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The Real Class Division

We’re supposed to be moving towards a more equitable society.
Well how come class division is worse than ever, asks Paul Bennett

It was, the newspaper says, ‘an authoritative new study’, concluding that class divisions are worse now than fifty years ago:

“Britain is more class-ridden than in the 1950s, as children from affluent families take the lion’s share of university places and those from poorer backgrounds struggle to climb the career ladder. People born in the Fifties were more likely to escape their parents’ class than those born in the Seventies, says the report, which compares parents’ and children’s incomes over time, and finds that equality of opportunity in Britain has declined” (Observer, 16 January).

This is a fairly typical example of the way in which the word ‘class’ is often defined, in terms of ‘affluent’ versus poorer families, with people ‘escaping’ from the class of their parents by moving upwards on the social ladder. Varying access to education is often accounted for in similar terms. For instance, the Office for National Statistics noted that in 2001-2, 19 percent of children from manual social classes went on to higher education, as opposed to 50 percent of those from non-manual classes.

In a sense, class is a concept that can be defined as one likes. The British government’s Index of Social Class has a scale from routine occupations such as waiters and cleaners, through ‘lower supervisory and craft’ jobs such as butchers and bus inspectors, to higher managerial occupations such as company directors and bank managers. This is based on the factors of job security, promotion opportunities, and the ability and opportunity to work on one’s own and to make decisions about tasks. Of course, since most company directors are capitalists, they probably rank rather higher on these criteria than the average bank manager.

An analysis along such lines may convey a lot of information about society, but at the same time it hides a great deal as well. By emphasising divisions among employees it suggests that they have different interests and statuses, rather than stressing what they all have in common. It suggests that removing inequality is about people climbing upwards within this scale and so doing better than their parents, rather than overturning the whole system. The traditional division between ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ also implies that there is a conflict between these two groups, with the middle class being better paid, educated and housed, often at the expense of the working class.

However, there is another way of viewing divisions within society. We can note, for instance, that members of the so-called middle class are as dependent on what their employer pays them as the so-called working class are. It may be called a salary and come in the form of a monthly cheque rather than a weekly wage packet, but its recipients still need it in order to live. From this point of view, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the population are in the same boat: employed, paid a wage, needing to work for a living, at risk of losing their job, pushed around at work, working longer hours and doing less interesting work than they would wish. They shop in the same malls and supermarkets, use the same schools, hospitals and transport systems, are subject to the same laws and government regulations. Above all, they are seen by their employers as a means of creating profit rather than as human beings with feelings and family responsibilities. As far as socialists are concerned, anyone in this situation is a member of the working class, irrespective of their educational background or the accent they speak with.

But not everybody in society belongs to the working class. A comparatively small number of people (the capitalist class) have no need to work or to sign on for unemployment benefit, for they own the means of production, the land, factories, offices and companies. Having a few shares does not put a person into this class, for owning a small number of shares (like having money in a deposit account) does not prevent you from needing to work for a living. In contrast, the capitalists receive enough income from dividends and interest and rents and inflated ‘salaries’ and bonus schemes that not only do they not have to work but their wealth is far beyond what workers can even dream of. In 2004, the top 1,000 people on the Sunday Times Rich List were worth the extraordinary total of £202.4 billion. That’s an average of £200 million each! On the average wage of £21,000 a year, it would take nearly ten thousand years to earn that much. The list includes the Duke of Westminster (worth £5 billion), Philip Green (£3.6bn), Bernie Ecclestone (£2.3bn) and James Dyson (£800 million). These are the people who have several luxury homes in different cities and can afford to stay in swanky hotels and go on expensive cruises. They are also the people who are likely to berate workers for not working hard enough, exhorting us to pull our socks up and put our backs into it.

And where do these super-rich get their money from? It’s clearly not from the sweat of their brow, because nobody can work hard enough or long enough to be worth a million pounds, let alone several billion. As the saying has it, the rich get rich from hard work – other people’s hard work. Their wealth comes from exploiting the working class, both manual and non-manual workers, whether they toil in shop, factory, office or call centre. Of the wealth that each worker produces (each day, week and month), only a part is covered by their wages – the rest is taken by the employer, in the form of surplus value. Shell, for instance, made £9bn post-tax profit last year (that’s a 9 plus nine zeroes). This is the class division that matters, that between the exploiting capitalists and the exploited workers, not that between workers who are slightly less or more poor than others.

The solution to this situation is not for workers to strive to join the capitalist class, for even if a few individuals manage this, it still leaves the vast majority of workers exploited and subject to capitalism’s wars and pollution. To ‘escape from your class’, do not dream of becoming a capitalist. Work instead for a society in which class divisions no longer exist, just as billionaires and paupers, landlords and homeless, bombs and borders will no longer exist. This is what we call a socialist society, where the means of production belong to everyone, not to a small rich list. Where wealth is produced to meet people’s needs rather than to produce profits for a few. Where there is no social ladder but everyone has the chance to educate themselves in the best and broadest way possible and to do work which is rewarding and enjoyable, without ever defining themselves as a cleaner or a butcher, where everyone has the opportunity to relate to others as human beings rather than as cogs in an uncontrollable economic machine.

PAUL BENNETT