Is there a “middle class”?
I have read with great interest your new pamphlet The Market System Must Go! on “why reformism doesn’t work” and admire the style with which you present usually obscure economic topics in a readily understandable way. I should like to comment on one of these–the distribution of wealth–dealt with in Chapter 7.
Here you explain how in modern capitalism ownership of the means of production takes the form of legal rights to claim unearned income from stocks and shares, interest-bearing bank and building society accounts, government bonds and National Savings, (perhaps rents could be added to this list?). You demonstrate the grossly unequal distribution of this income-producing wealth using tables from Social Trends published by the Central Statistical Office. These can be arranged to show that in 1992 the top 5 percent owned 53 percent of investment capital, the next 20 percent owned 29 percent and the last 75 percent owned 18 percent.
In my view these figures are slightly misleading as although they exclude the value of dwellings, they do include household goods and personal items–such as cars–which make up such a large proportion of “working-class” wealth. On the other hand the top one percent “hold more of their wealth in shares than in any other form”. (Social Trends 1996 p. 111). This reinforces the socialist case that the largest concentration of ownership of the means of production is in the hands of a small minority of the population, and the working-class majority own a very small amount of investment capital–probably in the form of modest building society or National Savings accounts.
But what about the middle group, shown here as 20 percent of the adult population owning 29 percent of investment capital?
These make up what is generally regarded as the “middle class”, except by the Socialist Party who maintain that there are only two classes–the owners of the means of production and the wage or salary earning working class. For example, in the October 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard, the now defunct Class War is stated to have made “one crucial error in their class analysis. Instead of a two-class society–owners and workers, they had three”. Evidently Class War (whose publications I have not read) made many errors, but this was not one of them–the three-class analysis conforms more closely to reality than the two-class model of the Socialist Party.
In the above table the population is split at 75 percent because a scrutiny of the relevant Inland Revenue statistics indicates that below this point the average holding of investment capital or “savings” (excluding dwellings, household and personal goods) does not reach £16,000–the point at which eligibility for any Social Security benefit is disqualified. For the 20 percent, this £16,000 minimum (it increased rapidly up the population scale) produces significant unearned income, but not enough to live on. The individual is forced to seek employment as a wage or salary earner, and it is this dual relationship to the means of production–as significant investor and as employee–that defines the middle class and is the economic basis for this class.
The Socialist Party’s view that the middle class are simply the “better off” working class implies that they have an identity of interest with the 75 percent wage-earning majority. While this may be true in the long-term perspective of a future socialist society, it is far from the case now. As the middle class derive an income from their “stake” in the ownership of the means of production they will, and do for the most part, identify their interests with those of capital rather than labour. This middle class (probably in fact larger than Social Trends’s tables indicate) occupy positions of power and influence in all areas of political, economic, and cultural life. They are Tony Blair’s “stakeholders” in capitalism and it is not clear how they can be converted to socialism. On the contrary, they act as a channel for capitalist ideology to permeate the working class–a formidable challenge indeed for the Socialist Party!
JOHN WILLIAMS, Nottingham
Classes are defined by the relationship of their members to the means of production, not by how rich or poor they are. Of course the members of the dominant class are generally rich and the members of the dominated class(es) are generally poor, but this is an effect not the cause of the division of society into classes.
This means that the figures for wealth ownership are only an indication of the class structure of society–they show that society is divided into classes but not how it is. So, classes should not be defined on the basis of them; classes are defined socially not statistically. And the working class is defined socially as those members of capitalist society who are excluded from the ownership and control of the means of production and are therefore forced to get a living by trying to find an employer to buy their labour power.
Most of those you want to call the “middle class” fall into this category, even if they do have savings, since these savings are not sufficient to change their social position. In the vast majority of cases their “investment income” is not going to amount to more than a few thousands pounds a year at most. Nor are we convinced that such people regard themselves as capitalists; they may not call themselves “working class” but this is because of the term’s popular (but mistaken) association with manual labour and not because they don’t regard themselves as working. In fact they get quite irate if you suggest this. On the other hand, as we said in our criticism of Class War, “making a putative middle class into an enemy is as divisive as anything dreamed up by the owning class”.
Have these better off workers (yes, that’s what they are) you want to call the “middle class” an interest in establishing Socialism? Why not? They are exploited in the sense that they produce more value (or save more time) for their employers than they are paid for (this surplus value they produce will also be more than what they get as income on their savings). Like the rest of the working class (properly understood), they suffer from pressures to work harder, stress and job insecurity.
