The working class — black, white, native-born, and immigrant — across a diverse set of experiences and facing myriad oppressions, collectively make up a class of people who are exploited to create profits for the few. Understanding how class works and on what basis class positions are determined help to reveal the structures of power and exploitation in our society.
A very basic definition of classes as they exist under capitalism begins with this premise: workers have to sell our ability to work, and capitalists buy and command our labor power. You can’t understand either the worker’s or the boss’s class position without understanding that the whole of the system is one in which labor is set to work, in order to produce a profit for someone else.
Class, in other words, is a relationship of exploitation.
This understanding of class as a social relationship is completely absent in mainstream analysis. If class is discussed at all, it is considered in terms of wealth and social stratification.
Income levels, education, lifestyles, and patterns of consumption are used to divide people into a society that is mostly middle class, with some rich and poor people around the fringes. Indeed, in most accounts, the majority of us are middle class, and there is no working class at all.
We are reminded of this fact at least every two to four years in election seasons, when politicians appeal to the “struggling middle class,” a category that apparently includes all “good Americans,” or as former president Bill Clinton said, people who “work hard and play by the rules.” Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns were so notable precisely because he uttered the words “working class.”
An explanation of classes based on levels of wealth also has a more progressive version, as popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. The slogan “We are the 99 percent” caught on like wildfire as activists identified the top 1 percent of the country’s economic elite, which owns about a third of the nation’s wealth, as culpable for creating the financial meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. While this analysis is a substantial leap forward from that which assumes that we are nearly all middle class, it still assumes that the quantity of wealth is the determinant of class positions.
Class and wealth surely have everything to do with each other, but they are not the same thing. A stable, well-paid job (to the extent that these still exist) such as a train conductor in New York City may pay upward of $70,000 a year, and a small bodega owner in the Bronx may earn much less. But the former is a worker — who does not control her own hours and conditions of work, and the latter is a small business owner, charged with his own exploitation, as well as that of others (even if few in number).
The numbers on someone’s paycheck can’t tell you everything. It can’t tell you, for instance, that a manager at Starbucks, who makes less than a subway conductor, has the power to fire every worker in the store. We can see then that wealth is just one part of the picture, and one that is more symptomatic of class inequality than explanatory of its origin. In fact, power, control over working conditions, and financial decision-making are the bedrocks of exploitation.
Economics professor and author of The Working Class Majority Michael Zweig explained it this way: “By looking only at income or lifestyle, we see the results of class, but not the origins of class. We see how we are different in our possessions, but not how we are related and connected, and made different, in the process of making what we possess.”
The Marxist explanation emphasizes that one’s position in society is not measured quantitatively but is instead determined by a person’s relationship to labor, the fruits of labor, and the means of production. Anyone who holds economic control over the workplaces, has political power, dictates the terms of other’s working conditions, or owns capital that can be invested in production, is part of the capitalist class. And anyone who must sell their ability to work for a wage and has no access to the ability to produce their own life’s necessities for themselves is part of the working class.
This does not just extend to workers engaged in the production of physical goods. Teachers and nurses must sell their labor in order to provide services, and thus are part of the working class.
As Marx argued: “If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a school-master is a productive worker when, in addition to belaboring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation.”
It is in this sense that Marx and Engels wrote that the “proletarian is without property.” “Proletarians” is another word for workers; and private property does not mean personal belongings, like your TV or laptop, but the means of production — the buildings, machinery, software, equipment, tools, and other materials owned by capitalists.
Marx wasn’t saying that workers literally have nothing, although that is often and increasingly true. He meant that we are without any means to produce and reproduce our livelihoods, and therefore we are at the mercy of capitalist exploitation. A construction company has mechanical shovels, drills, and dozers, which allow them to exploit laborers and turn a profit. I have a shovel, which I can use to grow flowers or tomatoes.
Historian Geoffrey de Ste. Croix put it this way:
[Class] is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure. . . Class is essentially a relationship—just as capital, another of Marx’s basic concepts, is specifically described by him. . . as “a relation,” “a social relation of production,” and so forth. And a class (a particular class) is a group of persons in a community identified by their position in the whole system of social production, defined above all according to their relationship (primarily in terms of the degree of control) to the conditions of production (that is to say, to the means and labor of production) and to other classes.
Using this definition, we see that wealth and poverty do not determine class. Rather, they are manifestations of it.
The bosses are thus not defined by the degree of their extravagance. At the same time, society’s poor do not represent an “underclass” who, due to lack of employment or wealth, stand outside of society. Poverty is an integral part of the experience of the working class, and — as has been all too brutally proven by the current crisis — unemployment is just a stone’s throw away for most workers.
