The Continuing Relevance of Social Class

Having read yet another piece by Graham Scambler, the relevance of social class for understanding contemporary society is, in my view, reinforced. Graham very helpfully set out his set of premises with which I have long agreed with, forming as they do the basis of my reading of Marx over the years: 

  1. Despite the ill informed and stupid opprobrium it attracts in much of mainstream commentary, Marx’s analysis has ‘retained its bite’ in the 21st century. 
  2. Class remains the dominant structural force, a social mechanism affecting our life chances, while working often ‘behind our backs; the politics of identity and the salience of ethnicity and gender are intersections to the main structural class differences most pertinent for people’s lives. Kwasi Kwarteng and Priti Patel have more in common with Boris Johnson and Theresa May than they do with any black working class man or woman. 
  3. Many Sociologists, Economists and Journalists have neglected the role of the 1%: The Capitalist Executive/Capital Monopolists (aka the ‘greedy bastards’) in bending governments and policy to their will and advantage, made even more relevant in the current era of financial and rentier capitalism in the United States and the United Kingdom especially. 
  4. For sociology, this neglect is in part a function of the absence of the Capital Executive and Capital Monopolists from class schema such as the NS-SEC or the British Class Survey
  5. While objective class relations have grown more salient, subjective class relations (how we feel, how we think about our identities and our social class if at all), have diminished the impact of those objective conditions. Thus we have the phenomenon of many working class people voting (‘Angels in Marble’) for Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. 
  6. While class solidarity and mobilisation are still vital for meaningful social transformation, subjective class relationships makes their realisation problematic. Thus ‘middle class’ subjective experiences, and any working class people whose primary identity formation is along gender, ethnic and LGBTQ lines, can obscure the reality of still only having one’s labour to sell. Those with ‘middle class sensibilities’ are apt to distinguish themselves from the actual precarity of white collar occupations which exist within the framework of ‘bullshit jobs’, and often fail to fully acknowledge their increasing exclusion from long term security as housing, health and social care costs escalate. 

Denying the salience of objective class relations because one ‘feels’ that class no longer applies, is a marker of the petty bourgeois mind. 

except it probably will not…

“Gissa job.” Only their Labour to Sell.

Marx’s thesis that the working class are those that have only their labour to sell is still, for me, a starting point for cutting through the morass of identity and the ‘we are all middle class now’ arguments.  Those earning £50K plus, with a new car on finance, a mortgage, a career structure, holidays twice a year plus city breaks, with aspirations to shop in Waitrose, will not identify as working class despite the objective fact that their current position in the social structure is often precarious, dependent as it is on work and health. Six months of unemployment or long term sickness could easily strip them of their gains. This will be more salient as old age beckons and social care costs soar, and also if we adopt a system of private health insurance. Many middle class people voting for welfare cuts and austerity do not think they are voting against their actual interests as they falsely aspire to be the 1%. 

Born into nothing, to parents who have to work to pay the rent and provide food because they have no capital or no independent means, is the starting point for many. Those in the middle class who eschew identities as working class based on their cultural tastes and social contacts may wish to argue that this does not apply to them. However, how many middle class kids have parents who fully own their home, who could give up employment and live mortgage free? Those same middle class parents might spend huge sums on private education, drive new cars and holiday in the Dordogne, but they still have to sell their labour in the form of professional practice, employment or self employment in the gig economy. 

Those same middle class parents might have very big mortgages and are working towards increasing a pension pot to enable them a satisfactory retirement in their late 50’s. Unless they own property and have become one of Picketty’s rentiers, they are still working class no matter how much Chablis they drink. 

Until that point they are working class, or petty bourgeois at best.

I worked continually, with breaks for education, since the age of 16 during the era of ‘Welfare Capitalism’ which lasted until about 1980. I chose occupations which provided benefits and a measure of protection from unemployment and sickness. I could start to afford taking holidays and to take out a mortgage. This experience was fertile ground for the development of middle class attitudes.

