Marxist theories of postmodernity

Marxists see postmodern society as merely the product of the most recent stage of capitalism, therefore to understand postmodernity you have to examine its relationship with capitalism. Harvey argues capitalism goes through periodic crises and postmodernity arose out of the crisis in the 1970s.

Flexible accumalation

The crisis meant that a new way of ACCUMALATING profits had to be created. ICT and technology developed which allowed firms to communicate efficiently; workers had to become more flexible to meet employers needs; production had to become more niche and easily switchable between different products – work became FLEXIBLE. These changes brought about the common characteristics of postmodernity – e.g niche markets promoted cultural diversity.

Flexible accumulation also turned leisure, culture and identity into commodities. Music, fashion, gaming…it’s all a source of profit. Jameson argues that it commodifies virtually all aspects of life, including identity.

Harvey argues that this more developed capitalism has led to the compression of time and space. Foreign holiays, for example. The birth of holiday/travel agencies has meant I can travel anywhere in the world with a couple of transactions and a passport. Space has been compressed. Living in England I could travel to France in less than an hour by plane, a journey that would have taken me almost half a day 50 years ago. Time has been compressed.  Harvey argues capitalism has been able to shrink the globe.

Politics and progress

Harvey and Jameson argue that flexible accumulation has brought political changes. in particular, it weakened the working class and socialist movements and they got replaced with feminism, eco-warriors etc. Think about it. Which is more in the public eye: threats of the northern hemisphere flooding caused by global warming OR bosses paying workers too little? However, they are hopeful that these movements will group together to create a “rainbow alliance” and bring about change.


Gramsci and hegemony (new/neo-Marxists)

Gramsci is a humanist Marxist. Humourless Marxists relate more to action theories as they believe the study of society should focus on the effect capitalism has on individuals. For example, how alienation is caused on the proletariat due to mindless production.

Gramsci focuses on how society is centred around ideas and the ability to control these ideas. He argues that the ruling class maintain dominance in society in two ways. The first is through coercion. This is stuff like the army, police or cruel justice system. A good example would be how China has made it illegal for the media to promote ante socialist ideas and how they are forcefully prohibiting religion. Fortunately, the number of laws to protect the rights of the media and people’s right to express religion makes this difficult to implement in the West. Therefore, Gramsci argues that the ruling class have to use consent or hegemony to control the product area. Now, hegemony is a set of ideas and values that are used to persuade the subordinate classes that the ruling class dominance is legitimate. The ruling class are able to spread this hegemony because they control institutions such as the media, education and religion. For example, some Marxists argue that the structure of the education system creates a submissive workforce. Teachers are dominant and have the right to control their students’ fashion, language and time. This conditions children for the world of work where bosses control their behaviour.

However, Gramsci’s optimistic that there is still hope for a revolution because the ruling class hegemony is incomplete for two reasons.

  1. The ruling class are minority. In order for the hegemony to be successful the ruling class need to gain support from the other classes – the middle-class. However in order to get their support, the ruling class are going to have to compromise on the hegemony.
  2. The proletariat have what Gramsci calls a dual consciousness. The proletariat are not only influenced by ruling class ideas, they have their own. The proletariat see things that the ruling class don’t, like poverty and unemployment and exploitation. This means they are not blinded by the ruling class who attempt to present their ideas as the best way to run society for everyone.

This means that there is always the possibility of the ruling class hegemony being undermined, particularly in an economic crisis whether negative effects of capitalism are more prevalent. However, Gramsci does argue that the only way for revolution to take place is for the proletariat to produce organic intellectuals – people that have seen beyond the hegemony – to bring the masses out of their false class consciousness by creating a counter hegemonic bloc (an opposing set of ideas that benefit everyone).


  • Structural Marxists it is Gramsci of placing too much emphasis on ideas rather than state coercion and economic factors
  • Other Marxists such have adopted Gramsci’s approach and stress the role of ideas and consciousness as the basis for resisting domination and changing society. Willis found that working class boys were beginning to see through the ruling class hegemony in education by recognising meritocracy is a myth

Theories of Late Modernity

Late modernists completely disagree with postmodernists. They don’t believe society has entered a postmodern era but argue that the rapid changes in society are evidence of the features of modernity becoming intensified. We are still in modernity but have entered its late phase. Therefore, modernist theories are still useful for understanding society. Late Modernists also take the belief of the Enlightenment Project and argue objective knowledge can be discovered to improve society.

