Class in Modern Capitalism: the British Example

Richard Abernethy

Class is once again in the news and political debate. While some claim that it is no longer relevant at all, the BBC’s Great British Class Survey claimed to identify no fewer than seven different classes. What does it mean to belong to a class? Is it an objective situation, or does it involve subjectivity and consciousness? How best to understand the class structure of modern capitalism? – Editors

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Class is a social relationship that groups people together and also sets them apart. The most important question about class is how to abolish it, how to replace it with a genuinely classless society of freely associated human beings. As we work towards an answer to that great question, I propose to explore some preliminary questions. I hope to clear up some widespread misconceptions, and stimulate some further discussion.

What is a class? What does it mean to say that certain people belong to one class and other people belong to a different class?

Does class still exist, and if so how important is it?

What are the classes in present day society? What are the continuities and discontinuities with earlier periods?

This article attempts to describe in outline class relations in modern capitalism, taking Britain as an example. It does not explore the differences between countries, nor does it examine relations between landlords and peasants in agrarian societies. Even in terms of Britain, it omits certain aspects, such as the monarchy and what remains of the aristocracy. It deals mainly with class structures, and touches only slightly on subjective human experience and consciousness. It does not take up internal differences within classes, including ethnicity and gender. That said, I hope it can take forward our understanding and stimulate some further analysis and discussion. Class is a basic category for Marxists – so basic that we tend to take it for granted. As Hegel observed, assuming that you already know all about something leads to mistakes. The superficial slogan “One percent versus 99 percent” has been widely adopted, often by people who should know better.

The BBC Class Survey 2013 identified seven classes in contemporary Britain: Elite (6%), Established Middle Class (25%), Technical Middle Class (6%), New Affluent Workers (15%), Emergent Service Workers (19%), Traditional Working Class (14%) and Precariat (15%).

Criticising the BBC Class Survey, the Conservative theorist Jill Kirby argued that “Class is almost totally irrelevant in modern Britain. We are not bound by class”. Kirby represents a school of thought that claims that class is no longer relevant, or at least that it is in the process of dissolution. On this view, capitalist society itself is tending towards a classless society, because the middle class is expanding to take in more and more of the population. I am going to take on the role of “devil’s advocate” for a moment, and set out some arguments in favour of this view, which I actually oppose.

Inequality is an undeniable fact of life in capitalist society – although there is plenty of scope for argument about how to measure it.  The Poverty and Social Exclusion Report 2013 groups people into seven categories based on their standard of living. That’s to say it is a measure of inequality (differences of income and wealth). However, inequality alone does not necessarily mean a class difference. A printer or a train driver may earn considerably more than an agricultural worker or a cleaner, but this does not place them in different classes. There is a great deal of inequality between a rich person with a fortune  of say £3 million, and a super-rich person with £300 million (the haves and the have-yachts) but few would regard this as a difference of class.

Still in the role of devil’s advocate, one might point out that many of the traditional markers of class no longer apply in modern Britain. In previous generations, it would be quite easy in most cases to tell what class a person belonged to. You could tell from the way someone dressed and spoke. The working class (if not unemployed) would work for a weekly wage. They would engage in some kind of manual work, which might be skilled or unskilled, light or heavy. If you received a monthly salary, worked at a desk and did mainly mental work, however menial, that would mark you as middle class. Higher education and home ownership were attributes that raised you above the working class and gave you claim to middle class status. Social changes such as the shift from manufacturing to services, the extension of higher education and home ownership have eroded these traditional class differences. Moreover, workers do own a certain amount of capital, mainly through pension funds. Part of the fascination of a drama like Downton Abbey is that it portrays a past in which hierarchies of rank were carefully marked out and strongly regulated peoples lives, but could sometimes be broken and their future was uncertain.

That’s all as devil’s advocate. Now let’s turn to my own approach to a modern Marxist perspective on class. Classes do exist, and capitalism is a class society. However, classes are not neat or exact categories. I don’t think you can assign every individual, or even every occupational group, to one class or another. I do consider that in today’s world we still have the basic opposition between bourgeoisie (capitalists) and proletariat (workers); the question of whether there is a single middle class, and whether it corresponds with the classic petit-bourgeoisie, I will come to later. However, classes are not static and unchanging. They keep being decomposed and recomposed. This process of change has been unusually rapid in recent decades, with the result that ideas about class (both popular and academic) have been thrown into some confusion. For example, ask a person if they regard themselves as working class, and they may enter yes. Ask the same person if they are middle class, and they may answer yes to that as well. Recently the term “middle class” has become vastly over-extended. Today we often find it applied to relatively secure and well-paid working class jobs, in particular the kind of jobs in unionised factories that have become scarce in the core capitalist countries. For capitalism, it is ideologically very useful for as many people as possible to identify themselves as middle class, to feel that they have a stake in the system. However, even some people who are firmly anti-capitalist use the term in this way.

