1960s >> 1968 >> no-763-march-1968

What is Class?

‘Class’ in the sense with which most people use the word means more than a simple classification for a particular purpose. But there is a great deal of disagreement and uncertainty when it comes to identifying or defining a class in the social sense.

There are a number of demands which must be fulfilled by any satisfactory attempt to outline distinct classes in modern society. In the first place, such an outline must take into account people’s subjective feelings about class. More important, however, is to acknowledge the objective reality underlying such feelings. Also, any satisfactory definition of class in modern society should apply equally well in all modern countries, and so it would have to discount vestigial survivals from earlier forms of society, such as royalty and aristocracy. And it should not accept as a class something which is merely a section in a uniformly graded scale. However fuzzy the boundary lines may be, a class should have at least one characteristic which differs in something other than degree from any other class. Finally, such a definition should take into account, if not all, at least the great majority of people.

Most definitions of class fall short in one or another of these requirements, and so lay themselves open to the charge of giving a partial (in both senses) picture of society. For example, it is common to group people according to their income. Yet the majority of statistics show that income is virtually a uniformly graded scale, and any attempt at grouping is purely arbitrary. This fact, together with the growth of graded income taxing in most countries has led many people who favoured this method of grouping to feel that class has ceased to exist in the last few years.

Closely related is the attempt to group people according to occupation or education. But the degree of fluidity with which people can change their occupations, and the growing rapidity with which economic and technological developments are changing the occupations themselves, has shown this, too, to be inadequate as a basis of class distinction. The post-war rise in the importance and income of the engineer, and the contemporary decline of the clerical worker are cases among many which demonstrate not only the parochialism of people’s subjective feelings about class but also the invalidity of classification by occupation as such.

Neverless, people’s feelings about the class nature of occupation and income cannot be entirely without foundation, but what is the reality which underlies them? In the first place, the occupation of most people is their job, which is to say that they must do it in order to make their living. In the second place, job and income are closely tied together, so that it is fair to say that it is upon his job in all its aspects that a man is judged by his fellows.

But what is a job? A man’s job is the central part of his life, and if he is unemployed for any length of time he deteriorates not only economically but psychologically. This has for a long time been recognised as true for lower paid workers, but even the executive is doing exactly the same as the men he has been responsible for employing—offering his skill, experience and energy for sale—by the hour, day, week, month or year.

The reason for employing a manager or an executive is the same reason for employing anybody—profit; that since these are the people who undertake the employment of the £16-£20 a week workers, and yet are themselves employed, both must be employed by someone else; and that the size of the wage packet makes no difference to the buyer-seller relationship of a job. This is where the jargon of ’management v. workers’ has repeatedly clouded the facts in the last few years. A recent Guardian article draws attention to the importance of a manager’s identifying himself with ’the objectives of the enterprise’. But, as his primary relationship with the firm for which he works is that of buyer and seller, he is being asked to do a piece of double-think since, in any market, the buyer will always try to buy as cheaply as possible and the seller to get as high a price as possible.

Since the majority of people are in the position of having to sell their working ability for roughly fifty years of their lives in order to gain a livelihood, to whom can they sell? The salaried executives who undertake their employment do so in the name of the company they work for, and the company exists for the sole reason of making profits. If it did not, it would go out of business. The company is owned by its shareholders. These are, through their paid executives, the buyers of people’s skill and energy. In this they form the other side of the buyer-seller relationship, and in this they constitute a distinct and opposed class. That some of them may participate in the running of the business in which they have shares, or even that of someone else, is incidental. Their main function from society’s point of view is as providers of capital if they have enough of it. With the enormous growth and ramified development of limited liability companies, holding companies, and unit trusts, with the flowering of a sophisticated stock market and the international ebb and flow of capital, any one capitalist may well be only a minority shareholder in a great number of companies. But, together, they own all companies and—through state bonds and government stock, local authority borrowings and building society shares—the great bulk of nationalised industries, houses and land.

Of course, anyone may become a shareholder, and there are thousands of people who, although they have no choice but to work for their living, nevertheless own some shares. In aggregate, however, they own a very small proportion of the total. The class division in modern society is statistical; the dividing line is not as clear-cut as in mediaeval society; the edge is blurred and mobility from one class to another goes on to some extent all the time. But, if the curve is cut at different points, it can be shown that one per cent of the population of Great Britain owns 50 per cent of the wealth, ten per cent own 90 per cent, and so on. As a reasonable approximation, therefore, it may be said that 10 per cent of the population owns the civilised world (as well as large stretches of the underdeveloped countries) and employs the other 90 per cent who must seek, and try to maintain, employment simply because they do not own sufficient wealth to live without working.

In latter years it has become unfashionable to be ostentatiously wealthy. As Mrs. Maitland-Robinson said to William Hickey of the Daily Express recently when interviewed about the selling of £6 million worth of the family’s shares in Radio Rentals, “Although my husband is a millionaire we all lead a simple life really.” Paul Getty, with a financial empire of about £300 million has often said the same sort of thing. But since the relationship between the two classes appears as one of buyer and seller (reflecting the basic one of owner and non-owner) however it may be dignified by euphemisms, and since there is no motive for the buyers to buy except in expectation of increasing their wealth, it follows—and is borne out in the perpetual practice of wage and salary negotiations —that their interests are inevitably opposed. They thus form the only two classes of any importance in modern society.

Ron Cook