I think there is no better class distinction than the standard Marxian one which is a more concrete definition due to it's relational quality that identifies the essence of what makes one of a particular class rather than arbitrary selection founded in identifying people by socioeconomic status (SES).
Though I don't think such emphasis is without it's place, just that SES doesn't allow for a definition of classes, only strata within classes.
Just as the progressive movements of the past based on gendered and racialized relations aren't classes, but were significant none the less.
THE WORKING CLASS
If, instead of trying to dogmatically stretch the concept of the “working class” as an immediate predictor of other social phenomena such as ideology, patterns of social interaction and conflict, we first circumscribe the concept to the underlying structural relations of material power (which, I have argued, remains the most salient methodological perspective for assessing fundamental social cleavages and long-term structural constraints on the dynamics of social consciousness and action), then the “classical”, fairly straightforward Marxian interpretation of the concept is still essentially valid. The “working class” denotes the great majority of the population which is expropriated from the essential means of production, distribution and exchange, has no supervisory function and is forced (through impersonal market forces) to sell its labour power to capitalists. Workers have to sell their labour power for a price lower than the overall value of the fruits of their labour. However, as I shall soon explain, concrete circumstances in certain cases dilute this straightforward ideal-type.
As indicated earlier when discussing basic parameters of class analysis, I also consider market, status and wider work situations to be relevant for determining concrete class experiences and even class positions in a broader sense. At the moment, however, I shall restrict my analysis of these factors to their relevance (or lack thereof) for the first level of class determination, which encompasses the social (rather than merely technical) relations of production and the social division of labour (including the functional relationship of employees to capital).
How to determine where the boundaries of what can sensibly be called “the working class” end and the “middle class” or “classes” begin? The ambiguities regarding the class location of occupational categories generally tend to centre on “white-collar” occupations, which are popularly considered to belong to the “middle class”, although “non-manual” occupations (of service, administrative, professional and managerial varieties) exhibit greater levels of income inequality (Lloyd et al., 2008) and greater differences in work conditions and status than do (skilled and unskilled) manual occupations. These approaches therefore abandon “Weberian” criteria and opt out for more popular stratification models, not to mention their failure to devise non-arbitrary responses to the boundary problem in class categorisations.
My approach here, centred on the location in the relations of production, enables one to examine these controversies regarding the class locations of employees from a less arbitrary and ad hoc vantage point, considering the clearer (although not always unambiguous) boundaries with regards to individual’s relationship towards the ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and control over the central economic relations. Yet, there are certain erroneous theories stemming from an apparently similar “objectivist” viewpoint, which we must first evaluate.
The most off the mark of all the main theorists in this broad tradition is perhaps Poulantzas who, in a strangely dogmatic fashion, distinguishes between “productive”, manual primary and secondary sector jobs and “unproductive” service sector jobs, constricting the membership in the working class only to those who perform “productive labour” (among certain other conditions), since he takes surplus value as the necessary criterion for the existence of “real” exploitation, and holds that surplus value can only be produced by “productive” labourers, which he narrowly defines as those directly engaged in “material production” (Poulantzas, 1978). For Poulantzas, quite bizarrely, all those engaging in “mental” wage labour automatically constitute the “new petty bourgeoisie” (along with those engaged in subaltern supervision), simply by virtue of (as the argument goes) objectively and subjectively “internalising” and “concentrating” the relations of ideological and material domination over manual workers (Poulantzas, 1978, 273). However, though he attempts to situate his theory within the bounds of Marxist canon, Marx’s thoughts on this matter differed quite significantly. He explicitly considered labour to be productive if it produced “use values”, but held that these “use values” didn’t have to entail material products (Marx, 1976). “As the co-operative character of the labour-process becomes more and more marked, so, as a necessary consequence, does our notion of productive labour, and of its agent the productive labourer, become extended. In order to labour productively, it is no longer necessary for you to do manual work yourself; enough, if you are an organ of the collective labourer, and perform one of its subordinate functions” (Marx, 1976, 508-509). Furthermore, as he pointed out, non-industrial fields of economic activity also affect and contribute to material production, and are essential for the realisation of profit. Profit – which is the central goal of the capitalist mode of production - is produced in various spheres of capitalist economic activity, and all wage employees whose central work task is to ensure this new value for the capitalist can be considered to belong to the working