We’re all working class – why the term still matters

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In our modern economy we have jobs and careers of all kinds and people of various hierarchical positions within organizations. It can appear as though the all powerful working class Marx once lauded as the future liberators of humanity has been divided up into multiple distinct sets of classes, each with their own characteristics and desires.

The biggest of these is the middle class, which separates a large part of the population from both the working class and the capitalist class. Sociologist and economists alike constantly go back and forth about who is to be considered middle class, with definitions shifting to fit just about any narrative. The only consensus seems to be that it is actually impossible to define what the middle class is and who belongs to it.

Even those on the left have proposed alternate classes – most prominent being the professional-managerial class – different from both the working and capitalist classes. Adding to the confusion are the entrepreneurs, a group of people who are allegedly paving a road of their own.

This can make it seem like there’s no popular movement left to build, with the only option remaining being to tinker with capitalism and make it more comfortable for the classes within it – perhaps by expanding the middle class or by encouraging entrepreneurship. However, this notion of a multiplicity of classes is faulty and with just a little bit of scrutiny we can see that whether middle, entrepreneurial, or professional-managerial, the working class is still the working class. For the purposes of this article I won’t try to analyze the politics of the different members of the working class as there is a full range of ideologies, from neo-nazis to dedicated communists. I simply want to reinforce the term “working class” and acknowledge that it hasn’t split but rather remains the overwhelming majority.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a coder, teacher, factory worker, or a “budding” entrepreneur, the working class test is simple: if you have to work for a living then you are a member of the working class. We are all working class because of our labour relations – i.e. we sell our labour for sustenance. We tend to think of the working class as poorer blue collar folks who work in less desirable and low-skilled jobs (which is itself an elitist assumption), often lacking higher education. While these people are certainly members of the working class, they are not so unique in their position. On the other hand, the middle class tends to describe white collar workers who work more professional jobs relating to their fields of higher education, but at their core they are the same as the working class. The blue collar workers tend to struggle more than the so called “middle class” under the pressures of capitalism, but both of these supposedly distinct classes still work for a living regardless of salary and social status.

The middle class is, in fact, a complete myth crafted for a variety of reasons, among them being to give people a sense of superiority to “lower” classes and to give politicians a malleable base that they can appeal to. In reality, the middle class and the working class are one and the same. This is the main point that I’m trying to make here: whatever it is that you do, if you have no choice but to spend your time working consistently for pretty much the rest of your life then you are working class. The fact of working is what unites the majority of people in a shared struggle.

This is where people scoff and the wise realist will say, “Everybody has to work, that’s just the way the world is.” This might be easy to accept if it weren’t for the fact that it’s not true since it does not apply to the capitalist class. Those who bring up the inevitability of work always avoid mentioning the capitalist class, as if it were some boogeyman hiding in the shadows, making us look like crazy conspiracy theorists or bitter assholes if we bring it up. The capitalist class does not have to work, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if Bezos “only” takes a salary of $80k per year or if Elon pulls 100+ hour weeks, they don’t have to work. Only the working class has to work. They are the masters to our slaves, the feudal lords to our peasants, and the capitalists to our working class. They can stop working and live off of dividends and rents – off of their accumulated or inherited assets.

The next smug point that tends get made is, “Well, if you don’t like it, go start your own business and become a capitalist.” Here we enter the fabled land of entrepreneurship, the supposed concrete proof of capitalism’s freedom. Let’s take a look at these brave entrepreneurs who are apparently creating a more democratized and “freedom-friendly” version of capitalism, where you can self-actualize and do whatever you want. Are we really so free that most of us can start businesses and ascend to the coveted capitalist class?

We are undoubtedly living in the era of the entrepreneur, with presidents and ultra-wealthy capitalists alike praising them for their courage and dedication, shining a light on rare success stories while sweeping the vast majority of failed businesses under the rug. It is no secret, even among entrepreneurial circles, that just about every business that gets started will inevitably fail. Those that succeed are usually bought out by industry giants, doing little for the fabled competition in capitalism and doing everything to consolidate monopoly power. But despite constantly being in the media, the entrepreneurial “class” is still a small minority.

