Class - an introduction

Class - an introduction

An explanation of what we on libcom.org mean by the word "class", and related terms such as "working class" and "class struggle".

Introduction

The first thing to say is that there are various ways of referring to class. Often, when people talk about class, they talk in terms of cultural/sociological labels. For example, middle-class people like foreign films, working class people like football, upper-class people like top hats and so on.

Another way to talk about class, however, is based on classes' economic positions. We talk about class like this because we see it as essential for understanding how capitalist society works, and consequently how we can change it.

It is important to stress that our definition of class is not for classifying individuals or putting them in boxes, but in order to understand the forces which shape our world, why our bosses and politicians act the way they do, and how we can act to improve our conditions.

Class and capitalism

The economic system which dominates the world at present is called capitalism.

Capitalism is essentially a system based on the self-expansion of capital - commodities and money making more commodities and more money.

This doesn’t happen by magic, but by human labour. For the work we do, we're paid for only a fraction of what we produce. The difference between the value we produce and the amount we're paid in wages is the "surplus value" we've produced. This is kept by our boss as profit and either reinvested to make more money or used to buy swimming pools or fur coats or whatever.

In order for this to take place, a class of people must be created who don't own anything they can use to make money i.e. offices, factories, farmland or other means of production. This class must then sell their ability to work in order to purchase essential goods and services in order to survive. This class is the working class.

So at one end of the spectrum is this class, with nothing to sell but their ability to work. At the other, those who do own capital to hire workers to expand their capital. Individuals in society will fall at some point between these two poles, but what is important from a political point of view is not the positions of individuals but the social relationship between classes.

The working class

The working class then, or 'proletariat' as it is sometimes called, the class who is forced to work for wages, or claim benefits if we cannot find work or are too sick or elderly to work, to survive. We sell our time and energy to a boss for their benefit.

Our work is the basis of this society. And it is the fact that this society relies on the work we do, while at the same time always squeezing us to maximise profit, that makes it vulnerable.

Class struggle

When we are at work, our time and activity is not our own. We have to obey the alarm clock, the time card, the managers, the deadlines and the targets.

Work takes up the majority of our lives. We may see our managers more than we see our friends and partners. Even if we enjoy parts of our job we experience it as something alien to us, over which we have very little control. This is true whether we're talking about the nuts and bolts of the actual work itself or the amount of hours, breaks, time off etc.

Work being forced on us like this compels us to resist.

Employers and bosses want to get the maximum amount of work from us, from the longest hours, for the least pay. We, on the other hand, want to be able to enjoy our lives: we don't want to be over-worked, and we want shorter hours and more pay.

This antagonism is central to capitalism. Between these two sides is a push and pull: employers cut pay, increase hours, speed up the pace of work. But we attempt to resist: either covertly and individually by taking it easy, grabbing moments to take a break and chat to colleagues, calling in sick, leaving early. Or we can resist overtly and collectively with strikes, slow-downs, occupations etc.

This is class struggle. The conflict between those of us who have to work for a wage and our employers and governments, who are often referred to as the capitalist class, or 'bourgeoisie' in Marxist jargon.

By resisting the imposition of work, we say that our lives are more important than our boss's profits. This attacks the very nature of capitalism, where profit is the most important reason for doing anything, and points to the possibility of a world without classes and privately-owned means of production. We are the working class resisting our own existence. We are the working class struggling against work and class.

Beyond the workplace

Class struggle does not only take place in the workplace. Class conflict reveals itself in many aspects of life.

For example, affordable housing is something that concerns all working class people. However, affordable for us means unprofitable for them. In a capitalist economy, it often makes more sense to build luxury apartment blocks, even while tens of thousands are homeless, than to build housing which we can afford to live in. So struggles to defend social housing, or occupying empty properties to live in are part of the class struggle.

Similarly, healthcare provision can be a site of class conflict. Governments or companies attempt to reduce spending on healthcare by cutting budgets and introducing charges for services to shift the burden of costs onto the working class, whereas we want the best healthcare possible for as little cost as possible.

