By Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2541

What do we mean by class?

This article is over 7 years, 2 months old
Issue 2541
The working class has the collective power to bring down the ruling class and the whole capitalist system
The working class has the collective power to bring down the ruling class and the whole capitalist system (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Britain is divided into “two distinct classes—those who own property and those who are getting poorer”.

That’s according to the bosses’ own Business Insider news website.

Based on a new report by the Resolution Foundation, it describes how inequality is spiralling because of stagnating wages and runaway housing costs.

The report is a damning indictment of Tory rule under both Theresa May and her predecessor David Cameron.

Growing numbers of us rightly feel that we live in a highly unequal society.

But this has also sparked big debates, particularly about what it means to be working class in 21st century Britain.

For some, such as the Labour right and the liberal Guardian newspaper, working class people are largely white and blue-collar or unemployed.

They live outside of “metropolitan” London in areas where old industries such as steel and coal have gone—and don’t like immigration much.

There certainly are regional differences.

As the report notes, “Incomes in the vast majority of the country are more than 10 percent lower than in the South East.

“The North East and West Midlands have the lowest levels of income, both 20 percent lower than in the South East.”

But class isn’t a subjective thing defined by where you come from, what sort of accent you have or what individual consumer choices you make.

As the revolutionary Karl Marx argued, class is a social relationship.


For Marx the main division in a capitalist society like ours was between capitalists and workers.

The capitalist class own and control the “means of production”—the offices and computers, call centres and phones, factories and machinery.

Because the working class don’t own these things, they have to sell their “labour power”, their ability to work, in return for a wage. Through working for capitalists, workers are “exploited”.

Exploitation isn’t just about being bullied by your boss or being badly treated in the workplace.

It is about the process of how capitalists get their profits.

We’re always told that the likes of tycoon Richard Branson’s wealth are a reward for their risk-taking and business acumen.

In reality, capitalists’ profits depend on workers—if they stopped work, Branson would soon be out of pocket.

Workers at an Arcadia warehouse in Birmingham out on strike

Workers at an Arcadia warehouse in Birmingham out on strike (Pic: Socialist Worker)

But capitalists pay workers far less in wages than the amount of value their work creates.

This is why class isn’t just about your income.

A worker in an office will be paid much less than their manager.

But what really makes the difference is their relationship to these means of production.

The worker has to work for a wage and doesn’t have any control over their work.

In contrast, the manager is there to enforce discipline in the workplace so capitalists can keep pumping out profits.

This often means that managers will bully and pressure people to work harder, or longer. And they’re often paid more to do it.

But it’s because their positions in capitalist society—and their interests—are fundamentally different that workers and bosses make up different classes.

Yet this same process of exploitation—and the fact that we’re all exploited together—is also what gives us the power to win.

We’re always told that society is just a collection of individuals competing against one another—and that certainly chimes with some of people’s experience.

If you apply for a job, you’re up against many other people looking for work.

At work people are increasingly faced with “performance targets” to drive up individual productivity.

While pitting workers against one another, capitalism also depends on drawing large numbers together to generate profits.

When Marx was writing during the height of the Industrial Revolution, the largest cotton mills in Lancashire employed around 137 people.

Now most workers in Britain work in workplaces of over 100—and they’re not considered to be that large.

The size of the global working class is bigger than ever before. In 2013—for the first time in history—the majority of people in the global workforce were wage-labourers.

According to the International Labour Organisation there are now some 1.6 billion wage labourers—that’s up by 600 million since the mid-1990s.

When Marx called on “workers of the world to unite”, there were only around 20 million workers worldwide.

Capitalists constantly try to get ahead of their competitors by investing in new, more efficient technology.

This means that the working class today has immense numerical and social power to take on the bosses.

By drawing large numbers of workers together, capitalism also pushes them to fight back.

While we can sometimes feel like we’re in competition with one another, working together means we can identify with our common interests.

Through this process workers’ ideas can also rapidly change.

As they fight back collectively, what Marx called the muck of ages—such as sexist and racist ideas—can be challenged.

Karl Marx placed the working class at the centre of his philosophical system

Karl Marx placed the working class at the centre of his philosophical system


Class conflict is built into the system.

But when the working class isn’t fighting, it can seem that workers have lost their power to fight back.

Of course, there have been big changes in the working class since the birth of capitalism.

As Marx noted, capitalism is a dynamic system that constantly has to revolutionise the means of production.

But this doesn’t mean social relations have fundamentally changed or that the working class doesn’t have power.

Some argue that the decline in “traditional” manufacturing means that workers are too weak to challenge capitalism.

But manufacturing has been in decline since the First World War and it never accounted for more than 50 percent of the workforce.

Marx argued that capitalism was based on producing profits, not products.

As capitalism developed, it also developed a public sector so workers could be healthy and skilled enough to work.

Teachers and health workers are still indirectly important to keeping capitalism going and have power.

Similarly bank workers don’t directly generate profits, because banks move other firms’ money around and make their profits by creaming some of it off.

But without the workers, they couldn’t do that.

There has been a small rise in zero hours contracts and other “irregular” forms of work.

But this is not the experience for the majority of workers and doesn’t mark a fundamental transformation of capitalism.

These forms of work have always existed and these workers can and have fought back.

Capitalists constantly try to get ahead of their competitors by investing in new, more efficient technology.

This means that manufacturing output is still high, but there’s fewer workers.

This also means that this group of workers has immense power to shut down their boss’s profits.


And sometimes capitalists’ attempts to restructure their industry can even open up new opportunities to shut down their system.

Many industries now have to move their products from factory to sale very quickly.

To do this they need huge concentrations of warehouses where products can arrive and be shipped out again in a matter of hours.

In the US, some of the biggest collections of these warehouses employ hundreds of thousands of people.

Similar distribution centres exist across Britain.

If these workers stopped working they could shut down more than their own warehouse.

They could bring the whole “just-in-time” distribution system grinding to a halt.

That’s why as socialists we still look to the working class as the force in society that has the collective power to bring about real change.

It’s our job to find opportunities to use that power—and point towards the struggle that can take on the whole system.


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