Good, smart people are alienated for not knowing Marx. It’s unfair and it’s not right. People have a lot to do with their lives, and it’s perfectly acceptable not to spend it grinding through Capital. I’ve read Marx, and I’ve read Marx commentary. Here is the most relevant synopsis I’ve found from Sidanius and Pratto’s Social Dominance (pg. 21–22)
I’m just going to type it out. I’m not saying Marx is right; I’m saying that you probably want to have the arguments in your head even if he is wrong. Cut, paste, share, whatever. As far as I’m concerned, this is all the Marx you need to know, minus some insight into alienation and labor, but you probably should know this much:
“The core of what is now known as Marxism centers around the analysis of capitalism, including how it arose, how it works, whom it benefits, and whom it disadvantages. Marxist theory argues that capitalist societies are hierarchically organized social systems in which the economic surplus that technology and productive instruments produce is unequally distributed between the owners of this technology and those who actual produce the wealth — the workers who use the technology. Marxism argues that those with the power and control over the means of production will exploit those with little power and control. Because those who own capital have a power advantage over those who sell labor, these owners are able to structure economic transactions in ways that almost always benefit themselves at the cost of workers. Furthermore, the owners own not only the means of economic production (e.g, manufacturing), but the means of intellectual and cultural production as well (e.g., mass media, the universities). Because this ruling class controls the major venues of intellectual production, this gives this great power over the kinds of ideas available for public discourse and how this discourse is framed. Finally, this economic and intellectual power also translates itself into political power and control over the organs of the state. For Marxists, the ruling class’s control over the state is considered so complete that the state is regarded as the “executive committee of the ruling class.”
While Marxism is primarily a theory of economic, or class-based, social hierarchy and oppression, it is not completely without relevance for our understanding of race, ethnic, and gender conflict. From the Marxist perspective, racial, ethnic, and even national conflict are seen primarily as derivable from the most basic and fundamental conflict in society, namely class conflict. Among other things, racism, ethnocentrisim, and nationalism are seen as instruments used by ruling class (owners of capital) to keep workers at one another’s throats and thereby prevent them from correctly perceiving and understanding their real economic interests and identifying their real enemies (i.e., owners of capital).
“Marxism also has implications for patriarchy. Marxism argues that family structure, on the one hand, and economic and class structure, on the other hand, and inextricably linked, and that class inequality determines the nature of gender inequality. Engels posited that when the family and labor marked were structured to allow men greater access to capital than women had and to make people dependent on wages rather than consuming the fruits of their own labor directly, gender inequality within marriage and the exploitation of lower-class men would result….
“Finally, Marx and Engels suggested that economic inequality was made possible to the degree that there was economic surplus. For societies with subsistence economies (e.g., hunter-gatherer societies), wealth, and therefore political power, will tend to be equally distributed. However, as economies become more and more efficient at producing economic surplus, this economic surplus and its attendant political power will have a tendency to become more and more unequally distributed…
“Though Marxism has been criticized from a number of perspectives, this model also contains several very insightful ideas of enduring value. Among the most important are that ideology functions to justify and support hierarchical group relations and that ruling elites largely control the contents and framing of social discourse. Because of this control of social ideology, ruling elites are able to convince not only themselves but, more importantly, their subordinates of the legitimacy of their rule. This means that the ruling class can exercise near hegemonic control over the social system without serious resistance from, and often with the cooperation of, the working class. The notion that the working class accepts the hegemonic position of the ruling class as fair and legitimate is known as false consciousness.”