The "middle class"

While the economic interests of capitalists are directly opposed to those of workers, a minority of the working class will be better off than others, or have some level of power over others. When talking about history and social change it can be useful to refer to this part of the proletariat as a "middle class", despite the fact that it is not a distinct economic class, in order to understand the behaviour of different groups.

Class struggle can sometimes be derailed by allowing the creation or expansion of the middle class - Margaret Thatcher encouraged home ownership by cheaply selling off social housing in the UK during the big struggles of the 1980s, knowing that workers are less likely to strike if they have a mortgage, and allowing some workers to become better off on individual levels, rather than as a collective. And in South Africa the creation of a black middle class helped derail workers' struggles when apartheid was overturned, by allowing limited social mobility and giving some black workers a stake in the system.

Bosses try to find all sorts of ways to materially and psychologically divide the working class, including by salary differentials, professional status, race and by gender.

It should be pointed out again that we use these class definitions in order to understand social forces at work, and not to label individuals or determine how individuals will act in given situations.

Conclusion

Talking about class in a political sense is not about which accent you have but the basic conflict which defines capitalism – those of us who must work for a living vs. those who profit from the work that we do. By fighting for our own interests and needs against the dictates of capital and the market we lay the basis for a new type of society - a society based on the direct fulfilment of our needs: a libertarian communist society.

More information

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Posted By

Steven.
May 9 2011 19:32

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  • When we are at work, our time and activity is not our own. We have to obey the alarm clock, the time card, the managers, the deadlines and the targets. Work being forced on us like this compels us to resist.

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Comments

Steven.
Apr 12 2011 19:34

Just to pre-empt some possible comments: we deliberately didn't go into race and gender here. We did start to go into it in one version, but the article just kept getting bigger and bigger, so we thought we would save it and have future articles on race and gender separately.

I think that the area on class struggle outside the workplace is quite weak, so if anyone can suggest improvements to that it would be much appreciated.

RedEd
Apr 12 2011 19:51

I liked this. I just had two areas where I though people without much exposure to these kind of ideas might not get what you were saying easily. The first was "We are the working class resisting our own existence. We are the working class struggling against work and class." Which is true, but is not as simple and straightforward in tone as the rest of the piece. Maybe there is a clearer way to say the working class struggles against class society as such.

The other thing was that the piece says that benefits claimants are working class, which I agree with, but doesn't explain why (structural unemployment; social safety net for sick or disabled workers being a class victory, etc.) and I think a lot of working class people would not automatically think that benefit claimants are working class so that point could be made a little more explicitly.

Finally, an example of middle classification of workers being used to derail class struggle might be thatcher's sell off of social housing. Using an example from closer to home might resonate more with workers in Britain.

But overall, as I say, I really liked it.

knotwho
Apr 12 2011 21:01

Thanks for this article. It is a good start at breaking down the concepts.

Quote:
an example of middle classification of workers being used to derail class struggle might be thatcher's sell off of social housing. Using an example from closer to home might resonate more with workers in Britain.

I would certainly say the same for the US. I'm not sure which example would be an apt one to use. Many people 'understand' the middle class since it's on display in so many TV shows, movies, etc. The 'working class' doesn't get portrayed that way, and thus people don't identify with it.

Quote:
It should be pointed out again that we use these definitions in order to understand social forces at work, and not to label individuals or determine how individuals will act in given situations.

Again, in the American context this is important because of the omnipresent mythology of meritocracy.

Steven.
Apr 12 2011 21:43

Thanks for the feedback. I'll wait to respond after we get some more comments

Android
Apr 12 2011 21:57

This is a good idea: introductory articles stating communist politics in a basic form. Which could be useful for pointing people toward who are new to politics and could help clarify a few simple things quite easily.

Am I right in thinking so that this is the first in a series of articles? - with ones on 'gender', 'race' and 'class struggle beyond the workplace' to follow.

posi
Apr 12 2011 22:31

Good stuff. We need to be better at explaining the basics.

Stakhanovite is probably a bit too jargony/specialist language for this article.

