Class-is it all about accent and lifestyle?
By Sam Ashman
THE WORD class is suddenly back in fashion. It was bandied around on the front benches in parliament last week by Labour's John Prescott. Even the Tories were using the word. But their explanations of class are mistaken and confusing. They talk about class as if it was all about accents and lifestyle. But this just produces a series of stereotypes. So talk of "working class" conjures up an old bloke with a flat cap and whippets. It doesn't conjure up a young woman in a call centre or a bank worker.
Anyone who has a dinner party instead of going down the pub must be middle class, according to this view. Sometimes even people on the left fall into this. When I first became political I developed what I thought was a brilliant theory of class. Anyone who said "bath" I thought was working class, and anyone who said "bahth" was obviously a complete tosser. Then I met someone from Romford and was stumped.
Class is not fundamentally about accent, lifestyle or even where you went to school. The key thing about class is that it is an economic relationship.
Above all it is the fact that a tiny minority own and control all the wealth in society. In Britain the top 200 rich have a combined wealth of �95.4 billion. Just 1 percent of Britain's population own 20 percent of the wealth. It is this minority who own the factories, the banks, offices and so on who are the ruling class. They employ thousands of others to do all the work for them yet they reap in all the profits, fat salaries and perks that give them very different lives from the people they employ.
This wealth allows them to send their kids to private school, which then perpetuates their privileges further. But New Labour has done nothing about taking any of the wealth off this minority. Indeed, recent government statistics show that inequality has continued to grow since Labour was elected. Workers, by contrast, are forced to go out and work for someone else in order to survive.
The working class is the vast majority in an advanced industrial society like Britain. Workers are not just dockers, miners and car workers but office workers, shop assistants, ambulance drivers, postal workers, rail workers... Nothing moves or gets produced without them. Class is a relationship-we are only working class because others live off our backs. They are only ruling class because they lord it over us. The number of people who are genuinely middle class is very small. Many of those often labelled middle class are really workers-such as teachers and nurses. This view of class stands irrespective of what any particular individual may think about themselves.
Lots of people have quite muddled ideas about what class they are in. So people can work like dogs in a car plant and, because they are relatively well paid, think they are middle class. I used to sell Socialist Worker outside a DSS office. There was one woman who always refused to buy it rather snottily. She scoffed that she did not want one because she was "not a worker".
The union rep at the office, however, would stop for a chat, buy Socialist Worker and hated his boss's guts. The woman and the rep worked in exactly the same conditions, with the same lack of control and low pay, yet one thought they were a worker and the other didn't. Who was right? If class is an economic relationship, then both of them are workers.
The rep is not a worker just because he thinks he is, he is a worker because he is forced to sell his labour to survive. The same applies to the woman. Just the fact that you think you're middle class doesn't mean you are.
Those who own and control the wealth in society drive all the time to make more profit. They do so by pushing workers to do longer hours and harder shifts, and by keeping down pay. This produces a clash between the bosses' interests and the workers'. This clash is what socialists mean by the class struggle.
And class struggle changes people's ideas. As groups of workers are forced to stand up for themselves, they can come to see themselves as a group with separate, distinct interests from their employers. They can also come to see themselves as having more in common with other workers, in any industry or in any country, than with any boss-and that applies even to the woman at the DSS.