The Paradoxical Failure of Classical Social Theories in the 21st century Essay

The Paradoxical Failure of Classical Social Theories in the 21st century

            A Utopian society cannot be defined by what is seen in the world today. Far from being an ideal state, the modern society is anything but just and equal. To illustrate this statement, in the United Kingdom, there are 13 million citizens or 22% of the whole population living below the minimum income threshold (The Poverty Site, 2008). In Asia, there are 4.7 million poor families from the Philippines alone for the year 2006 (Virola, 2008).  Decades of philosophizing and academic theories were not sufficient to realize the ultimate dream of the classical social theorists and that is, for social equality to rule and for class divisions, such as the poor citizens, the privileged and the marginalized groups in society such as women, to be abolished in order to promote an egalitarian society (Ritzer, 2004).

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            This paper aims to review the concepts associated with the so-called classical social theories. In relation to this, the present society will be analyzed if the teachings in these theories were used by the global culture to improve the quality of people’s life through the years. The reasons for success or failure of these theories will also be dissected to determine its weaknesses and strengths in promulgating the needed change in an unjust society.

A Background on the birth of Classical Social Theories

The era which gave birth to the classical social theories can be attributed to the works of such individual like Harriet Martineau, Karl Marx, August Comte, Emile Durkheim and Friedrich Engels (Chernilo, 2008). These social theorists focused on the improvement of different areas of society. Briefly, Martineau is one of the forerunners in promoting the concept of feminism in the mid 1800’s. Advocating the rights of women in a perpetual chauvinist society was not all that she had done; her exposure to the plight of Black-American slaves, especially those of women slaves paved way for her theories of equality between the two sexes, regardless of color or race (Roberts, 2002). August Comte, on the other hand, is best known for conceptualizing social positivism. This term was believed to have the power to promote change in the late 1800’s European society through the action of the working class; Comte associated this class’s exposure to misery and loyalty to one’s family as the reasons for making them the perfect agent for social positivism. Furthermore, Comte postulated that these positive changes were inevitable due to the inherent belief of this class in respecting authority and sacrificing one’s self for the betterment of society (Muglioni, 1996). Engels and Marx are two names that were almost synonymous to communism, or the theory of the abolishment of private property of individual citizens (Engels & Marx, 1962). For the former social theorist, he associated the possible alleviation of the condition of proletariats with the dawn of the industrial revolution, or the birth of the steam engine in the production of goods in factories. Social division was apparent when wages are put in focused: the insufficient compensation received by this class, as well as the children’s, made it clear that the bourgeois or the capitalist class had the societal power to dictate the course of lives of those who they pay. The class who had the monetary advantage is understood to have control in society as a whole, and the battle for this control was the driving force between the continuous oppression of one class by another. Engels theorized that in order for a better society to emerge from this unequal plight, the working class must start a social revolution or what was known as human emancipation. A peaceful revolution was no longer feasible in this type of society; therefore, a revolution is inevitable to happen. Engel used the moralistic approach to assess the condition of the proletariat: since this class was not receiving enough subsidies from their employers, then there was a moral obligation for society as a whole to assist this class against the subjugation of the other class (Kellner, 2008). The latter communist proponent, on the other hand, used an economical approach to analyze this inequality. Marx said that the root of oppression of the proletariats can be traced back to the current system of economy in their time-capitalism. Capitalism inevitably subjugates the working class since the success of a capitalist business lies on the principle of profit generation, even at the expense of insufficient pay for the part of the workers (Wilson, 2004). Thus, capitalism can be considered as the leading factor for moulding society to its current state- with the presence of two classes at both ends of the spectrum- the tyrant and the exploited. In order for equality to be achieved, the proletariats must take the power of capitalism away from the capitalists. Without this initiative, the proletariats do not deserve to be elevated to the level of the ruling class even if the bourgeois can grant them this equality (MacVarish, 2005). In the famous book, Manifesto of the Communist Party, written by both Engels and Marx, the abolition of rights to inherit and to own a private property were proposed, along with the centralization of transportation, banking and other private businesses, with the sole purpose of being presided by the state. One of the most striking provisions in the proposal is the mandate for all of the citizens to work, regardless of social status. This will negate any social division among the citizens, and thus, will lead to the realization of what is called as communism, or a society composed of individuals contributing and receiving in accordance to their needs and abilities (Avineri, 1970).

