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Bill Zhang 260463204 Question 2 Jesse Bauman

Two Accounts of Oppression

In the Communist Manifesto and On Liberty, Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill each provide a vastly different conception of oppression. While Mill and Marx both agree that oppression naturally occurs in democratic and capitalist societies, they diverge considerably in their views of its sources and mechanisms, as well as their proposals for political reform and ending oppression. This essay seeks to argue that Mills theory of oppression is far more applicable and logically sound than Marxs view. Examining and contrasting the political theory of each author emphasizes the superiority of Mills argument, and exposes key weaknesses in Marxs view of oppression. A critical element of each authors account is their description of the sources and mechanisms of oppression in society. In each case, oppression refers to the exercise of authority of one social group over another, in a manner that is fundamentally unjust or dehumanizing. In On Liberty, Mill focuses his discussion of oppression around the violations of individual freedoms that occur in democratic societies. Mill argues that while democracies putatively govern by the will of the people, they are liable to force their moral and intellectual values on their citizens through laws and the threat of social ostracism. He justifies this by noting that if [democratic society] issues the wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression (Mill 5). In practice, democratic decisions tend to reflect the will of the majority, who may potentially desire to oppress a part of their number (Mill 5). In Mills view, then, the oppressed group are those individuals whose personal freedoms are inhibited by the interference of collective opinion (Mill 6), and the source of oppression is legal and social coercion intruding on private conduct. The motivation for this brand of oppression is complex: Mill argues that it 1

Bill Zhang 260463204 Question 2 Jesse Bauman may be caused by paternalistic, religious or moral sentiments in society that encourage individuals to impose their views on others (Mill 7). Like Mill, Marx believes that oppression is based around social control, in which certain groups in society exert unwarranted influence on their citizens. In regards to the character of oppression, however, Marxs argument contrasts considerably with Mills theory. Marx views oppression as only tangentially related to the prevailing social mores in society. Instead, he gives primacy to socioeconomic factors. He argues that oppression is inherently based on the economic relationship between different classes, declaring that every form of society has been based [...] on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes (Marx 1). Oppression, in Marxs view, is a natural result of the market structure imposed by capitalism, which encourages "the accumulation of wealth in private hands, [and] the formation and increase of capital" (Marx 11). Consequently, modern capitalist society is divided into the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) and the proletariat, who lack any influence over the productive forces in society. To survive, the proletariat are reduced to selling their labour power, and so the bourgeoisie subjugate the proletariat through economic bondage. Marx decries the inherently oppressive arrangement of capitalist society, in which those of [societys] members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything do not work (Marx 29). Upon closer analysis, however, Marxs account of the sources of capitalist oppression contains several fundamental flaws, which need to be examined and compared against Mills theory. Since Marx attributes oppression exclusively to class divisions that recur throughout history, his entire argument is predicated on the assumption that the exploitation of one part of society by the other [] cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms (Marx 34). Despite the central role of class relations in his theory, Marx offers few concrete justifications for

Bill Zhang 260463204 Question 2 Jesse Bauman this assertion beyond the observation that in the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders (Marx 7). Consequently, Marx neglects the role of any factors besides economics in contributing to oppression. Religious persecution, violations of individual freedom and other breaches of liberty are all secondary to the economic forces that guide history and shape social development. Given the lack of validation for such a sweeping claim, it is fair to say that Marx somewhat exaggerates the importance of socioeconomic factors in oppression. Mill, by contrast, acknowledges the existence of multiple, complex motivations for oppression in society and details how they detract from society as a whole. Marx does defend his thesis with the claim that social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms (Marx 34). To some extent, Mill agrees with the concept that moral sentiments emanate from the ruling class, asserting that Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority (Mill 6). However, there is still no reason to assume that class distinctions alone motivate all forms of oppression in society, which makes Marxs account markedly less justified than Mills. An important aspect of each authors theory is the political reform that they advocate in order to end the systemic oppression in democratic and capitalist society. Upon examination of both authors argument, Mills proposal to end oppression appears far more justified than Marxs. To safeguard against potential encroachments against liberty, Mill attempts to delineate the extent to which society can justifiably limit individual freedoms. He declares that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant (Mill 9). The harm principle is a central idea in Mills theory, and is his solution to oppression in democratic societies since it clearly 3

Bill Zhang 260463204 Question 2 Jesse Bauman outlines the degree of warranted social or legal interference with private conduct. Mills solution is particularly compelling because he supports his argument with logically sound justifications. Mill defends the harm principle from a utilitarian position, arguing that it benefits society to observe individual freedoms more than it does to violate them. A society that encourages freedom of thought, speech and individuality fosters an environment conducive to intellectual and social development, and advances society as a whole (Mill 26). The only times in which it is justified to override liberties are when they actively threaten the social good. This caveat, however, invites criticism of Mills theories. At a glance, there seem to be potential weaknesses in Mills arguments. As Mill concedes, people in society are not completely isolated: their actions affect others, and even actions that are ostensibly in the domain of private conduct may have underlying social consequences. Through the harm principle, Mill limits the domain of government intervention solely to violations of direct obligations, which seems like a fairly arbitrary distinction. It is possible that any private activity could be construed as harmful to society, and therefore prohibited by social or legal coercion, while still being consistent with Mills harm principle. However, it is worth nothing that Mill justifies the harm principle from a utilitarian standpoint. Consequently, prohibitions on private conduct would only be defensible if their value to society superseded the value provided by freedoms on individual conduct, and given Mills exhaustive defense of individuality, this scenario is reasonably unlikely. To ensure the validity of Mills argument, it is necessary to examine Marxs claims in regards to ending oppression. Marx, by contrast, supports an extremely different mode of political reform. He encourages the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie (Marx 22), in which the proletariat end their subjugation by destroying the economic structures that hold them in bondage. To accomplish this, Marx advises centralizing all productive forces into the hands of the state, as well as the abolition of bourgeois

Bill Zhang 260463204 Question 2 Jesse Bauman property (Marx 30). By eliminating the acquisition of capital and the unequal distribution of property ownership, Marx hopes to permanently end the class antagonism that engenders oppression. However, Marxs support of the proletariat revolution makes his account of oppression significantly weaker than Mills, and highlights inconsistencies in his argument. Forcing the redistribution of private property and confiscating the means of production constitutes an egregious breach of individual freedoms. Marx seems to decry economic oppression while simultaneously advocating the implementation of a far more direct mode of coercion. On this point, he concedes that the revolution cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property (Marx 34). By granting the state wide-ranging coercive powers and control over the means of production, Marx risks the emergence of repressive political leaders that would exploit the states coercive powers, and does not seem to include any mechanism to mitigate these potential abuses. Consequently, Marxs solution to oppression falls short, while Mills argument holds up against criticism. Through a critical analysis of each authors account of oppression, Mills argument appears far superior to Marxs view. By examining their arguments for the sources, mechanisms, and solutions to oppression in democratic and capitalist societies, it is clear that Mills justifications for his account are much more logically rigorous and relevant than Marxs rhetoric. Mills conception of the sources and mechanisms for oppression are much more relevant and defended than Marxs points, which are narrow and somewhat unsupported. Furthermore, Mill offers a workable, rational solution to democratic oppression whereas Marxs proposal is plagued by inconsistencies and shortcomings. Consequently, oppression occurs in democratic society as a consequence of public opinion interfering with private conduct, and requires a clear limitation on the social and legal influence that society imposes on individuals.

Bill Zhang 260463204 Question 2 Jesse Bauman Works Cited Marx, Karl. Communist Manifesto. London: ElecBook, 1998.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859.