both the conflict and consensus views in order to help us understand society, in reality each society and country is very different from each other and all places are at differing levels of either unrest or stability at different points in their history. Post-modernists such as Bauman would also note that many of the ideas of Durkheim, Marx and Weber are now also quite outdated especially as we move to a more globalized and homogenized world.