Classical Social Theories in the 21st Century

            As depicted by world statistics, the presence of millions of families considered to be poor proves that the dream of having a just society is still not realized, even after the conception of these sociological proposals. The possible explanations for this failure will be analyzed in this section.

            First, if the theories of Martineau were to be considered, it can be seen that this feminist put a lot of faith on the own initiatives of women to alleviate their status to be comparable to the social status of men. Emancipation means taking responsibilities, taking a stand against the tyranny that they suffered in the hands of the opposite sex, as slaves and as sexual objects. To some extent, it can be said that women are in a much better social position now as compared with the earlier centuries, as exemplified by women’s right to vote, to education and the like. But, oppression can still be seen in modern society. The problem does not lie on the attitude and treatment of men towards women, but rather on the way women let society treat them. It does not take a second party to degrade women into second class citizens; the women do it on their own to themselves. As a support to this statement, degradation of women into mere sexual objects is ostentatiously displayed in sexually-driven magazines such as Playboy and Penthouse. It can be said that women have the right to refuse this kind of demeaning acts, but in contrast, they encourage the proliferation of these industries by willingly participating in these kinds of activities, given the right amount of price. With this, women continue to be seen as mere properties that can be bought and owned. True emancipation of this marginalized class is still unrealized as long as women themselves propagate this belief that their class is nothing but second rate citizens and sexual objects. The effect of this willingness to objectification can be seen in rape statistics around the world. Globally, one in every three women have already been beaten or forced into having sex according to the John Hopkins School of Public Health (Greensite, 2008). In the United States, it was estimated by the U.S. Department of Justice that in every two minutes, a woman is sexually assaulted. And in Canada, one in every four women is predicted to be sexually assaulted in her lifetime (Brickman & Briere, 1984). With this amount of sexually-related crimes against women, oppression takes the form of unlawful violence against women; thus, progression to a more gender-equal society is still needed.

            Another reason for the failure of classical social theories can be traced back to the veneration of the working class. For Comte, the inherent goodness and moralistic view of the working class was assumed to be the ultimate reason for positivism to be realized, leading to equality of all classes. The oppressed situation of this group was correlated with their capacity to sacrifice themselves and to respect those in authority. But what Comte did not consider is the human factor that can largely dictate the actions of the working class. Individual citizens cannot just be lumped into a single group to assume a universal attitude, to accomplish a common goal and to dream a universal vision even if they are in the same social condition. The complexity of the human behaviour cannot only be dictated by the social treatment that one can experience; more factors need to be considered in order to predict the next plausible action to be taken by an individual. And as can be seen in the current society, individualistic advances are more pronounced than the advancement of the class as a whole. And if a positive change is to be expected in any culture, this must start from the pinnacle of leadership in a society, down to the citizens of all classes. In other words, one class cannot just steer society into a certain direction without the assistance of the whole community.