I think perhaps it should say something brief about the state, because by the definition given MPs would be middle class - they sell their labour power for a wage, but are better off and have somewhat more powerful than other workers. But in fact they are ruling class. I think the same goes for city traders, who objectively control, day to day, large amounts of capital. Obviously these groups are very small in number, but are quite often raised, in my experience, as counter examples when a definition of class like that used above is suggested.

With Sober Senses
Apr 13 2011 00:24

Maybe something in section 'Working Class' that specifically rejects that your class is determined by the colour of your collar?

Tojiah
Apr 13 2011 05:37

I find that the paragraph before last is inconsistent. You say:

Quote:
It should be pointed out again that we use these definitions in order to understand social forces at work, and not to label individuals or determine how individuals will act in given situations.

and yet

Quote:
We focus on the 'proletarian condition' as a better way to understand the working class: those who without their wages, benefits or pensions would not be able to support themselves

clearly contradicts that assertion.

Ed
Apr 13 2011 06:46

Yeah, I see what you mean, it's a bit confusingly written.. I think what we mean here though is that the label 'middle class' is useful only when looking at social phenomena (like gentrification or the examples cited), not for saying 'who is the most working class/who will struggle and who won't'..

Maybe drop the bit about labeling individuals and add "(which would include much of the 'middle class' as well)" at the end?

Steven.
Apr 13 2011 08:04
Tojiah wrote:
I find that the paragraph before last is inconsistent. You say:
Quote:
It should be pointed out again that we use these definitions in order to understand social forces at work, and not to label individuals or determine how individuals will act in given situations.

and yet

Quote:
We focus on the 'proletarian condition' as a better way to understand the working class: those who without their wages, benefits or pensions would not be able to support themselves

clearly contradicts that assertion.

you are correct: this is the problem of group authoring!

grumpy cat wrote:
Maybe something in section 'Working Class' that specifically rejects that your class is determined by the colour of your collar?

yes, good idea, will try to do.

posi wrote:
Good stuff. We need to be better at explaining the basics.

Stakhanovite is probably a bit too jargony/specialist language for this article.

yeah, you may be right. We could mention Thatcher and social housing there instead, or maybe just add a hyperlink to an explanation of Stakhanovite. I did like having it in there as it basically also shows that we consider the USSR to be capitalist as well.

Quote:

I think perhaps it should say something brief about the state, because by the definition given MPs would be middle class - they sell their labour power for a wage, but are better off and have somewhat more powerful than other workers. But in fact they are ruling class. I think the same goes for city traders, who objectively control, day to day, large amounts of capital. Obviously these groups are very small in number, but are quite often raised, in my experience, as counter examples when a definition of class like that used above is suggested.

again, the state is something we did mention in an earlier draft - but again this made the article start expanding rapidly. I think we should leave it to a future article on the state (or maybe we could mention in one quick sentence that the state is the executive body of the whole capitalist class). I definitely don't want to start talking specifically about MPs and city traders and what class we think they are because that pretty much goes against the thrust of our article.

Red Ed, thanks for the feedback, we will try to slip something in their about benefit claimants and pensioners (maybe something like unemployed workers, workers too sick to work, retired workers).

Thanks for the comments - please keep them coming!

Armchair Anarchist
Apr 13 2011 21:10

Gets the thumbs up from me - clear, concise, jargon free. Nice one.

edit - although on re-reading definition of 'middle class' seems a bit woolly + agree with posi about 'Stakhanovite'

Majid00
Apr 13 2011 22:17

This is a good article for opening. I would like to add few points for this discussion. Historically Marxists divide capitalistic society to two main classes who one of them has capital and another only man power to sell to survive. It is true, but incomplete definition.

Historical experience tells us to look at class differently. For me, the starting point is production and everybody's relation to it. work cannot be standard to judge individual's position in the society because every body is working. for example a jail guard is working when detains victims of the capital. A soldier is working when kills innocent people in capitalistic wars.

If we look at the society is depth, we could see producers, consumers, and distributors. The whole society is consumed by surplus value of producers. You can be a public worker without producing anything. these workers at the final analysis are benefiting from producing workers although they are exploited by capital.