In Marxist thought, the basic determinant of class is people’s relation to the means of production and the labour process. This is different from both popular consciousness and non-Marxist sociology, which may give more weight to income, home ownership versus tenancy, education or cultural preferences. The proletariat is a class that works, but does not own or control the means of production. It lives by selling its labour power to an employer in exchange for a wage or salary. The ruling class does own or control the means of production, either by direct ownership, or by share ownership, or alternatively through control of a state that owns the means of production. They employ others to work for them – they are buyers of labour power. However, that’s not a full and adequate definition, because managers and even CEOs may also be paid employees of a corporation, but they usually represent the interests of capital against labour.

There is also a subjective side to class identity. Since its formation some two hundred years ago in the industrial revolution, the working class has developed its own goals and its own forms of organisation. Unions, one of the first forms of organisation to be developed, remain very important to this day (which is not to say that they may not be superseded by more direct and participatory forms of organisation in future). From their origins in Western Europe they have spread all over the world. Marx regarded the Chartist movement in Britain as the first independent political movement of the working class. Later came the international struggle for the eight-hour working day (and the declaration of May Day as International Workers’ Day), the formation of the socialist parties of the Second International – and so on. However, over time there is a recurring tendency for the autonomous creations of the working class to be re-absorbed (or recuperated) by capitalist society. It is all too evident that this kind of independent class consciousness is not shared by all workers all the time. In “normal” times, it may be limited to a quite small minority. In the UK, union membership peaked at over 13 million in 1979, but subsequently declined, and now stands at about 6.5 million. Furthermore, many who are union members have little active involvement in the life of their union. For example, in the recent election for general secretary of Unite, only 15 percent of members voted. However, class consciousness is never completely extinguished. If workers were completely under the spell of bourgeois ideology they would never join a union, go on strike or vote for the left. So one yardstick for whether some occupational group forms part of the working class or not is whether it takes part in the organisations and struggles of the class. Nurses, teachers and university lecturers would all have been regarded in the past as solidly middle class professions. However, when they engage in union activity, particularly when they act in solidarity with other workers, they are effectively part of the working class.

One much discussed question is whether there is an “underclass” consisting of people who have no expectation of finding a job, and perhaps no desire to do so, and whose normal and permanent mode of life is dependency on state benefits. Investigations by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found a small number of families in which two generations never had a job. They found no families with three such generations. (Unemployment across several generations is more common in the United States, especially among African-Americans). Far from living in contented idleness, those interviewed wanted paid work but were unable to get any, usually due to a complex set of social and personal problems. Much more common are people who go back and forth between temporary, insecure work and claiming benefits. The term from the BBC Class Survey, “precariat”, seems to be more accurate and also less pejorative. In Marxist terms, this group would be the poorest and least secure layer of the proletariat. The ideology of Cameron’s government sets up an opposition between “hardworking people” and long-term claimants. Benefit cuts are no longer presented as a painful but necessary response to a fiscal crisis. Instead, “welfare reform” is presented as a moral corrective for idleness and dependency. This is a policy of divide and rule, which sets the employed against the unemployed to the detriment of both.

It may be helpful to regard the groupings in the BBC survey as one way of describing sections of classes, rather than separate classes. Thus if we take the precariat, the traditional working class, the emergent service workers and the new affluent workers to correspond roughly with the working class, that would suggest about 63 percent of the population are working class.

As an example of how class composition is changing, let’s consider two somewhat contradictory developments in the British ruling class. One is the return to prominence of Old Etonians – former pupils of Eton College – within the political elite. These include David Cameron as prime minister and Boris Johnson as mayor of London. This is after a succession of Tory leaders who came from more middle class backgrounds: Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. This seems to be only a contingent development, but it has given rise to a sort of populist critique, which has right-wing and left-wing variants, that such leaders are privileged and therefore out of touch with wider society.

Perhaps a more significant shift is that many of the richest people in Britain today are of foreign origin: Russian oligarchs, Arab oil sheikhs, Indian industrialists etc. This tends to suggest that there is a global ruling class in process of formation, with Britain (especially London and the Home Counties) as a favoured place of residence.

Of all the classes, the middle class is the most difficult to define. In simple terms, it could be anyone who occupies an intermediate position between workers and capitalists. However, this applies to two groups who have different relations to the means of production and the labour process.

