What Is Class?

Mikhail Tillman, Rise! Magazine

Class is one of those terms that’s thrown around a lot, and usually by people who aren’t quite sure what it is. Politicians in both parties will tell you that their policies are looking out for the middle class, and that the middle class means you. Republican newscasters say that this or that new tax on the rich is an act of class warfare, attacking those poor billionaires. This publication talks about the working class and how it should seize control of the means of production, the recent article Classroom and Class War used the term frequently. What class are you a part of? Do economists have some sort of complex equation to determine it? What do all these people mean when they talk about class this and class that? Class is not an extremely complex issue, but it’s been purposely obfuscated by those who disagree with the ideas that the concept of class originally sprang from.

Firstly, there are really two notions of what class is: the bourgeois and the Marxist. The bourgeois notion of class is probably the one you hear about more often. When people talk about how that family is upper-middle class and the next family is lower class, they’re using the bourgeois definition. This conception of class acts as if it’s only a sliding scale determined by the amount of money you make or your job title. Do you drive a Mercedes? Upper class. Did you not go to college? Lower class. Middle class is of course an all encompassing term when we use this rubric. Unless you’re poor to the point of destitution or rich to the point of filthiness, you’re a middle class citizen.  This notion of class tells us nothing about the world and is nothing more than a description of someone’s position on the aristocracy of labour. This definition makes “class struggle” seem silly. Why should all of these different and vague classes fight one another? Why should a construction worker fight a manager at a fast food restaurant?

The more informative way of looking at class is the Marxist way. Your class is simply how you relate to production. How do you make your living, by working or by owning? There aren’t dozens of interconnected and mutually inclusive classes, in most countries today there are two. If you have to sell your labour in order to survive, you’re a member of the proletariat. If your living comes from stocks and shares, you’re a member of the bourgeoisie. Wealth does not determine class; the proletariat must sell their labour and the price is secondary. If your quality of life is higher than your neighbors even though you work the same hours, that’s a difference, but not really an important one.  This is much more descriptive and enlightening. This is what we mean when we talk about class struggle, we mean the owners against the owned. Those who make the profits against those that keep them. What interests do the fast food workers have apart from the interests of the fast food managers? Neither have a will of their own inside the workplace, neither decide what is done with the profits made. The manger is the sheep dog and the workers are the sheep. Though the dog gets special privileges and benefits for keeping his fellow animals in line, he answers to the same master.

What about the always popular “middle class” then? Where does that fit into Marxism? Well, for the most part, it fits comfortably in the ranks of the working class. There’s no concrete definition for what the middle class actually is, and its’ vagueness is what makes it useful for those who confuse and useless for those who want to understand. Often, “middle class” is just a piece of populist rhetoric that a politician or pundit can throw into a sentence in order to jazz things up. The only struggling we as middle class citizens should be doing is struggling to remain in the middle. But we do have an image that’s brought up when we picture the middle class. Decent sized house, a couple that works and does alright for themselves, they can afford for their kids to be in extracurricular activities, and so on. We almost never picture a couple who’s only work is owning or managing what they own. Usually they have desk jobs and work their average 8 hours. “But do they produce?” you might ask. Not in the direct sense, no. An accountant who manages the money of a business or a manager that does the same with their fellow employees doesn’t really create a product. But what about a truck driver or a worker in retail? They don’t directly produce, but surely you’d call them workers. These people work around the actual production to make production possible. A truck driver does this more than a floor manager, but the floor managers have no part in deciding if their positions exist. They need work, they need money, and a managerial job fulfills those needs. Just because the bourgeoisie has endowed them with a special position doesn’t mean we should recognise it. The managers of the world shouldn’t be so stupid as to think that they’re part of the bourgeois crowd.

This sort of stupidity is what I call class confusion. Whenever someone who works as a cashier tells me about how the government needs to get off the back of big business, I’m astounded. These people, despite being exploited day in and day out, side with their exploiters. They don’t recognize that big business is riding on their backs. The population is always voting and campaigning against their own best interest because they’re unaware of what their interests are. Because their only exposure to the concept of class has been an impotent bourgeois hierarchy, they’re left without the tools they need to understand the world around them. Society has ideological apparatuses in place that reflect the class nature of said society. Television demonizes and mocks those that must work, so no one wants it to be known that they’re workers. As John Steinbeck said “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

And small business owners, are they any different than the big bourgeoisie? Sure, but it’s a difference of size rather than a difference of kind. It doesn’t matter if you own a little ice cream shop with one employee and still come in from nine to five, you are by necessity exploiting your one employee. Unless he makes the decisions with you, and shares the profit with you, which makes you no longer an owner. Americans idealize these mom and pop shops, businesses that has been in the family for generations. They seem somehow different than the big bad corporations that loom over us. But don’t forget that McDonald’s was once just a hamburger stand, and Starbuck’s was founded by two teachers and a writer. If small businesses are the little guy, then how miniscule are we? In order for a business to survive in capitalism, it has to grow, and in order to grow in capitalism, you eventually have to do some pretty unsavoury things. Even at the lowest level a capitalist enterprise is necessarily exploitative, and business owners are exploiters. These small business owners are just the most precariously placed of the bourgeoisie, they tentatively step up the unstable and narrow staircase that links the workers and owners, and most fall off. When they fall, they fall back into our ranks. When they ascend, they become those giants that everyone fears.

There’s no conflict between the will of the class and the will of the individual. Individual interests are what make up the class interest. We all want more control in the workplace, and even if we didn’t, the option being available can do nothing but benefit us. None of us want our wages to be cut or our hours to be elongated, we want to decide those things amongst ourselves. All members of the bourgeoisie want you to work more for less money, they want their share of the profits to increase. Whether or not the bosses are good people is irrelevant. If a capitalist was to always, or even very often, act in the interest of the workers, the capitalist enterprise would cease to be capitalist or cease to exist. The system makes exploitation necessary. If one capitalist wants to be too benevolent, another will drive him out of business. The same sort of involuntary flow is part of both classes, what has to happen, happens. It’s almost accidental. Our class interest springs up naturally from the material conditions we live through, your personal ideology has no effect on what benefits you personally.

2 responses to “What Is Class?

  1. Would entrepreneurial co-ops be an answer? If so, why do we not see more of this take place? Does community banking or credit unions have a legitimate role? It seems that a closed factory’s workforce could pool resources to reopen as a co-op if money was made available. (This is the true evil of huge banks, the hoarding of money away from a productive economy) But I do not know if this is a legitimate course of action. If so, why does it not happen more often? If not, what does one do in these days prior to a revolution?


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