The Nature of Political Economy from the lenses of Marx and Sumner


It’s quite usual for outsiders of the discipline to view sociology as intrinsically leftist, and make sweeping statements about the discipline’s theorists, generalizing about their stands to be similar and built on the backs of each other. But this sweeping view is largely incorrect as theorists in sociology defer in their views of the society and the way it works, and in this essay, I will be looking at how William Sumner, a neo-liberal sociologist look at political economy, and compare it vis a vis, a radical, leftist social critic and theorist, Karl Marx.

First off, Sumner believes that the role of the State is to keep the society in peace, law and order so as for the people to be able to move about to pursue happiness and ensure the guarantee of rights. The State, according to Sumner, should not intervene in the social or economic affair of the society because this kind of meddling goes against the principle of liberty and stifles progress. He writes in page 118 of What the Social Classes Owe Each Other, “Society needs first of all to be freed from these meddlers – that is, to be left alone.” For Marx however, the state role is not to keep society in peace or to guarantee people’s rights. The State for him is set in place primarily by the bourgeoisie to further their own interests.

In his writing, Sumner defines the privilege classes as people of active cooperation, and productive energy, people who are hardworking and innovators. These people are wise and industrious. He makes hesitation in his definition of the poor, making distinctions from the paupers who are burdens on society because of their weakness. So he carefully explains the poor to mean the people who are weak in essential powers needed to produce, those who are malicious and vicious, and are just intently idle and lazy. In contrast to this view of the privilege class and poor, Marx holds the privilege classes as the people who own the means of production and who exploit their workers to maximize their profits. And he believes that the poor are not at all lazy, rather they’re industrious and productive, but they’re being exploited by the bourgeoisie and being robbed off the value of their labor.

Lastly, Sumner sees inequality as purely a result of natural order of things. Some people are weak, lazy, hence poor. While others are productive, hardworking hence rich. Karl Marx sees inequality as artificially made by the mode and relation of production put in place by the capitalist system. For him the proletariat are not paid enough for the value of their work, hence poor. And the bourgeoisie have all the privilege because they have accumulated more wealth by not paying the working class its due.

In conclusion, Sumner and Marx, though theorist from the same discipline of sociology, have quite profoundly different view of the society and the economic relations. Sumner views the society from a Social Darwinist view, while Marx sees it in a conflict and dialectical way. In essence one says, inequality is natural, the other says, inequality if artificial.









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