Before discussing the advent of post-capitalist society we must first examine what a society is, and say something of how a society forms and functions.
A simple dictionary definition of the word society might say something like, “a group of interdependent individuals” and will usually include some mention of sharing a common culture and common institutions. Sociology, or the study of society, has been defined as the scientific study of social structure and social interaction and of the factors making for change in social structure and social interaction (1). These are precisely the issues before us in discussing the change to a post-capitalist society.
Imagine a group of interdependent individuals. Without knowing anything more about this group we can say with certainty that if they are to continue to exist they must consume, and therefore must produce or otherwise acquire. How will they produce or acquire? According to the best light available to them, that is, in accordance with their level of technological development. And how will they organize themselves to produce? Well, if they are smart, they will organize themselves in a manner which makes the best use of their level of technological achievement.
For example, consider a society of primitive hunter-gatherers. Let’s assume they are working with an Acheulean tool set; stone hand-axes, cleavers, scrapers, and the like. How will they organize themselves to best survive with this technology? There is likely to be a rudimentary division of labor, with the strongest and fastest sent to hunt, while the rest gather and tend to other activities. They do not have to do this. They could send the weak or infirm to hunt, while the strong gather berries, but that would not be utilizing their technology to their best advantage. We can further imagine that in this type of society a spirit of cooperation would be more appropriate than self-interested competition. To the extent that this society has developed a culture, we can further speculate that this culture should affirm and enforce the values that go along with this set of social relations. Selfish hoarding might be taboo, along with violence against others within the group, or theft — in short, any activity which diminishes the society’s ability to survive. Those activities which promote the success of the group would likely be celebrated — courage, strength, etc. They may even develop religious beliefs centered around the hunt or the harvest, fertility rituals and crude attempts to symbolize, and thus control, their environment.
Now let’s compare a more sophisticated feudal society. Here the division of labor is much more pronounced, with all manner of specialized crafts and trades. New technologies include water mills, windmills, gunpowder, agricultural improvements, etc. Such a society could organize itself the same way the hunter-gatherer society did, but this would not make the best use of its technological advances. The trades, for example, would be best advanced by organizing into guilds which could ensure cooperation among members and protection of trade secrets and interests. Guild masters may go on to become political leaders of the community, writing laws to preserve and protect their interests. The relations members enter into in order to produce become more formalized. From this foundation, a distinct mindset arises. The proper functioning of this society requires that its members “find their place”. There is no concept of individual rights (no real concept of the individual at all). A person’s standing, opportunities, and position are determined by their association with their group. The dominant ideologies naturally become those which preserve the social stasis.
Of course, much more could be said, but we can glean a few key concepts from these brief remarks:
1. Every society must produce and should produce with the best technological means it has.
2. To produce, the members of the society should associate in a manner which best exploits their existing technology.
3. Taboos, laws, customs, and ideologies, to be beneficial to the success of the society, should complement and reinforce these social relations.
This concept of “correspondence” between the various facets of a society is not deterministic. There is no natural law which dictates that a society’s relations of production must complement or correspond to its level of technology, or that its laws, politics, and dominant ideologies will correspond to and function properly with its mode of production. A society is free to mess up, to become dysfunctional. In so doing, however, it may find itself a victim of the “law of the jungle,” and its survival may be in jeopardy.
With these basic concepts in mind, we are ready to explore Marx’s philosophical proposition of historical materialism.
(1) Tim Curry, Robert Jiobu, Kent Schwirian. 2005. Sociology for the Twenty-First Century. 4th ed. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. p.4