And even if their higher income does allow them to avoid bad housing and hospital queues and dump schools they still suffer from the bad–and worsening–“quality of life” under capitalism: rampant commercialisation, lack of community feeling, social breakdown, decadent values, not to mention pollution and the threat of war.–Editors.
I should like to put forward a question which I think of more relevance now towards the end of the century and the beginning of the new one: what are your aims as the Socialist Party of Great Britain on the transformation of the state? Do you advocate the same theoretical line of certain other system-methodists in the prediction of the withering away of the state, and the instigation by some organised body of a working class of what Lenin referred to as “Marx’s first and second phases” of Communist society?
I know you don’t refer to yourselves as communists, but surely in certain respects your ethos is the same (please correct me if I speak out of turn). What are your thoughts on the acceptance of inevitable inequality in the evincement of the capitalist system, as it crumbles away around us, and we search the debris for the remnants of order, moving consciously towards the second, or higher, phase of the new society? I’m not speaking of “fantastical utopianism” but merely the practical acceptance of the inevitable, and the proper instigation of the new order.
I understand fully that your long term aim is, as all good socialists, the seizing of the means of production, and the property of the whole rather than the individual. But for which socio-economic system do we aim? You will of course say socialism. Perhaps you could define what you mean. Are you referring to some time in the far future, when we shall all work voluntarily as best we can, as far as our ability goes, to suit our joint needs, as part of a co-operative society, no man more independent than another? Do you see this as the conclusion to the modern life-style under the present socio-economic system?
Do you still see yourself as the aggressive enemy of the oppressors of the masses, and the benefactor of the working people? Do you advocate a revolution, or simply a democratic process which is no longer democratic in that it no longer means “for the people”? There can be no democracy under a capitalist system. Do you suffer under the illusion that you can win our case through agitation of the media and non-socialist members, as well as so-called socialist members of the government and local political constituencies? I’m not asking for a recital of your Objective as a Party, but merely a considered response to a straightforward letter.
KIMBERLEY J. ELLIS, Bromley, Kent
Our aim is socialism, which we define as a world-wide society in which the Earth’s resources will be the common heritage of all humanity under democratic control at world, regional and local level as appropriate. It will be a society where, in your words, “we shall work voluntarily as best we can, as far as our ability goes, to suit our joint needs, as part of a co-operative society”. It will be a society in which the state, as the public power of repression at the disposal of a ruling class, will have been abolished and replaced by a participatory democracy. This is our immediate aim, not some long-term goal.
In short, we think that given the development of productive capacity since Marx made the distinction in 1875 between a “first” (when full free access according to needs would not be possible) and a “higher” phase of “communist society” (when it would), the so-called higher phase can-and should-be established more or less immediately.
Although we call such a society “socialism” we have no objection to it being called “communism” as long as it is clearly understood that this has nothing to do with the state-capitalist dictatorships that used to exist in Russia and East Europe.
As to your other questions, no, we don’t see ourselves as “the benefactor of the working people”. We are wage and salary workers who don’t see ourselves as a group doing anything for other fellow workers other than putting before them the basic socialist propositions that under capitalism there is an irreconcilable conflict of interest between capitalists and workers; that capitalism can never be reformed so as to work in the interest of workers; that what is required is a society of common ownership, democratic control and production for use not profit.
If workers want such a socialist society this is something they must do for themselves without following leaders or relying on benefactors. We can’t establish it for them. As we say in our declaration of principles “the emancipation of the working class must be the working of the working class itself”.
No, we don’t suffer from the illusion that existing MPs and local councillors can do anything to further the cause of socialism. Their job, and in fact aspiration, is merely to run the political side of capitalism in Britain, and capitalism can only be run as a profit system in which priority must always be given to making profits over meeting needs. We also agree that there can be no real democracy under capitalism in the sense of a situation in which everybody has an equal say in deciding what should be done and in which those decisions can be implemented without hindrance. This is not the case today.
Having said this, in many parts of the world including Britain a sufficient degree of democracy exists for a socialist majority to be able to use existing elective bodies, such as parliament, to win control of the state machine through the ballot box. Of course, to work, this presupposes a socialist-minded and democratically organised majority outside parliament standing firmly behind the delegates they will have sent into parliament with the single mandate to take the formal steps to stop the state supporting capitalism.