What is the Working Class and why it matters

Class is often poorly understood even by those who claim to make it central to their politics; Simon Hannah explores what class means for those seeking a socialist alternative to capitalism, its relationship to organisation and oppression, and why we need clarity on this critical subject.


Where do we fit in this great society of ours? While some want to see the world as only divided into nations, or ethnicities, socialists see society primarily through the prism of class. This is not to ignore questions of race, gender or so on, but when we think about how to end capitalism, the issue of class becomes paramount.

Where do we start? We are all humans, we all have to eat, take shelter and so on. How we provide for ourselves and each other is predicated on what kind of society we live in and how we have decided to organise the distribution of our resources.

Marx built a theory based on how societies had organised themselves and how they had changed over time. There have always been a ruling class and a working class but their relationship to each other changes. Some societies were based on the a ruling class of slave owners and a working class of slaves. Others on feudal lords and peasants. There might be smaller tribes based on a hierarchy of a chief and a warrior caste and the rest were farmers or under gatherers.

What about today? The industrial revolution in western Europe ushered in a new kind of society, one with a small capitalist class that owned the factories and a large working class that owned very little and had to sell their labour in order to live.

In classical (and Marxist) economics there are three broad categories of people in a modern society:

  1. Capitalists who make money from profit.
  2. Workers who make money from wages.
  3. Landlords who make money from rent.

That is pretty clear so far. Most people can probably think which category they fall into even on these simplistic terms.

But people today often say that class is far more complicated than it was back in the 1860s. There is some truth to this, though the fundamentals remain the same. One of the additional factors to consider is the complex nature of corporations and businesses today. For instance some people earn wages but are very senior managers and executive directors of companies. Are they ‘workers’? Well on one level, yes, but that isn’t very helpful as you can’t really build a workers movement out of CEOs of multinational firms.

So we need to add another level to the argument. Alongside how you earn a living is your place in the social order, that is, your proximity to the power of capital. This is the difference between people who can build working class movements and achieve a state of socialist awareness and those that cannot.

Capital is a merciless monster that demands your time, energy and even your life to generate profit. It is all the wealth that is invested in making more wealth. It is money that demands more money. It is the whip across your back at work. Your manager screaming at you for being 10 minutes late because you dared to waste crucial time in which you could have been making profit for your bosses. It is all the back aches and headaches and anxiety you get at work because you labour in structures designed to efficiently control your time to squeeze as much labour power out of you as possible.

In a large company the higher up the management chain you are, the closer you are to the strategic interests of capital. The higher up you get the more you are paid because you are required to exercise your judgement and utilise your powers in the interests of the capitalists. So your relationship to power is a crucial dimension to this. To be crude, a cleaner and a CEO might work for the same company but the cleaner has no workplace power. Unless they join a trade union of course.

The capitalist class is composed of people who own assets, stocks and shares, who own a company or invest large sums in various financial arrangements to make money. While some companies are run directly by their owners (Jeff Bezos and Amazon for instance), the ‘gentleman industrialist’ is less common that an investor who just has money to invest in Hedge Funds or other financial forms is a far more common form of capitalist. the capitalists often hire professionals to make the strategic business decisions for them so they can sit back and watch their profits roll in. These people come from the middle classes or very rarely are a worker who has worked their way up to the top. This creates a workplace culture in which people can be promoted and in doing so they have to control their workmates all to ensure their position is secured and profit can keep flowing.

Discipline in the workforce to ensure compliance is imposed on a day-to-day basis by managers, foremen, and their allies in Human Resources. Workplaces are dictatorships (unless you work in a nice co-operative and even then sometimes…). The management instructions are law. Workers can be sacked for not ‘following a reasonable management instruction’. You are late for work, or talk back to your team leader or take too many sick days you lose your livelihood.

Anyone in a large workplace can see how your proximity to power changes your relationship to your work. Middle managers are rarely in trade unions, even though they often could be. They are both psychologically predisposed against their workforce because they have to impose rules and regulations on them on a daily basis but they are also intent on developing a ‘career’ which takes them away from the mass of exploited co-workers and (they hope) puts them much higher up the chain of command. As the old song goes ‘the working class can kiss my arse, now I’ve got the foreman’s job at last!’ How many of us have worked with senior managers who used to be trade union reps 20 years ago and now sit on the other side of the negotiating table?

Class then is not a box. It is not a blood type. At it certainly isn’t the ridiculous ABC1C2DE categories of the marketing companies that lazy journalists use to try and explain political trends. It is about your relationship to capital and power far more than it is about mere crude economic reductions. It doesn’t matter that a Labour MP says they had working class grandparents or they did a summer job once in a bank. That tells us nothing about their present day relationship power and capital.

Blue or white collar?

When Marx was writing he focussed on factory workers because mass factory production was a new phenomenon. In fact it was the shift from small scale cottage industries to large scale mass production that marked the emergence of capitalism. He believed that they had the best chance of creating socialism in a class war against their bosses. In short, they could take over their factories and run them themselves, without an exploitative business owner sucking profit out of their labour.

