A Question of Class: How workers can change the world

Written by LINDSEY GERMAN

We are told by the media and politicians that the concept of class is no longer relevant. Lindsey German argues that we cannot understand the current crisis without it.

Chinese Foxcon workers

Class is one of the most misunderstood terms today. It’s not surprising when our lives are defined by consumption and when even millionaire Tories drop their received pronunciation to sound at least a bit like the rest of us. In the US it seems widely accepted that the working class has disappeared—most people are ‘middle class’ and that under them is an ‘underclass’. While there is still much more talk of the working class in Britain the analysis of class is based on sociological approaches, not those of Marx. But class isn’t fundamentally about where you eat, what you wear or how you speak.

Class is a social relationship. It is defined by one’s relations to the means of production. Marx’s claim that there were two major contending classes, the exploiters and the exploited or bourgeoisie and proletariat, remains as true as ever. Those groups or classes in between increasingly define themselves in relation to one or the other of these major classes. People become conscious of their class position through the process of experience and struggle. 

I wrote the short book A Question of Class in 1996. The article below was the final section of it. It remains current: class struggle in Britain is still low, and this makes it easier to present the argument about class as passive and unrelated to workers fighting back. This is beginning to change, and I hope that in the coming months we will see more groups of workers attempting to make their mark on history. In the process, new class consciousness will develop, and those who didn’t think of themselves as workers with a collective identity will change their ideas.

This article aims to be a contribution to that, and to the building of an organisation committed to furthering working class struggle.


A class for itself

Perhaps the greatest difficulty in discussing class comes when we try to make the link between what constitutes a class objectively and how that class develops revolutionary ideas and becomes capable of making a revolution. The leap that this necessitates between the working class as it is and what it has to become in order to make such a revolution is so immense that it seems impossible to bridge. Workers are atomised and divided. Each worker lives within his or her family, separated off from wider society for much of the time. Workers are divided along lines of race, sex, nation, between manual and white collar work. They are split between different workplaces, varying immensely in terms of size, work process and organisation. Politically, although Labour is the dominant party among workers, significant numbers of both white collar and manual workers vote Tory. And there are millions of people in Britain today whose consciousness of their class position does not correspond to their actual position.

How do workers begin to cut through these confusions and so come together as a class? After all, if the working class is so big and so powerful, how is it that we seem as far away from a socialist society as ever? And if the working class is so revolutionary then why does it not make a revolution?

Workers’ position in capitalist society

Throughout the previous chapters we have talked about the major differences between the classes in terms of income, attitudes and expectations. These inequalities are a direct result of workers’ relationship to the means of production—the fact that they are exploited. But this economic relationship pervades the whole of their lives. It means that the ideas which confront workers—ideas which they receive through the education system, through the media, through the general ‘common sense’ which dominates society—basically accept the status quo. It is assumed that our rulers have the right to rule, that nothing can be achieved except through gradual change, that everyone is equal before the law. In one of their most famous passages Marx and Engels wrote:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production.[1]

Not only do the employers own the factories and offices, they also ensure to the best of their abilities that their ideas remain the ruling ideas. The whole structure of society—the education system, the family, the state machine, the media—is designed so that these ideas are transmitted as though they were the most natural thing in the world. So we are constantly faced with beliefs which defend the right of our rulers to rule. We are told that bosses deserve their incomes and lifestyles because they take risks and work harder, that we all have a ‘national interest’ which binds us together, that any attempt to fundamentally change society has been doomed to failure.

Capitalist exploitation also creates the alienation of workers. Workers produce the wealth in society, but are cut off from the products of their labour. These products appear as estranged from any control that workers might have over them. Workers feel a sense of powerlessness not just at work but in every aspect of their lives.

For the proletarians… the condition of their existence, labour, and with it all the conditions of existence modern society, have become something accidental, something over which they, as separate individuals, have no control, and over which no social organisation can give them control.[2]

In addition, the things which workers produce confront them as commodities, goods to be bought and sold in the market. Commodities are a product of social relations—of the exploitation of workers—but appear as objects which determine social relations. They seem to workers as something detached from their work and their life, which can only be obtained by resort to the market. Everything has a price including both what they produce and their own labour power.

It is no wonder that workers, deprived of the means of production and separated from the products of their labour, see work not as the most meaningful part of life but as a sacrifice of their life. The idyllic properties invested in the idea of retirement from work, or even the arrival of the weekend or Friday night, within popular mythology, demonstrate how much work is seen as an unpleasant reality which has to be got through in order to begin ‘living’. Yet the estrangement and lack of control that workers feel about the world around them ensure that leisure too is dominated by alienation—there is no escape from the market and from the world of commodities.

It is precisely this condition which leads workers to see themselves other than as workers. It is very common today for workers to be seen simply as consumers. Many argue that the collective identity nurtured by large factories, company towns or big working class estates, leisure time dominated by mass activities such as attending football matches or day trips to Blackpool, has disappeared. Now individuals go to work separately in cars, work in smaller units, live in Brookside-like housing developments and watch videos. They identify themselves not by class position but by what they spend, how they spend it and how they dress.

Increasingly since the 1950s, the labour market has ceased to be a primary source of identity. It has yielded its dominant position to the consumer market. People are, it is said, no longer what they do, but what they have, what they own. Perhaps this is why, when we look at a crowd of people, it no longer makes sense to ask whether they are working class or middle class. All we see is a collection of individuals going about their chosen business, freed from the limitations that bound earlier generations to their place in society.[3]

There are of course very important partial truths in such statements. The attitude of most individuals is to define themselves in terms of their personal relationships, their hobbies and other such factors. This is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Throughout the 20th century, working class cultural habits, fashion and holidays have all played a significant part in workers’ lives.

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