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Working Class

Working Class




The capitalist class structure consists of two main classes: the capitalist class, owners of means of production, and the working class, owners of labor power. The relations between these classes are complementary and contradictory. Complementary, because capitalists need workers to produce the wealth they accumulate, and workers economic survival depends on capital investments: Lacking access to means of production, it is only through the sale of their labor power that workers and their families subsist. Their class interests are, however, inherently contradictory: It is in capitalists interest to lower production coststhat is, wages, pensions, health plans, and so onto increase profits and facilitate capital accumulation. It is in workers interest not only to attain good wages and benefits but, eventually, to overthrow capitalism and take over the means of production, thus ending their exploitation by the capitalist class: The working classes are bound to become the capitalists gravediggers (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998).


Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895) wrote in the nineteenth century, when class differences were stark and the large and growing working class was composed of manual, mostly male workers. Since then and up to World War II (19391945), workers lived close to the factories, in dense working-class communities. These conditions facilitated workers awareness of shared experiences and interests, and the formation of trade unions that enhanced workers economic and political power (Marx [1847] 1969, pp. 172173). The concentration of capital and emergence of large-scale industry resulted in the spacial concentration of workers, giving this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle (p. 173).

During the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries there were in the United States and Europe numerous instances of violent class struggles and widespread working-class mobilization and organizing under socialist, Communist, and anarchist banners: social and cultural identities were forged by the categories of class and strata; everyday life, aesthetic expressions, and cognitive mappings articulated with production relations (Aronowitz 1992, p. 23). In 1917 successful revolution in Russia seemed to confirm Marx and Engelss prediction about the revolutionary role of the working class.

After World War II, however, the worlds economic and political conditions changed, partly as a result of the cold war and anticapitalist struggles in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In the advanced capitalist countries, the working classes abandoned anticapitalist politics in exchange for steady employment and a good standard of living. Changes in the forces of production altered the economic and the occupational structures, decreasing the proportion of manual, blue-collar workers employed on farms and in the industrial, manufacturing sector. The proportion of workers employed in the service sector and in nonmanual, white-collar clerical, professional, and managerial jobs increased, thus giving rise to theories that conceptualized the top echelons of such jobs as a new class. Typical of such views is the professional managerial class (PMC) thesis put forth by John and Barbara Ehrenreich (1979). The PMC owes its existence to the expropriation of the skills and culture once indigenous to the working class (p. 2) and acts, with some degree of class awareness, in ways detrimental to the working class, leading to, for example, the reorganization of the productive process, the emergence of mass institutions of social control, and the commodity penetration of working class life (p. 18). Although professionals and managers may make decisions adversely affecting the working class, it remains open to debate whether such decisions reflect their own antiworking class intentions, or the objectives of the capitalist employers for whom they work. More important is the contention that the PMC is guilty of expropriating the workers skills and culture and that this expropriation constitutes a sufficient basis for considering them a social class. Historically, the development of capitalist industrialization has entailed the progressive deskilling of the working class and the emergence of a complex division of labor that includes deskilled masses of workers and layers of intermediate workers (foremen, managers, engineers, administrators, etc.), which embodied the power of capital and its ability to deskill and control the organization and pace of the labor process (see Braverman 1974 for a thorough analysis of these processes). The PMC is found not only in factories, of course, but also in all institutions where high-ranking salaried employees are the visible face of capitalist or of institutional power over rank-and-file workers. The view that the PMC is a class for itself, acting autonomously against the working class, overlooks the significance of its intermediate location, as employees who carry out the mandates of their bosses. The PMC can be viewed more appropriately as a strata within the propertyless class, occupying a contradictory class location between the capitalist class and the proletariatthat is, foremen, technocrats, bottom and top managers, and so onand between the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariatthat is, semiautonomous employees such as teachers, professors, scientists, and so on (Wright 1978, p. 84). In other words, the PMC occupies the top layers in the social stratification of the working population; it is not a class but a social strata within the working class, objectively defined as the class of relatively privileged propertyless workers whose power and economic resources depend on their continued employment. Loss of a job can reduce them to poverty or near poverty because, barring individual exceptions, the members of the PMC do not own capital and depend on their salaries for their economic survival (Gimenez 1978).

In the last twenty-five years the rise and widespread use of information technologies and the increasing mobility of capital resulting in deindustrialization, downsizing, and outsourcing have further changed the occupational composition of the working classes, as well as their conditions of employment: Stable, relatively well-paid blue-collar and white-collar employment is becoming scarce, while contingent and temporary employment is increasing among low-skilled and highly skilled professional workers. Long-standing racial, ethnic, and gender conflictswhich have excluded women and nonwhite workers from well-paid, stable jobs and led to disproportionate female and nonwhite povertyeventually in the last decades of the twentieth century spurred social movements for civil rights and equal opportunity for all. The politics of class, particularly in the United States, was replaced by identity politics.


