In a broad sense, social relations refers to the connections and relationships between people (or groups of people) within a society. This can exist in many, often overlapping, forms. The staple reason for a set of social relations in a society is how that society is organized, especially if a power structure or political/economical model relies on categorizing different groups of people or establishing dichotomies.
Social relations correspond to the basic structures of power in a society. They can be an emblem in identifying the economic production model dominating a society, as well as other systems, in a given point in history.
Likewise, by understanding how certain systems function, we can also predict human social relations, especially as systems often necessitate particular formations in which people relate to each other in order to help a respective system to sustain itself.
For the context of this essay, we will be discussing the concept of social relations of production, drawing some insight from Marxist theory, and applying these concepts to capitalist society and prevalent social formations today.
To define, the mode of production is the economic system of a society that includes the productive forces (human labor power and means of production [defined below]) and the relations of production.
The mode of production determines the relations of production. At the same time, these social relations can be traced back to the mode of production.
Relations of production can be thought of as how people relate to each other and non-human items materially. For instance, such as under capitalism, it is how people relate to the means of production (machinery, property, materials, and resources to produce a product to sell AKA a commodity) and how those relationships form distinct social classes and other paradigms.
Under capitalism, the ruling class are the ones who privately own and control the means of production and profit from the labor of the working class, who work the means of production to create a commodity. The profit accumulated from selling the commodity is pocketed by the owner, and a wage below the full value of the worker’s labor is compensation. This establishes the exploiting and exploited classes, the most fundamental part of capitalism.
People are born into their class and are subject to certain privileges and inequalities. They enter predetermined positions in society, and, in a sense, their attitudes, interests, and purposes may be predetermined as well. This gives rise to different classes centering different priorities and views relating to the economy, government, politics, social issues, and so on. So under capitalism, the ruling class take advantage of the power imbalance and leverage their upper hand to manipulate society’s ideals and values (e.g. shaping education and media).
So, the existence of and the inequality between these classes is an intrinsic component to the capitalist system. In other words, the social relations emanated out of the capitalist mode of production helps capitalism stay standing. The way social classes interact is linked to a material cause — the production model.
Not only are relations of production the social relationships formed in the actual production process, they are the power relationships that build and are the result of the division of society’s fruit of labor and overall wealth.
Social relations rooted in oppression (such as racial oppression, white and male supremacy, gender oppression and homophobia, ableism, etc.) can be regarded as relations of production as well. This is because these social relations divide and conquer the working class, creating antagonisms between members of the proletariat.
This obstructs unity towards common interests, which is liberation from capitalists, but also leaves the most oppressed groups of the proletariat, such as racialized, colonized, and dispossessed peoples, to bear most of the consequences (e.g. poverty, incarceration, police brutality) of the capitalist world.
Moreover, prejudices, discrimination, and the idea of “superior” and “inferior” groups serve as outlets of superexploitation, meaning exploitation of a marginalized group can be somehow seen as more justified ideologically, allowing capitalists to continue to take advantage of the working class.
Capitalism has appropriated pre-existing prejudices and weaponizes them for its own protection and growth of power. It has relied on the prevalence of many forms of oppression to preserve the integrity of the current relations of production, and therefore the strength of the capitalist economic and political model overall.
Thus, relations of production can also refer to the unjust dichotomies and inequalities between groups of people, all rooted in the organization of material life.
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