Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.
Means of Production Defined
The means of production of a society include all of the physical elements, aside from human beings, that go into producing goods and services, including the natural resources, machines, tools, offices, computers, and means of distribution, such as stores and the internet. The means of production have changed over time, but the concept is an important element in discussions of how wealth is created and maintained.
If you lived during the 19th century, you would have watched a dramatic shift in the way society manufactured goods. Up until about the mid-1800s, most individuals weaved their own clothing and manufactured other materials on a very small scale using their own skills. Few means of production were required to produce such a small set of goods, and workers were in close relationship to their tools and resources, as well as anyone purchasing from them. These commodities (goods and services) served human needs and could be exchanged for other items of value or for currency.
As factories developed, larger operations that could produce many more commodities in a shorter period of time began to employ individuals who used to work in these smaller operations. These larger factories were able to create products that could be sold at a lower price and could make a profit for the owners of those larger means of production. As a worker in a factory, you would have been paid a very limited wage in exchange for your time. Since you would have needed the wage in order to survive, you may have felt compelled to participate in this new system.
Work become much more segmented than it had been at a smaller scale. For instance, if you used to be a blacksmith before industrialization, you might have done many different types of jobs as you performed your role. Once employed by a factory in the industrialized system, your skills as a blacksmith might not be needed or might only be needed for a very specific repetitive task. You also no longer owned your own means of production but were given a wage by those who owned the factory instead.
Social Stratification and Alienation
Even before the shift to an industrialized society, the main means of production have typically been under the control of few individuals. Throughout history, from societies where land has been owned by a relative few to our system today where the wealthiest of our citizens - a tiny minority - own the vast majority of the wealth, the most significant means of production tend to be concentrated among a small number of people. This gap in resources is known as social stratification.
The German economist Karl Marx argued that social stratification results directly from the relationship individuals have with the means of production. If you own the means of production, such as a factory, you are a member of the ruling, capitalist, wealthy class, also known as the bourgeoisie. As a worker, you are a member of a class known as the proletariat, selling your labor because it is the only way you can survive. According to Marx, the bourgeoisie typically thrive and profit in the industrialized world, whereas the proletariat struggle to get by day by day. Marx believed that the situation and working conditions would simply get worse over time and would become more stratified until a revolutionary change occurred to resolve this problem.
Through the process of industrialization, workers became more isolated from the type of work of the past in which an individual may have owned a small-scale means of producing commodities. Workers also became distanced from the process of their labor because they were required to do what they were told to do by the owners. They were no longer decision makers in how to go about their work. While a blacksmith might have had a say in the past about which job to do next or how to approach a task, his factory work would likely have demanded a more standardized approach, with less room for individual technique or process.
These and other experiences of industrialization result in alienation for the worker, according to Marx. Alienation occurs when there is no longer a clear-cut relationship from a person performing labor to an individual commodity that is developed and sold out in the world. A person may play only a small role in a series of steps designed to produce a volume of commodities, so the person experiences a sense of great distance between himself, his work, and society. For example, a blacksmith who had previously been engaged in local commerce may have had to transform into a factory worker, engaged in mostly repetitive tasks in an environment with more limited community engagement.
Modes of Production
Marx proposed that proletariat workers could be liberated from this experience by seizing the means of production. He believed that alienation would only get worse until the classes conflicted so terribly that the system was forced to change. A shift in the ownership of the means of production would cause a shift in the mode of production. The mode of production involves the ways that commodities get produced in a society through economic systems such as feudalism, capitalism, socialism, or communism.
A society with a socialist mode of production, for example, would involve government control over some or all of the means of production. A communist society, as Marx envisioned it, would involve a complete transformation such that classes no longer existed and a completely different way of life was developed. Critics of this Marxist approach debate whether common control of the means of production is even a workable possibility. Some debate whether incentives can still exist if competition is not a factor in our survival. They point to the problems of societies that have pursued a communist vision, societies that experienced a different version of the future than Marx laid out in his theories to liberate humanity.
And what about today? The means of production are still a part of our society, and a wealthy minority still control the majority of these resources and the wealth in the world. Yet the individual worker's experience within 21st century capitalist American society may be much different than the blacksmith, the factory worker, the bourgeois owners, or anyone else that would have lived in the 19th century.
Most modern-day work environments include all of the reforms and improvements of the last two centuries since then. Our society is still stratified but is arguably more complex than the two classes of people that Marx described. Some people in the world may actually be worse off than the worker of the 19th century and may be living in poverty and in horrible working conditions. Others are much better off, with opportunities much greater than a factory worker of the past had available.
Let's review. The means of production are the resources and tools that make it possible for products and services to get created. By the time of early industrial society, the means of production included the machinery and raw materials in a factory. Now it also includes offices, computers, and other technology. Our relationship to the means of production has been a centerpiece in the work of Marx and continues as a topic of debate for those envisioning what society would be like with a different mode of production. In our capitalist society where the few still own the majority of these means, we have utilized reforms and other adaptations to improve conditions. Though our society has not resolved the problems of being socially stratified, critics of a Marxist revolution point to the challenges and problems of other modes of production, such as socialism and communism, and debate the merit of Marx's particular vision of the future.
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