class, at least from the basic perspective which I set out in the beginning of this section. “Nonmanual” workers are therefore also exploited – as well as dominated within the labour process and the wider social division of labour – thus sharing the same basic antagonism and the same basic class interests with “manual” workers. Besides, Marx actually referred to the “commercial proletariat” (Cottrell, 1984), even though he excluded – somewhat imprecisely, as Cottrell (1984) shows - the labour of circulation from the production of “use value” (which, as I already mentioned, he considered to be the sole criterion for the existence of “productive labour”), giving a certain credence to Colliot-Thélène’s (1975) doubt whether Marx even considered the division between “productive” and “unproductive” labour as being relevant to the issue of class determination. And, after all, “productive” and “unproductive” work, especially when considered in the narrow-minded Poulantzian fashion, are frequently just two “dimensions” of work inherent in the same occupation (Wright, 1976). Not to mention some senseless conclusions intrinsic to Poulantzas’ classification, e.g. that women are far more prevalent in the “new petty bourgeoisie” than are men, considering the gendered structure of employment.
Erik Olin Wright (1976), on the other hand, identifies “contradictory class locations”. For Wright, these contradictory locations originally included managerial layers, who hold powers of “economic possession” over the means of production and the labour power and process, but have limited or no access to “economic ownership”; secondly, supervisors, who share much of the working class situation but have partial control over the labour power of others; thirdly, “semi-autonomous employees” who have limited control over their own labour process; and lastly, small employers, “whose control over the labour power of others is minimal” (Cottrell, 1984, 75). While I would agree with the way he positions three of these layers in the class structure, in his characterisation of “semiautonomous employees” he collapsed two analytically distinct sets of criteria into an ad hoc, theoretically strained amalgam of materialist, production-oriented (“Marxian”) and market and ideology-based (“Weberian”) outlooks, and used a typically Weberian, arbitrary approach to categorisations regarding “non-autonomous” and “semi-autonomous” employees (since no exact boundaries are possible here: are truck drivers “middle class” because they have a certain autonomy in choosing which road to take?). Wright has, however, later accounted for skilled non-supervisory employees by switching from autonomy to the ownership of “skill assets” (skill- and credential-based privilege) as a basis of their supposed contradictory class location (1985), in addition to formulating the concept of “control over organisation assets” as a more materialist counterpart to Roemer’s “status exploitation” (Roemer, 1984). As far as “skill exploitation” is concerned, he bases his argument on the assumption that the holders of credentials “have artificially restricted the availability of certain skills” (Meiksins, 1989, 176), thus managing to extract an exploitative “monopoly rent” component in their wages. However, as Meiksins (ibid.) pointed out, Wright failed to provide evidence for his claim that the holders of credentials are getting paid above the “real” value of their product (let alone to prove that all workers with credentials exploit those without them), or to give proof which could defeat the counterclaim that the skills of credentialed employees make them more productive. Instead, he radicalised his argument by extending skill exploitation to the natural advantage stemming from “genetic lottery” which allows higher productivity (Wright, 1989, 193). This approach detracts from the truly relational understanding of exploitation (extending the designation of “skill exploitation” even to those workers who do not control their own credentialisation, or do not credentialise their occupations for non-professional, self-serving motives), and would, if consistently applied, lead to such nonsense as to claim that an opera singer is a “skill exploiter” on account of her genetic advantage. In his challenge to Wright’s theory, Meiksins (1989) also noted the possibility that credentials might at times actually prevent capitalist attempts to drastically cheapen the price of labour, thereby giving some protection to credentialed employees against the capitalist “race to the bottom” in wages and conditions. On the other hand, Edwards (1979) and others have pointed out that it is easier to manage a workforce divided by different skills and credentials, while Larson (1977) explored the individualistic and anti-egalitarian implications of “credentialist” ideology. As far as his concept of “skill exploitation” is concerned, Wright (1989) established that it can only exist provided skill is a scarce resource which enables certain individuals to extract additional income due to that scarcity
In effect, through identifying the extraction of a skill-based and organisation-based “rent”, Wright is trying to give a Marxist account of the closure strategies used by professional and skilled workers, as well as by supervisors and managers, to strengthen their position on the labour market, which had already been analysed by “Weberians” like Parkin (1979), among others. However, he has made a welcome modification of his position by suggesting that what “this relative vagueness in the link between skill exploitation and class relations may imply is that the expert-versus-nonexpert distinction should perhaps be treated as a form of stratification within classes rather than a class relation itself. This could, for example, define a type of class fraction within particular classes“ (Wrights, 1989, 22-23).
