Who is the working class? A thread on Marxism and class theory.
In the wake of the election, accusations are going back and forth about which party is focused on the working class and which party is ignoring the working class.
These debates are unfolding as though everyone has the same definition of the working class, when that is far from the case.
To define the working class requires a theory of class. Now, the word ‘class’ means nothing more than ‘category’, so a class analysis of society involves creating categories. But the question is, on what basis?
People thinking about society have used some form of class analysis for a long time, and one of the oldest of these is to create classes based on income or wealth. (For example, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, written in 350 BCE)
The simplest would be to divide society into the rich and the poor. A modern version of this kind of simplified class analysis is seen in the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement that it sparked in the aftermath of the Great Recession (fall of 2011),
with its emphasis on the 99% vs. the 1%. The benefits of this class analysis are many: it’s clear, it’s easy to understand, and it brings attention to just how small the rich are as a group, and how unjust it is that the interests of this tiny elite should be running society.
However, if we use this kind of class analysis to understand the election, it quickly becomes unsatisfactory. The 1% represent only a small proportion of votes, after all. Elections, we are told, are decided by the 99%, and particularly, by the working class.
Then we have the issue that within this 99% there are many differences. Do those toward the top of the 99% really have the same interests as those in the middle or the bottom of this group?
A slightly more sophisticated class analysis would acknowledge that there are meaningful differences within these groups, perhaps forming five equal sized percentiles, each representing 20%: the poor, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle class, and the rich.
This form of class analysis is common in the social sciences, and is even represented in the official statistics of the US government. Here is an example: bls.gov/cex/2017/combi….
I have taken a portion of this to highlight just how poor the lowest 20% of income really is. (Keep in mind that these are averages, which obscures just how rich the top 1% is) Image
A related, but conceptually distinct way of forming classes is to use wealth rather than income.
Another form of class analysis uses power rather than wealth or income, from which we get the phrase ‘the ruling class’.
Yet another form of class analysis focuses on education and professional training, from which we get terms such as ‘blue collar’ and ‘white collar’, or newer terms like ‘knowledge worker’ or ‘professional managerial class’.
(Let me admit here that many of these forms of class analysis overlap -- income correlates well, though not perfectly, with wealth, education, and power)
Marx adds something new to the long-established wealth of discourse on class. Marx’s contribution is to define class in terms of a relationship, a process rather than a static category. The relationship is to the surplus labor produced at a particular site of production.
Did you directly perform both the labor necessary to sustain the producer, and a surplus beyond that? Were you the appropriator of the output? Did you receive a portion of the surplus labor after it was appropriated?
What are the social, cultural, economic, and other processes that shape and constitute the production and appropriation of surplus value, that allow us to differentiate between different modes of production such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism,
independent commodity production, and communism? When we use this form of class analysis, we are forced to reckon with the sheer complexity of the class structure, and its many contradictions. We find that many people participate in multiple class processes.
The notion of class becomes de-centered and contradictory.
I have contributed to this literature, arguing that prison labor is a form of slavery, and showing in detail why it is not capitalism, and what the differences are between these two class processes. amazon.com/Prison-Labor-U…
(Comrades, if you are interested in reading the book, please let me know -- the publisher charges way too much for it -- DM me and I'll hook you up.) Otherwise, check out this summary on my channel:
There is a place for simple umbrella terms like ‘working class’ or ‘proletariat’, terms which are not unique to Marxism, but convey a far easier to understand situation: is your standard of living, made possible by you selling your labor power?
Do you have the option to not sell your labor power and still maintain a decent life?
There’s also a place for terms like ‘capitalist’ or ‘employer’, which Marxism clearly judges as immoral due to their position as appropriators of surplus they did not produce.
Marxism does not condemn inequality per se -- that's left-liberalism; the condemnation from Marxism is not that some have more, it is that they owe their fortunes to a form of socialized theft, the taking of another’s surplus.
There is a place for terms like ‘the bourgeoisie’, which includes not just the capitalists, but all those who work to defend and uphold the system, particularly the writers, journalists, tv personalities, etc., in the media. Though these are workers, they identify with capital.
While I am broadly supportive of class analysis, recognizing that Marxists may tailor their message (and the level of sophistication of the analysis) to their audience at that time, there’s a question I always ask of class analysis:
does it seem to be dividing the proletariat in a way that strikes me as unhelpful? Is the analysis lazy? Are the categories racialized in a way that seems to be white supremacist?
And this is what bothers me about many on the right who stumble across class analysis, ignoring the many nuances and complexities within the literature, and peddle a vision of the working class as a caricature, a white man, with a heavy local accent, who works with his hands.
The fact that this caricature is stunningly inaccurate as a description of the working class is secondary; in my view, this depiction is meant to divide, and hence it has no place within Marxist class analysis.
I also have a lecture on class analysis that provides more detail

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Smart political campaigns run on values, not facts or logic. Values create an emotional connection. Trump expertly targets the values of much of rural America: full-throated patriotism, pro-military, pro-patriarchy, pro-Christianity, pro-good old boys... the 'traditional values'
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(I guess in my sadness I'm putting on my official pundit voice. I had hoped for better)
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