Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Meaning of Class

As we saw in the last of these columns the concept of class struggle played a crucial role in Marx’s theory of history. For Marx class struggle was the main driving force in history and the means by which one mode of production is transformed into another, for example feudalism into capitalism or capitalism into socialism. But what is meant by class?

In modern capitalist society this question has become very confused, and not accidentally so. On the one hand the term is very widely used – in the media, in literature and in daily life – because the existence of layers of people with very unequal amounts of wealth, and widely differing life styles and opportunities is so obvious that it cannot be denied. On the other hand our rulers have a massive interest in ensuring that people, especially working people, do not develop a clear understanding of it, do not, in other words, develop class consciousness.

Consequently, for more than a century, the ruling class has been happy to fund academics (particularly sociologists) and pundits to come up with a variety of theories and concepts of class. They have not minded very much about the content of these theories on one condition – that they disputed and ‘refuted’ the Marxist theory of class, the only one they really feared.

The principal strategy in this ideological mystification has been to treat class as essentially a subjective matter, a question of how people see their own and others’ position in the social structure and how they define their own class identity. Max Weber, the early 20th century sociologist who is the key intellectual figure in much of this debate, focused primarily on ‘status’ and ‘status groups’, rather than economic class, as being the main factors in social action, with status defined as prestige in the eyes of others.

Even when class is defined by occupation, as is the case in many governmental and sociological statistics, which appears to be an objective criterion, the ranking of the occupations – for example teachers as middle class, mechanics as working class – is done on the subjective basis of presumed status.

Treating class as subjective makes the concept highly unstable, varying from year to year, decade to decade, country to country, and also opens the door to regular claims that class divisions have disappeared or are no longer important, and that viewing politics in class terms is out of date.

By contrast Marxism, though obviously concerned with class consciousness, insists that class divisions are objective – they exist in the structure of society independently of people’s awareness or conception of them. For Marx, class divisions derive from and are based on the relations of production in society. Often this is expressed in the phrase ‘class is defined by relationship to the means of production’, usually with the rider that ‘it is a question of ownership or non- ownership’. But, although it points in the right direction, this formulation is inadequate and can be misleading. Slave owners, feudal lords and capitalists are all owners of the means of production but they are three different classes. Similarly, in modern society, neither a middle manager in Samsung nor a shop floor worker are owners of the means of production but they are not both members of the same class.

A fuller understanding of the Marxist theory of class requires a grasp of three points. First, that the relations of production of society form a totality, a definite system of production, and classes are defined by the roles they play in the system as a whole. It is necessary to start from the system as a whole, not from individual cases.

Second, that classes are a matter not only of relations between people and things (means of production – land, machines, factories etc.) but also of social relations between people; classes are formed in conflict with one another.

Third, that what drives the conflict is not envy or different life styles or even just inequality, but exploitative relations of production, that is the systematic extraction of a surplus (profit) by one group of people from the labour of another group. Class struggle derives from exploitation in the process of production and from there extends to every aspect of social life.

It is the concept of exploitation ( to be explained further in my next column) which differentiates the Marxist theory of class and which is absent from all the bourgeois, liberal and sociological accounts. Exploitation creates an objective conflict of interests – first over pay, hours of work, conditions etc. and then over housing, health, education, law and order, foreign policy (warfare versus welfare) and so on.

Apply this analysis to modern capitalist society and, with some important local variations, we find essentially the same class structure in all developed countries.

At the top, stands the ruling or capitalist class, which owns or controls the major means of production, and lives on the profits it makes from the employment of wage labour. Not every member of the ruling class, e.g .some top politicians and state officials, is personally involved in the employment and profit making, but they are all tied into it and depend on it.

In opposition to them stands the majority, the working class, who live by the sale of their labour power and are exploited by the capitalist class. The working class includes both manual and white collar workers – nurses and teachers as well as dockers and car workers. If people live primarily by the sale of their labour power they are part of the working class whether they work in mines and factories or call centers and colleges.

Between these two main classes stand various intermediate strata, commonly called the middle class, who shade into the ruling class at their upper levels and the working class at their lower levels. There are two strands in the middle class, both hierarchically organized. On the one hand, small business owners, the petty bourgeoisie, who are either self employed or employ a few workers. On the other, managers. Managers may appear to be working class in that they do not own the means of production and are paid wages or salaries, but in fact they are not paid to work as such and are not exploited, they are paid to manage and enforce the exploitation of the workers under their control. Such managers exist not only in private companies, but also in schools, hospitals, and the state bureaucracy.

It is the struggle between the capitalist class and the working class that shapes the basic political terrain in modern society. The middle classes play an important role – the ruling class cannot run society without them – but politically they tend to vacillate between the two main classes according to which is exerting the stronger ‘gravitational pull’.

In many less developed countries there is another large class, the peasantry, which plays a significant role in production and politics, but even where the peasantry are still a majority, it is usually the battle between capitalists and workers which is decisive. And on a world scale it is absolutely clear that it is the struggle between the international bourgeoisie and the international proletariat that will determine the fate of humanity,

John Molyneux
September 13, 2006

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