This distinction between the concepts of class and strata is also relevant when assessing Goldthorpe’s concept of the “service class”, a similar attempt to combine production-based and market-based criteria, which mistakenly conflates working class professionals and self-employed individuals (“free professions” like lawyers, doctors and consultants), failing to account for the fundamental production-based differences in their position through an oversimplified argument about the “trust”- and autonomy-based “service contract”, which supposedly puts them in an altogether different class from employees in “ordinary”, “wage contracts” (Goldthorpe et al., 1980). In reality, as Wright (1989, 333) later noted, these semi-autonomous professional employees actually belong to a more privileged stratum of the working class; different strata can be distinguished by “varying degrees of exploitation within a common location in the social relations of production. Strata within the bourgeoisie, accordingly, depend upon the amount of surplus they appropriate (...)“. Still, as I have already explained, performance of labour or capital functions also largely determines individual class locations and market- and status-based “class” or “stratification” hierarchies which often have the greatest impact on the individual’s consciousness and behaviour.
Additionally, some occupations entail inherent class trajectories (class mobility) which place them in an ambiguous position. One aspect of contradictory class locations and dynamics is the possibility that employees in the same or very similar occupations are actually “at different stages of diverse careers“ (Stewart, Prandy and Blackburn, 1980, 278). Different class trajectories or class biographies might structure individual class interests in significantly different ways, as the case of upwardly mobile employees most clearly illustrates (Stewart, Prandy and Blackburn, 1980; Wright, 1985). The temporal dimension or “class trajectory” of some professional workers – in the sense of an ordered career promotion ladder - places them closer to the supervisory and lower and middle managerial contradictory class locations, i.e. “the middle class” (Wright, 1989).
The most lucid categorisation of the “middle class” in the Marxian tradition was made by Carchedi (1977), who distinguishes the “middle class” from the “working class” on the basis of a separation – consistently made at the level of the relations of production - between the “function of labour”, which is the only function ordinary workers have access to, and the “function of capital”, which supervisory (“middle class”) wage-workers perform, although they don’t own the means of production and do not control the extended reproduction of capital, therefore experiencing exploitation as well. This “capital function” consists of organising the exploitation of others (which objectively pits supervisors against workers’ interests to a degree) without really contributing to the labour process itself. However, this might be only one dimension of the work activity of supervisors, who in the course of their job frequently also perform tasks closer to the productive function of job coordination. Determining what degree of capital functions is necessary in order to warrant positioning an employee in the “middle class” is therefore likely to be a contentious matter. Armstrong et al. (1986) usefully suggest that the primary determinant of the class position of supervisors is how their class interests are attached to their job tasks. From the perspective I have taken, it would seem most constructive to restrict the use of the (non-petit bourgeois) “middle class” category only to those whose basic job description or job benchmarks focus on the execution of the function of capital, since this option is at least founded on the goal of reaching a less arbitrary conceptualisation, and can help avoid the trivialisation of the “middle class” category (which often happens through the inclusion in the “middle class” of all the employees who, for instance by virtue of their seniority, can be said to possess certain basic supervisory entitlements, although these constitute a relatively marginal aspect of their work load, both quantitatively and in terms of the importance of these activities to managers who monitor their job performance). An additional point to bear in mind here is that, as Marx illustrated in his famous reference to the orchestra conductor (Marx, 1976, 644), “work of coordination and unity” of the labour process need not imply “work of supervision and management” in the capitalist sense (to use Carchedi’s phrases). Similarly, although draughtsmen, planning engineers and programmers are undoubtedly positioned higher than ordinary manual workers on any serious stratification scale (considering their higher skills, higher income and better work conditions, participation in the conceptual side of production, higher status etc.), they cannot be considered to belong to a higher class by the criteria used here, since these higher-end technical workers “act in a cooperative way towards manual workers (...) [,] they are not concerned with monitoring the intensity of manual labour, they do not control that labour, but are rather chiefly concerned with the craft aim of ensuring the quality of the finished product” (Smith, 1986, 90). This analysis could also be extended to plenty of professional “white collar” work as well. Of course, concrete analyses of the complex and changing reality of work are needed.
