Where did class come from?
For socialists the term ‘class’ has a very specific meaning – we use it to describe a social group’s relationship to productive resources. In other words does the group control those resources or not?
This is important because such control brings the greatest material benefit possible – the shift of the burden of real work onto the shoulders of the group that has no control.
This shift implies, of course, that those doing the work can regularly produce enough to satisfy not just their own basic needs (food, clothing, shelter) but those of the unproductive controlling minority too. On a regular basis.
For most of human history, people lived in hunter-gatherer groups. We can’t know for sure how those groups organised themselves, but we do know that cooperation must have played a large part in their lives – to create language, to hunt dangerous animals, to raise offspring with the longest period of dependency in the natural world.
One thing is certain though – they couldn’t produce enough to allow members of their group to ‘freeload’ on the others. They all needed to play their part.
Then, about 10,000 BCE, some of our ancestors learned to grow crops and domesticate animals – and as a result regular surpluses became possible.
We can’t be sure, but priestly groups were probably the first minority to get control of these surpluses. They could then get on with the arduous task of praying for a good crop while others just dug, sowed and reaped.
The problem with agricultural surpluses is they can be carted off by nomadic outsiders. The only sure way to prevent this was by armed force. So states developed, and, with them, borders – then identities based on territory, and reinforced by ideology.
So we now know that the capitalist class wasn’t the first minority to ride on the backs of the productive members of society. And that class division came about as a direct result of a change to a new form of production. From that eventually flowed the partitioning of virtually the entire planet.
Since our species survived for about 200,000 years with neither classes nor states (i.e. in its hunter-gatherer period), we can safely conclude that there’s nothing ‘natural’ about classes or states.
What about class now?
There are now just two main classes, workers and capitalists. Their economic interests are diametrically opposed because the lower the bill for the wages/salaries of the majority (i.e. workers), the greater the surplus that can be divided up amongst the minority (i.e. capitalists).
Categories like lower-middle class and middle class (and age-based concepts like GenZ) may be useful to a company trying to flog you a car or a holiday, but when it comes to understanding what happens to us as ‘human resources’, they explain nothing.
Next: Reformism ➡️