The changing occupational composition of the working class, the decline in workers anticapitalist struggles and union membership, and the dominance of identity politics challenge the validity of the Marxist concept of the working class and its revolutionary potential. If narrowly defined as composed only of productive workers, that is, blue-collar workers producing surplus value (Poulantzas 1973, pp. 3031), it would seem the working class is dwindling away within advanced capitalist countries. Reducing the working class to only skilled, craft workers, André Gorz argues that organizational and technological changes that have practically abolished skilled work have rendered obsolete the working class as a class composed of knowledgeable workers capable of taking over control of the means and the process of production; we must, therefore, bid farewell to the working class (Gorz 1982, p 46). If broadly defined, in terms of political allegiances, the working class could include everyone mobilized in struggles against the state. Rosa Luxemburg (18711919), for example, celebrated the spontaneous rising of the laboring masses composed of factory workers, rural proletarians, policemen, military personnel, and bank employees (Luxemburg [1906] 2004, p. 180). Historian E. P. Thompson (19241993) offered a dialectical understanding of the working class. Emphasizing process and agency, and arguing that class is a historical phenomenon, not a structure or a category, he states that the working class was present at his own making (Thompson 1966, p. 9). It is in the midst of struggles, as people sharing similar experiences become aware of common interests and enemies, that the working class makes itself, that class happens (p. 9). Thompson acknowledges, however, that common experiences, the basis for the emergence of class consciousness, are determined by the productive relations into which men are bornor enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms (pp. 910). As culture (that is, institutions, value systems, beliefs, traditions, and so on) varies historically and cross-culturally, class consciousness, though it reflects an economically determined experience, is itself undetermined in its content; class struggles, it follows, can be fought under a variety of ideological legitimations.

Like Marx, who stressed the need to distinguish between changes at the level of production and the ideological ways in which individuals become conscious of those changes and engage in political struggles (Marx [1859] 1970, p. 21), Thompson differentiates between the determining role of productive relations and the contingent, cultural, or ideological forms that class consciousness might take. In Marx and Engelss Communist Manifesto (1848), however, class consciousnessthat is, workers awareness of their economic and political interests as a class that can succeed only by abolishing all classes, in the struggle to overthrow the economic and political power of the capitalist classseems to flow unproblematically from the experiences of the working class. Capitalists require, in their economic and political struggles, the support of the working class; capitalists educate the proletariat and supply it with the political and economic know-how to fight and defend its interests as a class (pp. 1819). Late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century capitalists, however, through the mass media and the democratization of consumption, seem to have established firm ideological control over workers consciousness, an unsurprising development because the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas (Marx and Engels [184546] 1947, p. 39). The lack of workingclass mobilization and revolutionary upheavals in advanced capitalist social formations, and the successes of globalized capitalism, have undermined, among some academics and most left-leaning activists, the traditional Marxist analysis of the working class as the only revolutionary class, the only class capable of challenging the rule of capital (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998, p. 20).

The working classes of the twenty-first century are far less class conscious (in the sense indicated in the Manifesto ) than they were a century ago. Recent social movements, the effects of racial, ethnic, and gender oppression and exclusion, have centered around inequality rather than exploitation. In their work, African American, Latino, and feminist scholars have examined the connections between class, gender, and race and have expanded the concept of working-class politics to include issues related to racial, ethnic, and gender oppression and discrimination (see, for example, Collins 1993; Davis 1981). In the United States the impact of these social movements on the social sciences and on politics was profound. It led to a bifurcation in political practice and in scholarship between those who give primacy to workingclass politics and class analysis, and those who prioritize identity politics and race, gender, and ethnicity as structures of inequality independent from social class, and as equally determinant of individuals life chances as social class. A new social science perspective emerged in the late 1980s: the race, gender, and class trilogy, popularized by a journal originally called Race, Sex & Class. This perspective is enshrined in countless articles, anthologies, and books (see, for example, Landry 2007). Within this perspective, the role of class, ostensibly given equal visibility, is often minimized, for class is often reduced to income, and/or to another identity.