This overview points in the way of conclusion that the large majority of UK employees belongs to the working class, notwithstanding “the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of social labour splits labourers as well as capitalists“ (Marx in McLellan, 2004, 545).
Because the task is to identify the essential features of a thing
, which is impossible if one's thinking ends up with abstract universals based on attributes that are common to all within a group instead of identifying what feature underpins and is the basis to any and every particular by logical necessity.
Such is the Marxian definition that it identifies what essentially creates one's class position and any particulars are embedded within such a grouping.
Stratification doesn't replace the Marxian concept of class but it can help in providing greater detail within it's bounds and thus can be complimentary I believe.
An issue though is that whilst Marxian sense of class remains it is indeed the class there is an intense fragmentation in the division of labour that no longer readily allows the sort of working class movements of the past. Life is different now as is the political landscape.https://ethicalpolitics.org/ablunden/works/SP-talk.htm
Here a little dialectics is necessary. Class consciousness means a social class, sharing common conditions of life, and a social movement organised around a demand for justice and a vision of the future. But these two entities are never actually identical. Class consciousness is the unity of two opposites which are never absolutely identical.
The working class that Kautsky envisaged becoming more and more homogeneous and gradually swelling to include the entire population is not going to come about. Class consciousness is very weak, and quite honestly I don’t see the social basis for it turning the corner, at least not in countries like Australia. Just as in the earliest days of communism, communists will probably belong to small groups, ‘secret societies’.
But secondly, while proletarian class consciousness is very fragmented and weak, capitalism has become absolutely ubiquitous, it covers the entire globe and penetrates even the most private and the most communal of relations. As a result, the potential for an anti-capitalist formation, based on the social conditions of all of us suffering under capitalism, is really there. But when I say ‘formation’ I mean that it cannot be a ‘movement’ like the social movements of the past. I'm sorry, but I think the social conditions for such movements, which gave the communists the opportunity to contest for leadership of the people, have gone.
This is not a bad thing. It just means that the social conditions for socialist revolution and for socialism itself are coming about in a somewhat different way than we envisaged. The Manifesto envisaged:
“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” [Communist Manifesto, Chapter 2]
The communist ideal has always been connected with the modern wage labourer insofar as he or she thinks in and for his or her class. The task of Marxists today is to figure out how to translate that vision into forms of social consciousness which make sense in today’s world, in a form which embraces the irreducible diversity of modern society. The writings of Karl Marx and the experience of millions who have fought the good fight over the past 150 years remain a priceless resource, ... so long as we are prepared to find new solutions to new problems.
Which I believe requires some nuance of the Marxist sort in seeing the class content of many struggles that aren't labelled as such, trying to respect that there is a diversity present but figuring out how it isn't dominated by the class perspective but complimented.
Which is difficult for those who see class as merely another identity rather than seeing how it relates