Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2869

Class war isn’t about smashing ceilings

Labour leader Keir Starmer has insisted he does care about class. Simon Basketter explains that class divides won’t be solved by self-improvement as Starmer has suggested
Issue 2869
Keir Starmer class Class workers

Keir Starmer made it very clear he doesn’t understand class (Picture: Keir Starmer on Flickr)

­In an unsubtle attempt to stop Tony Blair comparisons, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he will not ignore class in “my Labour Party”. 

Starmer says his mission is to “smash the class ceiling” —changing what stops poor people from getting on in society.

Not committing to Tory cuts and racism, and not U-turning on even meagre promises to tax the rich a bit would make the rhetoric more plausible.

But there is a more important flaw. Blair declared that “class war is over” two years after taking office in 1997. Today for Starmer it is not so much over as a matter for calm negotiation, individual self-improvement and elocution lessons. 

He suggests that instead of workers resisting attacks under Labour, they will be able to talk proper and be confident like nice people like him are.

It’s the understanding of society as an episode of Dragons’ Den. Business people are the “wealth creators”. Without them there would be no investment, no jobs, and an economy in a spiral of decline. 

We need a meritocracy so we can all be bosses or the nice professionals who encourage them. 

This is true in the same way that, since the royal family own the coastline, if we abolish the monarchy, the coast would cease to exist.

But you don’t get rid of class by changing how you talk or behave. Class isn’t defined by wealth, attitudes or accents. It is a social relationship based on where you stand in relation to production.

The biggest class in capitalist societies is the working class— made up of people who have to sell their ability to work to get by.

The ruling class controls what the revolutionary Karl Marx called the “means of production” – factories, offices and so on. 

Often they own them privately. Sometimes nation-states own them. In either case, access to and decision-making control over these is out of the hands of the mass of the population.

The majority— the working class—can only make a living if they work for someone else in return for a wage or salary. They produce the goods and services society needs— in workplaces they neither own nor control.

As the US socialist Eugene Debs described, “The capitalists own the tools they do not use, and the workers use the tools they do not own. 

The capitalists, who own the tools that the working class use, appropriate to themselves what the working class produce, and this accounts for the fact that a few capitalists become fabulously rich while the toiling millions remain in poverty, ignorance and dependence.”

So workers are the key “wealth creators”. And as every slave knew, being a “wealth creator” doesn’t make you wealthy. 

The goods and services that workers produce belong not to them but to their bosses. In the very process of producing things, the working class also reproduces the wealth of the capitalists.

That’s what exploitation means. Workers produce vast surpluses, which end up in the hands of those who rule over them, in the economy and the state alike. 

The more they work, the richer and more powerful their exploiters become.

Capitalism as a system depends on this daily robbery, carried out in every workplace every minute of every day. 

And layers of society enable the robbery—from managers to cops.

This is why class isn’t just about your income. A worker in an office will be paid much less than their manager. But that is not the important bit.

The worker has to work for a wage and has no control over their work. In contrast, the manager is there to enforce discipline so capitalists can keep pumping out profits.

This often means managers will bully and pressure people to work harder or longer. 

And they’re often paid more to do it. Some will be high enough up to align totally with the ruling class, but your team leader in a fast food takeaway is more likely to be conflicted.

A minority also still own the means to make a living— small farmers and shopkeepers, the self-employed, independent craft workers. The old term for these is “petty bourgeoisie”.

This middle class typically combines some of the functions of capitalists and workers. “The independent peasant or handicraftsman is cut up into two persons,” writes Marx. “As owner of the means of production he is capitalist; as labourer he is his own wage-labourer.”

A few earn quite well, but most scratch along, putting in long hours and earning no more than average wages. Often, they move in and out of the working class.

People can have muddled ideas about what class they are in. And many of those often labelled middle class, such as teachers or bank workers, are actually workers.

There is also a nasty trend of attacking workers’ rights through the scam of fake self-employment. 

So, the gains made by the workers’ movement are removed by declaring a construction worker or a delivery driver self-employed. 

Yet any reasonable explanation of their relation to production shows that they are workers.

Sometimes changes in capitalist production make people think the working class has changed totally. 

But it’s the social relationship that matters. Capitalism is the most dynamic system of production in history, and it constantly changes the make-up of its workforce. 

In 19th century Britain, the biggest sources of employment were agriculture, textiles and coal. As they shrank, the metal trades grew. In turn, these have been displaced.

Workers have the economic strength and numbers to get rid of the bosses and create a new world. Yet most of the time workers can feel powerless. They have little or no control over production and can feel that the bosses call the shots.

And workers are encouraged to know their “place” and look to others to act on their behalf—such as union leaders and the Labour Party.

We have contradictory experiences under capitalism. That means that ideas are uneven across the class and in individuals. People get pulled in different directions.

What is a constant is that those who own and control the wealth in society always want to make more profit. 

They do so by pushing workers to do longer hours and harder shifts and keeping down pay. 

This produces a clash between the bosses’ and workers’ interests. This is class struggle, and it is far from over.

Class struggle changes people’s ideas. 

As workers are forced to stand up for themselves, they can come to see themselves as a group with separate, distinct interests. 

They can also come to see themselves as having more in common with other workers, in any industry or any country, than with any boss.

Importantly, exploitation isn’t the same as oppression, where people suffer systematic discrimination based on traits such as skin colour or sexuality.

Millions of people rightly resist oppression and fight to win more rights. 

But suffering sexism or racism doesn’t give the victim power. Being exploited gives workers potential power because it means they can shut down the system.

It also gives working class people a shared interest in fighting back against the bosses. Other groups don’t have this in the same way. 

Workers having to do their jobs collectively means their resistance tends to be collective. 

One cashier demanding a longer lunch break can be replaced. 

But management will have a harder time ignoring such demands if all the cashiers return to work after lunch later than expected.

If workers take over a supermarket, they can’t divide it up into individual aisles the way rebellious peasants would divide a feudal estate into small plots. Instead, workers have to run the operation together collectively.

Because all workers are exploited, they all have the power to hit the system of profits. 

And all would benefit from living in a socialist society, where ordinary people made decisions collectively and organised production to meet human need.

As the key exploited class in capitalism, the working class possesses immense potential power–not just to halt capitalist production but to transform society. 

That power is the key to the possibility of socialism, and that means breaking more than a ceiling.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance