Class is inseparable from capitalism- as long as you have one, you have the other. What’s more, only a view of the world that recognises the division of humanity into different classes can explain how capitalism works, and how we can get rid of it.
Global capitalism is dominated by an elite – a minority with enormous wealth and privileges compared to the rest of the world’s population.
Pro-capitalist theories try to explain this away by saying that everyone is rewarded according to how intelligent or hardworking they are – “you can make it if you try hard enough”.
Others accept that the rich might have been a bit lucky but make out that they do no harm and that opponents of the system are just jealous … these are the people who say “good luck to him” when they hear about how Bill Gates of Microsoft is wealthier than many third world countries.
Understanding class helps opponents of capitalism to answer these ideas.
The multimillionaire capitalists don’t get to the top by working harder than everyone else – if that was true the world would be run by 12 year-old Vietnamese workers in Nike factories. Nor are the rich just harmless lottery winners. The source of their wealth is the work carried out by millions of people working long hours for low pay in their factories, offices, mines, plantations and call centres. Their wealth is created by other people and belongs to other people.
Put in the simplest terms, the great sources of wealth in the world are owned by the minority capitalist class – the wealth is produced by a majority working class which owns nothing but a few personal possessions.
The overall aim of the capitalist class is to defend its property and power – it does this by expanding to compete with other capitalists, by driving down working class pay and conditions wherever it can and by stamping hard on working class resistance.
The goal of working class people,wherever they organise, is to resist exploitation, improve pay and conditions, and win new democratic rights and freedoms. That is why for over 150 years unions and left-wing parties set up by the working class have been the greatest advocates of an alternative to capitalism.
There’s got to be more than just two classes!
Well spotted. Whilst it is basically true to say that the world is divided into two main classes, there is a big grey area in between – a shifting mass of middle class people caught between the two.
This includes the owners of small businesses – from shops through to market stalls – who work for themselves, but can hardly be said to have the same power and wealth as the owner of Barclays Bank or Shell! We call these people petit-bourgeois – which is not a ‘communist insult’ but simply means small-time capitalists.
It also includes ‘professional’ people like lawyers and accountants who provide services to finance and business. They get paid a salary – but it is higher than normal wages because it includes a special pay out from the profits of the capitalists as a reward for helping them.
Some people in the middle layers of society find themselves caught between the classes – sometimes in the position of one, sometimes performing the work of another. A supervisor at work, a foreman in a factory or a middle manager in an office may be exploited by the capitalist owner of a company but still pushes workers around for the bosses’ benefit.
The middle classes usually hate all talk of class and like to make out that they are ‘normal’ people. Because so many of them work in the media they sometimes seem to believe that they are the majority in society. Sometimes when they feel threatened by big business they move to the left – sometimes when they feel the working class is threatening ‘stability’ (i.e. good conditions for business) they move to the right. Because this is an unstable position to be in, the middle classes often project confused ideas.
Isn’t the working class getting smaller?
No. Some people think this because over the last twenty years the type of work carried out in advanced countries like Britain has changed a lot. There are fewer factory jobs in heavy industries like steel, cars and mining – though these ‘blue-collar’ industries are still a very important part of the economy.
In fact the working class is getting bigger all the time. This is for two reasons:
The first is that new industries are cropping up everywhere. They may not be housed in factories but the workers in them are treated just the same – paid much less than the value of the work they do.
The working class includes lots of people who don’t work in factories -nurses, teachers, secretaries, researchers, journalists and so on. Call centres are a classic example – organised just as ruthlessly as an old production line, with boring work, low pay, long hours and workers pushed around by supervisors.
The second reason for the growing working class is globalisation. As capitalism spreads all over the world in search of cheap labour and fresh resources, it destroys earlier less productive social systems and implants the modern wage system in its place. So countries like Korea, Brazil, India and Nigeria have seen the size of the working class grow enormously.
Far from getting smaller, the working class is billions strong, bigger than ever and with more potential power than it has ever had before.
Doesn’t talk of class just divide the resistance to capitalism? Why can’t we just unite the people instead?
Not everyone who wants to fight global capitalism is working class and unity in struggle is the best way to get the biggest possible opposition together.
There is nothing wrong with the working class taking common action with other classes against common enemies. For example if a middle class group wants to join a protest with us against Nike’s use of child labour, it would be idiotic to turn them away for ‘classist’ reasons.
But it is essential to keep class in mind at all times, because different class interests can emerge during the struggle. For example, whilst campaigning against exploitation in the third world, small traders here might argue for a ban on foreign goods coming into Britain. This would help their business over here – but it would be bad for workers in the third world sweatshops, throwing them onto the dole and putting the British economy first.
That is why the working class should organise itself independently of other classes, fight for its own interests against those of other classes and always remember that it is an international class.
Finally, the working class is more powerful than the other classes. It is the only class which is big enough and central enough to production to bring the capitalists to a halt.
Workers are organised by production into large groups, disciplined by the labour process so they are used to working together collectively and able to hit capitalists’ pockets directly by taking strike action. Workers can be organised more and more easily on international lines, not only because of the internet and other modern communications but also because in the age of globalisation they are often employed by the same company whether they work in Africa, Asia, Europe or America.
Unlike the other classes, workers have an interest in overthrowing the whole of capitalism and not just trying to make capitalism a bit fairer. And most importantly of all, they have the power to do it.
So should the whole world be working class?
No. We want to free the working class and abolish class division altogether. A workers’ revolution would destroy the capitalists’ power – their secret services, army high command and police – and set about converting the property of the big companies and the millionaires into the property of all, controlled democratically. That would mean that eventually there would be no such thing as working class, middle class and capitalist class – just people sharing out the work and the fruits of their common labour in a truly communist society.
After capitalism, humanity will have all the advantages of the rich today – their freedom and their access to resources – but without their vanity, cruelty, competitiveness and emptiness. And they will have all the strengths of the working class – their collectivity, honesty, fairness and courage – without poverty, oppression and suffering.
We’re all Middle Class now – Even on $4 an hour…
The recent assertion by Tony Blair that we live in a classless society would be all but laughable if it were not such an insult to the millions of workers who struggle daily in the increasing insecurity of the “flexible” labour market. Indeed, while Tony Blair boasts that, “Britain has the most lightly regulated labour market of any leading economy in the world”, a new survey by Breadline Europe found that five million people in Britain live in absolute poverty i.e. suffer from a lack of food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and access to benefits. The media has also been bombarding us with articles and documentaries that tell us that we are all middle-class now. This is while the average wage in the service industry (the fastest growing employment sector in Britain) is around £4 per hour and 3 million households languish in unemployment.
Definitions of “class” are continually obscured in order to divide and dilute the consciousness of workers. For instance, the government’s office of national statistics places lecturers and teachers in Class 1 and 2, or the “upper middle classes”. This is despite the fact that they earn around £16,000 a year and have a firm tradition of unionised labour. Also, the capitalist classes (billionaire freeloaders) are conveniently left out of the figures altogether. Maybe a class classification of scrounging, genocidal bastards wouldn’t fit too well with the New Labour agenda.
However, despite the relentless attempts to dissolve the working class, over 60% of people in a recent survey still regard themselves as working class. As long as the government carries out the bosses’ agenda of union busting, welfare slashing and privatisation, as workers and socialists we should shout as loud as ever: “the workers united will never be defeated!”