What is the working class?
This short essay emerged out of my attendance at the recent Working Class Studies Association conference held at Macalester College. The conference had many excellent contributions, fantastic participants, and was educational and exciting for me. However, as one participant put it, many of the attendees seemed to suffer from a serious case of ‘ABC-itis’: A.nything B.ut C.lass -itis. That is, they largely eschewed clear discussions of class, often explicitly denying that it was either possible or useful to define the term which identifies their organization. To my particular horror, one of the presentations even proposed a method by which it is possible to ‘build inter-class alliances.’ Why did this horrify me? Because I firmly believe that (a) class exists, (b) it is crucial to an understanding of the world in which we live, and (c) that it is impossible to build inter-class alliances. As a member of the IWW, I agree wholeheartedly with the first clause from our constitution’s famous preamble:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.
So what then, of the term ‘working class?’ This piece is an early attempt on my part to deal with this term. I will attempt to clearly define working class, and to place it in relationship to other related terms. More importantly, I will attempt to define class in such a way that it is not naturalized (reified, a fancy word which merely means ‘turned into a thing,’ or ‘thingified.’) Class is more the result of a process than a thing that has always existed. That process, I argue, is the process of capitalism. Another aspect of this piece is my attempt to innovate on traditional oppositional definitions of class in order to indicate the possible alliances that can exist between the working class and other class – though not with the employing class. There are other classes out there – peasants, indigenous groups, etc. The working class can ally with them, though we are different from them. This part of the essay is part of my long-term engagement with the often opposed trends of anarcho-syndicalism and anarcho-primitivism. I am an anarcho-syndicalist. However, I share a deep sympathy with many of the better thinkers and organizers from the primitivist tendencies, though I prefer to locate myself more in the ‘indigenist‘ camp.
Defining the ‘working class’ is a difficult issue, but an important one. In America, working class people tend not to identify as such, to the point that it is possible for people to say that “the American working class has disappeared.” Of course it hasn’t, but the social reality is indeed that the vast majority of working class Americans identify not as working class, but as ‘middle class.’ Because of this representational issue, ‘working class’ is not an important political term in American political life, and defining the working class is relatively unimportant to American political trends at the moment.
In those small pockets where people are still concerned with the working class – labor unions, anarchist and communist organizations, and academic departments and organizations which study the working class – the term is used in a wide variety of ways. American labor has been a relatively tame beast for years, despite the excellent and radical work of many of its rank and file members. Many American unions don’t even talk about the working class, and very few of them possess anything resembling a class-based analysis. Marxist and anarchist groups do a better job on this, and much of the following will be drawn from these traditions. However, these traditions also tend to fragment themselves over rather arcane doctrinal issues. American exceptionalist history has infected even these groups (especially younger anarchists), to the point that it is not at all uncommon to hear a self-described anarchist to claim that she or he does not ‘come from a class-based analysis,’ or is ‘uninterested in class warfare.’
Working Class Studies academics are themselves occasionally drawn from the working class, but are also determined, thanks to their institutional location, the high percentage of bourgeois academics in the mix, and the need to create a sense of unity among people who do not operate with a clear class analysis, to ‘play nice with each other.’ This means that some generally excellent centers for Working Class Studies have actually gone so far as to disavow the usefulness or appropriateness of defining class. This is an absolutely unacceptable position. Class may be difficult to define, but without engaging the notion, how can such a thing as a coherent Working Class Studies Association even exist? So, let’s start with Karl Marx’s definition of class.
The working class as a product of capitalism
The working class according to Marx is the proletariat. As a class of people, the proletariat is opposed to the bourgeoisie, which is the capitalist class that owns the means of production. Although they are opposed to the bourgeoisie as a class, they are nevertheless forced to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to receive the wages by which they acquire those things which are necessary for their lives. Therefore, for Marx, the working class is the class of those people who (a) do not own the means of production, (b) are objectively (but not necessarily subjectively) in conflict with the capitalist or bourgeois class, and (c) must nevertheless subordinate themselves to the bourgeois in the context of wage labor. The bourgeois, in contrast, (a)own the means of production, (b) are objectively in conflict with both the working class and other members of the bourgeois class (capitalist competition), and are dependent for their continued position on the ability to hire wage labor.