However, during that time , the protections I had from the consequences of losing my ability to sell my labour, were previously hard won by socialists and social democrats. Despite those protections the base principle was true. If I did not work, I was at the mercy of the welfare regime in place and my ability to protect myself long term via a pension would have vanished.

Since 1980, the era of neoliberalism and financial capitalism, those protections and benefits have been slowly eroded for millions of workers so that today, should they be unable to sell their labour, they will face a harsh future. 

What is Class?

Social class is the stratification of people into their relationship with the socio-economic structure of income and wealth ownership. Max Weber introduced the concepts of Status and Party affiliation to Marx’s socio-economic. While I totally accept the salience of subjective experiences and the importance of Weber’s ideas, for sake of clarity I’ll stick with the socio-economic, see point 5 above about objective-subjective class.

The base objective definition I use is: If you only have your labour to sell, you are working class. This includes those who have sold their labour all of their lives to retire on an investment in a pension. A gig economy worker by necessity? You are working class.

Everyone else is bourgeois. Anyone with independent means which obviates the need to sell their labour. If you have inherited wealth, or own enough capital or shares to provide an independent means, you are bourgeois.

If you do not have wealth: if you work to promote the interests of capital over labour, you are working class still, but you are petty bourgeois. If you believe that fiduciary duty to shareholders trumps all other social and environmental considerations, you are petty bourgeois. if you actively work against working class interests by opposing shorter working weeks, stripping unions of power, opposing social housing, opposing living wages, deregulating labour markets, arguing for lower taxes on business and the 1%…

The working class includes many ‘middle class’ professionals who only live the lives they do because they earn good money.

For a more detailed outline of class see Scambler’s classification which has 4 categories: 

  1. Capital Executive (the 1%). 
  2. New Middle Class
  3. Old Middle Class
  4. Working Class

This simplistic working definition is useful in that it reminds us that work, selling labour, is the basis in a capitalist society for the working and middle class and is therefore the fundamental divide between the ‘bourgeois middle and upper’ and working classes. Of course there are gradations such as many working class people who benefitted from low house prices and then house price inflation since 1980 and built up property portfolios to become part of the rentier class.

Arguments about what class someone with a property portfolio of three flats and £50,000 of shares is interesting only to those who wish to discuss the finer cultural distinctions and details. It matters not if someone from a council estate, born without the proverbial pot, later identifies as a Chablis drinking middle class Tory voter because of a university education or success in the property market. 

The relevance of class is not these fine cultural distinctions, but the continuing actions of the 1% – the Capitalist Class Executive. 

The Capitalist Executive

The Koch Brothers….and the Trump connection?

It is the actions of the ‘Capital Executive’ (CE) which needs much more forensic analysis and bringing out into the open. The middle class categories identified above are useful for a more detailed analysis but for me they sit upon the base ‘labour to sell’. These middle class people can be capital apologists, helpers, easing the path of capital accumulation for their own benefit and in so doing work against working class interests regardless of the fact of having to sell their labour

The CE have myriad aims and objectives, even professing to consider the needs of workers, the environment and wider society. They may espouse ‘corporate social responsibility’ or sign up to ‘sustainable development’, however these have to sit upon the primary drive: capital accumulation. 

This often unacknowledged, hidden or taken for granted drive sits behind a good deal of thinking about social policy and results in a one dimensionality towards problem solving issues such as that of an ageing population and social care costs. When capital accumulation and the current structure of wealth meet the health and social needs of populations, then capital tends to raise the draw bridge unless forced otherwise.

They wage class war. 

Class War

There’s class warfare, all right,” Mr. Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” (said in 2006). 

“…Mr. Buffett compiled a data sheet of the men and women who work in his office. He had each of them make a fraction; the numerator was how much they paid in federal income tax and in payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare, and the denominator was their taxable income.

