Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity (2023)

Table of Contents
Money Commodities Modernity Sociology

I have recently re-written my introduction to social theory module. This has been re-titled Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity.The idea is that foundational and important sociological thinkers and their workwill be introduced through these three themes.

This post summarises some of the things I will discuss with my students in the first session which will focus on introducing these three key concepts.

The first session isstructured around the three themes but I will introduce them in the order capitalism, modernityand then sociology. This is because I see sociology as, at least initially, developing out of a reaction to the other two. So we will come to sociologylast to think about how it responded to these issues.

Capitalism has been discussed by many different thinkers and in many different ways throughout history and is still debated today. But due to having limited time and in order to try to explain this complex and important phenomenon to students in the first week of university I searched for a simple way to express a slippery concept. Karl Marxprovided me with this in his formula:

M-C-M’

For Marx this is the fundamental basis of capitalism. Broadly what this formula expresses is that capitalism is a system built around using money to make more money. The two elements in this formula M and C stand for money and commodities. The apostrophe after the second Msimply expresses more money more than the first M.

So, under capitalism money is invested to produce commodities to make more money. This is something we largely take for granted today but historically is quite peculiar. Of course money has existed for a lot longer than capitalism but it was used in a quite different way. Marxclaims that prior to capitalism the standard formula was:

C-M-C

That is, commodity-money-commodity. So, commodities were sold for money in order to buy other commodities. I might work making horseshoes and produce more than I need so I sell my surplus horseshoes to get money so I can buy things which I can’t produce myself such as shoes or clothes.

What is different about the capitalist system is investment and particularly constant never ending investment. The capitalist generates profit through selling commodities but always reinvests this profit to make more commodities to make more money. Capitalists arenever satisfied simply with generating a lot of of money to then relax on and enjoy theirwealth. This ideal of constant re-investment is something Iwill return to in a few weeks when discussing the sociology of Max Weber.

NowI will discussthe two elements of the formula as these are crucial for understanding capitalism.

Money

It is easy to assume that we all understand what money is but it is important to reflect on this a little. We can see it as having threefundamental properties.

Firstly, it is a store of value. So it is a way of accumulating value to be used later on. For instance, I might have a surplus of apples which I have grown. These have value, specifically they have a “use value” (I will discuss this more in the next post which is specifically on Marx and hisunderstanding of value). Their use value is in their nutrition and their taste. Myself and other people want to use them (eat them). But I may produce more of this value (the apples) than I can use myself because although I might eat apples every day for the rest of my life these particular apples will rot quite quickly. However, if I sell themin exchange for money I can convert this use value (the nutrition of the apples) into an exchange value (money) which I can store and use at a later date. So the use value of my apples hasn’t been wasted.

This brings us to the secondcharacteristic,that money is a measure of value. This means that money is a way to compare different use values with one another. For instance, the use value of an apple (its nutrition and deliciousness) is completely different to the use value of a pencil but both can be measured with money because they can both be exchanged for money. Money is universal in the sense that it can stand-in for anything (almost). Again this is an issue I will return to in the next post.

Thirdly, money is a lubricant of exchange. That is, it encourages people to trade in commodities. Because money is an objective measure of value (in the sense that it can “stand in” for almost anything else) it can be used inexchange for anything. So if people were to exchange commodities directly (through bartering sheep for pears for instance) it could be very time consuming to come to agreements on how many of one is worth how many of the other. When money is used as an intermediary in the process trade, and therefore the circulation of commodities, is made much quicker and easier. As the circulation of commodities is central to capitalism this is very important.

But what are commodities?

Commodities

We can see commodities as thingsproduced specifically to be sold in amarket. Capitalism is fundamentally a system of commodity production.The reason why commoditiesare so important to capitalism and to understanding value is thatthey are the product of social labour. They arethe simplest social form taken by the product of labourin the sense that they arethe result of collective action. Commoditiesare a physical manifestation of social labour.

This type of commodity production could only occur in a particular type of society. It is for this reason that amongst others that the issue of modernity is central to understanding what sociology is all about.

Modernity

Modernity is a period of time starting some time in the eighteenth century and ending sometime in the late twentieth century, or still ongoing (depending on who you ask). But more importantly it is a way of thinking about the world and a way of doing things.I think we can see modernity as emerging largely as the result of three revolutions: a political revolution, a social/economic revolution and an intellectual revolution. These are, respectively, the French/American revolution, the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment. I have discussed these and their significance for sociology in some detail in a previous postso I won’t say much more about them here other than that they provided the intellectual and practical impetus for the development of sociology. They did this by demonstrating that society and social change are things which can be observed, understood and shaped.

Sociology

For me perhapsthefundamental principle of sociology as a discipline is that society (in some form) exists and can be understood. If this is not accepted then there is no point in continuing with the endeavour of sociology at all. So I sometimes see sociology as a counter to Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that “There is no such thing as society”:

“And, you know, there is no such thing as society.There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbours”
Interview with Woman’s Own 1987

Embed from Getty Images

There are many ways in which sociologists can approach the understanding of society. But one of the most powerful, particularly when first encountering sociology is to look for the influence of social structures. I have previously offered an outline of social structures through the work of several key sociological thinkers. But what is crucial is that these are things which exist purely on the level of the social (they are not just collections of individual, psychological or biological phenomena) and influence our behaviour, what is possible for us to achieve and how we understand the world.

The perception of social structures tells us that there are things which exist outside of individuals that shape our world.Thereissuch a thing as society!

In the next post in this series I will discuss Karl Marx’s labour theory of value and why this is significant for a sociological understanding of the world.

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