ABC of Class

Teresa L. Ebert
Mas'ud Zavarzadeh


Most Americans, when they are not thinking of themselves purely as individuals, regard themselves to be part of the "middle class". Their evidence is that they own a car or two; have a mortgage on a house; go on vacation; entertain themselves at home with DVD's and CD players; have medical insurance; and send their children to college. The reality that their cars and houses are actually owned by the banks; their vacations are often paid for with credit cards; their health care is rationed by HMO's; and their children’s education is also financed by the banks, to whom they owe many thousands of dollars when they graduate, does not seem to disturb their belief in the "evidence".

But the evidence, in fact, shows that the "middle class" is an ideological illusion. In a feature for the Associated Press, Karen A. Davis writes that high-tech consultants and managers, who used to earn more than $100,000 a year, discovered after suddenly losing their jobs that their middle-class lifestyle has completely disappeared. The former home-owners are now sleeping in homeless shelters where they are rubbing elbows with society's castaways—the mentally ill, drug addicts and other hard-luck cases. "We're all equal here" a former high-tech worker says (Associated Press, June 15, 2001).

The myth of the "middle class" is invented to obscure the fact that "we" are all wage-workers, and, therefore, "we" are "all equal here". Or as Marx puts it, "middle and transitional" levels of social differences "always conceal the boundaries" of classes (Marx, Capital Vol. 3) in order to give ideological stability to the economically insecure and unstable life under capitalism. The lifestyle-line that separates the bottom from the middle class is more a psychocultural effect than an economic reality. The idea of the "middle class" as social and economic standing is, in other words, a social tranquilizer.  It creates a psychological state of mind that blurs the sharp economic lines of objective social divisions brought about by capitalism and dulls the pain of daily economic struggles for subsistence.

The majority of people are convinced—mostly by the media but also by their education, church, and the spectacle of shopping malls—that there are no classes in America. Everybody is equal. What shapes a person's life is her own personal hard work, ambitions and dreams.  Class, in the common view, is an old-world, mostly European social hang-up that has no place in the new world of entrepreneurship.

But even when obstinate social reality forces people to acknowledge that there may be classes in America, Americans believe all classes are shades of one huge "middle class" that includes everyone. Class differences are merely shades of the same class. In other words, there is a one-class classlessness in America. This is the same as saying there are no classes in America. The one-class classlessness idea is part of a larger cultural work to convince Americans that there is no longer a "working class" in America because economic changes have transformed the source of wealth from "labor" to "knowledge" and created a "new economy" that is creating a "post-capitalist" society. One of the main features of this new society is said to be that "Marx's 'proletarian' [becomes] 'bourgeois'" (Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society).  This is, of course, a recycling of the old theories of "embourgeoisement" (the working class moving up into the middle class) and is aimed at concealing the actual proletarianization of the so-called "middle class". The "embourgeoisement" theory is based on the "new wealth" of the working class (their cars, DVD's, houses). It is grounded on a not so subtle turning away from class as a social structure—indicating the relations of people to ownership of the means of production—to class as an inventory of objects and income. Focusing on the objects people "own" turns class into an empty, ahistorical concept since what a class "owns" is a historical index not an absolute and, therefore, static list. What is owned exclusively by the privileged class at one time (a car, for example) will necessarily become a common possession of all classes as social production changes. But the ownership of these objects by other classes does not change their social structural relations. The working class still has to sell its labor power to the owning class. Even on the basis of an inventory theory of class, the owning class now owns different exclusive objects that are out of reach of the working class because, as we have suggested, the "inventory" of objects is historical. More importantly, one class continues to exploit the other and does so evermore intensely—CEO's (whose salaries are not "wages" but concealed "profit") now earn up to 450 times more than the "average" worker's wage (compared to 46 times more in the 20th century).

The social differences that separate people from each other, most Americans believe, have nothing to do with class. They are part of people’s own individuality. "It has become an unspoken cultural axiom: anything less than financial well-being is a person’s own fault" (The New York Times, November 20, 2000). Poverty is not seen as part of the working of the market but as caused by the culture of poverty.

"Individuality" is a convenient cover-up for social inequalities. Even though Americans every single day come face to face with the brutal realities of huge economic disparities that contradict their cultural belief in equality, they feel quite nervous thinking of themselves in terms of class. There is something vaguely sinister and even anti-American about class.

People fear class because class makes people confront the actuality that social disparities are not "individualistic" and therefore "exceptional" or casual and accidental but are built into capitalism itself. Social differences are systemic, not eccentric. "Class" makes people acknowledge that the affluence of the few is the direct result of the wage labor of the many who live in dull and depressing houses and apartments; have unhealthy diets; send their children to mediocre and dilapidated schools lacking basic educational facilities, and survive on "hope". Class critique links the plight of the poor to the comforts of the rich. It displays, with a rigid clarity, the reality of the exploitation of people by people. It shows how American’s beliefs in equality, democratic fairness and economic justice are ideological stories told to preserve the interests of the ruling class.