A lot of people feel that with the decline of industrial manufacturing Marxism is now redundant. This is wrong for the following reasons:

  1. The working class is international. Things still have to be made, only now they are made in China and Taiwan and less in Manchester.
  2. The working class is not reducible to factory workers and it never has been.

Briefly on the first point, the international nature of the working class is what requires an internationalist approach from socialists, nationalist divisions between workers are fostered by the bosses and the right to divide workers from each other. Making links with workers in China is of strategic importance to workers in the west, and we have to guard against right wing arguments about ‘foreigners stealing our jobs’.x

But to return to our main argument. To be a worker means to sell your labour power in exchange for wages. That can happen in a factory, in a call centre, on the back of a bicycle delivering food, it can happen working in a bar or a hairdressers.

Whilst the essence of capitalism is commodities the things that we buy it isn’t just the people that make them that count as workers. Take something as common as a smart phone. At each point in the economic chain from factory to your hand there are workers involved in the process. The minerals that make it are dug up in atrocious conditions in parts of Africa, assembled in China, dispatched around the world by transport workers and those working in logistics. If you get the phone and it breaks you call a number and (hopefully) get through to a call centre where a worker deals with your inquiry.

You are walking along on the pavement using your smart phone and you trip on a broken paving slab. Workers drive ambulances to get you, take you to hospital where there are receptionists, nurses, cleaners and doctors. You then contact the local council to deal with the uneven pavement, workers log your query, send a technical support officer or a surveyor down to take a look. And so on and so on. The point is that work is bring done all around us all the time. Workers are not just in factories.

But what makes someone working class?

It is meaningless to talk about class unless you are talking about class struggle.

Capitalism is built on the antagonistic relationship between workers and capitalists. On the surface it looks like people want the same things to make money and live their lives but because the capitalists make their money (profit) from the exploitation of workers, ultimately they have mutually different interests. This is why we have trade unions. They are basic organisations of defence for workers when their bosses come along and try and get them to work an extra hour a day, or reduce their pay because ‘times are tight’ or whatever nonsense they come up with to justify attacking terms and conditions.

A worker becomes part of the working class when they organise with other workers to fight their bosses and for their general interests as workers (against the government, for instance). Alone a worker is just an exploited human being, someone who is having profit extracted from their labour. You become working class when you organise to fight the capitalist class.

This is a crucial point to make. Workers are only powerful because the can combine together into collectives and their combined power (to strike, organise mass protests, etc) can beat capital in a fight. Under our present society the capitalists organise as a class (even though they also complete with each other) against their workers.

This is why a reading group can be as important as a trade union in forming class consciousness the political ideas of the movement are necessarily as important as organisation. When E P Thompson wrote his History of the English Working Class it wasn’t just a collection of statistics over what jobs people did, it was also a history of the socialist societies, the radical movements and revolutionary insurgencies of the newly emerged working class under capitalism.

A worker without organisation is just an atomised human being with no real power. Organisation of workers as workers is a movement, it has organisations and ideas and it fights in its own interests. This is the difference between simply being a worker and being part of the working class. A worker is simply a human who is being exploited for their labour, nothing more or less. But when that worker joins a trade union, begins to organise alongside fellow workers, when they develop a criticism not just of their particular situation but the conditions of all workers, when they develop a socialist consciousness, that is when they develop political agency, when a socialist perspective becomes possible.

This is why the capitalists, their politicians and media every day pump out propaganda designed to obscure and confuse, to spread the poison of nationalism and ‘patriotism’ to a country or a ruling class, to bind people to their rulers so they don’t instead organise to overthrow them.

The middle classes

Of course some people are middle class, or have middle class ‘lifestyles’ (in rubbish newspaper sociological studies they might go to the opera which makes you middle class because your class according to this utterly unscientific method is entirely based on what culture you like). In a rich imperialist country like Britain the middle class seem quite large, made up of people running their own businesses or who are senior managers, the rural well-to-do, consultants or professionals in some capacity.

However, in the great economic struggle against capital the middle classes have to pick a side. They cannot themselves overthrow capitalism, they are too atomised, they have little social weight (unlike the trade unions or compact working class communities). Because the middle classes are a varied strata of people (some are richer, some are quite poor but own their own businesses making meagre profits) they might hope to gain some individual power to wield influence but they will either be co-opted into the rule of capital or they will have to join the anti capitalist forces.

The middle classes usually provide the backbone of many political parties and movements, they provide the politicians to defend capital in parliament or they provide Labour MPs and their SPADS. The enraged middle classes can also form the basis of reactionary, fascistic forces Tommy Robinson owned a tanning salon, Nick Griffin was a privately educated son of a businessman. Nigel Farage was an investment banker and failed business owner.

Of course there are a lot of younger people who can fall back on the ‘bank of mummy and daddy’, the accumulated wealth from the post-war boom can provide a degree of financial stability to someones life and give them a leg up which other people don’t enjoy for instance a deposit on your first home. In this way some people who though their own wages wouldn’t have a chance of buying into a more middle class lifestyle can benefit from the labour of their parents over the years.

