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Working class is a term used in academic sociology and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs, as measured by skill, education and lower incomes. Working classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in urban areas of non-industrialized economies.

As with many terms describing social class, working class is defined and used in many different ways. When used non-academically, it typically refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage. Its use in academic discourse is contentious, especially following the decline of manual labor in postindustrial societies. Some academics question the usefulness of the concept of a working class. The term is usually contrasted with the upper class and middle class, in terms of access to economic resources, education and cultural interests. Its usage can be derogatory, but many people self-identify as working class and experience a sense of pride similar to a national identity.

Contents

Definitions

Definitions of social classes reflect a number of sociological perspectives, informed by anthropology, economics, psychology and sociology. The major perspectives historically have been Marxism and Functionalism. The parameters which define working class depend on the scheme used to define social class. For example, a simple stratum model of class might divide society into a simple hierarchy of lower class, middle class and upper class, with working class not specifically designated. Due to the political interest in the working class, there has been debate over the nature of the working class since the early 19th century. Two broad schools of definitions emerge: those aligned with 20th-century sociological stratum models of class society, and those aligned with the 19th-century historical materialism economic models of the Marxists and anarchists. Key points of commonality amongst various ideas include the idea that there is one working class, even though it may be internally divided. The idea of one single working class should be contrasted with 18th-century conceptions of many laboring classes. Sociologists Dennis Gilbert, James Henslin, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and Thomas Ayling have brought forth class models in which the working class constitutes roughly one third of the population, with the majority of the population being either working or lower class.[1][2][3]

Marxist definitions

Class War: Workers in battle with the police during the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934.

Karl Marx defined the working class or proletariat as individuals who sell their labor power for wages and who do not own the means of production. He argued that they were responsible for creating the wealth of a society. He asserted that the working class physically build bridges, craft furniture, fix cars, grow food, and nurse children, but do not own land, or factories. A sub-section of the proletariat, the lumpenproletariat (rag-proletariat), are the extremely poor and unemployed, such as day laborers and homeless people.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that it was the destiny of the working class to displace the capitalist system, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, abolishing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future communist society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." In Capital, Marx dissected the ways in which capital can forestall such a revolutionary extension of the Enlightenment. Some issues in Marxist arguments about working class membership have included:

  • The class status of people in a temporary or permanent position of unemployment.
  • The class status of domestic labor, particularly the children (see child labor), and also traditionally the wives of male workers, as some spouses do not themselves work in paying jobs outside the home.
  • Whether workers can be considered working class if they own personal property or small amounts of stock ownership.
  • The relationships among peasants, rural smallholders, and the working class.
  • The extent to which non-class group identities and politics (race, gender, et al.) can obviate or substitute for working class membership in Enlightenment projects, where working class membership is prohibitively contradictory or obfuscated.

Some answers to some of these issues, as argued, analyzed, and formulated over the centuries, are:

  • Unemployed workers are proletariat.
  • Class for dependents is determined by the primary income earner.
  • Personal property is clearly different from private property. For example, the proletariat can own houses; this is personal property.
  • The self-employed worker may be a member of the petite bourgeoisie (for example a highly paid professional, athlete, etc.), or a member of the proletariat (for example, a contract worker whose income may be relatively high but is precarious).
  • Students' class status depends on that of their family, and also on whether they remain financially dependent on them.
  • Race, gender and class are overlapping social stratification categories. It is possible for capitalists to strategically substitute the members of race, class, and gender groups to attain capitalist objectives; but once these stratification categories are formed and deployed, membership balkanizes experiences and interests.

In general, in Marxist terms, wage laborers and those dependent on the welfare state are working class, and those who live on accumulated capital and/or exploit the labor of others are not. This broad dichotomy defines the class struggle. Different groups and individuals may at any given time be on one side or the other. For example, retired factory workers are working class in the popular sense; but to the extent that they live off fixed incomes, financed by stock in corporations whose earnings are profit extracted from current workers, retired factory workers' interests, and possibly their identities and politics, are not working class. Such contradictions of interests and identity within individuals' lives and within communities can effectively undermine the ability of the working class to act in solidarity to reduce exploitation, inequality, and the role of ownership in determining people's life chances, work conditions, and political power.

The position of core capitalists is not nearly as contradictory within a capitalist system. Capitalists get their income, wealth, status, and power from owning the means of production, and they will have it managed for their own aggrandizement. From the capitalist perspective, it would be silly to manage production (or build political resources that could influence economic relationships) for the benefit of workers. To the extent that workers sometimes benefit in some ways from capitalism, it is not a central goal, but a byproduct. Thus, operating with less class interest contradiction and less identity contradiction, and more resources for political coordination, capitalist class members can often coordinate and prosecute their interests with a great deal of efficacy, over and against workers.

