Class is commonly defined on the basis of income, wealth, education, and occupation. However, such individual characteristics tell us nothing about the relationship between the classes.
A social definition of class would measure two variables: the control that people have over their own work and the control that they have over other people’s work. Using these criteria, society can be divided into three classes: the class that rules (the capitalist class); the class that produces (the working class); and the class in between (the managerial and middle classes).
The class that rules
The capitalist or ruling class have the most power because they own or control: the natural resources required to create wealth, the process of creating wealth, and the wealth that is created. Because they control the economy, the capitalist class decide the overall direction of society, determining what will be produced, how it will be produced, and who will have access to the resulting goods and services.
The capitalist class include CEOs of the largest corporations and social institutions and the highest-ranking politicians, government bureaucrats, judges, and military officers. Each nation has its own capitalist class, and together they form a global capitalist class.
Capitalists compete constantly to accumulate capital. Any capitalist that put people before profit would fall behind and risk being put out of business. The drive to accumulate capital results in stronger corporations swallowing weaker ones and stronger nations dominating weaker ones.
Ceaseless competition has caused the ruling class to shrink in numbers while they grow in wealth and power. By 2005, one percent of people at the top of society owned one-third of America’s financial wealth.
The class that produces
The capitalist class control the means of production, and the working class set it in motion. Workers create all the wealth in society, yet have the least power. People in the working class own no factories, no land, no machines, no businesses, nor any other means of making a living. (They can, of course, own personal property such as homes and vehicles.) Workers survive by selling their ability to labor in exchange for a wage. They have no control over how they produce and what they produce. They have no control over the labor of others.
While the ruling class have shrunk over time, the working class have expanded. More than half the global population are now urban working class. (The next largest group are small farmers who own a little land). In the US, an estimated 80 percent of the population is working class – the vast majority.
Rising productivity has made it possible to accumulate more surplus from fewer workers. Some of this surplus has been used to expand the service sector – finance, transportation, communications, hotels, restaurants, and the education, medical, and penal systems. While the proportion of industrial workers has declined, the proportion of service workers has increased. As a whole, the working class continue to grow in numbers.
The working class are the only social force capable of taking collective control of production and redirecting it to meet the needs of the majority.
The class in the middle
The middle class are the second-largest social class. Forming about 20 percent of the North American population, the middle class sit between the two other classes, blending into the capitalist class at one end and the working class at the other end.
People in the middle class have an intermediate level of power, having some control over their own work and some control over the work of others. The middle class own or control some means of production: the small farmer owns some land; the self-employed artisan owns some tools: the corner-store retailer buys and sells some produce. Sections of the middle-class employ and exploit workers – on a small scale.
The 18th-century middle class was composed of small farmers and fishermen, artisans, entertainers, lower-level clergy, traders, and owners of small businesses. The process of capital accumulation absorbs the traditional middle class. Agricultural corporations swallow family farms, supermarkets displace corner grocery stores, and fast-food chains replace family restaurants.
While capitalist production squeezes out the traditional middle class, it creates an expanding layer of middle-class managers to supervise the working class. The capitalist also need professional financial, legal, scientific, design, and technical experts to find ways to increase profits. While ordinary workers are micro-managed, salaried professionals are encouraged to think creatively and act independently, within the limits set by the boss.
Middle-class managers and professionals can be distinguished from waged workers by the amount of control they exercise in the workplace. A unionized electrician on a construction site could be more educated, more skilled, and make more money than the site supervisor. However, the supervisor tells the electrician what to do.
Squeezed by the two great classes on either side of it, the middle class can be critical of capitalism and even lead movements to reform it. However, the bulk of the middle-class never challenge the system itself. On the contrary, they advocate compromise to ensure that demands remain “acceptable” to the powers that be.
The grey zones
An indeterminate number of people inhabit the two grey zones on either edge of the middle class. The zone between the middle and ruling classes includes members of the ruling class who perform upper-level managerial functions, and upper-level managers who are occasionally invited to make big decisions.
A much larger grey zone exists between the middle and working classes. At the one end are middle-class professionals whose degraded working conditions resemble industrial assembly lines.
Physicians working for Health Management Organizations (HMOs) are permitted to order only those tests and provide only those treatments that the employer approves. By removing their decision-making functions, HMOs force doctors into working-class conditions. In response, thousands of doctors have joined unions and organized collective bargaining units recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.
At the other end of the zone between the working and middle classes are waged workers with small businesses on the side and blended-class families that form when middle- and working-class people marry. Changes of fortune also create blended-class families: the disbarred lawyer takes a job at the post-office and the steel-worker’s daughter goes to medical school.
The grey zone also includes workers who perform managerial functions – salaried social workers, nurses, teachers, low-level government workers, and prison guards. They have little control over their own working conditions; however, their jobs give them some control over other people’s lives.
Ordinary soldiers are working class because they have absolutely no control over the conditions of their work. At the same time, the soldier has a managerial function to control others. Soldiers are not in the same class as police officers. The working-class soldier is drilled to follow commands without thinking, while the police officer is a middle-class professional who is trusted by superiors to know who to target, who to charge, who can be assaulted, and whose life has less value.
When it is difficult to decide if someone is middle or working class, that person probably inhabits the grey zone.
A social definition of class reveals why the capitalist class will never put people first, why the middle class seek to limit revolt, and why only the working class can remove the capitalist class from power and lay the basis for an egalitarian socialist society.