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July/August 2001 • Vol 1, No. 3 •

The Class Struggle: Is It Real?

Written by Socialist Party of Canada
Adapted for US readers by David Zink

You probably believe that in American society there are no classes. Of course there are the poor and the rich; but certainly no classes. And, even if there were classes, we’re all in the broad middle class anyway, so this class struggle business has nothing to do with you anyway, right?


Let’s examine the socialist claim to the existence and relevance of classes in America. First of all, what is a class? Several dictionary definitions help set up a base from which we can work:

A group having something in common; a category;

A grouping based on social or economic status;

A rating according to quality, rank, etc.

While any of these three definitions could be used as a starting point, let’s go with the second one. If we are then to claim that there are different classes in American society, we must show that there is a reasonable way to group people into classes based upon social or economic status.

We take the stand that the relationship of people to the means of production is what determines their class, and that this relationship is one of social and economic status.

What we mean by a person’s relationship to the means of production is whether the person owns the land, factories, or businesses (and therefore the means by which production can take place) or works for those who do own them. If you own the means of production, you are part of the capitalist class. But if you are dependent on a wage or salary (or upon welfare or unemployment compensation), you’re in the working class.

Is this definition reasonable? First of all, it isn’t new: Adam Smith used it in 1776 in his book “The Wealth of Nations,” and it has been in common usage ever since. The rich seem to have no objection to being called capitalists. Those of us who are dependent on a wage or salary know who we are. In other words, this definition has achieved common usage, and it is workable—members of the classes can be identified, at least theoretically.

Big deal—so what if there are classes?

Even if there are classes, what difference does it make? So what if you’re working class? You do your job, get your pay, tend to your own affairs, and try to enjoy your life. Well, if everything were always rosy, perhaps it wouldn’t make any difference, but consider, for a moment, what this class division really means.

We live in a capitalist world. In every country, wealth—in the form of commodities such as lumber milled, widgets manufactured, services rendered, or whatever—is produced for sale at a profit. That profit is derived from your unpaid labor. In other words, if your wages are $300 per week, then you must create more than $300 of wealth—in one form or another—for your employer every week. It would not make any economic sense for your boss to keep you on the payroll very long unless you consistently created more value than you received in wages. For every, say, $5 you produce for him or her, the boss kindly gives you back $2. That $2 is taken out of the wealth that you yourself produce. The boss pockets the other $3, to use as he sees fit. Your wage, then, is the payment that your employer gives you for the commodity that you sell him: your labor power. And, you do not own any of what you have produced in this relationship. You may be able to buy back some of what you produced, but until then it is owned by the capitalist(s) for whom you work.

Just as important is the fact that your wage is not even directly related to the wealth that you produce. It is related to how much a worker with your experience, abilities, etc., costs on the job market and how much it would cost to eliminate your job with a machine. You’ve heard about the law of supply and demand—if there is a large supply of workers, and small demand for their labor, you can be sure that wages will be low. Or, if the work you do is in great demand and there are few who possess your skills, then your wages will be relatively high. But this good or bad fortune on your part does not change your class status.

But what if you work for the State, County, or Municipal government, and not in the private sector? Look at it like this: the function of government in a class society is to administer the state for, and in the interests of, the ruling class. You are still a wageworker, subject to the same rules, demands, and alienation as our brothers and sisters working in the private sector. You still depend upon your wage or salary, and, as many yuppies have discovered during this round of recession, and “downsizing,” and lay-offs, high-salary jobs can disappear just as quickly as low-wage jobs. No job is guaranteed to be forever, and nobody has any leverage power on their employer for very long.

A minor digression on unemployment

Corporations attempt to maximize their profits. No big surprise here! To do this they generally want to produce as much as possible while keeping costs, including labor costs, as low as possible. They must, or they wouldn’t survive in this system for long. Since wages are, in part, determined by the number of workers available, having a pool of unemployed workers is desirable to the employers in order to help keep wages low. By throwing the workers of poverty-stricken Third World countries into this pool, “free-trade” agreements like NAFTA and the WTO are a strong force keeping wages, as well as environmental health standards, low.

Another digression: On quality

Another way to keep costs down is to produce poor-quality goods. The supporters of free-market capitalism tell us that the marketplace will weed out the poor-quality items and manufacturers will be forced to produce nothing but the best. The fault with this claim is that most people have to consider not only the quality of the merchandise they want, but also its cost. Most of us find too much month left at the end of the paycheck. There is a strong incentive to buy lower-cost items, which frequently tend to be of poorer quality.

Also included in the price of goods is the cost of environmental quality. It’s much cheaper for business to pollute than to protect environmental quality. So they do pollute. They pay the fine, they even get government permits to pollute. What incentive has business to be environmentally clean? Recent advertising by business about their environmental concern is no more than Public Relations. The green movement has not yet changed the overall reality of environmental degradation under capitalism.

Back to class

Thinking straight about class is important because the capitalist class and the working class have different interests. The capitalist class is very class-conscious, and benefits from low wages and from unemployment. How many workers want low wages or hope to lose their jobs?

The capitalist class can live on luxury estates in areas of low pollution if they wish. The working class must either live in the communities, or within commuting distance from where the jobs are, and generally spend at least 40 hours a week in that environment. The capitalist class need not worry about poor quality goods: They can afford the best. When a person is born, is the child of the rich more deserving than your child?

That’s just the way it is!

Correct! Society has evolved such that a small group of people, by virtue of either acquiring vast fortunes by exploiting the working class, or being heirs to those who have, rule society in their own interests. The bottom line in their decision-making is maximization of profit. While the faces of our senators, governors, and other politicians may change, the real power in our country remains in the hands of these elite. This numerically small, but very powerful class need not work for a living because the working class does the work for them. We run their system. We create the wealth. They reap the profits.

The capitalist class has not always existed and there is no reason that they should continue to exist. Capitalism is legalized robbery of the working class, and the working class has the ability to stop the robbery.

Don’t vote for any capitalist party!

Many workers have recognized that they are not getting their fair “piece of the pie” and therefore vote and work for candidates that claim to be on the side of workers. The Democrats have a reputation for being “the friends of labor.” But the Democrats don’t suggest that the capitalist system should be eliminated—instead, they pretend that somehow capitalism can be reformed in our interests. But history does not support this claim. When the Democrats get into power, things may marginally improve, but they must function within the rules of the system, since that is what they were elected to govern. Those rules are heavily weighted against the working class. As a result, Democratic administrations are not significantly different than those of Republicans. With very few exceptions, Democrats have not stood up to corporate power to defend our interests. Instead, they meekly seek compromise.

The problem is not that some governments dislike workers. The problem is that capitalism cannot function in the interest of the working class. It was never designed to. It’s time to dump this old, failing system into the trashcan of history and start building something better: economic democracy!





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