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The nature of conflict in post capitalist society: Ralf Dahrendorf

Ralf Dahrendorf in his book Class and Class conflict in Industrial Society examines the usefulness and applicability of Marx’s sociological work to the study of modern industrial society. He argues that Marx’s analysis of capitalist society was largely correct, and his concepts and theories were valuable. However, these concepts and theories require to be modified if they are to be applied to modern industrial society because they refer too specifically to capitalist society. There have been highly significant changes in the social structure since Marx’s writing. In fact, these changes have been great enough to produce a new type of society -modern industrial or post capitalist society. Dahrendorf generates a body of concepts and theory, general enough to explain both capitalism and post capitalist society. He suggests that the following changes of the social structure have been sufficient to produce post capitalist society:

The decomposition of capital

With the growth in the scale of business companies due to technological advance and to the development of the joint stock limited liability company, the link between the ownership and control of industry has weakened. Much control is now exerted by salaried managers who tend to legitimate their position in industry and in society rather differently to the old-style capitalist. Capitalists too play a somewhat different role as shareholders or as company directors.

The decomposition of labor

Like the controlling groups, the workers have become more differentiated. The proportions of both skilled and semi-skilled workers have grown, and the proportion of unskilled workers has fallen. Far from becoming homogenized in terms of class consciousness, the workers are becoming increasingly aware of the differences between themselves.

The development of a New Middle Class 

This term is misleading in that it refers to a large and growing collection of different groups which have been created or expanded with the industrialization of society. It is a category rather than a class in terms of Marx’s use of this concept and is made up of white collar workers such as teachers, accountants, surveyors, nurses and clerks.

The growth of social mobility

There is much more intergenerational mobility between occupations and self-recruitment is great only in the very top and very lowest occupations.

The growth of equality

Over the last 100 years, social and economic inequalities have been reduced as the state has guaranteed a minimum standard of living to its citizen and has heavily taxed those on the highest incomes and those with the greatest wealth.

Dahrendorf concludes that society can be characterized correctly in terms of conflict between competing interest groups. In post capitalist society, conflicts have become institutionalized, i.e., made orderly, patterned, predictable and controllable. Workers now have the right to express their interests legitimately through socially acceptable machinery like collective bargaining which is conducted through their own bona fide organizations like trade unions. Conflict is now so bitter and potentially disruptive of the social system because the changes in social structure give everyone some stake in the system. Interests are pursued according to the rules of the game. These rules require a use of the established machinery for dealing with conflicts created by competing interest groups.

For Dahrendorf, the basic weakness of Marx’s approach is in the way Marx ties power -economic, social, political to the ownership of the means of production. He argues that social classes are not necessarily and inevitably economic groups that social conflict is not necessarily rooted in property relationships that the policies and operations of the state are not necessarily shaped or determined by the economic base. For Dahrendorf authority relationships represent the key feature of society. In any society some individuals have the right or authority to give commands to others. These others have in turn the duty to subject themselves to these orders – duty to obey. Thus, individuals who share the identical interest of commanding or of obeying in some sphere of activity, whether it be political, economic, or industrial may be described as a quasi-group – potential group. Dahrendorf defines social classes as organized or unorganized categories of people who share manifest or latent interests arising from their position in the authority structures in which they find themselves. For him, class conflict is merely any conflict of groups arising from authority relationships. Dahrendorf argues that most people in society are unlikely to be engaged in political- economic- social -industrial conflict, which is generated from one structural source, property relationships. Instead changes in social structure create the social structure basis for a plurality of interest groups and hence a plurality of bases for conflict. Dahrendorf attempts to refine and develop Marx’s approach to understanding the social world. His work shows strong continuities with that of Marx.