Do you own your own house and want to “better” yourself? Do you read to your kids or take them to Baby Yoga? Do you expect them to go to university?
We are often told that this is what class is about—whether you name your child Anastasia or Chantelle, and your level of “aspiration”.
Alternatively, class can be seen as simply an issue of economic inequality.
Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee’s recent radio documentary, The Class Ceiling, has been looking at social mobility.
But what is class really? What makes a person working class, or not?
Class society first arose when humans developed new agricultural methods that allowed them to produce more than was necessary for survival.
Pre-class societies had been characterised by under-production and food shortages. People desperately tried to grow enough to feed themselves.
But these new societies produced more than was needed for immediate consumption—and were able to store the surplus.
A group developed that began to take control of this surplus—and so began the separation of different layers in society.
Society divided into rulers and ruled—whether master and slave or lord and serf.
Capitalism is the latest form of class society. It has harnessed these productive forces to such an extent that today there is more than enough food to feed every person on earth.
There are now crises not of underproduction, but of overproduction.
Karl Marx, the 19th century revolutionary, analysed Britain—then the most advanced capitalist country in the world.
He wanted to understand how this system of production, capitalism, worked—and how it was restructuring society.
He showed how, under capitalism, class is not just about your economic position, but your social relationship to the means of production.
The “means of production” are what we need to produce everything we need to live—from clothing and brick factories to large-scale farms, offices and oil wells.
Those who own the means of production are capitalists. Those who work instead of owning them are the working class.
Class exploitation before capitalism was obvious—periodically a lord would show up and take half your crop.
But under capitalism the relationship is often hidden. Working people are paid a wage and are “free” to leave their job, so it is less obvious that anyone is being exploited.
This can lead to people feeling they are not part of the working class. But in fact the division into two classes is becoming more extreme.
Over time, jobs that used to offer more control, such as teachers and civil service workers, have become more routine. People in these jobs have started to realise their position as workers.
This explains the growth of the unions in these jobs. People join unions for protection, feeling that there’s safety in numbers.
They’re more likely to join when the union is balloting for strikes and they want to fight back.
There is another group, those who have some control over but don’t own the means of production, such as managers.
But if you’re not a capitalist or a manager, then you’re working class—regardless of whether you’re a manual labourer or an office worker.
So a person’s class isn’t about culture, clothes or even income, but their relationship to production.
Marx and his co‑thinker Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”.
But capitalism in particular, they point out, is dominated by this class struggle.
This is because the relationship between bosses and workers, and the way bosses exploit workers, is central to the system.
Exploitation is the gap between what we are paid and the value of what we produce.
Toynbee’s documentary makes this point well when she interviews a young woman who works in a Stoke pottery factory.
She would have to work for nine hours to afford to buy a bowl that takes her 20 minutes to make.
If she were pressured to work faster, she may be able to finish more bowls per hour—but would still be paid the same low wage.
If you wonder what class you are, ask yourself—do you own a pottery factory, do you run it, or are you the one making the pottery?
The next column will look at whether the working class has lost its identity and take on the claim we’re “all middle class now”.