By David Zink
Like most survivors of our (mis)education system, you’ve probably been taught that in American and Canadian society the concept of ‘class’ is no longer relevant. That today, we’re all in the broad middle class. Sure, some of us are doing better financially than others, but ‘class struggle’? That’s an outmoded idea that no longer applies, and certainly has nothing to do with you, right?
Wrong; and here’s why. First of all, what is a social class anyway? Several dictionary definitions help set up a base from which we can work:
1) A group having something in common
2) A grouping based on social or economic status
3) A rating according to quality, rank, etc.
The first and third definitions are pretty subjective. Let’s look into that second definition. There’s a relatively easy and objective way to group people into classes, based upon social and economic status.
It’s your relationship to the means of production that determines which class you’re in, and impacts your social and economic status.
Okay, so what are these ‘means of production’? That’s the land, factories, warehouses, transportation, or other businesses in which production or services take place. Do you own them, or do you work for those who do? If you own the means of production, you’re part of the capitalist class. But if you’re dependent on a wage or salary (or a pension, welfare, or unemployment compensation), then you’re in the working class.
Is this definition reasonable? Well, first of all, it isn’t new. Adam Smith used it in 1776 in his The Wealth of Nations, and it’s been in common usage ever since. The rich seem to have no objection to being called capitalists. (They prefer to be called ‘job creators’, but consumer demand is the true job-creator.) And those of us who are dependent on a wage or salary know who we are, so this definition works fairly well.
Members of the classes can be pretty easily identified: Do you buy other people’s labor power, or do you sell your own? So, yes: not only is this definition valid, but it also adds meaning to those other two definitions as well.
Sounds okay so far, but . . .
Then What Is the ‘Middle Class’?
If you’re a physician, lawyer, architect, or other professional, and/or own a small business, work for a living, maybe hire others, that’s you. The capitalist system we’re living in exerts pressure on corporations to consolidate, which makes life difficult for small, family-owned and managed businesses to survive. Increasingly, that’s a tough row to hoe.
For several reasons, the small-business sector of the economy and the middle class are shrinking.
Mergers—big corporate fish ‘eating’ little fish—, the high cost of new technology, and the declining rate of profit, are factors working against the middle class. Older physicians, architects, and other professionals sell their businesses. Most recent graduates—saddled with high student debt—can’t afford the risk, find the prospect of starting up a new practice intimidating, so take jobs at hospitals or other already established firms.
A few in the middle class move up into the capitalist class, but most end up joining the working class. Mobility in this society is mostly downward.
Big Deal. So What if There Are Classes?
Even if there are classes, what difference does it make? So what if you’re working class? You do your job, get your pay, tend to your own affairs, and try to enjoy your life. Well, if everything was always rosy, perhaps it wouldn’t make much difference, but consider what this class division really means.
We live in a capitalist world. In every country, wealth—in the form of commodities such as lumber milled, widgets manufactured, services provided, or whatever—is produced for sale at a profit. That profit is derived from your unpaid labor. In other words, if your wages are, say, $800 per week, then you must create more than $800 of wealth—in one form or another—for your employer every week. If you didn’t, how long do you think you’d keep your job? He’s not running a charity, after all.
Would it make any sense for your boss to keep you on his payroll if you didn’t consistently create more value than he paid you in wages? For every $100 of value you produce for him or her, the boss kindly gives you back $40. That $40 is taken out of the wealth that you produce by your labor, whether you’re white-, pink-, or blue-collar. The boss pockets the other $60 to use as he sees fit. Your wage, then, is the payment that your employer gives you for the commodity that you sell him: your labor power. And, you don’t own any of what you have produced in this relationship. You may be able to buy back some of what you produced, but until then it is owned by the capitalist(s) for whom you work.
How about those working in the entertainment industry—professional sports people, musicians, and other performers? The same concept applies via record and ticket sales, etc., which function as commodities.
Just as important is the fact that your wage isn’t even directly related to the wealth that you produce. It is related to how much a worker with your experience, abilities, etc. costs on the job market and how much it would cost a corporation to replace you with a machine. And automation and robots are displacing plenty of workers these days.
You’ve heard about the law of supply and demand: if there is a large supply of workers, and small demand for their labor, you can be sure that wages will be low. Or, if the work you do is in great demand and there are few who possess your skills, then your wages will be relatively high. But your good or bad luck doesn’t change your class status.
