A Social Definition of Class

A Social Definition of Class

Original Publish Date: November 24th, 2007

By Susan Rosenthal

Class is commonly defined on the basis of income, wealth, education, and occupation. However, these individual characteristics tell us nothing about the relationship between the classes.

A social definition of class would measure two variables: the control that people have over their own work and the control that they have over other people’s work. Using these criteria, society can be divided into three classes: the class that rules (the capitalist class); the class that  produces-but-not-for-itself (the working class); and the class in between (the middle class).

The class that rules

The capitalist or ruling class has the most power because it owns or controls the natural resources required to create wealth, the process of creating wealth and the wealth that is created. Because it controls all these things, the capitalist class decides the overall direction of society, determining what will be produced, how it will be produced and who will have access to the resulting goods and services.

The capitalist class includes CEOs of the largest corporations, presidents and directors of the largest universities and banks, and the highest-ranking politicians, government bureaucrats, judges, and military officers. Each nation has its own capitalist class, and together they form a global capitalist class.

Capitalists compete constantly for capital. Any capitalist that put people before profit would fall behind in the race to accumulate capital. Capitalist competition causes larger corporations to swallow smaller ones and grow larger. Stronger nations dominate weaker ones and grow stronger.

Ceaseless competition has caused the ruling class to shrink in size while it grows in wealth and power. By 2005, one percent of people at the top of society owned one-third of America’s financial wealth.

The class that produces-but-not-for-itself

The capitalist class controls the means of production, but the working class sets it in motion. The working class creates all the wealth in society, yet has the least power. People in the working class own no factories, no land, no machines, no businesses, nor any other means of making a living. (They can, of course, own personal property such as homes and vehicles.) Workers survive by selling their ability to labor in exchange for a wage. They have no control over how they produce and what they produce. They have no control over the labor of others.

While the ruling class has shrunk over time, the working class has expanded. More than half the global population is now urban working class. (The next largest group is small farmers who own a little land). In the U.S., about 80 percent of the population is working class – the vast majority.

Rising productivity has made it possible to accumulate more surplus from fewer workers. Some of this surplus has been used to expand the service sector – finance, transportation, communications, hotels, restaurants, and the education, medical and penal systems. As a result, the proportion of industrial workers has declined, while the proportion of service workers has increased. However, the working class as a whole continues to expand.

The class that produces could choose to defy the ruling class and take collective control of production, redirecting society to meet the needs of the majority.

The class in the middle

The middle class is the second-largest social class. Forming about 20 percent of the North American population, the middle class sits between the two other classes, blending into the capitalist class at one end and the working class at the other end.

People in the middle class have an intermediate level of power, having some control over their own work and some control over the work of others. The middle class owns or controls some means of production: the small farmer owns some land; the self-employed artisan owns some tools: the corner-store retailer buys and sells some produce. Sections of the middle-class employ and exploit workers – on a small scale.

The 18th-century middle class was composed of small farmers and fishermen, artisans, entertainers, lower-level clergy, traders, and owners of small businesses. The process of capital accumulation absorbs the traditional middle class. Agricultural corporations swallow family farms and fast-food chains replace family restaurants.

While squeezing out the traditional middle class, capitalism creates a layer of middle-class managers to supervise the working class. The capitalist also needs middle-class financial, legal, scientific, design, and technical experts to find ways to increase profits. While ordinary workers are micro-managed, salaried professionals are encouraged to think creatively and act independently, within the limits set by the boss.

Middle-class managers and professionals can be distinguished from waged workers by the amount of control they exercise in the workplace. A unionized electrician on a construction site could be more educated, more skilled, and make more money than the site supervisor. However, the supervisor tells the electrician what to do.

Squeezed by the two great classes on either side of it, the middle class can be critical of capitalism and even lead movements to reform it. However, the middle-class never challenges the system itself. On the contrary, it advocates compromise, anxious to ensure that all demands remain “acceptable” to the powers that be.

The grey zones

An indeterminate number of people inhabit the two grey zones on either edge of the middle class. The zone between the middle and ruling classes includes members of the ruling class who perform upper-level managerial functions, and upper-level managers who are occasionally invited to make big decisions.

A much larger grey zone exists between the middle and working classes. At the one end are middle-class professionals whose degraded working conditions resemble industrial assembly lines.

Physicians working for Health Management Organizations (HMOs) are permitted to order only those tests and provide only those treatments that the employer approves. By removing their decision-making functions, HMOs force doctors into working-class conditions. In response, thousands of doctors have joined unions and organized collective bargaining units recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

At the other end of the zone between the working and middle classes are waged workers with small businesses on the side and blended-class families that form when middle- and working-class people marry. Changes of fortune also create blended-class families: the disbarred lawyer takes a job at the post-office and the steel-worker’s daughter goes to medical school.

The grey zone also includes workers who perform managerial functions – salaried social workers, nurses, grade-school teachers, low level government workers and prison guards. All are working class because they have little or no control over their own working conditions. At the same time, their jobs give them some control over other people.

Ordinary soldiers are working class because they have absolutely no control over the conditions of their work. At the same time, the soldier has a middle-class function – to control others. Soldiers are not in the same class as police officers. The working-class soldier is drilled to follow commands without thinking, while the police officer is a middle-class professional who is trusted by the higher-ups to know who to target, who to charge, who can be roughed up, and whose life has less value.

When it is difficult to decide if someone is middle or working class, that person probably inhabits the grey zone.

A social definition of class reveals the relationship between the classes. It explains why the capitalist class will never put people first, why the middle class will always try to contain the forces of rebellion, and why only the working class has the numbers, the power and the motivation to replace capitalism with an egalitarian socialist society.

For more on the role of the middle class, see “Mayonnaise and the Middle Class” and  Professional Poison: How Professionals Sabotage Social Movements, and Why Workers Should Lead Our Fight.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. KC Says:

    July 16/07

    Your explanation of class makes it very clear to me the division of classes and the parameters that define each, including the gray areas.

    I am trying to organize a union in my workplace, and we are in the very beginning stages, so I am using a name that will not identify me.

    Our workers are very much divided: they believe they need the middle and owning class, and they are greatly divided amongst themselves.

    The tactics the middle and owning class use to undermine workers’ confidence in themselves are easily recognized. If you ask workers, many would agree they are being patronized.

    That the workers have chosen to side with both management and owners, or to keep their heads down to keep their jobs, is also obvious to many workers.

    There are many issues in my workplace that workers can see are in their common interest: job security, safety, retraining, and benefits.

    The workers remain divided, even though there is much dissatisfaction with the workplace and common knowledge of unfair practices.

    I am not aware of any organizing tactic that can overcome these problems, other than creating a core group and carefully working to increase the number of workers willing to sign union cards. I am working with the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), as they do not have paid union bureaucrats, but are activist based.

    Whatever issue people organize around, it appears to me that the same ground-work needs to be done; organizing one by one, with each person organizing others.

    I understand the need to organize across unions to create real social change, and that unions by themselves are organizations of “reform, not revolution” (Power and Powerlessness, pgs 175-179).

    In solidarity, KC

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