Adventures in Anachronistic Sociology: Dahrendorf ‘Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society’


Following up on a line of research that resulted in a paper recently accepted for publication, I’ve been digging into the sociological literature on class and stratification. Today I read relevant sections from Dahrendorf’s Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society, which is widely cited in the literature and seems to have been a major influence on debates. His ‘conflict theory’ of class is interesting: he attempts to set out a theory of class in terms of ‘authority relations’ rather than economic relationships between actors. This schema has some oddities, not least Dahrendorf’s categorisation of postal workers as members of the ruling class. Michael Mann picks up on this quirk in The Sources of Social Power vol. 2, but Mann’s conceptualisation of the middle classes owes a lot to Dahrendorf. The middle classes in mature industrial society are, Dahrendorf argues, ‘born decomposed’ – they occupy various positions at different gradations within the administrative hierarchies that characterised contemporary industrial society. The working class(es) have also experienced decomposition, as industrialism has produced not a single mass of proletarians but several gradations in terms of skill and training. The skilled working class blends into the white-collar salariat. So far, so persuasive as an general account of changes within industrial society up until 1959. The distinction between ownership and control is pretty important, distinctions along similar lines were later made by other class theorists such as Goldthorpe and Wright. Dahrendorf also provides a pretty sharp discussion of other theories of class put forward by scholars such as Djilas and Burnham.

But Dahrendorf takes his argument further, in a direction that seems absurd today, arguing that industrial society is no longer capitalist. This is because of the separation of ownership and control between capitalist shareholders and managers. Marx accurately described the conditions of his own age, in which capitalist owners managed their factories in person, directly facing propertyless, non-organised workers at the coal-face of production. Dahrendorf argues that this all changed with the rise of the joint-stock company. The intensity of class conflict in the late C19th and the early C20th was merely the result of an overlapping set of conflicts over authority relations, which have now been diffused more generally through society and the economy. Not only has the struggle between capital and labour been overshadowed by other complex and cross-cutting conflicts, but capitalists no longer seem to exercise a great deal of agency within society on Dahrendorf’s account. What I found extraordinary about Dahrendorf’s account, however, was the bizarre claim (from a 2013 vantage point) that

Never has the imputation of a profit motive been further from the real motives of men than it is for modern bureaucratic managers

If that claim was true in 1959, it certainly isn’t one that anyone would make in 2013. It seems fairly obvious that the interests of managers of capitalist enterprises are closely aligned with shareholders, indeed the right argues that managers ought first and foremost act to maximise shareholder value as agents of shareholder principals. The left, meanwhile, argues that managers and capitalists have effectively become a single profit-driven class. Dahrendorf’s claim looks like it originates on another planet rather than from half a century ago. What does this imply? That Western societies were, for a brief interlude in the post-war era, post-capitalist ‘industrial societies’ but reverted to capitalism between then and now (presumably sometime after 1979)? Or perhaps that, despite his sharp conceptual analysis of the new middle classes, Dahrendorf was mistaken and Western societies were always capitalist and that economic relations – rather than generalised authority relations – have always underpinned their social structures? Or that, as Mann might argue, certain sources of social power oscillate in terms of their relative importance, with economic power now reshaping Western societies because of global economic integration?

Still, there’s a strong anti-authoritarian spirit that runs through the book, emphasising the role of conflict in a pluralistic society and rejecting the demand for enforced consensus made by its enemies.


Posted on April 2, 2013, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. “If that claim was true in 1959, it certainly isn’t one that anyone would make in 2013. “

    The change happened in the 1980s. Its impact was great; in bringing about the current economic inequality, volatility, and the general financialization of the U.S. economy it was vastly more important than any type of deregulation or changes in tax structure ever were. Before the 1980s shareholder value was a periphery concern of most businesses (and the managers who owned them). Their believed that their main goal was the “health” of the company – its long term success as an institution. Shareholder activism began its swing in the 1980s, and by the early 1990s almost all CEO’s pay and compensation packages were tied to the company’s stocks. CEOS in the 50s and 60s often talked about the businesses they ran as if they were a social institution with many stake holders (including their employees) and their actions often matched their rhetoric. The real competition was not between capital and labor, but share holders and managers.

    The share holder revolution changed all of this. Corporations are no longer run as institutions, but commodities. Long term growth, stability, and institutional survival have no purpose in the new order – the share holder, after all, really doesn’t care if a business fails or succeeds, as long as he sells at the right time. CEOs now base most of their decisions on how things will effect share price, and company after company has been driven into the ground because cuts made in the name of short term stock jumps are not good for the long term health of the company. The effects on the American economy have been disastrous.

    Karen Ho’s Wall Street: An Ethnography devotes several chapters to this. I very much recommend it. I ail be reviewing the book over at my blog sometime in the next few weeks. Until then, the following article is the best introduction I have found to the topic:

    “The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value”
    Steve Denning. Forbes 28 November 2012.

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