Another effect of the bifurcation in politics and scholarship mentioned above is the rise of cultural politics and the rejection of class politics and scholarship as forms of economic determinism or class reductionism. The culturalization of politics can be traced in the new academic and political language: policies about diversity, multiculturalism, identity, inclusion of diverse (a euphemism for women and nonwhites) populations in educational institutions and the workplace, the value of multiculturalism and cultural diversity, and so on have replaced, to a large extent, earlier concerns with the economic, racial, and gender discrimination. This discourse obfuscates the class divisions within the diverse populations, and the working-class basis of many of the grievances (for example, low wages, segregated labor markets and employment, exclusion from opportunities for upward mobility and access to higher education, etc.) that fueled the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The grounds for the emergence of political solidarity across gender and racial/ethnic differences remain as overlooked, in the context of cultural politics, as the poverty, powerlessness, and economic insecurity of white male workers. This is why, in the absence of a discourse on class that could contribute to undermine racial and gender antagonisms, many Americans have displaced their resentments resulting from what Sennet and Cobb called the hidden injuries of class, to patriotism nationalism racism and sexism (Aronowitz 1992, p. 67).

The philosopher Charles Taylor explored the potential conflict between universalizing democratic politics, which equalize all citizens under the law, and the political affirmation of gender, racial, and ethnic differences as sources of dignity and claims for recognition, rather than second-class citizenship. A positive, rather than negative, public evaluation of difference is the objective of what Taylor calls the politics of recognition (Taylor 1992). The feminist philosopher Nancy Fraser offers a clear statement of these divisive issues:

Demands for recognition of difference fuel struggles of groups mobilized under the banners of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality group identity supplants class interest as the chief medium of political mobilization. Cultural domination supplants exploitation as the fundamental injustice. And cultural recognition displaces socioeconomic redistributions as the remedy for injustice and the goal of political struggle. (Fraser 1995, p. 64)

Arguing that justice requires both redistribution and recognition, Fraser identifies important problems inherent in the changes necessary to remedy these injustices, whether such remedies support or challenge the status quo. Measures that seek only to redistribute income to different groups require the preservation of group identities, thus provoking negative reactions from the excluded (for example, whites critique of reverse discrimination). Though those groups may strive toward the public affirmation of their identities worth and dignity, changes in the allocation of respect will remain superficial, because of the endemic struggles triggered by redistribution. But, transforming identities through deconstruction of the categories currently used to define difference would be just as problematic, for this would deprive groups of the identities that today mechanisms of redistribution and inclusion use to identify those who benefit from such policies (pp. 8691). Although preserving the cultural and economic status quo is inherently problematic, the scenario that best finesses the redistribution-recognition dilemma is socialism in the economy plus deconstruction in the culture, which to be psychologically and politically feasible requires that people be weaned from their attachments to current cultural constructions of their interests and identities (p. 91). In reality, these struggles are intertwined, as the feminist philosopher Iris Young argues in her critique of Frasers analysis: economic relations presuppose cultural understandings and cultural and political recognitions are a means toward economic and political justice (Young 1997, p. 148). But these struggles so far appear to be remarkably ineffective in mobilizing the U.S. working class as a class, despite its worsening economic situation. As long as workers tend to perceive themselves primarily in terms of group identities rather than common class locationa situation strengthened by the official political discourse, within which any mention of class and class interests is deemed undesirable, almost un-Americanperhaps only mass unemployment and household bankruptcies on a scale not seen since the Great Depression might create the material conditions for the emergence of working-class political leaders, simultaneously with the rise in workers receptiveness to their views.

Class struggles in Latin America, as in China and Vietnam, have included workers and peasants in political mobilizations under socialist and nationalist banners. For Chairman Mao Tse-tung (18931976), national struggles were class struggles; he set in opposition to the ruling classes the masses of enlightened workers, farmers, and intellectuals (Mao 1966, p. 10). Some scholars argue, however, that the proletarianization of the middle strata and peasantries has not happened, and that the working class has no privileged role to play. Anticapitalist struggles, in their view, encompass a variety of conflicts between capitalism and sectors of the population inside and outside the working class (for example, conflicts around war and peace, environmental pollution, land management, and so on) (Laclau and Mouffe 1987, pp. 103104).

Marxist social scientists, however, continue to study the working class and the changes in its size, racial, gender, and occupational composition, giving equal importance to individuals relationships to the means of production, skills and credentials, and location in the authority structure (Wright 1997, pp. 1726). Examining the transformation of the U.S. class structure between 1960 and 1990, Wright concludes that there has been a decline in the proportion of skilled workers (from 13.46% of the labor force in 1960 to 12.77% in 1990) and unskilled workers (from 44.59% to 41.38%). The working class as a whole, skilled and unskilled, declined from 58.05 percent to 54.15 percent (p. 99). In terms of race and gender, by a large margin, the American working class now predominantly consists of women and racial minorities (p. 69). Changes in the racial and gender composition of the working class contribute to the persistence of racial/ethnic and gender conflicts within the U.S. working class and the extent to which issues of racial, ethnic and gender oppression are the most salient and important aspect of workers consciousness in the United States.

