Between fifty and sixty per cent of the population identify as “working class”. Despite the term “working class” vanishing completely from the language of the Labour Party, the proportion claiming this now-unspoken identity has been fairly stable since the 1950s.
To be “working-class”, whether you know it or not, is to be at one pole of a pair. The other pole is the capitalist class.
The picture is blurred by what Marx called “the constantly growing number of the middle classes, those who stand between the workman on the one hand and the capitalist and landlord on the other. The middle classes maintain themselves to an ever increasing extent directly out of revenue, they are a burden weighing heavily on the working base and increase the social security and power of the upper ten thousand”.
But the two main poles are clear. Most people sell their labour-power to capital (or try to), and receive in exchange a more-or-less “living wage”, but not enough to accumulate wealth.
At the other pole, another group, small numerically but very weighty in society, own or participate in capital. They live from property income (shares, interest, and so on) or from high “wages” which they allot themselves. They accumulate wealth.
That core class division is what defines capitalism. A sufficient level of organisation and mobilisation of the working class can reduce the gap between the classes somewhat. Without that organisation and mobilisation, inequality breeds inequality. As in Britain today.
But there’s more equal opportunity, isn’t there? Even if not equal outcomes? You can “make it” if you’re smart and hard-working.
That’s what the myth says. Barrow-boys become bankers, as long as they have the wit and the energy for it. If you fall behind, it’s because you’re idle or stupid.
Actually, Britain is at the bottom of the league for social mobility, among the richer countries. We rank alongside the USA, another country where free-market economics and union-bashing have been unleashed with exceptional force, for low chances of bright kids from poor families getting ahead.
A survey by researchers from the London School of Economics in 2005 found that Norway has the greatest social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland - all countries where social provision and the union movement have held their own a bit better.
In Britain, if A’s dad has twice the income of B, then, on average, A is likely to end up with 40% more income than B. In Sweden, A would end up with only 10% more income.
And social mobility is getting less. Born in 1958 into a family in the bottom quarter of income-earners, you had a 17 per cent chance of getting into the top quarter of income earners by the age of 30. Born in 1970, your chance was down to 11 per cent.
That can’t be right. Lots of working-class families are sending kids to university for the first time ever.
But nowadays a run-of-the-mill university degree will not get you out of the working class. To compound it, the rise in university education means that doors previously open to poorer kids are closed. Top jobs once open to people “working their way up” are reserved for graduates.
The proportion of people from the poorest fifth of families obtaining a degree has increased since the 1950s, but only from 6 per cent to 9 per cent. Meanwhile, kids from the top 20% of families now make sure they get there. The proportion of them getting a degree has risen much faster, from 20 per cent to 47 per cent.
Well, not everyone has the brains to go to university.
There’s a mountain of evidence that kids from poorer families lose out just because they are poorer, not because of lack of brains. And they start to lose out very early.
Part of it is that their parents can’t afford to win the “postcode lottery” by buying a house in the catchment area of a high-achieving school. But that is not all of it.
A detailed survey by the Joseph Rowntree Trust found that the UK has one of the steepest socio-economic “gradients” in education among similar countries. Children from poor backgrounds do worse (on average) than those from well-off backgrounds by a greater amount than elsewhere.
Just 14 per cent of variation in individuals’ performance is accounted for by school quality. A kid from a better-off home will manage all right in a “difficult” school; a kid from a poor home may just feel helpless in a “good” school. Most variation is explained by other factors: lack of security at home; lack of the sort of things at home that help you learn; reduced support from shiftwork-stressed, harassed, and unconfident parents...
“Children from all backgrounds see the advantages of school”, Rowntree reported, “but deprived children are more likely to feel anxious and unconfident about school”. And of course kids from poor families tend to lose out at the pre-school stage, too.
OK, so you think that we should aim for a fairer “meritocracy”?
No. Everyone should have an equal right to education, but there is no reason why those who do well academically should be paid more than others. They get many advantages just from having learned more: why should they also be paid more?
Michael Young, the writer who coined the term “meritocracy” in 1958, saw it then as a danger, not as a hope! In a recent article he explained why: “Those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others... Education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before”.
In other words, the education system has become — as much as anything else — an ideological machine for sealing the self-confidence of the well-off and trashing the self-confidence of the poor.
Inequality may be bad, but it’s an engine of growth. Competition to get ahead stimulates growth, and you can’t have competition to win unless some lose.
In the first place, not all growth is good. In the second place, the wasting of talent through inequality inhibits growth. Economies grew faster in the less unequal 1960s and 70s. All other things being equal, they tend to grow faster in more equal countries now.
To be bothered about inequality is just envy. We should be charitable to the poorest, but let the tall poppies grow tall.
Let Einstein be Einstein, of course. People can’t all be “equal” in scientific knowledge any more than they all have the same shape of face. But Einstein didn’t get rich, and he didn’t do science in order to get rich.
Inequality in capitalist society has very little to do with the inescapable “inequalities” between individuals. It is a class division. It is not just that some grow taller. They grow taller by pushing others down.
Thirty years ago poorer men died 5.5 years before the well-off; now the gap is 7.5 years. The gap has increased despite a general improvement in housing and in availability of food, and despite a relative decline of heavy manual work. The evidence is conclusive: poorer people are more stressed and less healthy because they are unequal, not just because they are poor. Being part of an exploited class is bad for your health.
And you propose complete and exact equality? Everyone the same?
You couldn’t even calculate that, let alone impose it. As Engels put it, “As between one place and another, living conditions will always evince a certain inequality which may be reduced to a minimum but never wholly eliminated”. “The real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand for the abolition of classes”.
Why does capital tend to increase inequality?
The best conditions to raise wages are those of high profits. As Marx put it, “to say that ‘the most favorable condition for wage-labor is the fastest possible growth of productive capital’, is the same as to say: the quicker the working class multiplies and augments the power inimical to it — the wealth of another which lords over that class — the more favorable will be the conditions under which it will be permitted to toil anew at the multiplication of bourgeois wealth, at the enlargement of the power of capital, content thus to forge for itself the golden chains by which the bourgeoisie drags it in its train”.
So, if profits are low, capital slumps, and wages are pushed down too. If profits are high, wages can rise, but capital grows too. And, in growing, it gains the strength to bring in new technologies to reinforce its power and cut jobs.
And how to abolish classes?
By abolishing the pivotal exchange between capital and wage labour; by the working class, collectively and thus democratically, making the productive wealth social property.
The labour movement is far from ready for that, as yet, in Britain. It will become ready by fighting against and pushing back the increased inequality which capital is pushing onto us.
Marx: “The general tendency of capitalistic production is... to push the value of labour more or less to its minimum limit. Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital...? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation... By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.”