When Marx referred to the petit-bourgeoisie in the 19th Century, he had in mind mainly small shopkeepers and self-employed artisans. The self-employed and family businesses (such as bed and breakfast guest houses) remain a significant group in modern society. Some people may do very much the same kind of work either as self-employed or as employees of a big corporation, for example, as electricians or plumbers. Although there is no employer to cream off the surplus-value they produce, they face the uncertainty of finding customers for the goods and services they offer. If they have taken out a bank loan to start up a business, they need to make interest payments, which is another form of extraction of surplus-value. The self-employed do not necessarily earn more than employed workers, and their income is liable to be less secure and predictable. It is important, though not always easy, to distinguish between real and phoney self-employment. Many companies hire self-employed or contract staff, for the sake of flexibility. This can be a concealed form of employment, which avoids providing benefits like paid leave and sick pay, and legal protections like the minimum wage and maximum working hours. Workers who are made redundant may go self-employed, because it is preferable to unemployment, although they would prefer to be employed. Some 4.2 million people in Britain are registered as self-employed, and the number has risen since the start of the crisis.

Does self-employment make a person middle class/petit-bourgeois? I would say that it does, in general, subject to some qualifications. The self-employment must be genuine and not merely a disguise for insecure employment. It also needs to be the person’s normal and regular livelihood, rather than a temporary measure while seeking waged or salaried work. Especially in developing countries, many people are engaged in forms of self-employment such as shoe-shining that earn them less money (and are regarded as lower in status) than waged labour. Their “capital” may consist of a box with a few cloths, brushes and tins of polish. It seems more sensible to regard these people as workers-in-waiting.

A different group that is an important part of the middle class in modern capitalism are managers in businesses or government departments. This group has a different relation to capital from the self-employed. While top executives, especially in large corporations, form part of the ruling class, middle managers and supervisors occupy an intermediate position. Like the workers, they are employees of some organisation, but their work consists in directing and controlling the labour of others. However, they do this, not on their own behalf, but as agents of the employer. If you work for a large organisation, there are probably several layers of management between yourself and the chief executive. In my case, five. However, there are many workers who have the word “manager” in their job title, who do not regularly manage the work of others (and are therefore properly regarded as working class). On the railways, conductors are now called train managers, while administrators are often called office managers.

People in skilled professional jobs (as a software developer, I come into that category myself) are conventionally regarded as middle class. As vendors of complex (skilled) labour power, they may be highly paid, though (like other workers) they may face a lot of pressures to work at high intensity or for long hours. Some may aspire to become senior managers or owners of small businesses. On the other hand, they may take part in the organisations and struggles of the working class. By the criterion of relationship to the means of production and the labour process, they are an upper layer of the working class (comparable to the older “labour aristocracy” of skilled workers in industry). However (as Lenin often remarked) it is a mistake (and undialectical) to apply categories too rigidly to a complex, fluid, contradictory reality. People in this group occupy an intermediate position and may align with the middle class or the working class depending on circumstances.

This article has focused on Britain, but it is important to take a global view. Many countries in what used to be known as the Third World are going through a process of rapid industrial development. There has been a massive movement of population from the countryside into the cities: for the first time in world history, the majority of human beings live in towns and cities. Millions have made the transition from life as peasants to life as industrial or service workers. So we are witnessing the formation (or re-formation) of a global working class. This development must have tremendous significance for the future.

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2 Comments

  1. Eng Shik Yee

    Could you explain more about the seven social classes?
    Like what affluent workers are or what precariat is.
    Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Richard Abernethy

    The Great British Class Survey of 2013 grouped the population into seven classes, based on several factors including education, culture and social contacts as well as income and wealth.

    These “classes” are the Elite, the Established Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Traditional Working Class, Emergent Service Workers and Precariat.

    For descriptions of each of these categories, I would refer you to the Wikipedia article:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_British_Class_Survey

    The term “precariat” was already widely used before this survey. A combination of “precarious” and “proletariat”, it was invented by French sociologists in the 1980s. It refers to workers whose lives are precarious or insecure. There is a related word, “precarity”, that denotes this type of life. Precarity may involve low or uncertain earnings (especially the notorious zero hours contracts), lack of secure housing tenure, lack of savings or insurance, reliance on borrowing (especially pay day loans at high interest) or recourse to food banks. Precarity has always existed under capitalism, but it has resurged in recent decades and especially in the Great Recession since 2008.

    While I think there are insights to be drawn from the Great British Class Survey I do not agree with its seven-class schema. I take a Marxist view in which there is a basic class divide between the proletariat (workers) and the bourgeoisie (capitalists, bosses), while arguing that the composition and identity of classes is fluid and dynamic, and theory needs to be so too.
    I incline to the view that the “middle class” is actually two (or perhaps more) intermediate classes (the middle managers and the self-employed).

    Reply

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