For most of my life, mainstream U.S. politicians have carefully avoided the term social class. It is inconvenient. If we the people think of ourselves as having class differences, we might think we have class interests and vote accordingly. The 1 percent, who control both political parties, want to minimize that possibility. They prefer politicians to talk about “the American way” and “defense of the free world.”
When a mainstream politician occasionally flaunts the rules, as Al Gore did in 2000, the media reports indignation that “class warfare” is polluting our national discourse.
This didn’t mean that the highly class-conscious super-rich couldn’t use such terms. When Ben Stein of The New York Times asked billionaire Warren E. Buffett in 2006 if there is such a thing as class war, Buffett replied, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Since the Great Recession began, mainstream politicians more often use the c-word. Maybe they want to appear to be in touch with our reality. Not that they want to adopt Buffett’s framing of class war! Instead, they address “the middle class,” a phrase they hope will mean “neither poor nor rich.” That nicely catches a portion of working class people who are relieved not to be poor.
For those who are suspicious of mainstream politicians’ language choices, and who think Warren Buffett has a point, I’ll share my favorite way of defining class. It’s not the only valid way, but I believe it’s the most useful for thinking about how to change society because it de-mystifies some of the weirdness in the life of social movements. This approach also helps sort out what is different about class from other hierarchical systems that organize society, like race, gender and age.
What turns the light on is identifying the functions that each class fills in the larger economy.
People in the working class usually draw weekly or biweekly wages, not yearly salaries, and are generally paid by the hour. They usually have little control on their job but instead are closely supervised. They’re often called “blue collar” or “pink collar” rather than “white collar” workers. Typical working-class jobs are production workers in factories, miners, secretaries, retail workers, police, construction workers, soldiers and postal workers. The wages of workers depend mainly on whether they are unionized, and also on the state of the labor market in their particular area.
Working class people who don’t earn a living wage are the “low income” or “poor.” Typical jobs of low-income people are cleaning, farm labor and day labor. One growing trend, however, is to pay full-time workers less than a living wage, as Walmart does.
In the United States, about half of the population is working class. That includes the 20 to 25 percent of the people who are low income or poor. The two big functions of low-income people are to do what no one else wants to do, and to keep down wages of the other workers by appearing to be a threat.
People in the middle class usually draw yearly salaries and work in management or professional jobs. They have more control over how they work than working class people do. They often need more schooling to get their jobs and therefore tend to value education more.
Typical middle-class jobs are: teacher, manager, nurse, computer programmer, minister, researcher, engineer, and doctor — these are sometimes called “white collar” jobs. A route to the middle class that may not need formal education is to start a small business and, if it prospers, to become a manager and hire workers.
The function of middle-class jobs is to supervise workers, keep them physically and mentally healthy enough to get back on the job, teach them enough knowledge to be able to do working class jobs, and also to design new jobs for them to do.
Another function of the middle class is to service owning-class people by, for example, teaching their children in prep schools. An often overlooked function of the middle class is to develop ways of trying to clean up the messes created by how society works and to supervise that clean-up, for example through nonprofit agencies that deal with slums, the homeless, the jobless, acting-out youth, and so on — to keep the pathology of class society from getting out of hand.
There’s a sub-category of the middle class called “upper middle class.” These are the highly paid managers and professionals, like top executives, surgeons, lawyers, business owners who have to manage sizable businesses. They have more in common with owning-class families in the amount of luxuries they can have, but they still have to work for a living.
In the United States, about 47 percent of the population is middle class. That includes the 7 percent of the population that is upper-middle class.
People in the owning class do not have to work for a living. They can live off income from what they own. CEOs of large corporations, large stockholders, those who own a lot of land or real estate, are examples of owning-class people.
Their function in the economy is to invest, to set policy, to set working conditions, to make sure the government takes care of their interests and to pass on their wealth to the next generation in their families. They expect to settle the high-stakes conflicts that come up in society. An important task for this group is to determine the overall future direction of the society.
In the United States, about 2 to 3 percent of the population is owning class; they live well on what they own without working. But the figure for the class that’s actually in charge fluctuates depending on whom you ask; the Occupy movement says it’s the top 1 percent that takes on ruling class tasks, and economist Paul Krugman says the number is even less than that.
The big picture
Bottom line, the function of the working class is to produce most of the goods and services for society, the function of the middle class is to train up, manage and maintain the working class in the interest of the owning class, and the function of the owning class is to own and control the entire operation.
The functions of these classes are best carried out if the members learn the roles and accept them as part of our identity. A few examples might help.
If I’m brought up working class, I’m pushed toward low self-esteem and deference to teachers and bosses. I’m allowed more aggression and flamboyant self-expression than most people in the other classes. I’m likely to love sports, perhaps for the rituals of victory and humiliation that reflect my life.
My public school teachers emphasize results rather than process, set up repetition and drills rather than understanding, and give me short-term assignments rather than long-term ones. I am encouraged to focus on “getting the job done” and am likely to get irritated by talk that delays a decision. This entire set of circumstances combine to support my function in the larger economy.
If I’m brought up middle class, I’m nurtured for higher self-esteem, skills for fitting into larger and more ambiguous structures, and a preference for good manners and smooth interactions. I’m told that knowledge is the key and that knowing more gives me the right to manage, teach and judge others. Lifelong learning is therefore a value to me.
Skills in self-control and self-management give me the right to control others, so those skills are highly important. Individuation is my goal and competition becomes my nature — although the competition should include an on/off switch. College is a place for honing all those skills and attitudes, plus building a fierce internal work ethic that will make me maximally useful to those I serve.
Children headed for middle-class and owning-class roles usually get more attention for the development of their inner life than do working-class children, because their economic functions requires more self-direction and self-evaluation. This class training may be expressed in adulthood as affection for “process,” “awareness” and “growth.”
A close reading of these differences shows how class conflicts between activists may be set up by their upbringing. (For great stories drawn from recent activist history, see the book by activist-sociologist Fred Rose, Coalitions Across the Class Divide.) What seems “right” to individuals is influenced by their class training, but how many people are aware of this?
After looking closely at family backgrounds we can see that some activist conflicts are not so much about ideology as about class-based assumptions. In the midst of a campaign, a class conflict can result in losing the support of the class that loses, with no one in the organization realizing what’s really happening — and the whole organization losing. The stakes are high.
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