It is crucial to understand that for Marx, class is not limited to the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. These classes do not exhaust the possibilities of class, but are the most important classes, the conflict of which determine the nature of social struggle and development. For Marx, capitalism is a new era in human history, and is driven by a different set of conflicts and tensions than in the past. Under capitalism, the dominant class conflict is no longer the conflict between Kings and their feudal vassals, or between peasants and their overlords, but between those who control the means by which our society reproduces itself and those who work for them. Peasants, like small shopkeepers, for instance, often own the means of production – their fields – but are in direct conflict with the emergent bourgeois class which needs their land, their labor, or both.
Therefore, an understanding of Marx’s definition of the working class involves a bit of Marxist history. How did the bourgeoisie and the working class come into being? The answer for both Marx and myself, is that the working class and the bourgeois class came into being as a result of the action of capitalism. For my purposes here, I will focus on two basic aspects of capitalism, which are commodification and State power. Though Marx’s history is considerably more complex, and I am innovating somewhat here in my emphasis, these two ideas convey the broad thrust of change in a way that resonates well with Marx without simply parroting his ideas. I also believe that this concentration helps us to understand class in the present better.
Commodification is the transformation of something into a commodity, a thing which can be easily exchanged as an item of value. Commodification involves both the physical and symbolic transformation of a thing. The prehistory of capitalism involves the commodification of land held to be communal, in a process Marx calls ‘primitive accumulation.’ Primitive accumulation is the appropriation of common lands and resources by a class of people who intend to benefit from their possession of these resources through private ownership of them. So, the commons and the forests, which belonged to no one and therefore could be used in common by all, became the private property of a few. And since those commons were the basis of people’s relative economic independence, those who previously depended on them were forced to seek other means of subsistence, which almost always meant selling their labor to the class which had commodified their land.
The history of Marxist academic thought is largely the history of why the working class did not or do not immediately rise up and rebel against those who have taken away their means of subsistence, their security, their dignity, and their time. The assumption that resistance that doesn’t lead to a world planned by Marxist academics is equivalent to a lack of resistance is both wrong and defeatist. The working class has constantly resisted, but it must be admitted that at every point, the capitalists have had access to greater organization and power, and we have not created the world in which we want to live.
In those cases where a group of people claiming to represent the working class have taken power, their vision has descended into another form of unfreedom. Capitalism, the economic system defined by the private and unequal ownership of the means of production, and the sale of time for wages, has not been destroyed in these new systems, but transformed into a more perfect form. Under these new regimes the ownership of the means of production rests exclusively in the hands of the State. While the State routinely claims to represent the interest of all its subjects, no state in history has been characterized by equal access to the power and processes of the State. In these regimes, such as the former USSR, the State replaced the capitalist class, but its relations with the working class remained largely unchanged.
It is State power that helps to explain the constant success of capitalist oppression, both in regimes like the USSR and in the USA. State power reinforces the claims of those who own the means of production, and has over time become both increasingly illegitimate in the eyes of its own subjects, a process that tends to force the State to show its true colors as the violent partner of the capitalist class. For the State is usually defined as the only entity capable of legitimately employing violence to get its way. With rare and unsustained exceptions, the State does not use its force on behalf of the working class. Instead, its violence is used to force miners back into the mines, indigenous people off of valuable agricultural or resource-bearing lands, protesters in the streets, and to enforce a reign of terror over the most rebellious and disenfranchised groups of our societies.
