What class you are in is defined by the position in which you stand with regard to the means of production. In capitalist society there are two basic classes: those who own and control the means of production and those who own no productive resources apart from their ability to work.
The working class in capitalist society is made up of all those who are obliged through economic necessity to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary. If this is your position then you are a member of the working class. The job you do and the status it might have, the pay you receive and how you chose to spent it, are irrelevant as long as you are dependent on working for a wage or salary in order to live.
In Britain over 90 percent of the population are members of the working class. Of the rest only about 2-3 per cent are members of the exploiting, capitalist class who enjoy a privileged non-work income derived from the surplus value produced by the working class over and above what they are paid as wages and salaries. The others are the self-employed –small shopkeepers, independent workers, professional people –whose income is derived from selling some service or other directly to the consumer rather than from selling their labour power to an employer. And many of these can be assimilated, in terms of income, to the ordinary worker.
What this means is that essentially we are living in a two-class society of capitalists and workers. But what about the “middle class”? The existence of such a middle class is one of the greatest myths of the twentieth century. In the last century, the term was used by the up-and-coming industrial section of the capitalist class in Britain to describe themselves; they were the class between the landed aristocracy (who at that time dominated political power) and the working class. Eventually, however, the middle class of industrial capitalists replaced the landed aristocracy as the ruling class and the two classes merged into the capitalist class we know today. In other words, the 19th century middle class became part of the upper class and disappeared as a “middle” class.
The term, however, lived on and came to be applied to civil servants, teachers and other such white-collar workers. But there was no justification for this, as such people were clearly workers just as much obliged by economic necessity to sell their ability to work as were factory workers, miners, engine drivers and dockers. The only difference was the type of job they were employed to do –and a certain amount of snobbery attached to it. .
It is not just the Daily Mail persists in believing that there is a middle class. So does the SWP which has come forward with a theory of the “new middle class”. This “class” is said to be composed of higher-grade white collar workers and to make up between 10 and 20 percent of the workforce (The Changing Working Class by SWP leaders Alex Callinicos and Chris Harman, p. 37). The reason given for excluding these people from the working class is that they exercise some degree of control over the use of the means of production and/or authority over other workers; in short, because they perform some managerial role.
To adopt this view is to abandon the relationship-to-the-means-of-production theory of class for one based on occupation. Socialists have always maintained that, as far as the actual production of wealth is concerned, the capitalist class are redundant. They play no part in production, which is run from top to bottom by hired workers of one sort or another. This means that all job, including those concerned with managing production and/or disciplining other members of the working class, are performed by members of the working class. To exclude from the working class workers with no productive resources of their own who are paid, among other things, to exercise authority of behalf of the employing class over other workers is to give more importance to the job done (occupation) than to the economic necessity of having to sell labour power for a wage or salary which for Marxists is the defining feature of the working class.
Of course not everybody who receives an income in the form of a salary is necessarily a member of the working class. Some capitalists chose to manage their own businesses and pay themselves a “salary” for doing this. Although a part of this might correspond to the price of labour power (the part corresponding to what the capitalist would have to pay to hire a professional manager to do the same job), usually most of it is only a disguised way of distributing some of the surplus value at the expense of the other shareholders. What makes a salary-earner a member of the working class is not the mere receipt of a salary but being economically dependent on it for a living.
Having to work for an employer was not only how Marx defined the working class. It is also, and more importantly, the view of many workers who have never heard of Marx. When asked, as in a number of recent radio broadcasts, a surprising –and pleasing –number have replied that anyone who has to work for a living is a worker. Which makes them more sensible than both the Daily Mail and the SWP.