The meaning of the decline in the size of the working class in the United States and other advanced capitalist countries remains an unresolved and unresolvable issue in Marxist theory. For some (for example, Gorz 1980; Laclau and Mouffe 1987) it signals a reversal of the proletarianization process and an end to the revolutionary role of the working class. Others, however, point out that the proletarianization process worldwide proceeds unabated, and that as the size of the working class declines in the wealthy countries, proletarianization is intensifying in the rest of the world (Arrighi 1990; Wright 1997, pp. 109110). Another issue subject to conflicting interpretations is the rise in the proportion of propertyless but expert, professional salaried workers, placed in contradictory locations within class relations (Wright 1997, p. 20). Is this an indicator of the future demise of the working class, the rise of a new class (for example, a professional managerial class, according to Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich 1979), or of the rise of a new working class? On the basis of the analysis of the effects of capitalist development upon the characteristics of the labor force that Marx presents in the Grundrisse (Marx [18571868] 1953), Nicolaus (1973) reaches this conclusion: The working class fated to lead the revolution is not the impoverished, unskilled, and pauperized working class but the educated, expert, credentialed working class that develops as capitalists develop the forces of production to such an extent that

the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor-time and on the quantity of labor expended, and more on the power of the instruments which are set in motion during labor-time, and whose powerful effectiveness itself is not related to the labor-time immediately expended in their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and the progress of technology. (Marx [18571868] 1953, cited in Nicolaus 1973, p. 328)

Marx depicts a time in which the development of the forces of production empowers workers, when

the cornerstone of production and wealth is neither the labor which man directly expends, nor the time he spends at work, but rather the appropriation of its own collective productive power. As soon as labor in its direct form has ceased to be the great wellspring of wealth, labor-time ceases and must cease to be its measure. (Marx [18571868] 1953 cited in Nicolaus 1973, p. 329)

Perhaps Nicolauss inferences are correct, for it is possible today to observe a bifurcation in the development of the working class: on the one hand, growth in the exploited, poor, and relatively powerless proletariat whose labor fuels the industrialization of Asian and Latin American countries while being the source, through migration, of cheap manual labor and services in the wealthy countries; and on the other hand, growth in the numbers of the well-fed proletarian, scientifically competent, to whom an eight hour day would presumably appear as a waste of time (Nicolaus 1973, p. 329). These are issues that can be resolved only by the outcome of current and future political struggles, not by theoretical fiat or the exegesis of scholarly texts.

SEE ALSO Bourgeoisie; Capitalism; Employment; Employment, White Collar; Lumpenproletariat; Proletariat; Underemployment; Unemployment


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working class

working class. The 18th cent. often talked of the poor, labourers, and artisans as part of its language of ranks and orders. Somewhere in the early years of the 19th cent. such groups were identified by contemporaries and later historians as a working class, or more frequently ‘the working classes’. This identity was seen as a response to their position as wage earners faced with an intensification of capitalist relationships of production, namely relationships which involved private property and production for profit, mediated by cash. The responses and experiences which accumulated to form the relationships of class included opposition to machinery, the dramatic fall in real wages experienced by hand-loom weavers, and the political inspiration of radicalism. In the 1820s and 1830s, trade unions, especially in the textile and mining industries, became a focus of industrial conflict more extensive than anything experienced by the mainly craft associations of the earlier century. The chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s became a focus of many working-class ambitions and gained mass support for a political programme demanding universal manhood suffrage. Many historians see chartism as a product of the economic experiences of the working classes. Others see chartism as a political movement which offered little analysis of economic relationships in terms of capitalist exploitation, but offered a radical attack upon political privilege and corruption as a base for explaining ‘the people's’ poverty. Debate also exists on the meaning of trade union conflicts. Many reflect particular trades and localities with little sense of the relationships of wage labour as a whole.

The 1860s saw the establishment of a more institutionalized trade union movement with legal status and centralized bodies like the Trades Union Congress (1867). This period saw a move from unstable conflict to social peace often identified with the influence of a ‘labour aristocracy’ of skilled workers prepared to co-operate with the owners of capital. The change was more broadly based and related to improvements in working-class living standards, the acceptance of many working people into political life, especially in the Gladstonian Liberal Party, and the development of a more sophisticated employer paternalism. It was a period in which the wage relationship was still partial and imperfect. Subcontracting, payment in kind, and gender and supervisory hierarchies mediated between labour and capital.