Class struggle has different levels. When we are trying to improve our daily lives, we are fighting within the system in its own frame. This kind of class struggle produce gradual defeats. At the same time, it helps the capital to expand more. In long term these kind of class struggles weakens workers position in a specific society and world.

We have fought in this frame from the beginning but we have strengthened the capital and our enemies. There was a parliament member in England in 19th century who said if one day China becomes an industrialized country, British workers will not be able to maintain their wages as we have today. As a ruling class member, he understood the nature of capitalism much better than those called themselves socialist and social democrats.

This was a short comment. I apologize for my English skills. Fortunately or unfortunately English is my fifth language. Hope, we could exchange some historical experiences collectively.

Majid

Dan K
Apr 14 2011 18:44

This piece is a better introduction to what the hell we mean by "class" than I've seen anywhere else. It deals really well with the "but what about THIS person?" thing that seems to always come up.

I'd add more examples to the "Class and Capitalism" section, as it introduces quite a few terms. The explanations are clear, but they come really quickly all in a row.

If you're doing a series of introductory articles, you could come back and edit in links/footnotes in the older ones to the newer ones.

Steven.
Apr 14 2011 16:44

Cheers for the feedback Dan - yeah that is the intention to add hyperlinks to other introductory articles. In the meantime we will put in hyperlinks to the best articles we have on the site currently

armchair, can you explain what you mean about the middle class section being woolly? Unfortunately that is not really feedback we can take on board to make improvements. Some texts are not "woolly" in that area, like class war's unfinished business, but they are completely wrong

Awesome Dude
Apr 14 2011 17:50

Maybe a section on 'pro working class' organisations like trade unions and 'workers' parties and the bureaucrats that have a hand in running them.

Quote:
When talking about history and social change it can be useful to refer to this group as a middle class in order to understand the behaviour of different groups. Class struggle can sometimes be derailed by allowing the creation or expansion of the middle class - Stakhanovite workers in the USSR received extra benefits in return for identifying with the Soviet government and working hard as individuals for example, and in South Africa the creation of a black middle class helped derail workers' struggles when apartheid was overturned. Bosses try to find ways to materially and psychologically divide the working class.

Might be worth expanding on the sociological development of the middle classes in advanced 'free market' economies (opposed to state capitalist ones) and the decisive role competitive educational establishments have in determining social position and status (both psychological and material).

Steven.
Apr 14 2011 17:56

Black rainbow, they are worthy topics but we are trying to keep this article short, and I don't believe those are essential

Harrison
Apr 14 2011 17:56

thought the bit about the middle class was really good (explains it as a richer section of the working class).

you might want to go for a few token sentences to pay tribute to value critique stuff.

ie. libertarian communists see that our main goal is to get rid of capitalisms poor way of treating every thing as commodities with price tags etc (including the planet, us and ideas).
capitalism's inevitable need for a working class is what provides humanity with our ticket to communism, and class struggle is the vehicle that will get us to a society that treats things according to their true value.

factoring in some bit about this makes the whole idea of class struggle far richer in my mind.

EDIT: i've just seen that you've written a bit about commodites wall

Awesome Dude
Apr 14 2011 18:02
Steven. wrote:
Black rainbow, they are worthy topics but we are trying to keep this article short, and I don't believe those are essential

Surely that entirely depends on who your aiming this article at?

Ed
Apr 14 2011 18:33

No, blackrainbow, I think your point about unions and workers' parties are fair enough but I also think those are topics which need their own introductions. Otherwise you end up with one REALLY long article.. will def get round to writing those too though..

Spikymike
Apr 15 2011 11:51

This is a tough one really!!

A good start.

I thought perhaps it could be improved at the beginning by words along the lines of:

''.......is a system based on the need of capital (accumulated social labour) to continually expand and resulting in economic breakdown and hardship for workers when it doesn't.''

and that:

''This is achieved by the collective exploitation of workers throughout the world by the capitalist class on a world scale irrespective of nationality.''