But it is a sign of how capitalism is declining that the standard of living that people born in the 1960/70s enjoyed is beyond the reach of their children today without wealth being passed down through the family. Housing is beyond reach, wages have barely kept up with inflation. 1 in 4 adults have no savings, that goes up to 50% of 20 something year olds. For many of those that do have savings, three months of unemployment would wipe out all their money and leave them on the street. Many of those people might consider themselves middle class, right up until the last penny in their account goes out.

It is not a surprise then that jobs previously considered solidly middle class have become proletarianised. Who would have thought that doctors would be striking through the BMA in 2015-6? Or civil servants and teachers would make up some of the strongest unions in the country? Far from the working class shrinking, it is growing as the infernal logic of capital relentlessly forces people into a subordinate and disciplined relationship to the dictates of the capitalist system. And internationally this tendency is even more developed countries that used to be majority peasant like China have seen their working class grow significantly since 1990. Urban workers now make up a huge and very powerful social force. It is this force that can change the world.

‘White’ working class

Socialists have spent decades trying to argue against the notion that the working class is all men with Yorkshire accents wearing cloth caps and walking whippets. But now there is a dangerous view spreading across the left. This is the view that the working class is ‘socially conservative and economically protectionist’. The view that only white male manual workers make up the working class or somehow make up a more authentic part of the class is profoundly wrong and reactionary.

Workers are also ethnic minorities, female and queer. Many of them live in cities not small towns. Many of them are young. Reducing working people to only one section of workers inevitably excludes the voices and outlook of the rest.

The reason why socialists don’t agree with phrases like the ‘white working class’ is two fold. Firstly because what matters is your position as a worker, what does being white have to do with it? Secondly because clearly black and Asian workers (and women workers, younger workers, obviously Queer workers, etc) are discriminated against, they suffer lower wages, work worse jobs and are more likely to get fired. That is why the left and trade unions have spent decades fighting for equality and anti racist politics, for the rights of women or LGBTQ rights. Because those groups were disadvantaged. When someone starts talking about the priorities of the white (male) workers it sends alarm bells it sounds like a section of the class that is seeing other workers that were previously below them on the food chain suddenly rising up to the same level and the scares people.

Of course we should not dismiss people’s fears out of hand, but this is where solidarity and class consciousness comes in every worker should have the same rights and no one should be discriminated against. People who previously enjoyed the benefits of being in a better off position should welcome the advances of their sisters, younger workers, BAME and LGBTQ colleagues. Otherwise you are faced with a previously privileged section of workers fighting to defend their privileges against other workers and that is how bosses divide and rule in the workplace, by paying off some people against the others.

Socialists have to defend the radical history of the working class from those people who want to declare that workers are all reactionary, racist bigots. Of course there are workers with backward views, but the best elements within the working class are the ones that fought against reactionary ideas, organised in solidarity with migrants or international struggles and fought their bosses despite calls on them to be ‘patriotic’ and tow the line.

In periods of low class struggle, many workers inevitably support right wing politics and ideas. It is during periods of fight back and resistance that ideas can rapidly change. Incidentally, this is why it is hard to get radical politics through the ballot box. In elections people are usually passive, they vote for someone to do something for them. Perhaps they hear what a political party’s position is through the new or a canvasser coming to their door. This is not conducive to radical education or action to a sense of empowerment as a worker instead of just being a voter.

The working class and socialism

This is a whole other topic that requires a whole other pamphlet, but to conclude on the relationship of the working class to socialism.

Socialism is a planned economy in which those involved in production, distribution and services have democratic control over decision making. It means the key large scale industries are run based on a democratically agreed plan and the rest of the economy is made up of workers co-operatives.

Instead of a system run by the capitalist class which is driven but exploitation and ruthless resource extraction, all organised through this god like thing called ‘the market’ which sees millions living in grinding poverty whilst a handful of people own the vast majority of the worlds wealth, socialism is a rational and sensible way of existing in harmony with each other and the planet.

This is why the working class matters, because from Beijing to Johannesburg, from Stuttgart to Caracas, the global economy relies on workers to function. They have the power to stop the economy with strikes, but more than that, they have the power to take over the economy, to run it according to the needs of the majority of people, not a parasitic minority.

But workers are not aware of their power, or instead of believing in their collective power they succumb to nationalism or racism or other ideas that only divide the movement. The danger is we live in a world where national divisions seem ‘normal’, it appears to us that we have always had rulers and always will. There will always be rich and poor. These ideas only create paralysis, they demoralise us from being able to organise and fight back. Instead people give money to charities that put a sticking plaster on the problem and keep voting for pro-capitalist politicians because they seem ‘sensible’. We have to break this cycle.

The working class is an optimistic class. When it is organised and mobilised and fighting it knows it holds the future in its hands. Yes there have been defeats but now as irreversible global warming begins to bear down on us we have no choice but to fight. The capitalist class has been in charge for 200 years, whilst human civilisation has developed to a point previously undreamt of in terms of culture and providing for people’s needs. But it cannot go on much longer, it is destroying the planet, destroying lives. It is time for the working class to build a world based on solidarity and hope.

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Simon Hannah is a socialist, a union activist, and the author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left, Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: the fight to stop the poll tax, and System Crash: an activist guide to making revolution.


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