Karl Marx was very interested in class conflict, writing that class conflict was the "motor of history" in all societies. Class conflict was the catalyst that caused change in society and moved society forward, changing it. Marx theorized that every society was characterized by one conflict or another.
Being a German in the 1800s, the 19th century, he was especially interested in the class conflicts of industrial capitalism. He was able to see capitalism industrializing the society, and see capitalists attaining huge amounts of wealth at the expense of the workers and laborers who didn't have wealth. The only thing they could do was to go into the factory and work for the capitalist, so the capitalist could get money. There weren’t any labor laws and regulations--children were working, and everyone was working long hours.
Marx witnessed all of this happening in the factory, and he viewed capitalism as an inherently exploitative system. He thought it was fundamentally exploitative because the means of production--all of the inputs used to produce commodities, like the factory, machines, and the money to pay for these things--were owned by the capitalist class, known as the bourgeoisie, a French term.
On the other hand was the proletariat, or the laborers. The proletariat were those who only had their labor to sell. They didn't have any commodities or ownership of the means of production. They only had their bodies to sell to the capitalists, to use for labor in the factories.
Marx theorized that there is a social relationship between the capitalist and the laborer, grounded in the means of production, and differential ownership. The capitalist could therefore exploit the proletariat within the factory and produce wealth for themselves at the expense of the proletariat. This was the fundamental class conflict in industrial capitalism, Marx argued.
This means that the capitalist, or the bourgeoisie, has some money up front, which they invest in the means of production and hire a commodity - labor inputs - and turn that input into greater wealth.
He buys the commodities (land, factory, parts, labor), then sells the commodities (computers) in a market with the hopes of producing more money--a greater amount of money, money prime--that is then reinvested back into the process.
The laborers in the middle, whose labor is one of the commodities--are not getting their fair share of the profits. They're being exploited in the production process to aggrandize the wealth of the capitalist.
Marx theorized that this was going to lead to a revolution. Marx maintained that this was a horribly corrosive social system that could only last for so long before the proletariat would develop a revolutionary consciousness and aim their animosity at the capitalist for exploiting them and condemning them to this horrible life, simply because they didn't have the means of production. They would then would overthrow the capitalists, igniting a socialist revolution and social change.
In capitalism, that paradigm changes. The laborers go into the factory where they work for a period of time, producing a certain commodity, and then they leave. They don't really have that product--it isn’t theirs, it belongs to the capitalist.
Marx theorized that they were powerless relative to the capitalist, with respect to the products of their labor. They were alienated from their labor and even from each other, alienation being a feeling of estrangement and disassociation from something--their labor and the products of our labor--resulting from a situation of powerlessness.
Yet there never was a revolution in the Marxian sense, and it seems unlikely to happen, even though inequality in American society has increased dramatically since 1970.
Real wages, meaning wages adjusted for inflation, the income that each person brings home at the end of the day, have stagnated. Real wages have flat lined since 1970. At the same time, a growing group at the top has been able to increase their wealth based upon new opportunities that have opened up with the globalization of the economy. People are recognizing the disparity between the 1% and the 99%. Much of the political discourse revolves around how to get jobs back to the middle class, and how to improve the middle class.
Simultaneously, the condition of the environment is worsening, and people are responding in kind. People are taking charge against their food being produced in industrial foods systems. Therefore we have a system that is getting more unequal, and it is harder to legitimize the existing status quo, given the inequality. There won't necessarily be a revolution, but people are recognizing the fundamental inequality, and pointing their finger at the system.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.