'Why Are We Still So Obsessed With Class?' asked a headline in the Daily Express last week. It was referring to the release of the film Gosford Park, about class divisions in the 1930s.
The same question is often levelled at socialists. There are, after all, many divisions in capitalist society-for example between men and women, black and white, gay and straight, or between people of different religions.
But class division is more important than any other divide. Figures released last week showed that if you are born to parents who do professional jobs you are likely to live nearly eight years longer than someone born to parents with unskilled manual jobs. The poorer you are the more likely you are to suffer from heart disease, cancer or mental health problems, and to die from accidents.
A child born to a rich family can expect to move smoothly from a place in a public school, through university and into a well paid job. A child from a poor family faces a run down school and the prospect of a lifetime of debt if they want to continue their education. Class not only determines our life chances, but also how much control we have over all aspects of our lives. There is still much confusion about class, however. Articles about class in the press always seem to concentrate on its trivial aspects.
They tell us class is all about what accent we have, the kind of clothes we wear, or whether we prefer classical music or pop. Class isn't just a matter of appearance and lifestyle. Such descriptions are often based on myths. So all working class people are supposed not to like theatre or opera, and be concerned only with the soaps. Of course, lifestyle does give some indication of what class you are from.
Most of us can't afford to jet off six times a year on luxury holidays. But these are descriptions of the effects of class divisions, not the reason why those divisions exist.
You might find it hard to distinguish a boss like South West Trains owner Brian Souter from a thousand other commuters, as he deliberately dresses in a casual manner. That doesn't mean he is any less a part of the ruling class. A bank worker might think they are a 'cut above' the cleaner. That doesn't make them any less working class.
Class isn't about how we feel about ourselves or about popular stereotypes. It is about fundamental economic relationships. To understand class you have to look not at what we consume, but at the way we produce.
Class isn't just a pecking order, like those categories sociologists and voting experts use, which rank people according to what jobs they do or how much they earn. It is a relationship of exploitation. The central divide in society is between the ruling class, which owns and controls the means of producing wealth (factories, offices, machinery and so on), and the working class, which has no choice but to sell its ability to work.
The ruling class is able to maintain its monopoly of all the means of producing wealth only because it exploits those who work for it. The rich are rich precisely because the poor are poor. Exploitation does not just mean that one group gets more than another. It means that one group in society is able to extract wealth from the labour of another group.
The ruling class has to surround itself with numerous other relationships of domination and subordination to maintain this exploitation. It needs managers, civil servants, courts, judges, the police and other institutions of the state.
But the exploitation of workers by bosses underpins the whole hierarchy. And it is the clash between these two fundamental classes of capitalism, the working class and the capitalist class, which is the key to determining the future direction of society.