The reality of  "class" divisions in America, delegitimates not only capitalism but also the State and the State institutions protecting capitalism (the tax system, the military, schools and courts). Class, therefore has to be discredited or at least marginalized in social discourses.

Since the objective economics of class differences cannot be denied, this reality is mystified and converted into cultural values. The mass media obscures the economics of class by translating class into cultural status, pride, prestige and lifestyle. Class is an indication of the social relations of property. But in such books as Class, a bestseller by Paul Fussell, class is twisted into such habits and behavior as having a sense of elegance, refined taste in wine or an educated accent: "Regardless of the money you’ve inherited", according to Fussell, "your social class is still most clearly visible when you say things". Class is distorted into classy. If class is simply a matter of elegance, taste and good manners, then anyone—rich or poor—can acquire them. Class, in the mass media, has nothing to do with property, it is a question of cultural sophistication. In Paul Fussell's book people are differentiated therefore, not by their economic access but by their taste, manners and style.

In obscuring the economic realities of class as cultural prestige, capitalism deploys not only the mass media, which it owns, but also recruits elite cultural and social critics and academics who go much further and, as part of their services to capital, for example, deconstruct the very concept of class in their cultural analyses.

In its various forms, such as feminism, queer theory, cultural studies and film criticism, contemporary cultural theory—which is seen by many as the threshold of progressive thinking—takes a mostly poststructuralist approach to class. It argues that Marxist class analysis is based on an "essentialist" notion of class—as if class had inherent components that set it apart from other things and thus a clear referent (bourgeoisie/proletariat). Derrida, de Man and other theorists argue that "class" is a language sign, and like all signs, its meaning is undecidable because it is derived not from its correspondence with an objective reality called class but its playful "difference" from other language signs. Class is undecidable; it has no clear-cut referent. The upshot is that—unlike what Marxists argue—there are no clear exploiters and exploited because social and economic life is made up of hybrids, discourses and tropic plays of difference. "Classes," as Chris Jenks concludes in his book Culture, become "metaphors for particular language games and forms of discourse within a culture" and are no longer distinct oppositions (bourgeoisie/proletariat).

Both the mass media and cultural theorists conclude that the social differences of cybercapitalism are too complex to be analyzed by "class". "Class," as Pakulski and Waters put it, is "dead." People's lives, in advanced capitalism, are no longer shaped by their "work" ("production") but by their "lifestyle and taste" ("consumption"), as Anthony Giddens, Tony Blair’s intellectual mentor, declares. In fact David Brooks's bestseller, Bobo's in Paradise, is devoted to portraying class as a lifestyle in consumption. Class, by such cultural reversals, is neutralized as an economic category and turned into matters of refinement, subtlety, graciousness, urbanity and a connoisseurship of the delectable. As an expression of "taste and lifestyle", this "neutered" class is actually seen as adding to the diversity and richness of social life instead of being a social problem that should be eliminated.  Not only is "class" not eliminated but anyone who talks about eliminating it is laughed at.  Instead, the "problem" of class is "solved" in popular cultural writing by means of personal stories in which class becomes the memories of the distant past of a now successful narrator (Rita Felski, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture).  Class, in other words, is diffused into an "affect"—a subjective identity.

The focus on consumption as an index of freedom and equality makes the source of social inequalities unclear.  According to these views, two persons who choose to buy the same shirt at Macy's, for example, are equal because of their seemingly equal access to goods and services. Equal consumption makes them equal. To many cultural critics this means everybody is now "middle class" or "we are all classless nowadays" because our identity is formed in the social relations of shopping. Shopping equality now means social equality.

What is left out of this consuming logic is: if one of the two persons who buys the same shirt at Macy's has to work five hours to pay for the shirt and the other works only half an hour, they can hardly be equal. Equality is a question of production not consumption because value is produced by labor. But this labor theory of value is rejected by mainstream economics, which is obsessed with "supply and demand"—what Mandel calls the "psychological and individual aspects of the problem" (Marxist Economic Theory). In fact, all contemporary debates on class deny that labor is the source of value and that the social relations of labor determine one's class.

Converting class into consumption leads to the ideological conclusion that, as we have already suggested, there is no longer a "working class" in the US—everyone is "middle class". Although this is represented as a "new" idea, it is only the latest version of the old social fantasy that the middle class will grow in proportion and importance while the working class will diminish in size and power. If the size of the working class has decreased in the United States (and that is debatable; it is certainly increasing worldwide), it is only because it is being exploited more ruthlessly—not because the role of labor as the sole source of wealth has in any way changed.

