Marx and Capitalist Socialization

Society is characterized by three basic components: humans and their interactions, the implicit product of those interactions, and the explicit product of those interactions. One characteristic of the human species that sets it apart from others is its advanced systems of social organization. As these systems have advanced, they have allowed an aggregation of society. Human interaction is not individual anymore, there is no real isolated interaction. Every individual and their interactions are subject to aggregated society through the processes of socialization and the forces of the status quo.

Socialization is the system by which an individual is conditioned to operate under societal parameters. Generally speaking, it is undergone in the developmental phases of a person’s psychological evolution and is carried out through both intended and unintended mediums. Family life lends to socialization; it teaches a child basic manners and how to approach knowledge and the “real world.” However, institutions can also socialize an individual. The negative incentive of criminal punishment, for example, influences a person away from acts that are deemed so socially unacceptable that they warrant imprisonment. Early education is simply an assistance and reinforcement of the aforementioned lessons of family life. All of these are intentional means of teaching a human right from wrong.

The much more interesting cases of socialization are rooted in implicit methodology. These are introduced through social norms themselves and reiterated by self-rationalization (often through normalization already done by society, i.e. “I cannot be wrong because that would make everyone wrong”). Implicit socialization plays on human biology and group psychology, as humans have a tendency to move towards conformity (whether for the sake of survival or as a byproduct of some past conditioning is irrelevant for now).

Many behaviors are conditioned implicitly, and there is no true binary between implicit and explicit forms of socialization. It is much more akin to a gradient based on the apparentness of the social roots of a behavior. Take, for instance, the manner by which society approaches sexuality. Sexuality is perhaps the purest form of sociality that can be expressed by a human; it is an act done with another human for the sake of perpetuating humanity through childbirth. Inherently it is a social thing, however, society approaches it as wildly private and disgustingly taboo. Society reinforces this direct repression of the social expression of the self as human, instead favoring internalization and artificiality. This is social conditioning.

Sexuality also exemplifies the socialization gradient. It is conditioned very directly through the family and direct orders by parents. This is quite obvious in the cliche expression “we do not do that in public” or the “birds and the bees” discussion. Traditionally, these normalize sex as private expressions of social love (despite their modern non-sociality) and all of the other points concurrent with a familial, watered-down explanation of sex with none of the so-called “awkward” components. In a very contradictory way, sex, as it is depicted by general sexual education, tends to implicitly water down sexuality in the opposite direction, painting it as a sterile act of biology between two sterile, non-human humans. In either case, the individuality and inhumanity of the act are reinforced, as the parent pushes it as a private act and the school pushes it as an act of two beings reduced to their genitalia, or, in some cases, stupid selfish pleasure for self-fulfilment.

The world is only now at a point where this issue is truly being confronted with less of the abstract pseudo-philosophy of past sexual liberation movements. Thankfully, modern activists and theorists are now addressing our social expression of sexuality rather than the form of sex itself, a much less important topic in the realm of sociology. However, most modern movements still fall short of the full picture. They rightfully deconstruct the traditionalist perspective on how people socially construct sexuality, but they do not deconstruct the rather liberal perspective of sex as a mutual act of individuals rather than a concession of individuality in favor of the direct trade-off of social humanity. Much of this is due to the failure of Marxists to adapt theory to explain sexual hegemony transcendent of class (or at least to define it comprehensively as a component of class). Since the 1960’s, this hole has gradually been filling, and queer and sexual theory have found unions with the Marxist analytical framework (even though a sort of unified field theory has remained elusive).

To return to the original point, the conditioning of sexuality is simply one small piece in the larger whole of socialization. There remains another all-pervasive form of implicit social conditioning that stems from material conditions. Marx, though indirectly, mentioned this in The German Ideology,

These ‘socialists’ or ‘true socialists’, as they call themselves, regard foreign communist literature not as the expression and the product of a real movement but as purely theoretical writings which have been evolved — in the same way as they imagine the German philosophical systems to have been evolved — by a process of ‘pure thought’. It never occurs to them that, even when these writings do preach a system, they spring from the practical needs, the conditions of life in their entirety of a particular class in a particular country [emphasis added]. They innocently take on trust the illusion, cherished by some of these literary party representatives, that it is a question of the ‘most reasonable’ social order and not the needs of a particular class and a particular time.

In this instance, Marx is commenting on the class-dependence of communism and how an ignorance of it is present in German socialist theorists. By invoking the concept of a collective consciousness present across the proletariat, Marx also depicts the great importance of material conditions in the construction of one’s social reality. However, why is this true? The great “illusion” that Marx describes is the belief that communism is not an organic growth from the needs of the proletariat as described through a historical materialist conception of history. These needs are drawn out of alienation, they are drawn out of exploitation, and they are drawn out of, perhaps most importantly, want for simple material necessities. All of these processes are common to the working class (though not necessarily exclusive to it). In this way, the simple nature of one’s material reality can unintentionally pull them into a category of history greater than themselves, and thus a category of society with characteristics greater than themselves. Marx’s overall historical materialist analysis lends to the idea that human society has transcended the individual. If a person’s material condition constructs their social reality, then the social reality cannot escape the person insofar as their material conditions cannot escape them.

Capitalist imperatives are all conditioned through material class. The aforementioned material necessities are the goal of every person, as they are at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The capitalist schematic requires the worker to aid the propertied class in order to achieve these needs. That is to say, capitalism requires an individual to aid the strength of its system and the strength of its capital class in order to shape his or her material conditions. Thus, capitalism requires people to embrace its negative entails (exploitation, alienation, etc.) in order to intentionally change their social reality through their material reality. This is not a particularly revelatory statement-everyone knows that you have to work to have material comforts. However, it is the fact that this reality is taken for granted which is interesting. The normalization of capitalism as a means of achieving agency over themselves is something inherently authoritarian. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx wrote

By possessing the property of buying everything, by possessing the property of appropriating all objects, money is thus the object of eminent possession. The universality of its property is the omnipotence of its being. It is therefore regarded as an omnipotent being. Money is the procurer between man’s need and the object, between his life and his means of life. But that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me. For me it is the other person.

In the excerpt, Marx specifically referenced “money” as the mediator of all interaction. However, money can be generalized to property, and in that way, property can be generalized as the objective of capitalist participation. Capitalism preys on physiological and sociological imperatives in order to establish social dominance over the individual. This paints the hyper-capitalist “individualists” in a very comical light. Capitalism inherently corrupts individuality by establishing itself as the inherent reality of the individual, thus depriving the individual of agency over their reality. Alongside this, socialization certainly runs parallel to this process. On the one hand, it aids capitalism’s smooth functioning, but it also engages in this same violent anti-individualism. However, socialization is a societal imperative. Society and the social nature of humanity require some concession of individuality. The takeaway from this is not some radical “anti-socializationism.” It is an awareness of society’s power over the individual and an ability to critique it when necessary.

The trade-off between sociality and individualism will forever characterize debates over how the world approaches human organization, even in socialist societies. As much of a cliche as it is, the true answer to the problem sits somewhere in the middle of the two. Just as human biological development played out, some individuality and some sociality are both necessary for various apparent reasons. One thing is effectively certain, however: capitalism is the enemy of both and requires ruthless criticism to make apparent its violent encroaches upon individual agency and humanity’s natural will.


1. The German Ideology by Karl Marx, 1845 

2. The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts by Karl Marx, 1844


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