It turned out that Mr. Buffett, with immense income from dividends and capital gains, paid far, far less as a fraction of his income than the secretaries or the clerks or anyone else in his office. Further, in conversation it came up that Mr. Buffett doesn’t use any tax planning at all. He just pays as the Internal Revenue Code requires. “How can this be fair?” he asked of how little he pays relative to his employees, “How can this be right?”

The root dynamic for class war is that working people require decent wages, pensions, housing, education and public services while the capitalist class require capital accumulation and have a fiduciary duty towards shareholders. Capital accumulation requires stability in the system, a legal framework that protects private property and the current transfer of wealth, trade and minimal interference in the process. It needs infrastructure and a healthy educated workforce which has to be paid for. This sets up another aspect of the tension. 

This conflict of interest between workers and capitalists, even in the 21st century, is inherently violent. If actual physical violence is not meted out then the system that capitalists have created, is institutionally and structurally violent.  To avoid violence, the system has to distract, disillusion and disengage people from understanding the true nature of the system in which they live their lives. National sports and TV entertainment provide this function among the other benefits they bring. 

The control of narratives, the stories we tell and are told, is an important aspect of keeping the lid on inherent violence. Some things are just not up for discussion such as the current structure of wealth ownership. 

Self confessed ‘centrists’, or those who call themselves ‘possibilists’, cut down discussion to those things which, in their view, can be achieved. Basing this on the argument that politics is the ‘art of the possible’, they are unwilling to challenge current structures of wealth and power that could make other things possible. 

It is understandable. The wealthy and powerful do not give up wealth and power readily. They will use violence to defend current structures.  Therefore confining change to piecemeal reforms, gradually, without direct challenge to power in this view prevents more violent change. 

The working class to date in the UK has chosen peace and stability, by voting New Labour and Tory, rather than radical change, even if that results in increasing wealth inequality, increasing precarity, the loss of protections, workers rights and of public services. The Anti Corbyn rhetoric is testament to the emergence of the fear of the CE towards a working class backlash against the neoliberal status quo.  

The antisemitism slur is class war based. A tool reached out for, out of fear of what a Corbyn government might do. The Labour Party has had members who for decades have been highly critical of Israel and of Zionists. Some are actual antisemites, but it must be remembered that anti-Semitism is as much, if not more, a right wing phenomenon. Criticising Israel or Zionism are political acts, they are not ‘Jew Hatred’.  It is not a new phenomenon. If there are antisemites now, there were antisemites for decades, and yet under Blair not a word was spoken about it in the Right Wing Press. 

Raising the State Retirement Age is class war.

Ian Duncan Smith endorsed a report from the Centre for Social Justice, which despite its name is a right wing think tank, on raising the State Pension Age (SPA).  In ‘Ageing Confidently’ (2019) the report suggests accelerating the SPA to 70 by 2028 and to 75 by 2035 to keep the ‘Old Age Dependency Ratio (OADR)’ within 20-25. The OADR is the ratio between the number of people aged 65 and over and the number of persons aged between 15 and 64. The value is expressed per 100 persons of working age (15-64). 

Why is this suggestion class war? Because it places the needs of older working class people as secondary to an arbitrary economic goal that is designed to placate the capitalist class by not raising taxes or asking for structural reforms in wealth ownership. 

