Part 3 of the Full Marx Library series in the Morning Star newspaper
ECONOMIC class is a role that people occupy, not a tag that attaches to individuals. But if you want a label, the simple answer is yes, if you work for a living (you receive a wage) and you don’t own or control capital.
If your employer gets more “value” from the work you do than you receive in wages, you’re working-class.
Even if you think you’ve got it cushy in your own job, collectively with other workers you produce more value than you get paid — Marx called the difference “surplus value.”
If you didn’t you’d all very quickly be sacked or the firm would go bust.
And let’s assume you’ve got a stocks and shares ISA — this still doesn’t make you a capitalist.
You still have to work and although your ISA money is invested in different types of capital, you have no direct control over how it is invested or how the profits are used and you probably couldn’t live off the interest.
Don’t be fooled either by the fact that you and your partner own the home you live in.
Yours isn’t an investment property (the fact that you rent out a room to pay the mortgage is irrelevant) and you don’t make a profit on it so it isn’t “capital.”
Even if you sold it, you’d have to buy somewhere else to live in and if you downsized it’s unlikely you’d be able to live off the balance.
It is important to distinguish economic class (people’s relationship to capital and the “means of production” — how goods, services and profit are produced) from the sociologist’s “social class” — a hierarchical division of people (at its crudest, “upper,” “middle” and “lower” class) according to their income, lifestyle or tastes.
That sociological division is the one usually taught in schools and universities and assumed in the media, for whom the term “working class” is reserved mainly for those who work by manual labour — making and handling things in factories, shops, etc. Or who correspond to the stereotypes presented on television.
It’s an approach which is subjective and confused (for example the “creative industries” are usually excluded).
Social class distinctions are also relative. Say you live in Surrey, the golf club prides itself on its exclusiveness, on the “class” of its members who see it as a place to network and do business as well as to relax.
But in other places golf is a game for everyone, not a sign of social status.
And these social distinctions change with time. Doctors and teachers no longer have the relatively privileged status that they once did.
Social class and economic class are often confused.
Social class can be a source of prejudice and discrimination.
For example research for the government’s Social Mobility Commission found that people from “working-class” backgrounds who get professional jobs are paid an average of £6,800 (17 per cent) less each year than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds.
Even when they have the same educational attainment, role and experience as their more privileged colleagues, those from poorer backgrounds are still paid an average of £2,242 (7 per cent) less. Women and ethnic minorities face additional earnings disadvantage.
Removing these social inequalities is obviously important, however it does not in itself pose a challenge to capitalism; indeed, the support given (or lip-service paid) by neoliberal politicians to improving social mobility suggests that it is seen as potentially enhancing “efficiency” (and labour competition) in key market sectors.
The “sociological” approach to class — the way it is presented in the media and popularly used — is often divisive, implying that “middle class” teachers (for example) do not have a common interest with other workers in building a better world. They do.
In economic terms, the working class constitutes all those who have to sell their labour power by hand and brain (the two cannot be separated) in order to subsist and who don’t exploit the labour of others.
There are grey areas of course. The boards and remuneration committees of Britain’s top companies would no doubt claim (if they understood the term) that their CEOs (who each “earn” an average of £5.5 million per annum, some 130 times more than their employees) do generate “surplus value.”
But their work is focused on profit and directly exploitative of their workers.
So the fact that you’re not a manual worker, directly producing or selling goods, doesn’t mean that you’re not working class.
You might be a teacher, a doctor, a civil servant or local government employee.
You might be one of the escalating number of people employed on a zero-hours contract or through an agency.
You might be genuinely self-employed with your own small business. But you still have to “sell” your labour and you’re not willingly exploiting other people.
And you don’t have to be in employment to be working class.
You could be unemployed for various reasons, including disability, but the chances are you’d still be dependent on others in work — if not directly (your family or friends), then (if you receive benefits) through other workers’ taxes. But you’d not be making a profit from their labour and you’d still be working class.
Today the working class, understood on these terms, constitutes upwards of 85 per cent of the population. Yes, you are working class.