A reader recently asked: “I read a few of your articles where you mention the working class. Isn’t that term irrelevant these days? I mean we don’t all work in factories any more, and most of us have lots of modern conveniences. Aren’t we all just middle class now?”
The tops of society would definitely prefer it if we all considered ourselves middle class. They hope to give the impression that we have some sort of status, and that we’re all doing alright.
When they tell us that we’re all middle class they want us to believe that class divisions don’t really exist, and that we all have a stake in the system, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The middle classes are actually shrinking, not growing. Society is becoming more polarised. On the one side, wealth is being concentrated in the hands of fewer people. On the other side, the group of people that work for a living is getting bigger.
Even in underdeveloped countries, more people are being drawn into the workforce. And in the advanced world many of those we once considered middle class, like teachers, lawyers and public servants, are being forced into lower paid insecure work.
We don’t define class by the size of your pay packet – there can be large differences in wealth within each class. For Marxists, class refers to a person’s relationship to the way wealth is created, meaning that most people in professional jobs were always workers.
Marxists are interested in the notion of class because it gets to the heart of how the capitalist system works. We define class as a group of people that have common relations to the means of production.
Under capitalism the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) owns and controls the offices, shops and factories (the means of production). Workers (the proletariat) sell their labour power to the capitalist in exchange for a wage or salary. The worker is only paid part of the wealth they produce, with the rest being kept by the capitalist as profit.
The capitalists make more money if they pay lower wages, or make people work harder and longer. The worker is better off if they fight for higher wages and improved conditions. The interests of these two classes are at odds. This means that your class position tends to determine your outlook and consciousness.
The bourgeoisie and the working class are the two main social classes under capitalism, but a middle class does exist.
Most of the time managers, employed directly by the capitalist class, identify with the interests of their bosses as against those working under them. They form a middle layer between capitalists and workers, and include people who are capitalists in their own right, as well as people who are workers at other times in their lives.
As well as the big bourgeoisie, there is also the petit (small) bourgeoisie who are the owners of small businesses. They exploit smaller numbers of workers but they are also exploited by the big capitalists.
While the petit bourgeoisie are often also middle class, sometimes they can have wages and an outlook closer to that of a worker. Also, sometimes you can have relatively low skilled but unionised manual workers who make more money than university lecturers.
Marxists aren’t fixated on social status, whether you are blue collar or white collar, or if you have managed to buy a few modern conveniences. We are more concerned about how people’s class position drives them to struggle.
Inbuilt in capitalism is a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the workers. It’s a system that’s rigged in favour of the rich, but the capitalists only maintain their rule by keeping the workers divided and unconscious of their power.
If workers organise to struggle together, they can not only win a bigger share of the wealth but they have the potential to overturn capitalism and replace it with a socialist system that does away with class struggle once and for all.
The main task for Marxists is to help unite workers and to make them conscious of their social weight.
For us, being working class is not an insult but a badge of honour. Far from being irrelevant, understanding class, class struggle, and the special power of the working class is the key to changing the world.
Do you have a question for The Socialist? Email your question to us HERE and we will publish our responses in future editions of this column.