  1. It deliberately and knowingly fails to address Health Inequalities  – the social gradient indicates that those lower down on the socio-economic scale experience lower life expectancy and fewer disability free life years. The working class die younger and experience more ill health. Many workers do not earn enough to retire on a decent occupational pension, especially with the disappearance of final salary pension schemes. Many also work in physically damaging occupations which means the ability to keep working diminishes. This group will be hit hard by the expectation to work for longer before getting a state pension. Many will die before qualifying or end up on sickness benefits. The Tory Government knows all of this. 
  1. The 0.01% do not want discussion on the amount of capital they have already and historically, accumulated which if redistributed could obviate the need to retire later. It is based on the OADR, which suggests the working class population needs to support its own working class older population. The current SPA is deemed unsustainable but it omits discussion that the OADR fails to account for wealth already accumulated but which is out of reach of the working class due to the strategic decisions of the capitalist executive and capital monopolists. The 0.01% ‘rentiers’ will wish to protect the wealth they have accumulated, largely based on inheritance, rent, structural inequalities and on the work of the working class. 
  1. It forms part of ‘Systematically Distorted Communication’ which conflates the interests of the Capital Executive with that of the working class. By focusing on the unsustainability of the current model of the SPA, which the OADR implies, this frame of reference is an attempt to infuse into the common discourse used by the electorate in their everyday ‘lifeworld’ rendering them less able to think about the much wider structural inequalities. If working class people think, and the papers they read argue, that the SPA is currently unaffordable because the government cannot raise the required taxes based on a reducing ratio of working aged people to older people (the OADR), they have uncritically accepted the Capital Executive’s strategic narrative. This narrative is based on protecting the CE’s, position, rather than an alternative based on examining the fundamental of class based wealth ownership.  It therefore uncritically accepts the OADR as a baseline to work towards while ignore the structure of wealth which renders such ratios as problematic. It matters not if the OADR is 50/50 if the structure of the distribution wealth was more equitable? The OADR is therefore used as a tool to keep older people at work to prevent a discussion of such redistribution. The very idea of wealth redistribution is anathema to many in the 1% and of course to the enablers in the new and old middle class.

The greedy bastards of the 0.01% can discuss this with impunity because to them it is a mere exercise in social policy thinking without any consequences for themselves. The GBs will ask the bottom 20% to work longer even if they die younger and suffer more ill health which they know already happens

Public Schools are instruments of class war.

The link between social mobility, entry into ‘elite’ occupations via private education is well established. The Sutton Trust, The Equality Trust and the Social Mobility Commission, among others,  have provided a mass of data which clearly shows how class privilege in education is replicated and reproduced. Supporters of Eton et al use arguments about scholarships for the working class and excellence in attainment. This is spurious. Private schools are the engines of class privilege, ensuring the children of the very well off get a huge head start. Private schools facilitate the transfer of financial, cultural and social capital that underpins the current class structure and militate against its critique because it is not in their interests to do so.

‘Choice’ is also rolled out to support the status quo, as if those on the bottom of the income and wealth scale have much in the way of choice. ‘Choice’ is a middle class obsession based as it is on a certain degree of material wealth to enable choice to be exercised. “Don’t take away my middle class choice, but we can continue to ignore your lack of working class choice”. 

Even when working class children get into Oxbridge, they experience class barriers. The gaps in financial, social and cultural capital for many working class students becomes apparent as soon as they start.  Their public school ‘peers’ know how to exclude and marginalise the working class and they do so unreflexively in their shared values, assumptions, speech forms and knowledge rather than by using overt class discrimination. Internships and family networks ease the path of the wealthy into well paid jobs, a path denied to many working class graduates. 

Working Class ‘wealth drain’ exemplifies class war.

The United States is the best example of how to wage successful class war in that we have good data on the unequal distribution of wealth. The Federal Reserve published a report called the “Distributive Financial Accounts”, one analysis of which suggests that the top 1% increased its total net worth by $21 trillion between 1989 and 2018. The bottom 50% saw its net worth decrease by $900 billion in the same period. That is not ‘trickle down’ economics. It should be called ‘Hoovered Up’ economics. The top 1% owns $30 trillion of assets while the bottom 50% owns less than nothing, they have more debt than assets. 

Cuts to public services are class war.

Just one example: “A system in crisis? Ombudsman complaints about special educational needs at alarming level”. The Ombudsman stated:

I am now particularly concerned some authorities may be putting in place extra barriers to ration scarce resources, rather than basing support on children’s needs. While I can empathise with the difficulties authorities face, there can never be an excuse for failing to meet the statutory rights of children.” 

