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Conflict theory by Karl Marx is a theory that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to maximize their own benefits. Conflict theory has been used to explain a range of social phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence. Conflict theory ascribes most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses, not the desire for social order. Central tenets of conflict theory are the concepts of social inequality, the division of resources, and the conflicts that exist between different socioeconomic classes.
Karl Marx viewed capitalism
as part of a historical progression of economic systems. He believed capitalism
was rooted in commodities, or things that are purchased and sold. For example,
he believed that labor is a type of commodity. Because laborers have little
control or power in the economic system as they don’t own factories or
materials, and their worth can be devalued over time. This can create an
imbalance between business owners and their workers, eventually leading to
social conflicts. Karl Marx believed these problems would eventually be fixed
through a social and economic revolution.
Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adopted many aspects of Marx's conflict theory, and later, further refined some of Karl Marx's idea. Weber believed that conflict over property was not limited to one specific scenario. Rather, he believed that there were multiple layers of conflict existing at any given moment and in every society. Whereas Marx framed his view of conflict as one between owners and workers, Weber also added an emotional component to his ideas about conflict. Weber said: "It is these that underlie the power of religion and make it an important ally of the state; that transform classes into status groups, and do the same to territorial communities under particular circumstances...and that make 'legitimacy' a crucial focus for efforts at domination."
Max Weber's beliefs about conflict extend beyond Karl Marx's because they suggest that some forms of social interaction, including conflict, generate beliefs and solidarity between individuals and groups within a society. In this way, an individual's reactions to inequality might be different depending on the groups with which they are associated; whether they perceive those in power to be legitimate; and so on.
Conflict theorists of the later 20th and 21st centuries have continued to extend conflict theory beyond the strict economic classes posited by Marx, although economic relations remain a core feature of the inequalities across groups in the various branches of conflict theory. Conflict theory is highly influential in modern and post-modern theories of sexual and racial inequality, peace and conflict studies, and the many varieties of identity studies that have arisen across Western academia in the past several decades.
Conflict theorists point to the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailouts as good examples of real-life conflict theory, according to authors Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book A Good Book, in Theory. They view the financial crisis as the inevitable outcome of the inequalities and instabilities of the global economic system, which enables the largest banks and institutions to avoid government oversight and take huge risks that only reward a select few.
Sears and Cairns note that large banks and big businesses subsequently received bailout funds from the same governments that claimed to have insufficient funds for large-scale social programs such as universal health care. This dichotomy supports a fundamental assumption of conflict theory, which is that mainstream political institutions and cultural practices favor dominant groups and individuals.
This example illustrates that conflict can be inherent in all types of relationships, including those that don't appear on the surface to be antagonistic. It also shows that even a straightforward scenario can lead to multiple layers of conflict.