A new study by academics from the LSE and Manchester has come up with the idea that there are seven classes in British society. You can classify people according to whatever criteria you want and the academics have chosen to combine income, security of income, occupation and leisure pursuits. The seven classes they come up with are: elite (6 percent), established middle class (25 percent), technical middle class (6 percent), new affluent workers (15 percent), traditional working class (14 percent), emergent service workers (19 percent), and precariat (15 percent). In fact, in some ways this is just a refinement of the popular division into upper class (toffs and business oligarchs), middle class and working class.
The sevenfold division might have some use for businesses to target their sales but it is useless for explaining social dynamics. Socialists define class in terms of relationship to the means of production – who owns and who does not own the farms, factories, mines, railways, utilities and other workplaces where goods and services are produced. This gives, essentially, only two classes in an advanced capitalist country such as Britain: the rich owners (through shares and bonds) of the means of production and the rest of society who depend on them for a living. Since, on this criterion, most of the ‘middle class’ are in the same position as the ‘working class’, the split could well be around 6/94 as the academics’ figures suggest.
In Marx’s day – and this is the assumption in Capital – there were three distinguishable classes depending on their relationship to the means of production: an upper class of big landowners who derived an income as ground-rent from their ownership of land; a middle class of capitalist employers who derived theirs as profits from their capital invested in agriculture or industry; and a working class of non-owners who lived by selling their ability to work for a wage.
This in fact is the historical origin of the term ‘middle class’ as the class between the landed aristocracy and the working class. Since then they have merged with the landowners to become a single capitalist class (both through marriage and through landowners investing in industry), so it no longer makes sense to talk of a ‘middle class’. There is no class in between the capitalist class and the class of those who depend for a living on the sale of their working abilities for a wage or salary. Those referred to in popular parlance as the ‘middle class’ are in reality a part of the class of wage and salary workers; as, indeed, are those seen as the ‘traditional working class’. Both are sub-sections of a wider working class properly so-called.
There is another difference between the socialist concept of class and that of the academics. Their classes are non-antagonistic. It is true that there is in fact an antagonism between their ‘elite’ and their other six classes but this is not recognised. It is also true that, at present, politicians are trying to set everybody against the ‘precariat’ as ‘non-strivers’ and ‘shirkers’, while others see an antagonism between the four bottom classes (which they see as making up the ‘working class’) and the two middle classes. But these don’t represent real antagonisms but attempts to divide classes other than the elite against each other that only serve the interest of the elite.
Socialists see a built-in antagonism between the two classes defined by their relationship to the means of production. As wealth can only be produced by people working, and as profit is a non-work income, it follows that the profits of the capitalist class are derived from the work of the working class. There is an exploitative relation between the two classes. There is therefore not only a division of society into two classes but a class struggle between them.
At present this class struggle is over the division of newly produced wealth into wages and profits, a basic feature of present-day society of much more significance than the cultural differences between the academics’ seven classes. It manifests itself in bargaining between employers and unions over wages and in strikes, in employers trying to increase work-loads and impose speed-ups, and, today, in the government exerting downward pressures on the workers’ living standards.
Ultimately, however, the struggle is over the ownership and control of the means of production and can come to an end only with the victory of the working class and the conversion of the means of production into the common property of all. Then a classless society will have been achieved. The working class will disappear along with the capitalist class and there will simply be free and equal men and women, members of a community with a common interest in working to satisfy the needs of all its members, both as individuals and as a community.