Giddens: disembedding & reflexivity

A defining characteristic of late modernity is rapid social change and Giddens argues this is the result of two factors – disembedding and reflexivity.

Disembedding refers to our ability to interact with one another without having to make face-to-face contact. This is thanks to the  beauty of  the internet. With Facebook & Skype we can break down geographical barriers and connect with people all around  the world.

Giddens also believes we are in a time where our behaviour  is no longer defined by tradition values. Think of the common date. Back in the good ol’ days, a man would open the door for a lady, pull out her chair at the dinner table, always pay the full bill at a restuarant and never go for a kiss on the first date. Now, we are no longer defined  by tradition which means we have to be reflexive. Does she look like the type that wants doors opened for her? If I insist on paying the bill, will she assume that I think she can’t afford it? She was touching my hand a lot at dinner, should I go for the kiss? We are constantly re-evaluating our ideas and actions as new information is provided – nothing is permanent.

The combination of the two has contributed to globalisation.

Modernity and risk

Giddens also argues that in society we face a number of high consequence risks – major threats. Like the threat of nuclear war, economic crashes or environmental risks like global warming. However, he believes – unlike postmodernists – that we can make rational plans to reduce these risks and achieve a better society.

Beck: risk society

Like Giddens, Beck believes that late modern society has become a “risk society” where we are threatened by manufactured risks. He also extends reflexivity and argues that we constantly take into account the risks attached to our actions – reflexive modernisation – and do our best to minimalise them – risk consciousness. Unfortunately, most knowledge of risks is given by the media which often give a distorted view of risks.

Risk, politics & progress

Beck argues that we do have the ability to better society  because we can rationally evaluate risks and take political action to reduce them. E.g environmentalists that challenge industrial development.

Evaluation of theories of late modernity

  • Reflexivity suggests we can all re-shape our lives, but a poor person living in a heavily polluted area may not be able to afford to move elsewhere.
  • Rustin critiques Beck and argues that capitalism with its love of profits that is the greatest risk.
  • Hirst argues political movements like environmentalism cannot bring about significant change as they are too fragmented to challenge capitalism.


Marxists believe that society is based on capitalism and the class conflict between the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the proletariat (working class). The working class own the means of production – land, factories, machinary etc – but they need a labour force. This labour force comes from the proletariat. Now, the bourgeoisie are all about profit and Marxists believe the actions of the bourgeoisie are done to maintain or increase their profit levels. So when they hire workers  they will not give them a wage that is equal to what the proletariat’s labour is worth. In other words, if a worker’s labour is worth £500 a week, then their wage may only be £300 a week – the bourgeoisie exploit the labour of the proletariat. You are probably thinking: why do the workers let this happen? To put it simply, they may feel they have no other choice or even be aware that they are being exploited.

You see, capitalism has been able to sustain itself for so long despite the disadvantage  it has on the proletariat because it makes you believe you need it. It creates a consumer fetish. It tricks workers into believing that they need that fancy car or that new iPhone or those purple Converses. I mean, look at this advert for Iceland… It also has the ability to make people numb or unaware to thee negative effect of capitalism. Thousands – if not millions – of people will religiously watch Eastenders or Glee (me!) but all this does is keep our minds on trivial things so that we are less likely to really look at society and question capitalism – we are coerced.

And that is Marxism in a nutshell but here are a couple of key facts to sum up:

  1. It’s a structural theory –  it believes we are shaped and controlled by society, no such thing as free will…
  2. Society is split into 2 independent parts. The whole bit about the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat is known as the INFRASTRUCTURE.
  3. The bit about not knowing about capitalism and being hooked on the trivial things is known as the SUPERSTRUCTURE. It also deals with things like the family, religion…
  4. Working class behaviour is constrained and shaped by class inequality
  5. Karl Marx has predicted that one day the working class will unite to overthrow the ruling class and capitalism will be abolished


  • Still waiting for that revolution…
  • It only sees the conflict in capitalist society – it has done some good, like improved living standards
  • There is an element of economic reductionism – it reduces behaviour simply to class relationships, ignoring other factors.
  • Society has not polarised simply into the rich and poor, we have a significant middle class that lies happily in the middle…