This latter relationship particularly defines societies like the United States, which built its Capitalism on the primitive accumulation of indigenous land via genocide, four hundred years of formal slavery of Africans (genocide again), and then continues on the basis of the formally free but economically oppressed working class. African Americans continue to suffer the terror of the State in rates of imprisonment, police murder, State-based drug-dealing, and the denial of basic services (such as police protection, health care, housing, and decent education).
But it is also the existence of the State that has introduced some of the most complicated questions about defining ‘class.’ These questions are based on a process which existed in both the former USSR and the contemporary USA, though in different ways. That is, standard definitions of class have had a difficult time accounting for the mobility of classes, and for the mobility of individuals across classes. Left-wing critics of the Soviet Union and authoritarian communism (most abundantly from a group commonly referred to as council communists ) accounted for the USSR by pointing out that the people in charge of the bureaucracies there were a new ruling class – the intelligentsia, managers, technocrats, etc. These people emerged from the working class and seized control of the State in order to control the machinery of capitalism.
A State run by this new ruling class was doomed to further inequality for two basic reasons: the new ruling class constituted, for their critics, an objective class separate from and in conflict with the working class, and could not assist in any project of destroying economic inequality. Second, despite the State’s claim to control the internal economy, economies are not capable of being completely subordinated to coordinator control, especially if they integrate with capitalist economic systems outside of the communist State’s borders.
In the USA, a capitalist country built on the twin genocides of Native Americans and African/African Americans, social mobility has called class into question. The rise of families from the working class into the bourgeoisie or the supposed American ‘middle class’ has lent credibility to the myth of American egalitarianism and the ability of workers to access economic security. The middle class is often defined as that class which has a degree of economic independence (that is, their day-to-day subsistence is not felt to be precarious). It is increasingly obvious that this security from precarity is unstable and an illusion, as more and more members of the supposed middle class are kicked out of their homes, laid off, and offered access to health care which does not care for their health.
Insofar as American workers have in fact achieved a measure of economic security and believe themselves to be members of the ‘middle class,’ they have received it as a gift of the State and of the Capitalists, in return for loyalty and assistance in terrorizing other workers. This is the basis, for instance, of the separate deal struck by ‘white’ workers with American capitalism, by which white workers are paid more and receive better positions in comparison to co-workers of color.
So the aspect of the American worker which gives rise to the illusion of a genuine middle class – their relative prosperity and economic security – is predicated in a measurable economic sense on the continued, planned poverty of the African American working class. But the prosperity of sectors of the American working class is not based solely on the continued oppression of people of color at home. Instead, it is based on a continued process of primitive accumulation abroad – theft from both other places and from the future.
How capitalism ties together different classes against the bourgeois
If the myth of the middle class is indeed a myth, then what about other classes such as peasants and lords, those that existed prior to industrial capitalism? Are they also merely mythical? Absolutely not. Neither are they limited to a historical phase. But they are not members to the dominant conflict which characterizes the Modern World System of capitalism. Peasants, for instance, continue to comprise an enormous proportion of the world’s population. For the most part, peasants have control over their land, though they may be in massive debt and only precariously hanging on to it. They also produce a large proportion of their own subsistence, though it is nearly impossible to produce all of it. Peasants therefore make up for their shortfalls by engaging in seasonal wage labor, becoming temporary or seasonal members of the working class, by commoning in the forests (for instance, for vegetables, firewood, game, etc.), or by exchange with other peasants. The destruction of the commons – primitive accumulation – continues to dispossess the peasants and transform them into members of the working class. The dominant form of primitive accumulation today takes place as environmental destruction, where forests are logged, waters dammed or poisoned, and land fertility destroyed through the methods of the so-called ‘Green Revolution.’ It is possible for the members of the working class and some of these other classes to make common cause, but they are not members of the same class.
