Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Class and Class Struggle

Capitalism: A Class Divided Society

For the majority in society, we either have to work for a living or are dependent on someone who has to go to work. This also applies to the self-employed. We are workers and we are all members of the working class.

The only way workers are going to buy food, pay the rent or mortgage and run the car, is from being paid a wage or a salary. And anyone who is in this position belongs to the working class, that is, men and women not only forced to find employment but who are divorced from the ownership of the means of production and distribution – land, minerals, gas, oil, factories, offices, machinery, transport and communication systems, distribution, and so on. Not only does this exclusion from ownership of the means of living define our class position, but it also defines, in a general sense, our poverty too.

The poverty facing the working class, which is expressed in having to enter the labour market, and sell our ability to work in exchange for a wage or salary, is a daily reality not all of society has to conform to this. We live in a competitive capitalist society – a social system of commodity production and exchange for profit. However it is also a class-divided society. Besides the working class majority there is a small minority – the capitalist class -, about 5% to 10% of the population, who do not work but, instead own the means of production. Capitalists own the world’s resources and only engage in production if they expect there is a profit to be made.

Workers do not usually come into direct daily contact with the capitalist class, because capitalism is run from top to bottom by workers. Yet the employers do exist. They turn up at shareholders’ meetings, make appearances in the “celebrity” columns of the newspapers and on the news programmes when they are identified buying and selling companies or hiding their wealth in off-shore bank accounts. This is the capitalist class minority, and it is a class whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of the working class majority. Furthermore, because capitalism is global, it is a world capitalist class which faces a world working class over the world’s resources.

Employers form a class – a capitalist class who do not have to work, but live-off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. According to the Office of National Statistics, the top tenth of households in the UK own 45% of total wealth, while the bottom half were left to share just 9%. The poorest 1%, meanwhile, owned just 0.05% of wealth (GUARDIAN 18 December 2015). And Boston Consulting Group found that, globally, millionaires and billionaires own nearly half of the world's personal wealth, which reached a sum of $201.9 trillion in 2017 (BLOOMBERG 14 June 2018).

Class and Unemployment

The capitalist class do not employ workers out of charity. Workers are only employed if it is profitable to employ them. Workers are employed to make commodities which are then sold on the market for a profit. If the workers are unprofitable to employ then they are made redundant. And in a trade depression that is exactly what happens. Millions of workers are made unemployed; others are put on half-time or forced to take pay cuts.

Even during an economic “boom”, unprofitable workers are still sacked, as the 4,600 Rolls workers found out on 14 June 2007 when they were told that the company had to make cuts to survive. Then there is the competition from internet shopping, which has meant that retail chains, like Pound World, cannot compete anymore and are forced into administration, thereby threatening over 5,000 job losses.

Of course, the economists and politicians who defend the interest of the capitalist class by producing ruling class ideas say that during down-turns in the economy, workers should have worked harder and taken even greater cuts in pay. However, even if workers gave up their weekends or worked two hours longer in the evening for free, yet were still unprofitable to employ, then they would still lose their jobs.

Nothing can be done by governments and their economic advisors about periodic booms and slumps. The workers employed in a market that is depressed and where employers cannot sell commodities for a profit, face unemployment. For the unemployed it is then uncertainty and worry of a world without paid work, the fear of becoming homeless, the humiliation of the dole queue and the food bank, and the desperation and fear for looking for another job in order to pay the bills. Spiralling out from this desperate social position of being unemployed there is the subsequent mental and emotional trauma and the break-up of families, and even suicide.

In the class struggle the employers have an effective weapon at their disposal-the displacement of workers by machinery. In the employers’ competition with each other the market goes to those who produce and sell more cheaply. If a new machine (or new industrial process) enables an employer to get the same output in less time or with fewer workers, and provided that the overall costs of the new method are less than existing costs, the employer will seek to make the changeover and reduce his labour force. And the employers will do this despite strenuous trade union opposition.

An example was the introduction of automation in the newspaper industry. In January 1986, Rupert Murdoch moved his company from Fleet Street to new premises at Wapping where he had installed the latest printing technology. He intended that any worker transferring with him might be asked to sign a “no strike agreement”. The unions expressed their opposition to this and Mr Murdoch replied by dismissing 5500 workers and introducing an army of blacklegs. In the end, Murdoch won and broke the long-established print unions. He was supported in this by the Thatcher government which was implacably opposed to the trade unions and had just beaten the striking National union of Mineworkers.

Whether it is worth while making the change depends on the level of wages. If wages are low the new machines are not installed. Marx pointed out that in his day much labour-saving machinery manufactured in Britain was not used here at all because of the low level of British wages. It was produced for export to America where, with higher wage levels, it could be used more profitably.