One is left wondering what happened to the call in ‘Fair Society Healthy Lives’ to “Give every child the best start in life” ? The children of the wealthy will be protected from cuts in public services because of the ‘material health assets’ of their parents. The 1% know this, they read the news, they listen to radio. But they do not care enough to change priorities because they believe in the mantra that to have  ‘healthy public services you need a healthy economy’ that ‘we must reduce the deficit’ that ‘we are all in this together’ that ‘there is no magic money tree’ . Theresa May’s speech in 2016 clearly shows she knew what the issues where, but was unable and or unwilling to really do anything about them, perhaps she was distracted by Brexit or perhaps this was mere propaganda when she said:

 “That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others…If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.”

Capital apologists always retort “we have never lived longer, been healthier or wealthier than we are now, so what is the problem?” These are facts that are true at the population level, but it hides very real disparities and inequalities and of misery. 

The promised reversal of Austerity by Boris Johnson merely attempts to curry favour with the population and is of course electioneering. The extra spending promised  – What? There is a magic money tree? – gets nowhere near enough to repair the damage to public services since 2010. The extra hospitals and police numbers will not heal the wounds inflicted by Cameron’s class war coalition. Injustice is still killing people:

…the Marmot review of the English health inequalities strategy argues that social injustice is killing people on a large scale: up to 2.6 million extra years of life could be gained across all social groups if health inequalities were significantly reduced.1 Despite the considerable effort and resources that have gone into research and action over recent decades, the health gradient has remained largely unchanged and in some instances has worsened.

Climate Change Denial is Class War

Jane Mayer writing in the NewYorker in 2019:

If there is any lingering uncertainty that the Koch brothers are the primary sponsors of climate-change doubt in the United States, it ought to be put to rest by the publication of “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America,” by the business reporter Christopher Leonard. This seven-hundred-and-four-page tome doesn’t break much new political ground, but it shows the extraordinary behind-the-scenes influence that Charles and David Koch have exerted to cripple government action on climate change.”

The climate crisis will not only affect the working class, but it will do so disproportionally and is already hitting the poorest in the poorest regions of the globe. The Kochs, the fossil fuel lobby and fossil industries know the scale of the problem but are putting investment and hoped for capital return above the needs of people everywhere, especially the working class and the absolute poor. 

Climate change denial is mostly a right wing phenomenon because the answer relies on international state cooperation and interference with the global market in treasured industries such as aviation, cars, tourism and of course fossil fuel extraction.  Not all CEO’s in those industries are climate change deniers and many are taking pragmatic business decisions to change their dependence on oil. It remains the case however that those who fund denial have a vested interest which they place above the urgent need for change. Capital v Labour? Capital v Planet? 

Who are Class warriors?

Graham Scambler in a series of blogs helps us to identify those who engage in class war. See he has written about Jacob Rees Mogg, Philip May and Philip Green as archetypal ‘greedy bastards’ who surf the structural waves of wealth and privilege.

Another example: Cadbury UK owner MONDELEZ UK Ltd (controlled by Kraft Foods Switzerland) whose reported accounts in Dec 2018 shows turnover of £1.7bn, a profit of £35m, but paid tax of only £271k. The dividend to the owner was £200m (2017, £247m), while its pension scheme deficit was £36m. General Motors pays $22 million to its CEO Mary Barra while also laying off workers and closing plants in the US. This even attracted criticism from Donald Trump! But of course it is entirely legal and part of the structures for wealth accumulation created by the Greedy bastards and their enablers in the old and new middle classes, such as corporate lawyers and those in the political power elite who do nothing to prevent this happening.

Class War?

So class continues to be relevant even if you deny it. Objective class relations; the structure of wealth ownership and capital accumulation; private schools; J K Galbraith’s ‘Private affluence and public squalor’ of run down public services; health inequalities; household debt; pension withdrawal; poor housing and the continuing demonisation of the poor and working class, are some of the manifestations of the root dynamic of worker’s interests being in conflict with the imperative of capital accumulation and the strategic decisions of the ‘Greedy Bastards’. 

That’s class war. 

Denying it is class war.