1980s >> 1981 >> no-923-july-1981

The Shamefaced Middle-Class

In Britain today, the richest ten per cent of the population own sixty per cent of the wealth. The other nine tenths of the people share between them less than half of the wealth. And yet it is precisely those nine tenths who, not having any substantial property or unearned income, are forced to work for a living, and so to create all that wealth. These figures were quoted in the 1979 report of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth.

The few who own all the factories, offices, plant and property, can therefore accumulate more and more by employing thousands of workers, while the bottom nine tenths have practically nothing but their ability to work. So about ninety per cent of the population are employees, they work for wages or salaries, and accumulate practically nothing. The wages and salaries paid to employees are generally consumed by every-day living expenses. Even high-paid managers are only getting a “living wage” if their salaries are eaten up by paying a mortgage, running a big car and so on, for these expenses are all part of their job. Only seven per cent of adults in Britain own shares, and more than eighty per cent of privately owned shares are held by one thousandth of the population. (See The Wealthy, CIS Report, 85p.) The Supplementary Benefits Commission has found that nearly three in five unemployed people have no money at all after one month out of work.

Who are the working class?
What is class? Some try to define it subjectively, saying that it is “up to the individual” to try to say what class they think they are in, if any. This produces chaos: Gallup polls in 1953 showed half the British people questioned, and nearly nine tenths of Americans questioned, claiming to be “middle class”. What are they in the middle of? Class needs to be objectively defined—not by what clothes you wear, where you live, your accent or what job you happen to do, but by your real economic position in society, conditions of life, how you are able to live.

Nine tenths of the population are forced by economic necessity to go and look for a job, to work for a living. Hundreds of years ago peasants were driven from off their strips of land into the growing towns, and forced to hire themselves out as wage-workers. They are the ancestors of the workers of today, of the managers and the professors as much as the miners and dockers. Tools were replaced by machinery, work-rooms by factories, and small shopkeepers and craftsmen were squeezed out by the competition of the early manufacturing capitalists. Class today is still determined by people’s relation to the productive machinery of society: do you own the factory, or do you work in it? Do you organise the production of wealth or do you sit back and receive it as profit dividends? People who are cut off from ownership of the means of production are forced to work for wages and salaries which are worth less than the total wealth they produce. The owners, who do not depend on wages or salaries for their living, depend on getting the surplus which results.

All those who have to work for a living are in the working class, and share a common interest to improve their condition of life. A salary is only a monthly wage; Arthur Scargill’s proposal that all miners should be paid salaries would not actually improve their conditions. Many employees do not directly create wealth, but they administer, mend, teach, distribute and ensure the smooth running of the profit system which benefits their employers. They belong to the class which builds all housing from palaces to pigsties, makes all food from caviar to carry-outs. We are all turned into mere commodities on a shelf: pasted-up pieces of card in the labour agency windows. We have different prices pinned on us, because what has been necessary to make, mould and maintain each of us will itself vary.

The employer may want some of the labour power to be more trained than others. But the principle is always the same: selling our ability to work for a weekly or monthly price. According to the Royal Commission report referred to above, “Average earnings in different occupations have come to differ much less” (page 11). If you didn’t inherit great wealth, then all you can do is create great wealth but it won’t be yours, it will belong to the employers, the shareholders or government-bond holders who own the means of wealth production. According to Class in a Capitalist Society by J. Westergaard and H. Resler. (Penguin, 1975):

  The crucial common component in the life circumstances of the mass of wage earners is their dependence on market sale of the labour. How crucial is evident from the wide range of other terms in life which they share, and which clearly separate them, by a gap incomparably greater than the internal divisions among them, from the minority for whom the wheels of private capital turn.

A social class is a group of people who share a common economic and political interest, because they share the same basic position in human society. The working class is the vast majority in modern society, who between them own practically none of the stocks and shares, land, companies and raw materials. The “middle class” is a myth—as can be seen by looking at the people most commonly described in that way.

Illustration by George Meddemmen.

Is there a middle class?
1. Managers. More than a hundred years ago Karl Marx clearly summed up the position of most managers:

  An industrial army of workers under the command of a capitalist requires, like a real army, officers (managers) and NCOs (foremen, overseers), who command during the labour process in the name of capital. The work of supervision becomes their established and exclusive function. (Capital, Vol. I, Pelican p. 450.)