Class and the Labour Market

Workers are forced onto the labour market and have increasingly been forced to enter into formal contracts with their employers. These contracts are subject to employment legislation and so-called “workers’ rights”. Increasingly workers and trade unions are using the courts to protect their pay and working conditions. Recently, Uber lost its appeal against a landmark ruling ordering it to treat its drivers as “workers”, paying them the minimum wage and affording them rights including sickness and holiday pay (INDEPENDENT 10 November 2017). Uber are going to appeal. Other forms in the ’gig economy’ are also being fought by workers too long treated as casual or self-employed, including cleaners in government departments and the NHS.

Another court case in June 2018 saw the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain win the right to seek a judicial review of a ruling that found Deliveroo riders were not entitled to union representation. The often-long working day of a London courier, working in the so-called gig-economy, involves weaving through the city's crowded and congested streets in the saddle covering 60 to 70 miles, to be normally paid between £2 and £3 per delivery, depending on distance. Most of the money has been raised by crowd-funding but it will never match the resources and legal representation enjoyed by the employers. (GUARDIAN 18 June 2018).

Using the courts against employers has its dangers. There is the cost: the likelihood of losing the court case, getting a court judgement that is worse than the one before or one open to challenge by employers.

There is also the risk of future governments changing the court decision by legislation. In 2013 the Tory government changed the law on access to employment tribunals by raising the cost to £1,200 for a chance of redress. The number of cases going to tribunal fell by 70 per cent (GUARDIAN 28 March 2017). Workers could just not afford that amount of money, particularly if they were unemployed.

Trade unions and workers are fighting the same old battles over and over again. Even when they are successful trade unions, groups of workers or individuals constantly struggling against employers, offers no way out of the dead-end of capitalism. There is very little the working class can do within contract law or pursuing grievances through the courts which will substantially challenge or alter the way capitalism works. Capitalism only works in the interest of the capitalist class. It is after all a production for profit system, and the profits can only come from the unpaid labour of the working class, i.e. from exploitation.

Class and the Class Struggle

The working class produce all the wealth in capitalism but they only get back a part of it. They work a ‘necessary’ labour time for themselves covering their wages and a surplus labour time for the employers. They produce a value which equates to the commodities they need to produce and reproduce themselves as a working class. And workers generate a surplus value for the capitalist class which is the source of their profit.

Out of the creation of value and surplus value comes the class struggle: a struggle over the extent and intensity of class exploitation. The class struggle goes on day after day, week after week, whether workers are organised in trade unions or not. There is nowhere to hide. The working class are the source of the capitalists’ profit and employers want as much profit as they can get.

And time is money. Capitalists are after the last second of working time in order to squeeze out more and more profit from the working class. Once upon a time, in the years of the post-war boom, workers in factories and offices enjoyed a morning and afternoon tea break, but now no more. Workers used to have one hour for lunch, but now many, desperately thinking about protecting their jobs, just take half-an -hour off for a meal or eat their sandwiches while working at their computer consoles. On the train home from London thousands of workers do free-time for their company by finishing off reports or answering e-mails.

Not that this deters defenders of capitalism moaning about the low productivity of workers. The new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, for example, in 2012, along with other Tories wrote a book, “BRITANNIA UNCHAINED: GLOBAL LESSONS FOR GROWTH AND PROSPERITY”. It complained that:

The British are among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor. Whereas Indian children aspire to be doctors or businessmen, the British are more interested in football and pop music."

The main “evidence” for this slur on workers in Britain being low productivity, which is also a piece of economic illiteracy since increase in productivity is largely bound-up new investment and technology. Children in India dreaming of being cricketers or becoming Bollywood stars are passed over in silence? (TIMES OF INDIA, April 20th 2017). And of course, nothing is said about the real idlers in society, the capitalist class living off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit.

Last year the TUC published a report, WORKYOUR PROPER HOURS DAY. The report showed that more than 5.3 million people put in an average of 7.7 hours a week in unpaid overtime during 2016. This is equivalent to an average of £6,301 they have each missed out in their pay packets. Fear of losing their job was one of the main reasons given.

Another trend facing workers is WeWork where home and work merge into one. WeWork already exists in New York. It has been described by the GUARDIAN journalist, John Harris as:

...a range of tiny studio flats and slightly bigger dwelling built around communal areas, kitchens and laundrettes – in the same building as WeWork office space”.

Harris goes on to say:

It is telling that this blurring of work and leisure, and the fading-out of any meaningful notion of home, is reflected at every level of the tech industry – from shared houses that double as start-up “incubators” (see the hit HBO comedy Silicon Valley), through the co-working and co-living spaces springing up in urban China, to the factories in the same country where workers churning out iPhones sleep in dormitories. The erosion of any barrier between grafting and downtime is reflected in big tech’s innate insistence that we are “on” at all times – checking our feeds, sending emails, messaging colleagues. You see the same things even more clearly among rising numbers of networked home workers – translators, CV writers, IT contractors, data inputters – whose lives are often a very modern mixture of supposed flexibility, and day-to-day insecurity” ( GUARDIAN 18 June 2018).

A class struggle then, takes place all the time over the intensity and extent of class exploitation. However, there is more to the class struggle than class exploitation. And it is a class struggle which will continue until the working-class abolish capitalism and replace the profit system with socialism.

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