How about public employees? Well, the function of government in a class society is to administer the state for, and in the interests of, the capitalist, aka the ruling class. You are still a wage worker, subject to the same rules, demands, and alienation as your brothers and sisters working in the private sector. You still depend upon your wage or salary, and as many yuppies have discovered during this round of recession, ‘down-scaling’, and layoffs, high-salary jobs can disappear just as quickly as low-wage jobs. No job is guaranteed to be forever, and nobody has any leverage power on their employer for very long.
A Minor Digression on Unemployment
Corporations attempt to maximize their profits. No big surprise here! To do this they generally want to produce as much as possible while keeping costs, including labor costs, as low as possible. They have to, or they wouldn’t survive in this system for long. Since wages are, in part, determined by the number of workers available, having a pool of unemployed workers is desirable to the employers in order to help keep wages low. By throwing the workers of impoverished countries into this pool via ‘outsourcing’ jobs, international ‘free-trade’ agreements are a strong force keeping wages, as well as environmental health standards, low.
Another Digression: On Quality
Another way corporations keep their costs down is by producing poorer quality goods and using deceptive marketing. Consumer Reports magazine runs articles on both these. Supporters of free-market capitalism tell us that the marketplace will weed out the poor-quality items and manufacturers will be forced to produce nothing but the best. The problem: most people have to consider not only the quality of the merchandise they want, but also its cost. Most of us find too much month left at the end of the paycheck. There’s a strong incentive to buy lower-cost items, which frequently means less product for more money and, too often, poorer quality.
Also included in the price of goods is the cost of environmental quality. Often it’s cheaper for corporations to pollute than to protect environmental quality. So they pollute. They pay the fines as part of the cost of doing business, they even get government permits to pollute. Advertising by corporations about their environmental concern is typically just so much ‘green-washing’. The Green movement hasn’t much changed the worsening realities of environmental degradation under capitalism yet.
Back to Class
Why is thinking straight about class important? Because the capitalist class and the working class have conflicting interests. The capitalist class benefits from low wages and unemployment. How many workers want low wages, or hope to lose their jobs? The capitalist class can live on luxury estates in areas of low pollution if they wish. Working-class people must live within commuting distance from their jobs, and generally spend at least 40 hours a week on their job. The capitalist class need not worry about poor-quality goods: they can afford the best. Is the child of the rich any more deserving than your child?
That’s Just the Way It Is!
Correct! Society has evolved such that a small group of people—by virtue of either acquiring vast fortunes by exploiting the working class, or being heirs to those who have—rule society in their own interests. The bottom line in their decision-making is maximization of profit. While the faces of our senators, governors, and other politicians may change, the real power in our country remains in the hands of this elite. This numerically small, but very powerful class need not work for a living because the working class does the work for them. We run their system. We create the wealth. They live off the profits.
Many working people have recognized that they’re not getting their fair ‘piece of the pie’ and therefore vote and work for candidates that claim to be on the side of workers. The Democrats have a reputation for being the ‘friends of labor’. But the Democrats don’t suggest that the capitalist system should be eliminated. Instead, they pretend that somehow capitalism can be reformed in our interests. But history doesn’t support this claim. When the Democrats get into power, things may marginally improve, but they must function within the rules of the system, since that’s what they were elected to govern. The scales are heavily weighted against the working class. With very few exceptions, Democrats haven’t stood up to corporate power to defend our interests. Instead, they meekly seek compromise.
The problem isn’t that some governments dislike workers. The problem is that capitalism can’t function in the interest of the working class. It was never designed to. It’s time to dump this old, failing system into the trashcan of history and start building something better: economic democracy !
Somehow, the idea of class distinctions sounds ‘unpatriotic’. Actually, the idea that our society is either not class-based, or that through hard work anybody can gain admission to ‘the establishment’, is one of the central supporting myths that keep capitalist society going. People have accepted the lie that if you don’t ‘make it’, it’s your own fault, not the system’s.
Related to this is the idea that we need the bosses, because they, unlike us, have the talent and know-how to keep things humming. That they’re the brains while we’re just the muscle. In 1896, in his groundbreaking ‘Reform or Revolution’ speech, Daniel deLeon stated:
Some people think that the wage-worker class must carry the capitalist on its back. As well say that you must have potato bugs, or you won’t have any potatoes. If you remove the potato bugs, you will have all the more potatoes; remove the capitalist class and you will have the whole of your product; there will not then be any potato bug, i.e., capitalist, to sponge up the bulk of your product.
Capitalism hasn’t always existed and there’s no good reason that this system should continue to exist. Capitalism is based on legalized robbery of the working class, and the working class has the ability to stop this robbery.
You too can lend a hand.
Note. The illustration is part of a painting first published by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1911.