2010s >> 2019 >> no-1382-october-2019

Cooking the Books I: Who Are the Working Class?

 To coincide with its conference in September the TUC brought out a report, Building Working Class Power: How to address class inequality today (bit.ly/2lNfyMa), which called for discrimination on the basis of class to be outlawed, as with race, sex and disability today.

This requires a clear definition of ‘class’, which the report attempts. Recalling that the TUC was formed to advance the ‘general interests of the working classes’, it noted:

There’s a long historical tradition of contested definitions and meanings of the term class. One understanding see [sic] only two classes – those who own capital, and those who exchange their labour for a wage.’

Yes, there is such an understanding, and it’s the socialist position. The report, however, rejects this definition in favour of ‘narrower definitions of class’ based on occupation. It opts for a definition of ‘working class’ as someone doing a routine or semi-routine job, while noting that people doing such jobs amount to ‘just over twenty per cent of the employed population.’

This definition is so narrow that most people reject it, as the report is forced to admit:

research conducted in 2015 found that 60 per cent of people identified as working class – a figure unchanged since 1983 – including 47 per cent of those in jobs classified as managerial or professional.’

Despite this, the report persists with its definition of ‘working class’; which would imply that the TUC is committed to furthering the general interests of a mere 20 percent or so of the working population. Presumably, unions representing workers in ‘lower supervisory and technical occupations’ and ‘lower managerial, administrative and professional occupations’ had no input into the report.

The report goes on to narrow the definition of ‘working class’ even further by citing another measure telling ‘us something important about class’:

there is also a strong sociological tradition of looking at cultural as well as economic capital, exploring the ways that cultural choices like the way people dress, or the type of music they like, have been used a way of marking and maintaining class distinctions’.

So, even if you are doing a routine or semi-routine job but wear red corduroy trousers and listen to classical music you are not working class.

The report says that it doesn’t want to get into ‘a lengthy debate about definitions; but, if it wants a law to be brought in to ban ‘class discrimination’, there would have to be a precise definition of ‘working class’.

In any event, what the report is in effect demanding from its definition of working class is that people should have an equal chance to occupy managerial, administrative and professional jobs, i.e to escape from the working class. This is more ‘the working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last’ than ‘building working class power’.

The report, then, is both confused and confusing. In an advanced capitalist country like Britain, there essentially are only two classes – the capitalist class who own the means of life and the rest who, as Engels put it in a footnote to the 1888 English version of the Communist Manifesto, ‘having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.’ This includes not just those doing routine or semi-routine jobs but all in employed jobs who, with their dependants, make up 90 percent of the population.

The way to end discrimination against them is to end them being reduced to working for wages by making the means of life the common property of society under democratic control.