By the 1890s, a distinctive working-class culture had emerged, based upon a sense of neighbourhood and mutual support, especially amongst women, upon old and new leisure patterns built around the public house, spectator sports like football and the music-hall, and upon a labour movement consisting of a variety of institutions like the retail Co-operative societies, trade unions, socialist Sunday schools, and the ILP (Independent Labour Party). These values have been called ‘populist’, involving a pride in work and in mutual support in the face of poverty, a delight in having a good time, a derision of privilege, and a regional pride. Such populism could as easily move to a Union-Jack-waving nationalism as to a conflict-orientated sense of class. It represented a sense of cohesion which lasted into the 1950s and was celebrated by Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy (1957).

The working class faced major periods of conflict in the late 19th and early 20th cents. culminating in the General Strike of 1926. This was related to the impact of new technologies, often involving de-skilling, to new management strategies, and to unstable and competitive conditions in world trade. Conflict was firmly related to wages and conditions and there is little evidence of any ambitions for revolutionary change. Socialism in the 1918 constitution of the Labour Party embodied a willingness to use any means including nationalization in the attack on poverty. Major success came with the 1945 Labour government, the welfare state, and the nationalization of key elements of capital.

By the 1950s, the life-style of the bulk of the working class had been transformed by so-called ‘Fordist’ relationships, in which social stability depended upon high productivity, high wages, and the consumption of an increasing variety of goods. A mass culture of film, football, and television began to entail a more private life-style. This was threatened in the 1970s, by de-industrialization, an accelerated shift in the economic structure of Britain away from traditional industries such as coal-mining, textiles, and iron and steel, accompanied by mass unemployment and new forms of poverty.

The problems of writing and understanding working-class history in Britain lie in its political meaning. The initial writings were undertaken by those seeking the origins and inspiration for the Labour Party in a long march of labour history from Tom Paine's Rights of Man, through chartism and the TUC, to the achievements of the 1945 government. Others led by Edward Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class wanted to reposition the Marxist tradition of British history and secure a recognition for the agency and creativity of working-class people, in place of a deterministic view of the impact of economic relationships. Recent writing has reflected the uncertainties and multiple identities of the late 20th and early 21st cents.

See also social history; class.

R. J. Morris

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working class

working class The working class is classically defined as that class which must sell its labour-power in order to survive. This was essentially what Karl Marx meant by the proletariat. However, this is hardly a satisfactory definition for late twentieth-century developed societies. If there is a working class distinct from the rest of society, then there must be distinctive features to its work and market situations, and indeed there are.

First, in terms of market situation, the working class is defined by the fact that it sells its labour-power in discrete amounts of time (paid by the hour or output piecework) in return for a wage. In the case of work situation, the working class comprises those who are in an entirely subordinate role, such that this is a key feature of their labour contract. Hence the working class basically consists of those who work in manual or blue-collar occupations. However, none of this should be taken to mean that there is one amorphous working class, since there are a number of ways in which the class is divided into distinct groups. One of these is in terms of skill. There is an upper working class or aristocracy of labour which consists of skilled workers—occupations such as fitters, electricians, and the like— where incumbents have been apprenticed or learned a trade. These constitute about one-third of the working class. The remainder are in so-called semi-skilled or unskilled occupations. A second division is that between those working in primary rather than secondary labour-markets. Some members of the working class have better paid and more secure jobs (in the primary labour-market) than have others. Most skilled workers belong to this primary labour-market. Many female and ethnic-minority workers are found in the lower-paid, more insecure secondary labour-market, lacking standard labour contracts, pension and illness entitlements, paid vacations, and so forth. It is among this group that both unemployment and under-employment (where people find that they have periods of employment and unemployment interspersed on a frequent and irregular basis) are most frequently found. The other notable feature of the working class in developed capitalist societies is that it is shrinking, largely due to a combination of technological change (notably automation), and the decline of the primary and manufacturing sectors. Only about one-third of the economically active would be working class by the definition given here.

Finally, what is the popular conception of the working class? In Gordon Marshall's et al. Social Class in Modern Britain (1984)
, the authors report that 49 per cent of respondents mentioned being a manual or unskilled worker as the chief characteristic of the working class, and 16 per cent defined the class as those with low incomes. In general (and somewhat unusually), sociological views of the working class were in broad agreement with the popular conception. See also GOLDTHORPE CLASS SCHEME.

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work·ing class • n. [treated as sing. or pl.] the social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, esp. in manual or industrial work: the housing needs of the working classes. • adj. (working-class) of, relating to, or characteristic of people belonging to such a group: a working-class community.

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