Imperial economies, including the former USSR, the USA, China, Europe, and many other ‘world players,’ gather their profits from the despoliation of the commons abroad, and from an intensified practice of capitalism in places where the State is subject to less pressure from its subjects. So, for instance, in the foreign country with which I am most familiar, Cambodia, the most important sector after the economy is the garment and textile sector. This sector employs hundreds of thousands of young people, mostly women, at wages that no American would imagine legal, and yet these are often jobs that have been taken from American soil. The capitalists can pay lower wages in Cambodia (and even less in Vietnam and China), and so they set up factories in Cambodia to create their clothing. Simultaneously, capitalists are seizing Cambodia’s commons (as in every rainforested country) and destroying them, forcing more and more Cambodians to become wage workers – members of the working class.
A clearer example of the Labor theory of value is difficult to find, for these factories exist as something called Export Processing Zones. That is to say, the fabric that the working class sews into high-value brand clothing in these factories is shipped into Cambodia: therefore, the capitalists do not purchase their raw materials from Cambodian industry, and Cambodia loses out on the potential profits involved. Nor do the factories sell their materials in Cambodia. Instead, Cambodians take raw, relatively valueless fabric, and transform it into highly valuable clothing to be sold to consumers in the geographical areas central to the modern economic World System. What is it that transforms this fabric into valuable commodities, which are then exchanged to the benefit of the capitalists? It is labor, the labor of the working class. “Labor creates all wealth,” we repeat, but those who deny the reality and importance of class refuse to acknowledge the importance of this insight. If we create all wealth, then all the wealth that we do not retain is stolen from us.
Increasingly, capitalists are stealing from the future as well. For this is exactly what the massive, unrestrained use of fossil fuels amounts to. It has taken millions of years to produce the fossil fuels that have driven our energy intensive industrial era. There is no replacement for these fuels – no alternative form of energy, whether ‘green’ or nuclear, is capable of producing the quantity of energy that fossil fuels create. When we run out – and we are halfway done after barely two centuries – the industrial era is over. We could use the energy left to us to invest in a more sustainable and just future, but instead energy is commodified and sold at the whim of the grabby invisible hand of the market. Therefore we squander our most precious natural resources, and consume them in a way that intensifies inequality. Our children will have less energy than we do, not more, and our grandchildren will live in a hotter, less hospitable world.
The action of wild capitalism has brought the bourgeois class into direct conflict with almost every other group on the planet – peasants, indigenous groups, and workers, among others. The environment catastrophe that capitalism has fomented for the entire planet is the direct result not of individual greed and shortsightedness, but of the greed and shortsightedness of the bourgeois class as a class.
Representation and narcissism
Before I conclude, however, I must address another and differing notion of class that has gained a great deal of traction, especially among students of (not necessarily ‘from’) the working class. That is the idea of class in a more Weberian sense, where class is a thing that perdures over time (as indeed it does) and which develops ‘cultures’ of its own. These cultures are not determined solely by economic position, and therefore class, according to this analysis, cannot be limited to the position held by individuals. This makes perfect sense, of course. How are we, for instance, to identify the class position of a person like this: his father comes from a long line of wealthy professionals – not bourgeois in the classic sense since they don’t own any means of production. His mother comes from a working class background. He himself grew up in the wealth his father was accustomed to, but now lives in poverty, clearly a member of the working class. But his father’s wealth offered him a bourgeois education, access to social capital, and identification with the values of merit-based advancement and personal achievement. Is he working class? Is he a member of the bourgeoisie? The answer is that it depends.
It depends on whether you feel that it is more important to understand this individual, or more important to understand the forces that created this individual. If the former, then attention to the powerful social forces of capitalism and their complicated etiology in the individual is what you want, and you may find the attitude of this essay profoundly annoying. I neither deny nor underestimate the importance of such investigations. What I do deny, however, is that such an analysis is sufficient to any understanding of class.