Even before the pandemic hit, almost half the US population could not pay their bills if they missed one paycheck, and one in four people reported foregoing health care treatment because they could not afford it. A quarter of the population had jobs that were defined as low-wage. Add to this bleak picture the mountains of student debt carried by tens of millions of people and a rising cost of living, and it is very clear just how intrinsic poverty is to the fabric of American society. Now with thirty million people without a job and forty million potentially facing homelessness in the coming months, the brutally thin line between working and destitution could not be more clear.
Capitalism in fact requires that there be some level of unemployment at all times, or as Marx termed it, a “reserve army of laborers.” The bosses depend on this reserve army of laborers to ensure that there is always someone else willing to take your job, and can thus discipline the paid workforce into acquiescing to the terms set by employers.
High levels of unemployment are a cruel feature of every downturn in the economy, but even when “times are good,” unemployment is still a painful reality for millions. What mainstream economists consider “full employment” is in fact about 5 percent unemployment. The introduction of new machinery, a growing labor force due to demographic or migration changes, regular changes in the structure of the economy (what is and isn’t produced, and where), can all contribute to unemployment during the “best” of times.
This understanding of society yields a much different picture than the popularized version of the United States as a “middle-class country.”
To be sure, there is a middle class. They do not just live in a glossy alternate universe on television screens. The middle class is a layer of society that stands between the working class and the ruling class. It includes small business owners, as well as middle managers, supervisors, and professional occupations that have a fair amount of autonomy within the system (such as doctors and lawyers).
They are often the daily face of exploitation. You see your manager every day at work. He may reward your work with a raise, or reprimand you for being late, but you will rarely encounter the CEO who profits from this arrangement.
Still, this middle class is much smaller than usually assumed, and many of those traditionally deemed “professionals” are being summarily shoved into the working class (or “proletarianizing”), as computer programmers become routine code writers punching timecards, social workers with enormous caseloads spend their days filling out forms, and academic professorial jobs increasingly give way to adjunct positions.
Within many middle-class job classifications as well, the differences between the kind of conditions faced by professors at elite colleges versus those at public universities, or doctors with private practices contrasted to those working in emergency rooms, lead to very different levels of control at the workplace.
“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe,” wrote Marx and Engels. “It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.”
Michael Zweig and labor journalist Kim Moody have both estimated that the working class makes up about 63 percent of the US labor force. (By my own accounting of BLS data 63 percent is a quite conservative estimate.) The corporate elite makes up 2 percent, and in between, the middle class makes up 35 percent.
Further, if you include broader society beyond the accounted-for labor force (family members not working, elderly people, people permanently unemployed because of disabilities, etc.), the numbers reflecting the working class would be even higher. As Moody argued: “If working-class people in employment make up just under two-thirds of the workforce, those in the class amount to at least three-quarters of the population — the overwhelming majority. As teachers, nurses, and other professionals are pushed down into the working class, the majority grows even larger.”
This highlights a broader point: classes are fluid and plenty of gray area exists between them. These numbers only offer a general guide to emphasize the broader trend toward increasing polarization.
As Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto over 150 years ago (at a time, incidentally, when the working class was a clear minority of the world’s population): “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat.”
Lastly, one belongs to a class regardless of whether one believes in the notion or identifies with the interests of that class. Whether Democrats tell you that you are part of the middle class they are trying to save or Donald Trump promises tax breaks to the “forgotten middle class,” and whether you believe any of them, have little to do with whether you still have to wake up to go to work tomorrow morning, follow someone else’s instructions for what to do, and return home with little more than a meager paycheck and a backache.
Class position is therefore determined by material reality rather than ideology.
At the same time, the structure of the working class does then lend itself to the development of class consciousness. In that sense, we can identify a secondary definition of the working class on the basis of its consciousness and activity.
Along these lines, Marx distinguished between the working class as a “class in itself ”: defined by a common relationship to the means of production; and a “class for itself”: organized in active pursuit of its own interests. As Ste. Croix explained:
The individuals constituting a given class may or may not be wholly or partly conscious of their own identity and common interests as a class, and they may or may not feel antagonism towards members of other classes as such. Class conflict (class struggle, Klassenkampf) is essentially the fundamental relationship between classes, involving exploitation and resistance to it, but not necessarily either class consciousness or collective activity in common, political or otherwise, although these features are likely to supervene when a class has reached a certain stage of development and become what Marx once (using a Hegelian idiom) called “a class for itself.”
A class for itself is one that must be organized. On the one hand, a shared class position creates objective conditions that connect and bind us together. On the other, divisions within the class, and the ways in which racial, gender, and other oppressions play out among workers, must be confronted if we are to go from objective possibility to subjective advance.
Socialists and other working-class militants can play a critical role in forging the politics of solidarity and helping a class for itself emerge out of a class in itself.