I have been writing for The Conversation for a while now. My latest piece on class warfare rhetoric had over 2000 hits on the first day it was live It also sparked lots of comments and a rebuttal of sorts from Associate Professor Gregory Melleuish of Wollongong University.
The debate about class confuses many people, partly because Australia seems like ‘the lucky country’ and it seems like class is a thing of the past.
If that’s the case, the argument goes, aren’t we really a middle class country?
Well, yes and no.
Class is not confined to blue collar manual labour – a point that Prof Melleuish misses in his piece.
Cass is not defined by the colour of your collar, or whether you do manual work or service labour. Class is about the soical relations of production.
Defining class relations
Class is defined by a structural, economic and social relation between human beings and capital (ie: stored wealth that is then deployed in the production process).
Thus there are two or three basic classes in a capitalist society (and yes Troy, I can supply references for this):
1. the ruling class – aka the capitalist class — owns the means of production (stored wealth as capital). This group is quite small (famously the ‘one percent’) but its wealth and control over production also give it control over the state.
The state is what Marx called the ‘executive committee’ of the ruling class. It makes laws, controls the use of force (standing armies and police) and takes measures that ameliorate some of the worst excesses of capitalism (the Keynesian welfare state); provides small redistributions of wealth (via taxation) and generally ensures that the conditions for continued accumulation are not threatened.
This is achieved by the use of force and through the manufacture of consent.
Strike-breaking and punitive anti-union laws represent the first; education and the propagation of the classness nature of life today represented by the nation is an example of the second.
2. the middle class – aka the petite bourgeoisie – the middle class is fractured in many ways from top to bottom. At the top are those who perform managerial functions on behalf of
capital – CEOs etc and senior bureaucrats in the public sector. Their loyalty is assured through high salaries, perks and in private enterprise participation in share schemes. As the GFC showed us a huge section of this layer is rampantly corrupt and greedy…don’t believe me?
Two words: “Gordon Gecko”
Lower down the middle class food chain are those who make a living from self-employment. They only own a small piece of capital and usually have to exploit themselves to survive. They do not control large corporations, this group may include doctors and lawyers etc. Their political loyalty can go either way.
At the bottom of the middle class the distinctions shade into the working class and as Harry Braverman wrote in Labor in Monopoly Capitalism there is a process of proletarianisation — what we might once have considered middle class occupations (white collar and teachers, for example) are being pushed into the working class.
3. The working class – aka the proletariat – workers do not own the means of production, they are obliged (or forced if you like by the threat of starvation) to sell their labour on the open market for wages and salaries.
This is sociologically the biggest chunk of any population in every country on the planet. The working class is the class that can actually make revolution. The bourgeoisie is no longer revolutionary, it is content to mine the planet to death and do fuck-all about global warming. It is short-sighted, arrogant and ultimately stupid.
The fact that the working class is not yet aware of its own immense power is a result of the ideological power of capitalism which is exercised through the church, the family, the education system and the media. Read Raymond Williams on this matter to understand how it works.
Sociologists who rely on ‘aspiration’ and other fuzzy concepts to argue that the working class no longer exists are also part of the problem.
We can mostly see class in other parts of the world, but usually not in our own backyards. It seems that in some media it can’t even be seen in places like Greece and France. Instead the editorialists and senior writers fall back on cliches like ‘living beyond their means’, or that Greek workers are lazy.
This in turn leads to ludicrous statements such as the IMF austerity program is to ‘help’ these countries overcome their shortcomings.
It is good that we are talking seriously about class today, it is a shame though that there is so much ignorance around about what it actually means in theory and in practice.