Karl Marx suggested that in any stratified society, there will be two primary social groups. The ruling class, which may or may not be involved with the government, and then the subject class. The ruling class takes its power from overall ownership. That means it can be accomplished through net wealth, by government power, or through a combination of both to create resource manipulation.
The subject class has no power at all. The ruling class uses their influence to exploit the subject class as another resource. To reduce the potential of rebellion, the ruling class utilizes oppression to maintain the status quo.
The conflict theory of stratification is not about physical warfare. It is about the continuing basic conflict that exists between these two classes.
It Isn’t Just Communism That Has Class Conflict
Marx identified four classes that are present within a society that is based on capitalism.
• Propertied Upper Class. Sometimes referred to as the Bourgeoisie, this group owns capital, purchases labor power, and uses surplus value from employment to accumulate and expand their own wealth.
• Proletariat. This group has the ability to own labor power, but have no resources other than themselves with which to work. They have no property, so they obtain an income from the upper class to provide for themselves.
• Landlords. Although this class owns property, they are a marginal class because they use the property, not employment, to generate revenue. To retain their wealth, they must transform it into landed capital. Only the land accumulates value over time.
• Petty Bourgeoisie. This would be the Middle Class. These are the small business owners, the freelancers, the artisans, the small manufacturers, and even the unemployed. They may own property, but not in a way that allows for employees to perform the work for them. Unlike the other groups, the Middle Class lives a double existence. They are both property owners and they are workers.
In the conflict theory of stratification, each group is in conflict with one another over the ability to achieve their best interests. Within the petty bourgeoisie, there may even be internal class conflicts over differing priorities. Each group is in conflict with the one above or below it, but not beyond that barrier. This is how the stratification takes place.
The propertied upper class might own capital and purchase labor power, but they do not purchase it from landlords. They do not compete for housing or commercial space with landlords. Each has their own separate part of society and the economy reserved. They ignore the petty bourgeoisie because they can hire someone from the proletariat to do the work for them instead.
The proletariat is in conflict with the propertied upper class because they require employment to survive. They have wealth because of their skill base, but no land to establish themselves. If members of this group could obtain land, they may become part of the propertied upper class.
Landlords don’t have the same access to wealth as the proletariat. They own property, but the type that the petty bourgeoisie require. They scramble for wealth by making their land as attractive as possible.
As for the petty bourgeoisie, their goal is to sell their resources to the greatest extent possible. They can skip into different classes if their product or services has enough innovation, but most simply carve out a simple existence for themselves. Some may even choose to be homeless as a way to avoid the formalized contract and conflict that comes with working. Their existence is similar to the Proletariat, but not a threat to it because of the skill differences involved.
Is There a Benefit to Conflict in Society?
Social life for any human society involves the dominance of one group over another group. The overall goal is to be on the top of this “food chain” so that power and control can be maintained. It can benefit society by inspiring people in “lower” groups to work toward achieving a higher status.
Yet, at the same time, the “upper” groups are working toward oppression to keep anyone from progressing into a higher status. This is where conflict occurs.
There are limitations to this theory. Not only does it take a negative view of all human society, it does not account for the philanthropic efforts that the upper class typically offers. Not every person seeks to oppress though in groups below them while trying to achieve a higher class level. Some people are satisfied with who and what they are within society.
The conflict theory of stratification identifies certain groups in society that are in conflict with one another. By identifying each group, a greater awareness of societal structure can be developed to benefit all parties.