The apparent compulsion of members of the bourgeois class (or even worse, people from the working class who believe themselves to be members of the bourgeoisie) to self-identify as middle class or upper class even while they claim to support worker’s struggles is difficult to swallow. Capitalism is a system of impersonal oppression, which operates by forcing most people to sell their lives for wages, and enriches the employers as a result. You can’t straddle that fence. As an individual, regardless of your background, you cannot be both. To be a member of the employing class and claim to support worker’s struggles is an act of self-deluded narcissism.
People who grow up with class privileges cannot magically wish those away. It becomes tiring to watch newly-energized activists with bourgeois backgrounds adopt faux working-class accents, or hide their pasts. The shame that these people feel over their backgrounds comes from the adoption of the Weberian notion of class. They feel that in order to support workers’ struggles, they must hide their class background. Others acknowledge their backgrounds, but refuse to disavow them, instead suggesting some sort of inter-class alliance, where employers and workers work together to…what?….destroy employers as a class?
A comparison can be made with white people who want to destroy racism. It is insufficient to merely deplore the racism of white against black (e.g.). Instead, whites must acknowledge the privileges that accrue to them by virtue of their skin tone, and work to undermine them. This view of ‘race treason’ is best accompanied by a realization that betraying one’s privileged race does not automatically confer enlightenment and higher reason – that is to say, race traitors should not consider themselves newly privileged members of some sort of vanguard class. Similarly, class traitors cannot be vanguardists. A vanguardist class traitor is a person who claims to be opposed to class oppression but retains and refashions the class privileges of their past.
I do not deny that representational issues are complicated and important. But when we define class, we should have a clear notion in mind of how we are approaching it. Are we attempting to understand the world, or to change it? If the latter, we should attempt to disengage the representational issues of class from our understanding of how capitalism attempts to determine who we are, and for what we can fight.
This is the notion of class that we should work with: those who work for wages and do not control the means of production are the Working Class. Those who either do not need to work for wages or who control the means of production are the Employing Class, or the bourgeoisie. But what then of the much-vaunted Middle Class of the American capitalists, or the Coordinator Class of council communist criticisms of the USSR? In my opinion, these people are Working Class if they work for their wages and do not employ others, and members of the Employing Class if they control the means of production and the access of others to these means. That is, if you have the capacity to hire someone, set their wages, and fire them, regardless of your own employment situation (maybe you are both an employer and an employee), you are a member of the Employing Class.
But what then, about “Class Culture,” the object of more academic study than Class itself? What about things like “Working Class culture?” It seems as if such notions rely on an overly restricted notion of culture, one given to the working class by the ruling class. Culture is not merely the things we create. Certainly the songs we sing, the dances we dance, the books we write, and the organizations we join are part of our culture. But culture is also the things we do, and specifically the things we do collectively. Culture must include the struggles we engage in collectively, our organizing styles, and our practices. These things, which have a chance at actually changing the balance of power in which capitalism is maintained and reproduced, are part of culture. Class struggle is more adequately ‘cultural’ because of its collective nature than the writing of any book could possibly be.
The study of the working class should not resemble the relationship of capitalists to the working class. Academics should not pilfer and raid the expressions of working class culture to advance our careers, without also studying and engaging in the study of organization, action, and education – those things that might actual further the desires of the working class.
There can be no cooperation between the working class and the employing class. We have, as the preamble to the constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World points out, “nothing in common.” There can be only conflict and struggle between us. The capitalists struggle with us by creating new systems and practices intended to wring more labor out of us for fewer wages, and then sell the commodities we create back to us, should we still be able to afford it. As always, the question becomes “which side are you on?” Those raised by their parents to be proudly ‘middle class,’ neither poor nor rich, may find it difficult to acknowledge that they are in fact either members of the employing class or the working class. Those who already understand their class position may feel that it is their job to ‘betray’ their class, and to ‘lead’ the working class. But if we can move beyond a narcissistic identification with class background (regardless of what that background is) and ground our actions – including our academic work in conferences – in the analytical stance I have suggested, I hope we stand a better chance of actually destroying class oppression, rather than merely valorizing some of its cultural expressions.