Figures vary but roughly 10% of workers own their own business and, with such high failure rates, they often move back and forth from being in the “entrepreneurial working class” to being in the working class proper. Additionally, a large number of entrepreneurial ventures are started by the privileged few, usually raising initial money from wealthy friends and family and/or having a safety net to fall back on should their businesses fail. This leaves entrepreneurship virtually inaccessible to many in the working class.

But despite millions of businesses getting started each year by wide-eyed entrepreneurs, it seems that most of us aren’t destined to be capitalists. The majority of these businesses fail, a few become lifestyle businesses where the founders simply end up working for a living like everyone else, and others get eaten up by investors who burn through dozens of businesses looking for a unicorn. Even among the tiny entrepreneurial class, the working class appears to be less of a choice and more of an inescapable reality. Even though aspiring entrepreneurs often share the same ideology as free market capitalists, – perpetuated within their closed off circles of fellow entrepreneurs and self-help and wellness gurus – they tend to still be working class. Of course, the few businesses that do end up becoming wildly successful see their founders eventually become capitalists, but these are extremely rare and do nothing but reinforce drastic inequality and perpetuate the status quo.

There has been some talk, especially on the left, of the professional-managerial class. This “new” class was first proposed in the 1970s to account for folks such as academics, teachers, nurses, engineers, and the like, who are apparently different from both the working class and the capitalist class due to their salaries and positions of power. While this term might be helpful in a nuanced discussion between leftists who possess a rigid class analysis, I believe it has no place in popular discourse since it further divides the working class on rather arbitrary terms. They still work for a living and a lot of the work being done by those in the proposed professional-managerial class is becoming more and more precarious, evidenced partly by the rising trend in teacher’s strikes and the extremely straining and stressful working conditions of nurses. These are just working class folks with slightly better jobs.

However, it is important to note that many in the proposed professional-managerial class tend to hold liberal capitalist politics. They base their politics on diversity and inclusion, seeking to make the few privileged groups under capitalism more diverse rather than joining the universal fight for economic equality which would undoubtedly help far more of the marginalized people they claim to support. But this is less the fault of the people within the professional-managerial class and more the fault of predatory liberal politicians who use these identity politics to abandon and destroy class politics and give the illusion of progress while reinforcing the status quo at the same time.

Nevertheless, at its core, the professional-managerial class is the working class, regardless of their politics and social positions. Your class is determined by whether or not you have to sell your labour, not by the specificities of your job or your salary. Like the term middle class, professional-managerial class only helps to obfuscate the universality of the working class.

But let’s say you feel like you’re not working class and maybe you like your job, you have a solid retirement fund, and you enjoy the multitude of consumer goods produced under capitalism. Why mess with something that seems to work? Well, aside from the fact that it isn’t working for the vast majority of people, it is hard to argue that the wealth we all create under capitalism is distributed in any sort of fair or logical fashion. We’ve all seen the headlines about handfuls of people having more wealth than millions combined, money havens where trillions are stashed undisturbed, and the complete occupation of state functions by the small wealthy minority. Even if you have a decent life under capitalism, it is impossible to deny that trillions of dollars – from tax havens alone – would uplift even the most prosperous societies in tremendous ways. And if you still think there is no alternative to capitalism and that billionaires deserve their wealth, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re part of the working class.

The truth is that the vast majority of us share common core class interests – whether we realize it or not – and those interests come into direct conflict with the tiny minority in the capitalist class. Our governments are controlled by the capitalist class and we need to regain control for the benefit of the vast majority (the working class). We need a radical change both in politics and labour relations. It is difficult to do any of this with the capitalist class’ firm grip on power, and it is especially difficult if we divide each other into middle class, lower middle class, upper middle class, professional-managerial class, etc. We are all working class and we need to regain focus.