Functionalist definitions

Identification of a person as a member of the working class is often based on the nature of the work performed (i.e. blue collar or white collar), income and the extent of formal education. However, studies of social class generally include other traits, such as the basis for the person's access to the means of production, or amount of control that the person has over his work environment. Working-class people are generally paid wages, usually on a weekly or monthly basis. In popular American political discourse, medium-income skilled workers and tradespeople are termed middle class, despite having minimal investment income, as are college-educated white-collar workers. Explanations for the situation of the working class have varied dramatically over the centuries and are still hotly contested. The main points of contention are what causes an individual to be a member of the working class, and what are the causes for troubles faced by the working class.

History

Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire, UK.

The history of the working class has been defined by two contradictory processes, the emiserisation of traditional communities in order to produce workers, and the vast surplus of production available from industrialisation creating better living standards. Throughout this process workers have taken cultural and political action to create their own cultures and positions within industrial society. Many of these responses have emphasised that working class individuals are defined by processes other than work. Working class history is generally accepted to begin with the enclosure of English commons, and the generation of paid industrial labour in manufactories in Holland and England.

In feudal Europe, the working class as such did not exist in large numbers. Instead, most people were part of the labouring class, a group made up of different professions, trades and occupations. A lawyer, craftsman and peasant were all considered to be part of the same social unit, a third estate of people who were neither aristocrats nor church officials. Similar hierarchies existed outside Europe in other pre-capitalist societies. The social position of these laboring classes was viewed as ordained by natural law and common religious belief. This social position was contested, particularly by peasants, for example during the German Peasants' War.

In the late 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, European society was in a state of change, and this change could not be reconciled with the idea of a changeless god-created social order. Wealthy members of these societies created ideologies which blamed many of the problems of working-class people on their morals and ethics (i.e. excessive consumption of alcohol, perceived laziness and inability to save money). In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson argues that the English working class was present at its own creation, and seeks to describe the transformation of pre-modern laboring classes into a modern, politically self-conscious, working class.

Vladimir Lenin saw the potential for imperialism to ameliorate the drudgery of working class life in the advanced countries, and argued this had already begun in the United Kingdom in the early 1900s. Access to cheap sports such as boxing and bicycling, expanded food cultures including coffee, chocolate and later junk food, and particularly access to motor vehicles and home ownership, transformed the complexion of first world working classes during the twentieth century. A similar process occurred in the Soviet-style societies, but at a far slower pace.

Starting around 1917, a number of countries became ruled ostensibly in the interests of the working class. While arguments over standards of living and potential growth rates have occurred in academic history and sociology, the development indexes of these countries are often higher than other countries of equivalent gross domestic product. However, additional criticisms have been levelled at these countries from authors who criticise the presence of massive human rights abuses which impacted primarily on workers, and for the lack of democracy within and amongst the working class. Some historians have noted that a key change in these Soviet-style societies has been a massive a new type of proletarianisation, often effected by the administratively achieved forced displacement of peasants and rural workers. Since then, three major industrial states have turned towards semi-market-based governance (China, Vietnam, Cuba), and one state has turned inwards into an increasing cycle of poverty and brutalisation (North Korea). Other states of this sort have either collapsed (such as the Soviet Union), or never achieved significant levels of industrialisation or large working classes.

Since 1960, large-scale proletarianisation and enclosure of commons has occurred in the third world, generating new working classes at the margins of living. Additionally, countries such as India have been slowly undergoing social change, expanding the size of the urban working class.

Many African Americans up until the 1980's, had been considered working class or lower class citizens. It wasn't until years after the civil rights movement that White Americans began to accept and identify black people with the middle and upper classes.

See also

References

  1. ^ Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X. 
  2. ^ Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. 0-534-50520-1. 
  3. ^ Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships. Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-36674-0. 

Further reading

  • Engels, Friedrich, Condition of the Working Class in England [in 1844], Stanford University Press (1968), trade paperback, ISBN 0-8047-0634-4 Numerous other editions exist; first published in German in 1845. Better editions include a preface written by Engels in 1892.
  • Ernest Mandel, Workers under Neo-capitalism [1]
  • Moran, W. (2002). Belles of New England: The women of the textile mills and the families whose wealth they wove. New York: St Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-30183-9.
  • Rubin, Lillian Breslow, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, Basic Books (1976), hardcover ISBN 0-465-09245-4; trade paperback, 268 pages, ISBN 0-465-09724-3
  • Shipler, David K., The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Knopf (2004), hardcover, 322 pages, ISBN 0-375-40890-8
  • Skeggs, Beverley. Class, Self, Culture, Routledge, (2004),
  • Thompson, E.P, The Making of the English Working Class - paperback Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013603-7
  • Zweig, Michael, Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Cornell University Press (2001), trade paperback, 198 pages, ISBN 0-8014-8727-7

External links



Simple English

in Charleston, West Virginia.]]

Working class is a term used to describe people in society who have jobs which are not academic or highly paid. They are usually jobs which are physical, especially when they are paid an hourly wage.

Different societies will have different ideas about what "working class" is. People started talking about the working class after industrialization in the early 19th century. Karl Marx wrote about the working class.

Working class contrasts with middle class and upper class.

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