In the recent national Census, this type of worker was covered by the category “employee supervising other employees”. A kind of industrial police, managers are given some measure of power over other workers, and are expected to maintain profitability, doing the shareholders’ dirty work for them by getting the most work for the least money out of the other employees. But the main point is that they are still just employees, dependent on their work and their wages for their living. They are also often particularly burdened with debt, through struggling to accumulate wealth after the manner of the chairmen and managing directors they idolise, by saving, borrowing and biting off more than they can chew.

They have not realised that capitalists build up wealth through the work of others; workers are exploited through their own work for companies they do not own. The Royal Report on Income and Wealth shows that people with less than £20,000 are generally in debt for about thirteen percent of what they own; for those with more than £200,000 the average debt is only about five per cent. Managers suffer the insecurity of all workers; they are threatened by redundancy. If profits begin to fall, it can be the more expensive “labour units” at the managerial end which are knocked off the pay-roll first. By the end of last year there were about 120,000 on the Professional and Executive Register of unemployed, and the Sunday Times published an article entitled: “The Redundant Executive”:

  Executive redundancy can be a brutal business. Firms often like the victims to go as quickly as possible, fearing an outburst of anger or resentment. Others shy away from the whole business and call in consultants to do the dirty work. Having built their careers around loyalty to the firm, redundant executives are often deeply wounded . . .The really loyal man with twenty years’ service can be a tragic figure, out of touch with the job market and inexperienced at winning in a job interview. He will be exceptional if he can even type his own job application letters and he will be shocked to learn that at 45. he may be considered too old. (14/12/1980.)

A course for redundant executives run by the Professional and Executive Recruitment section of the Manpower Services Commission, advises that they should “cast loyalty aside”, and suggests. “In panel interviews, remember you are a pawn in their game” and “If offered a job, ask immediately for written confirmation”. This is the kind of humiliating indignity which being in the working class involves.

2. Administrative and “White-collar” workers. The division between manual workers and “brain” workers is generally a false one. Could manual workers build a house without having brains? Could clerks work without manning the increasing bulk of manually operated office machinery? Recent action by workers in the Banking Insurance and Finance Union, the Council of Civil Service Unions, teachers, journalists, French magistrates (Guardian, 23/1/81) and even Finnish ecclesiastical workers (Guardian, 25/3/81) proves the point that all those who have to work for wages and salaries are in basically the same position. They must organise together to improve their conditions, by forming trade unions to maintain wage rates and by joining the political movement for a classless society. People who for years have clung on to the idea that they have a “middle class’ respectability are finally forced through economic pressure to concede that they, too, have to use the strike weapon to defend their living standards.

3. Shopkeepers and the Self-employed.
Most shopkeepers are really distributive workers, who work full hours running their shops, and have to struggle increasingly hard to compete with the ever-growing multinational supermarket chains. Although they are not directly employed by the large companies whose products they sell, they play a vital part in getting the goods from the production line to the consumers, and they are allowed to have a commission, a small cut of the profit involved, which rarely adds up to much more than the average salary of an accountant or an engineer. Few shopkeepers are able to retire at an early age with a financial empire to support them. In fact, they have no substantial property; they are members of the working class, struggling to hold on to a false independence. No lasting security or independence can be achieved without the ownership of substantial capital. Some of those officially described as “self-employed” are in fact capitalists, at the heads of enormous companies, so that the richest fifth of “self-employed” people receive more than half the total self-employed income (Income and Wealth report, page 18). But this does not alter the fact that generally, self-employed people depend for their living on their own daily work, and not on the work of others or the accumulation of capital. So they share the insecurity and poverty of the rest of the working class.

4. University graduates, artists and others. The small proportion of workers who go through university are being trained for particular kinds of jobs: mathematicians to analyse profitability, engineers to design productive machinery, historians to justify the existence of the profit system. They are all necessary to the owning class of employers, although at the moment provisions for universities are being cut back on the grounds that they are not absolutely essential to the production of profit in industry. If graduates cannot find jobs, they are reduced to the dole like any other worker. The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services recently reported that there were 55,000 graduates looking for jobs. Since only a small fraction of people go to university, this is roughly the same proportion of unemployed as the general level.

