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Inequality and the return of class

This article is over 11 years, 11 months old
A new report shows that class and inequality continue to scar our lives. These divisions are structured into capitalism and cannot be reformed away, writes Matthew Cookson
Issue 2187

Inequality is alive and well in Britain, as a new government report has admitted. But although politicians and the media will accept that inequality exists, few acknowledge that class is the basis for that inequality.

The National Equality Panel report, commissioned by deputy prime minister Harriet Harman, shows that Britain is a fundamentally unequal society.

And contrary to government talk of increasing “social mobility”, it is getting more unequal. The gap between rich and poor has increased dramatically in the last three decades.

The top 10 percent in Britain are 100 times more wealthy than the bottom 10 percent.

The report shows how class affects every aspect of our lives. It matters “before children enter school, through the school years, through entry into the labour market, and on to retirement, wealth and resources for retirement, and mortality rates.”

The report concludes that, “Economic advantage and disadvantage reinforce themselves across the life cycle, and onto the next generation.”

Behind the statistics are the brutal effects that class has on people’s lives. For the working class it means poorer health, lower living standards, poverty, insecurity and stress.

If you’re working class, you die earlier. It is workers who make everything, but the capitalist system doesn’t meet our needs – despite producing more than enough to do so.

As Karl Marx pointed out over 150 years ago, “It is true that labour produces wonderful things for the rich – but for the worker, it produces privation. It produces palaces – but for the worker, hovels. It produces beauty – but for the worker, deformity.”

Some commentators and politicians say that changes in society make class meaningless. They say that the decline in manufacturing jobs and the growth of sectors such as the civil service and IT have made the working class smaller.

White collar

They claim that the people who work in these “white collar” jobs are middle class. There is a minority that remains stuck in low paid jobs or without a job, they tell us. They call this the “underclass”.

This view of society has become mainstream – but it is wrong. Class is not about whether you do manual work or work in an office.

It is not even about how much you earn. It is about where you stand in relation to how things are produced in society.

As Marx argued, there are two major classes under capitalism. The ruling class owns the factories, offices, railways and other workplaces – and working class people don’t.

This situation hasn’t changed. Workers still have to sell their ability to labour to capitalists to survive, just as they did 100 years ago.

Some workers may think they are middle class – but it’s not about what you think. Class is based on the reality of whether you own a workplace or have to work for a wage.

This doesn’t mean that the economy never changes. Capitalism constantly revolutionises production, introducing new machinery and more efficient methods – although often at a brutal cost to workers.

It is true that manufacturing plays a much smaller role in the British economy than it did in 1979 – though 10 percent of jobs are still in this sector.

But this doesn’t get rid of class. The overwhelming majority of the people working in service sector “white collar” jobs are working class. They have to sell their labour power to get by.

Marx did, however, recognise that there is a middle class. It is smaller than the working class but bigger than the ruling class. The middle class have more control and autonomy over their working lives.

This class – made up of doctors, headteachers, lower-level managers and small businesspeople – faces contradictory pressures. Their wealth and social position mean that they can buy into the system.

But they can come into conflict with those above them. At these times, especially if there is a strong working class movement, they can be pulled behind a collective challenge to the system.

When people say that most workers are now middle class, they misunderstand what class means. Many of the workers that some people define as “middle class” are doing working class jobs.

And some professions that were once seen as middle class have been transformed. In the past, groups such as teachers, lecturers and clerical workers enjoyed status and conditions that meant they were part of the middle class. This has changed decisively.

Attacks on their conditions together with deskilling has effectively changed their class status.

The massive rise in inequality confirmed by the report results from another key element of Marx’s ideas – the constant struggle between the two main classes.

The ruling class has had the upper hand in this battle over the last 30 years.

The long economic boom that followed the Second World War meant that the system could afford an increase in workers’ living standards. State intervention in the economy became the accepted norm.


In the 1970s, economic crisis returned. Sections of the ruling class demanded a shift to free market neoliberal policies to increase profitability. They saw the strength of workers’ organisations as a key obstacle.

Margaret Thatcher, elected as Tory prime minister in 1979, set out to destroy trade unions.

After the defeat of the steel workers, the miners and the print workers, the market ripped through society. Public services were privatised and welfare attacked. These attacks hit workers’ confidence to fight.

The rich grabbed everything they could while the poorest saw their incomes stagnate.

Gordon Brown and Tony Blair both accepted this free market model. They shifted the Labour Party further to the right.

Instead of talking about abolishing wealth inequality they talked of promoting “equality of opportunity”.

But capitalism is inherently unequal. It will always give the rich more “opportunity” to get ahead in life than the poor.

The weakening of trade unions allowed the ruling class to go on an offensive that continues today. We need to strengthen the unions to fight it.

It is class struggle that has seen workers win the biggest gains. This struggle also points to a different way of organising the world – one not based on running things for profit, for the benefit of a tiny minority.

It is impossible to reform inequality away while leaving capitalism in place. We will need a revolution to overthrow capitalism and create a socialist society based on human need and co-operation.

That would bring an end to the classes and inequality that scar our lives today.

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