The collective nature of class and exploitation is important to emphasise more and in line with the overall objective you have set yourself here.

Maybe somewhere a comment such as:

''The working class must struggle to assert it's needs against those of capital in all areas of life but this will remain a constant never ending struggle unless workers can abolish classes including their own class status permanently and create a truly human society.''

Not sure about these particular words but you perhaps get my drift.

Armchair Anarchist
Apr 27 2011 22:33
Steven. wrote:
armchair, can you explain what you mean about the middle class section being woolly?

Yep fair point about not being useful feedback - meant that 'a minority of workers will be better off than others' could be confusing, as it mixes sociological and economic definitions of class - often a plumber will be earn more and so be better off than a teacher, but most people would consider plumbers to be working class and teachers middle class, even though both are working class...?

Steven.
May 9 2011 22:36

Bump, because this has now been updated taking into account people's suggestions, and is no longer a draft. We will be writing more introductory articles as soon as we get the time

DZA
May 10 2011 14:05

Brilliant article, nice and easy to understand but yeah I think it should perhaps go into some more depth whilst maintaining the easy to understand.

Spikymike
May 10 2011 18:27

I think the 'middle class' section is still very confusing.

Frankly it is a term with so many possible definitions as to make it's use problematic in this short introduction.

I would prefer to deal with the issue of power relationships as being 'within the working class' (and as necessary 'within the capitalist or ruling class') broadly defined as you have already done. It is an important issue which we have discussed elswhere before and will no doubt do so again.

If you want to use the term 'middle class' to descibe a whole section of capitalist society that has a level of power over the (rest of) the working class then that can be justified, but don't mix that up with the differences between high and low paid workers or those who rent and those who 'own with a mortgage'. I mean does anyone really think workers who bought council houses under the right to buy scheme became 'middle class' in any sense? (whatever the divisive nature of this particular government policy - under both Tories and Labour). At one time we used to say that the RTB's were marked out by the new doors and windows now they are marked out by the fact that they have the oldest roofs!

Also the issue raised by 'Majid00' could be addressed better by emphasising the collective nature of social production under capitalism that I suggested earlier.

I know it's tough trying to write these short pieces but one more effort may be worth it.

x359594
May 13 2011 18:16

The assumptions and imaginative limits of all public discourse in the US are pretty much those of the "middle class." The term notoriously designates a psychological rather than an economic order. The fact that almost everyone claims to belong to this order testifies to the triumph of words over facts. Even homeless people here people claim to be middle class.

It seems to me that this is a result of decades of indoctrination by the mass media and advertising and certain other long existing cultural features of the US that are not at work in Europe.

During the 1960s the liberal political establishment acknowledged the existence of the working poor (President Johnson began a "war on poverty") and Michael Harrington's book The Other America was briefly a best seller. Today, the political discourse of the ruling elites in this country is strictly limited to what needs to be done for the "middle class." This fact complicates the whole question of class consciousness for those of us waging our struggle in the US.

AIW
May 13 2011 21:05

Is that amazing graphic availiable bigger?

Quote:
Not to label individuals

Class analysis does label individuals; I propose that those 4 words are removed.

Quote:
No longer a draft

So has it become moribund?

Steven.
May 14 2011 00:44

The graphic is available in massive PDF format here:
http://libcom.org/library/capitalist-society-poster

we're not going to remove those four words because class "analysis" which purports to identify individuals just gets you stuck in stupid questions like "what if one of my parents was a teacher, but the other was a miner, what class am I?" type nonsense.

It is no longer a draft, it is a final version

AIW
May 14 2011 13:18
Quote:
The bosses heart is in his wallet
He uses the club over you so he can wear diamonds
By organising right we can give him a spade with which to earn an honest living

Does that "label individuals"?
The question you quote is about class background and not economic class.

Jared
Jul 9 2011 10:45

Keen to turn this section and the previous one into a zine )it's really good and accessible). Here's a possible cover:

Steven.
Jul 12 2011 18:17

Ha ha, looks good! We plan to write more sections as soon as we can. One on direct action is currently in the works