According to the Central Services Unit for Careers, fifteen per cent of arts students who graduated in 1979 were still unemployed by the end of the year. One university careers adviser makes it clear what class most students are in:

  It’s this discrepancy between the occupations for which arts graduates feel they are qualified, and the jobs they tend to end in, which causes a lot of unhappiness . . .The more idealistic will sometimes refuse to compromise, and may finish by having to learn the hard way. (Guardian, 6/1/81.)

Who are the capitalist class?
The capitalist class is a minority group which owns and controls the machinery of wealth production and distribution in modern society. It is highly exclusive and generally hereditary. The capitalist has power over the lives of the rest of us, because he or she possesses the land and factories which are needed to make the food and shelter we need if we are to live. They make sure that the transport, the schools, the industrial plant, the seas, are all run to provide them with profit out of the labour of others.

The capitalist class includes people like Rupert Murdoch, whose newspapers. The Times and The Sun are read by millions of workers every day. “Tiny” Rowland, who buys chain stores for millions of pounds, while most of us can’t even afford to go shopping in such places as Harrods and Barkers of Kensington. It includes Sir James Goldsmith, Sir Keith Joseph, Anthony Wedgwood-Benn, Peter Cadbury, Lord Sainsbury and anyone else who receives an unearned income of rent, interest or profit from owning land, financial or industrial capital. Wages and salaries may vary from £50 to £400, but each million pounds invested can yield an unearned income of thousands each week.

It is almost as if the capitalist class inhabits a separate world. Not having to spend time working for money, they are able to go shooting, hunting, ski-ing, travelling . . . asked in a recent television interview whether he meets people with much less money than himself, the outspoken millionaire Rupert Dean said “Not if I can help it”. Inside the showrooms of Bonhams, Cartier, Sotheby and Christies, behind the oak doors of the Turf, Boodles, Whites, the Royal Yacht Squadron and in dinner parties at Claridges, the Dorchester and Annabels, the parasite elite eat, drink and spend lavishly. They do not experience our menial cares and worries about money.

The Duke of Westminster, aged 28, recently inherited nearly 200,000 acres of land across the world, including 300 acres of Mayfair and Belgravia valued at £1,000,000,000. To him, it wouldn’t matter whether you are a manager, a poet, a printer or a gardener: you are a worker, to be hired to increase his wealth. At his wedding last year, he was reported as saying: “It’s absolutely true that we won’t have to worry about rents or mortgages or anything like that”. When Lord Brownlow’s four-year-old son inherited £3 million in 1979. he said that “he will remain a very normal little boy”: it is “normal” for children of capitalists to get more for their birthday than a worker on £100 a week would earn in six hundred years.

At Christies on 30 March 1981, Dr. Marino Chiavelli spent £1,364,000 on seven paintings (The Times, 1/4/81). These are to decorate his 48-room Johannesburg villa and his London eighteenth- century mansion. The night he was interviewed he was leaving London to visit Switzerland, The United States and South Africa, but he had time to explain that he owns about a dozen companies in the construction and crude oil businesses.

The way ahead
The capitalist class and the working class live totally different lives. Some workers are just paying NHS contributions, others pay BUFA private contributions; the capitalist’s insurance for the future is a lasting hold over the bulk of the earth’s resources. The Duke of Westminster is not employed, but he doesn’t need the dole either. You can’t get the sack from the security of property. It is the minerals, companies, share portfolios, lands, properties and industrial plant of the capitalist which provide real security and dominate society. A hundred years ago, clerks could hope sometimes to become partners in the small family firms they worked for. Now, ownership has become concentrated, and divorced from managerial work. Small firms are forced out of business or swallowed up by larger ones.

Units of production grow, and production takes on an increasingly socialised form, with millions working together to produce wealth. There is no room for snobbishness in the expanding class of employees who hold the key to a socialist future. Social mobility is a myth. To save up to buy the Duke of Westminster’s London land at the rate of ten pounds a week, would take two million years. World capitalism causes war, poverty and insecurity; but it is perpetuated by the futile ambitions of some workers who shirk class unity for the sake of their false hopes of becoming capitalists themselves.

Clifford Slapper