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THE CONFLICT THEORY OF STRATIFICATION The conflict theory of social equality holds that stratification exists because it benefits individuals and groups who have the power to dominate and exploit others. Whereas functionalists stress the common interests that members of society share, conflict theorists focus on the interests that divide people. Viewed from the conflict perspective, society is an arena in which people struggle for privilege, prestige, and power, and advantaged groups enforce their advantage through coercion (Grimes, 1991). The conflict theory draws heavily on the ideas of Karl Marx. As discussed in Chapter 1, Marx believed that a historical perspective is essential for understanding any society. To grasp how a particular economic system works, he said that we must keep in mind the predecessor from which it evolved and the process by which it grows. For instance, under feudalism, the medieval lords were in control of the economy and dominated the serfs. Under the capitalist system, the manor lord has been replaced by the modern capitalist and the serf by the “free” laborer – in reality a propertyless worker who “has nothing to sell but his hands.” Marx contended that the capitalist drive to realize surplus value is the foundation of modern class struggle – an irreconcilable clash of interests between workers and capitalists. Surplus value is the difference between the value that workers create (as determined by the labor-time embodied in a commodity that they produce) and the value that they receive (as determined by the subsistence level of their wages). Capitalists do not create surplus value; they appropriate it through their exploitation of workers. Consequently, as portrayed by Marx, capitalists are thieves who steal the fruits of the laborer’s toil. The capitalist accumulation of capital (wealth) derives from surplus value and is the key to -- indeed, the incentive for – the development of contemporary capitalism. Marx believed that the class struggle will eventually be resolved when the working class overthrows the capitalist class and establishes a new and equitable social order. Workers may remain exploited and oppressed for a protracted period, blinded by a false consciousness – an incorrect assessment of how the system works and of their subjugation and exploitation by capitalists. But through a struggle with capitalists, the workers’ “objective” class interests become translated into a subjective recognition of their “true” circumstances and they formulate goals for organized action – in brief, they
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