Plumbers and teachers

James Turley is not surprised that 10 years of Labour rule have not created a "classless society". But does class still matter?

The Onion, the renowned American satirical newspaper, once ran an article entitled 'Teen sex linked to drugs and alcohol, reports Center for Figuring Out Really Obvious Things'

Something like an analogous article has appeared in The Guardian. This reported the results of its latest opinion poll, carried out by right-leaning pollsters ICM, which informs us that "10 years of Labour rule have failed to create a classless society" (October 20). Once readers have regained their composure, they will see the article continues: "Of those questioned, 89% said they think people are still judged by their class - with almost half saying that it still counts for 'a lot'"; "only 8% think that class does not matter at all in shaping the way people are seen"; "The poorest people in society are most aware of [class's] impact" ... and so on. Most alarmingly for the Thatcherite political mainstream, "in 1998, 41% of people thought of themselves as middle class, exactly the same proportion as today", while "the upper class is almost extinct, with only 2% of those who answered claiming to be part of it".

On a superficial level, all this serves as a welcome corrective to bourgeois bluster about the 'disappearing' working class, the society of opportunity and other such odious buzz-words which have served to unconvincingly mask the continuing exploitation that defines capitalist life. That it comes from the ultimate 'middle class' paper itself makes the result that much more fitting.

The bourgeoisie and class

That said, the Guardian piece raises more questions than it answers. So 41% of people think they are middle class - but what actually is the middle class? Traditionally, of course, society was divided into the lower classes (workers), the middle classes (the bourgeoisie), and the upper classes (the land-owning aristocracy). However, this was clearly an inadequate model by the end of the 19th century, with the 'middle classes' definitively taking the ruling position in society and the landowners essentially turning themselves into a layer of capitalists in most countries.

Equally, it has been clear that sections of the population - the petty bourgeoisie and until relatively recently the more privileged professionals (eg, doctors) - have not slotted neatly into one or the other camp, and it has become general practice to refer to these occupations as 'middle class'.

How has bourgeois ideology responded to this? The original approach was the sociological model of class, a series of eclectic syntheses of various factors - salary, consumption habits, area of residence and the like - into a scale of class. The first such model was the work of Max Weber. The most well known today, however, is the NRS 'social grading' system, where people are divided into As, Bs, C1s, C2s, Ds and Es. As are privileged professionals; Es are casual labourers.

A more recent development, but one which has fed indirectly into most articles of dominant ideology (not least of which our Guardian article), is the development of so-called identity politics. In brief, this claims that class derives from a person's self-identification. It has been most clearly developed in the relatively new academic discipline of cultural studies, which - since abandoning the Marxism of its youth as 'class-reductionist' or 'class-essentialist' - has largely dedicated itself to examining the interactions between race, class and gender.

Now is not the time for a full Marxist critique of identity politics - suffice to say that it is far more 'reductionist' than even the most vulgar Marxist views of class, race and so on, destroying any unique content of any given term and collapsing them all into the undifferentiated morass of 'identity'. But the idea that 'self-identification' is the ultimate source of class is clearly the basic axiom of the Guardian article. A sentence like "The middle class has grown: although 41% of people think they are part of it, only 32% say their parents were" clearly implies that self-designation leaves the whole matter of class settled.

In mainstream bourgeois thought, then, we can see class being transformed from an objective category (in the various demographic models) to a subjective one (the self-designations and lifestyle-fetishism of identity politics).

The left, Marxism and class

It is unfortunate, then, that groups on the left have frequently lapsed into similar views on the matter. That particular sub-species of economism known as 'workerism' is illustrative - a tendency to view industrial workers as 'more working class' than anyone else. Perhaps the most infamous example of this practice in left history is the United Secretariat of the Fourth International's 'turn to industry' in 1979. Under the influence of the rightward-drifting and by this point semi-Stalinist American Socialist Workers Party, activists were ordered to up sticks and get jobs in factories (the US SWP and its new 'international', the Pathfinder Tendency, still operate in this manner).

An economistic view of the nature of the working class cannot but lead to an economistic view of working class struggle. There is another group that effected a similar 'turn to industry', although it meant recruiting out of, rather than sending recruits into, factories - Tony Cliff's International Socialists around the early 1970s. It had natural programmatic consequences - everything apart from trade union struggle was said to be the preserve of 'student types', or (with a certain irony, given later developments) "people who should be in the IMG" (the British Usec section).

As for Usec itself, the various turns to industry did not prevent its rather infamous enthusiasm for 'third world' nationalists and cross-class formations. It is arguable that Usec's workerism sent it away from the working class, leading it to underestimate the potential for proletarian-led revolution.

In the first instance, a properly Marxist view of class, in contradistinction both to workerism and the fads of bourgeois academia, is centred firmly on the relations of production. When we ask what the nature of a given social class is, we are asking - at a basic level - what is its power over the productive forces? A feudal lord was not a feudal lord by dint of his taste for elaborate feasts and expensive clothes, but because he controlled the lands on which the serfs worked, and ran the army on whose protection the serfs relied.

Secondly, class status is dynamic. The children of the working class have no more power over the means of production than their parents - by attending school, they no more leave the working class than their parents do by stealing a holiday once in a while. Likewise, the bulk of university students, even where grants are generous enough that taking a job is not necessary, remain members of the working class. Upon leaving the campus, they will proceed directly into wage-labour, the vast majority in increasingly proletarianised professions such as teaching. Homemakers, the severely disabled and others are all as reliant on the wage fund as their respective breadwinners, and fall into the working class.

In this view, it is clear that we have two major classes - those who own the means of production, along with their immediate 'deputies' (CEOs, the political establishment, etc) form a ruling class; and those who own nothing, who are forced to sell their labour-power to the first, or have another person do so in their stead, form the working class. This is the basic core of the Marxian analysis of capitalism.

Whither the middle class?

Establishing the shape of the middle classes is trickier. What we can say for sure is that, of that 41% of respondents to the Guardian/ICM poll, many are simply misled. They will include teachers, nurses, lecturers, clerks and others - in short, white collar workers - and these will form the majority of their number. The most solid part of the middle class is the petty bourgeoisie: shopkeepers and the self-employed. (This stratum, incidentally, appears to have shrunk during Labour's tenure of office - 2.4 million men were self-employed in 1996, as compared to 2.2 million today.) On top of these, we may include professionals who are less reliant on the wage fund: ie, those well-off enough to draw significant income from their own investments. It is not necessary that these investments have in fact been made - a City ad-man on £90k may or may not own a second home, but is middle class because he is capable of doing so. Even being generous in the definition of the latter group (which will necessarily be blurry), the middle class cannot amount to more than 20% of the population.

What does The Guardian tell us about class, then? Firstly, that there is a big discrepancy between class position and class-consciousness. The myth of the ever-expanding middle class is a powerful one, of which great play has been made by Thatcher and her epigones. In truth, the opposite is the case. The increasing proletarianisation of ever larger layers of professional workers has caused a precipitous decline in the middle classes. This myth, however, is starting to break down - recall the scandal, a few years ago, when the papers twigged that plumbers were frequently earning more than teachers.

Secondly, we learn that the bourgeois ideological establishment is still terrified by the very fact of class divisions. Even in the admission, there is a denial - the focus on people being 'judged' as this or that class, on snobbery and prejudice, on attempts to collapse class into a matter of what you eat and drink. To see the working class for what it is - the last productive class, and the one capable of destroying the whole sorry system - would be a scandal too far.