The anti-labor, consumption theory of equality leads to saying that class is income, which gives people a high level of consumption and therefore social status. "Middle class" is thus set apart from the working class by income and consuming power.

But what determines class is not how much one makes but what is the source of income. Income that is solely made up of "wages" puts one into the category of worker, and income that is derived from "profit" situates one completely in the other social position of owner. One's class is determined not by how much one makes but where one stands in the social division of labor, which puts people into one of two fundamentally opposed positions: those who sell their labor to live (workers) and those who purchase this labor and make a profit from it (owners).

In his defense of capitalism, Weber has said the rise of capitalism is related to cultural values and not labor (The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism) and has extended this theory to legitimate the idea of the "middle class" by marginalizing the two-class theory that shows the brutal aggression of capitalism over the accumulation of profit. Weber claims that class derives not from one's place in labor relations ("production") but from one's life chances in the market ("distribution"). But the market simply distributes the already available wealth. The question of class is how is wealth produced and not how it is distributed. The stock market may seem to produce wealth, but it is really just redistributing the wealth produced by the labor of the workers. This is readily demonstrated by the collapse of all the speculation based on "paper profits" rather than the actual production of wealth by the workers. It is, however, telling that "distribution" has now become one of the most popular theories on the left for containing class antagonisms and social inequality (Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the "Postsocialist" Condition).

The existence of capitalism depends on its ability to accumulate profit. But profit does not come from buying low and selling high (market relations). The real source of profit is human labor power (not technology). The ideological illusion of the  "middle class" covers up this truth: what Marx called, "the innermost secret" and the "hidden foundation" of the entire society in the "direct relation between the owners of the conditions of production and the direct producers" (Capital, Vol.3, Ch. 47).

Human labor, as Engels explains is a "commodity which has the peculiar property that its use is a source of new value". The worker not only produces the equivalent of her own wages but also a "surplus labor" for which she is not paid. "Surplus value"—not trade, nor technology, nor knowledge—is what produces profit. The lower the cost of labor, the higher the profit. This is why capitalists move all over the world to find the cheapest labor power possible.  "Globalization" is a corporate theory that conceals the mechanism of profit. If technology or knowledge were, as many believe, the source of profit, there would be no need for Nike to go to Pakistan or for IBM to make its computers in Thailand.

The class question is the question of what is the relation to labor power. Those who have to sell their labor power to earn a living—producers of profit—are part of one class.  Those who purchase human labor and take the profit from labor are part of another. There is no third class—there is no "middle class". The "middle class" has no material base: it is a makeshift class that receives handouts from capitalists in the form of a salary that is actually a fraction of the surplus labor. The "middle class," in short, is given a little more share of the wealth produced by labor in the form of a salary that provides for greater consumption and more cultural status, thus enabling it to separate itself from the "crude" working class and align itself politically and culturally with the ruling class

The "middle class" is a fraction of the working class that is culturally segregated from the body of workers in order to provide a social buffer zone against class antagonisms.  Members of the middle class, however, are on shaky ground since the cultural features that distinguish them from workers are too fragile to provide a stable place. Like the high-tech workers who have lost their high incomes and now their homes, the middle class is always only one paycheck away from collapsing back into the underclass. Without the "middle class" the rigid clarity of the social division of owners and workers becomes clear, and capitalism will be seen for what it actually is: a social regime in which the relatively few who own capital exploit the labor of the many. The "middle class" blurs the lines of this brutal division of people.

Absorbing the extremes into a moderating middle is done mostly through the proliferation of pseudo-choices that make no real difference but give the chooser a "unique identity" that separates her from others in her class position. Driving a Saab instead of a Ford Taurus gives the two drivers a cultural image that masks the fact that they are both wage-earners.

What people need is not more cultural identities but economic equality. As long as people believe in the myth of the "middle class", they continue to think that they can work hard and get ahead in life. The majority cannot, and the few who do, do it by pushing others behind. Capitalism is a zero-sum game: not everyone can be a winner: there have to be losers.

The "middle class" uses cultural games of consumption and pride to blur the harsh realities of losing. The historical role of the "middle class" now is to recognize that it is not a distinct social class from the workers and to see how it lives on the handouts from the capitalists. Handouts made from the exploitation of workers. The "middle class" needs to abandon its cultural identity games and stand in solidarity with the workers to make history by making society free from class inequalities—free from classes of any kind.

The "middle class" is invented for one purpose only: to "increase the social security and power of the upper ten thousand" (Marx, Theories of Surplus Value).

 THE RED CRITIQUE 7 (November/December 2002)