Two parallel definitions of the word are used in political discussion. It's a perennial problem that radicals don't define what they're talking about when discussing class, or worse, making sweeping statements about it.
There were plenty of things wrong with last weekend’s Up the Anti conference. For example it’s lack of participation, ‘celebrity’ focus and deeply academic orientation.1 But there’s one thing I’m going to write about because it comes up again and again and never fails to drive me spare.
On the day we were treated to a number of speakers trying to sound sexy and radical by claiming that ‘traditional’ class politics are no longer relevant today. This, so the argument goes, is because of the decline of extractive and manufacturing industries in Britain and consequently the class ‘constituency’ with whom class politics would resonate.
Take for instance the slightly chaotic roundtable organised by Platypus. The point was made by ‘post-anarchist’ academic Saul Newman that the ‘splintering of class identities’ means that there is a need for a revision of radical politics which takes into account these new realities and looks for new ‘radical subjectivities’.
On the surface, this is reasonable enough. There has been a fundamental change in the composition of the British workforce that means that most of the industries that provided the basis of working class militancy in the 20th century are gone, and the form, content and pattern of work for much of the population is quite different. It’s also true that social changes have altered sociological facts. For example - increased access to higher education means that many teenagers are able to experience education in a way their parents weren’t (though higher education is far from universal and uptake rates are in fact declining again thanks to increased fees).
But the crux of the problem is that radicals constantly use two valid but very different definitions of class which have different political implications, and which have to be used in different ways.
The first is the definition of class which is commonplace in Britain. It’s a way of understanding identity, and the difference in background, experience, power and ‘opportunity’ that follows. The markers are pretty familiar – from accent and education through to dress, haircut and music taste. When you describe someone as being ‘middle class’, a whole range of associations immediately spring to mind. This is essentially a sociological definition of class, though the differences in power and quality of life do exist -most brutally in life expectancy - and they describe immediately relatable and readable social realities. And while the 'traditional' form of working class identity - associated with productive manual labour - is on the decline, clearly 'working class' still means something as an identity in Britain today.
This contrasts to a communist definition of class. This describes, fundamentally, the individual’s relationship with capital. Essentially, the fact we don’t have any and are only able to sell our labour power on the market, receiving a wage. This is about understanding the interplay between capital and labour, not about classifying individuals.
I’ll say again that both of these definitions are valid if we define and limit what we’re describing. It’s a mistake too commonly made for communists to dismiss ‘sociological’ definitions of class as being incorrect. They’re not: at their best they describe a reality which exists. The problem is when confusion about the use of these definitions arises, and the implications involved.
Take for instance the ‘sociological’ definition of class, which – crudely – is about defining individuals and their habits. It would be politically blinkered to pretend these realities don’t exist. It’s right to be revolted by public school kids dressing up as ‘chavs’ for their college parties at top universities. It makes sense to recognise that your parents’ income is the greatest determiner of your progress in life, or to be concerned that wealth, education and life expectancy are deeply linked. On a day-to-day level, snobbery from ‘middle-class’ workers towards ‘estate kids’ is widespread, and was a very common way of interpreting last year’s urban riots. “Classism”, in this sense, is a very common and uncontroversial form of bigotry in the UK, and is frequently mobilised by the state, for example when attacking benefit claimants.2
But if we shouldn’t be dismissive of this definition of class, we should also be very mindful of it’s implications and limitations, when compared to a communist understanding of class.
The resolution of the problem of “classism” is essentially liberal. This isn’t necessarily a criticism. In the here and now, I don’t want gay people to be discriminated against. But I’m basically demanding that liberal democracy does what it says on the tin and treats everyone as equal, sovereign subjects. The same goes for racism, sexism, etc. The culmination of these politics is formal and informal equality as liberal citizens and on the labour market. This is perfectly possible within capitalism.
But when we understand “class” as describing a relationship with capital, the implications are very different. We’re talking about an exploited class, not an oppressed one. I.e. the class has surplus value extracted from it, it is not discriminated against. This cannot be resolved by granting the working class equality with capital. It must result from a resolution of the struggling interests of workers and capital through the expropriation of capital and the construction of a society based on human needs.
This difference has been correctly described as a politics of oppression as opposed to a politics of exploitation. The resolution of oppression is liberation, the resolution of exploitation is expropriation. Only one necessarily points beyond capital.
The confusion is to some degree understandable. In the 19th and for most of the 20th century, the two definitions mapped onto each other pretty well, and still do in much of the world. The fact we’re using the same term to describe two parallel things is a recipe for problems too. But if we’re to communicate a class analysis we need to be clear exactly what we’re talking about.