Class Today, Part One

Posted: July 16, 2013 in politics
Tags: , , , , , ,

In July 2013 a ship the size of a small city was squatting in Galway Bay. This is a cruise liner where you pay $3 million to live there in a two-bed room. This 43,500-tonne playground for the rich was the talk of the town for the few days it stayed – people spoke of three restaurants, a tennis court, even a golf course.

Of the 250 workers who run the ship, however, we heard nothing. If most cruise liners are anything to go by, they couldn’t have been having much fun. Cruise liner workers are often confined to a ship for eight months, many with zero days off and one 16-hour day after another.

As if begging to be used in a clumsy metaphor, the liner in question bears the modest name of “The World”.

But clumsy metaphors can still be effective. A luxury cruise liner like “The World” is a place that is at the same time a playground and a prison. It’s a holiday site for the statistically insignificant section of the human race who have millions to spare for holidays; it’s a floating prison for the workers who are forced by the need for money to work there.

And yet, even with this great hulking metaphor squatting in the bay, there are people who say that class is not an issue anymore, or in the words of Prescott of the UK’s Labour Party, “We are all middle class now”. The financial crisis has softened the cough of those who argue that class has disappeared but these kinds of ideas are still prevalent, if not dominant.

The Irish Labour Party

Irish Labour Youth’s Tom Johnson Summer School for 2013 was entitled “From lock out to left out”. Strange title, isn’t it? You can understand it if you look at the election manifestoes of this ex-left-wing party. In 2007 this party argued that things were brilliant in Irish society, but that there were some unfortunates who were “disadvantaged” and “marginalised” and had to be looked after.

So the message of Labour Youth is – in 1913 bosses locked out workers. In 2013 there are a few people who are “left out” of a party that the rest of us are enjoying.

A Labour Party member might agree that someone who has €50 or less left after the bills are paid at the end of the month is someone who’s “left out”. But is “left out” really the appropriate term when 1.6 million households are in this position?

The Great British Class Survey

Earlier this year a survey on class conducted in the UK “found” that “traditional” views on class were no longer viable. It did not define these “traditional” views. It unaccountably chopped up the working class into four sub-groups based on arbitrary differences, while allowing something called the “Established Middle Class” to dominate as the largest single bloc.

For more details see here:

Real life

These views have real-life effects in the everyday struggles of the working class. Last year a strike at a restaurant in Denmark was actively sabotaged by a splinter group of Anonymous, who denounced the workers and their “carbon-based class struggle”. When local newspapers carried ads for the restaurant, which was behind a picket, the printing workers decided to call a sympathy strike and get the ads removed. The Anonymous splinter group then hacked into the trade union’s website, shut them down, and disrupted payments to members – all in order to defend the “freedom of speech” of private newspapers!

So what is class?

“Working class” does NOT mean an industrial worker from Victorian England. We can’t present a snapshot of what a “working class person” looks like and judge whether someone is a worker or not based on how much they look like that snapshot. That wouldn’t be a scientific category, it’d be a stereotype.

Unfortunately most of the media deal in exactly such stereotypes, and most people’s ideas are unbelievably muddled by the very same confusion.

“Ireland doesn’t really have a working class, though, does it?” a friend asked me once.

Ireland doesn’t have swarms of men in overalls and flat caps tramping into factories and mines at the roar of a plant whistle – men with cockney or north-of-England accents whose heavyset wives menace them with rolling pins for having one too many pints of bitter. Ireland does not have an abundant collection of these historically-originated stereotypes. But Ireland does, unquestionably, have a working class.

Interrelations, not static categories

A better way to look at class and society is the way a biologist looks at a forest, a beach, a field or any other ecosystem. You try to determine how the different species of plants and animals interact, compete, cooperate and kill, and how this activity produces the overall environment.

We do the same thing when we look at society, only instead of an ecosystem, it’s a complex system of economic relations. And this is the crucial factor. The working class is defined by its position in society – its position in RELATIVE, not ABSOLUTE, terms. It’s defined by the niche it occupies in the “ecosystem” of capitalism – how it survives, how it interacts with other forces.

Let’s say there’s a worker named Usama who makes burgers. Let’s say there’s a worker named Kate who makes agricultural chemicals.

Kate has a higher level of education, earns more, is more secure, has more regular hours and has a lot of cultural and social contact with the world around her.

Usama has only spent a couple of years in Ireland; he works crazy hours for minimum wage, gets called in on his day off, and doesn’t have a lot of contact with a lot of Irish people.

Relative to each other these two workers are very different.

But they have more in common: they both occupy the same niche in the system. They work in exchange for wages. These wages allow them to exist. This is an exploitative relationship: if you control property, and have the exclusive power to employ people, those people will always be employed on YOUR terms. Otherwise why the hell would you employ them?

In a given business ten, twenty or a hundred workers use their bodies to turn raw materials into things for people to buy, be it cups of coffee, ink cartridges or cars. The boss takes the money, gives each worker a fraction of it, and keeps the lion’s share. His only contribution was to get the raw materials, equipment , land and labour together; in other words, his only contribution was to own wealth and to use it.

There are different degrees of exploitation as in the comparison between Kate and Usama. But the fundamental relationship is the same. So we take a broad view of the working class. They are defined not by visual and cultural incidental details, but by their relation to their boss, by this unfavourable niche they occupy in human society.

Exceptions or Borderlands

This division is not absolute and clear-cut:

Higher managers and well-paid professionals like doctors and professors obviously stand closer to the boss than to the worker.

A teacher might own a few houses; a worker might dabble in private business; a tradesman might be self-employed.

The state also employs a lot of people, especially in modern capitalism. The relationship is, however, the same.

A lot of farmers in Ireland make so little off their land that they have to work on the side. They own property, but it’s a dead weight. Property becomes a burden, not a privilege.

So the division between worker and capitalist is not absolute. But it is the most significant division in society. Between those who live by working, and those who live by owning and acquiring. There are broad middle strata who might both own and work. There are those who work but are so well-paid they identify with those who own.

But some, like the authors of the Great British Class Survey, mistake these exceptions for the rule. They spend their whole lives in the borderlands and never see the heartlands of either country. They see elements of both countries, that of capital and that of labour, all around, but they can’t distinguish the two.


As well as this theoretical explanation there’s a more obvious objection to the idea that we’re “all middle class now” and that’s the simple question of how any society would work if it was composed of just high-paid professionals and successful businesspeople. This strange utopia, by the way, is actually what a lot of the mainstream politicians think Ireland is, or at least what it should be.

But if such a society existed, who would make the clothes for these people to wear? Who would produce the food they eat, the cars they drive, the instruments and appliances? Who would the doctors treat? Who would buy goods from the businesses? Who would the administrators administer? Where would all the wealth that sustains the activity of the upper layers of society come from?

Despite massive advances in IT, in transport, communications and the sophistication of the operations of finance capital, we have NOT reached a stage in history in which goods and services fall from the sky. Without the underpaid labour of billions of people who are marginalised and exploited, no capitalist society could possibly function. This is the most obvious and indisputable evidence of the existence of the working class today: the fact that completed commodities do not fall from the sky in response to some chants and rituals that only millionaires know.

But class, and the working class in particular, have gone through huge changes in Ireland, in Europe and all across the world, since the 1980s or so. Tune in again soon for a follow-up post on the broad question of what changes the working class has undergone in recent decades.

  1. […] Class Today, Part One […]

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