The Marxist outlook is based on the irreconcilable conflict between the working class (the proletariat) and the ruling capitalist class (the bourgeoisie). But how do we determine which people belong to which class? Is a secretary a worker? What about professionals? Isn’t there a middle class as well? Why do Marxists look to the working class to bring revolutionary change?
When class is talked about in the media or schools, it is in terms of income. “Upper class” means “rich,” “lower class” means “poor,” and everyone in between is in the middle class. Mainstream commercial culture idolizes the ruling class, demeans the average person’s lifestyle, and refers to blue-collar work as “working class.” It is not surprising that a vast majority of U.S. workers believe they are middle class.
But the commonly held definition of “class” is imprecise. Is everyone with a bank account or a child in college middle class? Is class just a question of how you perceive yourself?
The working class is composed of people who work for others, while members of the ruling class have people work for them. The vast majority of the U.S. is working class.
Different sources of income
The word “working” is not arbitrary. It refers to people who must sell their ability to work to employers. They are paid a set wage, salary or commission (regardless of how much profit they make for their bosses.)
Employers own the factories, offices, mines, restaurant chains and banks. To make money, however, they also need labor. The employers buy the workers’ most valuable possession-the ability to work-and apply it to their businesses to turn a profit.
But don’t CEOs work? Although it is true that some employers take on managerial duties, that is of a completely different nature. Employers earn their money not from their own individual labor, but from their ownership of the wealth produced by others. They own and sell the services and goods produced by the working class.
When the capitalists divide up the ownership of a company into shares, they each take a certain percentage of what the worker makes. They are only “sharing” amongst themselves. The ruling class survives and thrives due to its ownership, not its labor.
The “middle class”
Does this mean there is no middle class? Surely, there are different layers of the owning class as well as of the working class.
Among the working class are professionals whose work and elevated incomes differentiate their ways of life from lower-paid workers. While the average worker hopes to have some spending money for the weekend, the professional often hopes to build a stock portfolio, become a partial owner and live off the labor of others. This privileged layer of the working class easily intermingles with the small owners like shopkeepers or self-employed lawyers and doctors, who often identify with the interests of big owners even though they are usually victims of the banks and big corporations.
In the last few decades, the U.S. economy has transformed greatly. The workforce is no longer only concentrated in factories although millions of workers still do work in the industrial sector. Millions of other workers are now working in service industries, including ever-growing numbers of women, African American workers and immigrants.
For some workers, these changes have fostered the illusion that they are part of a permanently stable “middle class.” But service-oriented jobs hold the same problems for the working class as manufacturing positions. In every kitchen and every cubicle, workers’ wages and benefits are under attack.
Workers see the growing army of unemployed and fear for their own jobs. No matter how many mornings they come to work, they recognize that the building still does not belong to them. No matter how many times they have worked a particular machine, the machine is not theirs. Most workers still spend their days repeating a few tasks over and over again.
Underneath these miserable conditions lies the potential for revolution. The working class, which on the surface appears to hold no power in politics or the workplace, actually possesses the greatest power of all. If workers unite on a political or economic issue and withhold their labor, the power of the working class becomes instantly recognized.
The working class holds the ability to create a new society. It produces the wealth, it has the training and, most of all, it is the vast majority of humanity.
Working people are taught to feel grateful for the small comforts they receive in exchange for the vast wealth they produce-their home, their car or their television. All these comforts evaporate, though, the second that bosses announce layoffs or a family member becomes sick and healthcare costs mount.
An economy based on a tiny handful of people owning the wealth produced by the great majority can only offer the promise of subsistence wages and perpetual job insecurity. In the daily grind, workers inevitably find themselves laboring for an economy that takes without giving. They find themselves, like U.S. soldiers in Iraq, fighting a war that does not serve their interests.
History shows that in times of great social change, the illusions of today are cast aside as the working class moves forward to fulfill its historic role as the agent for revolutionary change. Socialists work to hasten this process.