If the theories of Engels are to be considered, one important contribution that is worthy of analysis is his prediction of a social revolution against the capitalist class. This impending uprising was associated with the division of classes. If this revolution will happen, it was predicted that social inequality will cease to exist, thus, giving birth to a communist society, where capitalism was transcended and a just society is finally achieved. After years of impending social war, until now, this still has not been seen by the world. Underpaid workers still make up a large part of the working group of society and the capitalists still control most of the wealth of the world. One might ask why this revolution is still an unrealized war. One possible explanation is the exclusion of the concept of war from a more educated and less blood-thirsty society. Through the years in history, people had seen their fair share of battles which were launched for different reasons. From World War I to World War II, to the Gulf War and War against Iraq, society had seen the adverse effect of a blood bath. And with so many that can be lost and very few to gain, the allure of launching a war by the citizens themselves may not be that strong to convince the general populace to do it. In addition to the foreseeable negative impact of wars in society, even if oppression is still experienced by factory workers and other underpaid employees, this state is apparently still not enough for them to wage a war against those who are feeding the workers’ families. Apparently, it is more important for the population to have bread and butter at the end of the day, rather than plan an assault on the capitalists. Furthermore, if the modern wars are to be analyzed, it can be seen that even with enough artillery, monetary investment and manpower, rarely do these battles emerge victorious and as a just action, especially if the casualties of war are to be considered. If the working class will embark on this impossible task, their desire to rise from oppression will not be enough to overturn power from the capitalists to their own class. They should have enough fire power to battle against the class which naturally has the capacity to defend themselves due to an incessant source of funds. In the end, revolution is an important catalyst for society to have equality, as Engels had postulated. And if this reasoning is to be followed, then a society with no revolution cannot abolish the division of classes; a society with classes is a society with inequality; therefore, revolution is the only way for the working class to experience a higher quality of life. But if this revolution can make the lives of people to become more impoverished, then the absence of a radical change may be even better than actually going through the revolution process. Thus, the proliferation of the division between the workers and the capitalists still continue through the years.

            One concept that can be obtained from Marx is the labour theory of value which states that a good’s market value can be correlated to the quantity of socially-related labour that was invested in manufacturing that particular product. If this will be used to explain the needed compensation of an individual, then it also follows that with more labour done by a worker, the higher is the corresponding pay. But as can be seen in modern society, this does not hold true. The birth of jobs that offer high compensation with relatively less needed input made this concept obsolete. Some of these jobs can be seen in movie celebrities and the like. These people can make thousands to millions of dollars just by showing up in an event. Another example would be commercial endorsements that can also be worth millions of dollars. These kinds of work augment the already huge gap between the poor and the rich. Nowadays, the hard work that one can do is not always synonymous to a larger income; profit can ultimately be dictated by who and what you are in society, regardless if what you do is productive or not. Thus, this disproves Marx’s theory of social equity. Another concept proposed by Marx is the abolishment of private ownership by the public and centralizing all properties to the control of the government. First, to mandate a population to give up their possessions will be hard to implement, especially in a country where the ruling class is mostly made up of the privileged families. How can this law be followed if its execution would ultimately lessen the financial power of the government officials, reducing them to the level of a common citizen? Second, another glaring problem that can be seen here is the assumption that the government can be trusted with that amount of responsibilities without resorting to corruption. Too much power is to be entrusted to a small group of individuals in this proposed form of government. This scenario is very conducive for dishonesty, among other negative features. Thus, the very core of the supposedly revolutionary form of leadership can also be the root of the failure of the system proposed in the Manifesto of the Communist Party.


            The theories related to the improvement of society into a just and more equal culture had been written, proposed and passed on through the years. Some of the greatest classical social theorists were Martineau- the eternal feminist, Comte- the positivist and Engels and Marx- the communists. All of them had contributed ideas and ways for society to achieve a better state than what they had experienced in their own century. But the realization of this Utopian civilization is far from becoming a reality. A closer look in the world today may reveal a more modern set-up, but the social players are still the same-the oppressed are still oppressed and the rich are still becoming richer and still continue to lead and mould society as a whole. This unrealized Utopia may be attributed to the theories that they have designed. Some of these were no longer applicable in the current situation of society, some, are just difficult to implement. The continuous degradation of women as a class, despite the improvements in their plight, is apparent in the alarming number of sexually-related crimes against them. The failure of this class to alleviate themselves from this state can be partly credited to the self degradation acts that the women themselves bring upon their class. The revolution against the capitalist that Engels had predicted has still not happened. Without this revolution, social equity between the workers and the capitalists cannot be achieved, thus, class divisions are still apparent. The modern work scene is far from what Marx had envisioned- compensation of employees is not correlated to the hard work that one can do. And in the end, these classical social theories may remain just as that-mere theories postulated in the classical times- that were once the hope, and still, of a divided society.


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