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A social class (often just called class) is a group of people that share some fairly permanent characteristic that is relevant to their relations with other people.

Classes of people are often, though not always, seen as being ordered in a hierarchy, with some classes being higher (more powerful, privileged, better-off, etc.) than others. In many past societies, people were legally separated into classes, sometimes also called castes. A person's rights and privileges, jobs and duties, depended on her class. People nowadays still often regard themselves as belonging to some class, and behave toward each other accordingly. However, in most countries, class distinctions are no longer legally or officially enforced. Sociologists and other thinkers often divide people into classes as a mental technique to help them understand how society works. These classes have some correspondence to, but also some differences from, the class feelings, ideas, and motivations that exist in people in the general population.

General

The relative importance and definition of membership in a particular class differs greatly over time and between societies, particularly in societies having a legal differentiation of groups of people by birth or occupation.

Scholars sometimes view societies as stratifying into a hierarchical system (social stratification) based on economic status, wealth, or income.

Using wealth as a dimension, many have used a bi-partite model to view societies, from ancient history to the present day:

With the social changes of the 20th century, a gradually developing urban middle class appeared in most Western countries, producing three strata:

  • an Upper class of the immensely wealthy and/or powerful
  • a Middle class of managers and highly paid professionals
  • a Lower class of people paid average or low wages or receiving "welfare". Some are homeless.

(Some writers divide Middle & Lower classes between White collar & Blue collar jobs.)

Karl Marx famously claimed that the primary social division was between a "ruling class" and a labouring class. Under slavery, this division corresponds to that between the slave-owners and the slaves, while under feudalism, it corresponds to that between lords and serfs. Under capitalism, the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) exploit the working class (the proletariat, or in other words the wage-earners). Note that the Marxist definition of social class is based on how money is earned, not how much money is earned. The bourgeois are those who own the means of production (i.e. business owners) and hire other people to work for them; the proletarians are those who do not own means of production, and earn their living by working for the bourgeois and receiving wages.

Ideas of Max Weber

The sociologist Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with social, status and party classes (or politics) as conceptually distinct elements.

All three dimensions have consequences for what Weber called "life chances".

Ideas of Karl Marx

Karl Marx defined class in terms of the extent to which an individual or social group has control over the means of production.

In Marxist terms a class is a group of people with a specific relationship to the means of production. Marxists explain history in terms of a war of classes between those who control production and those who actually produce the goods or services in society (and also developments in technology and the like).

Abstract analysis

In capitalist societies there are two basic classes: bourgeoisie, who own and control means of production but do not labour with them; and proletariat, who do not own means of production but do labour with them. Because proletrariat do not own means of production they cannot be independent, self-employed producers but must hire themselves out to bourgeoisie as waged or salaried labourers. Because proletariat are thus dependent on bourgeoisie for their survival, the bourgeoisie have a strategic advantage and are able to exploit the proletariat, by taking some of the product produced by the proletariat, without labouring themselves.

Synonyms

Note that in recent language the bourgeoisie is often called the capitalists, and the proletariat is often called the workers or working class.

Marx considered that in all societies in which there is a surplus (that is, where technique is advanced enough so that labourers can produce more than what they need merely to survive) two broad classes exist, a lower class which does the work and an upper class which exploits the lower class by taking some or all of the surplus. As indicated above, in capitalism these two classes are bourgeoisie and proletariat; in feudalism they were aristocrat and serf; and in ancient slave societies they were master and slave. The common feature is that there is a transfer of wealth produced by the lower class to the upper class. There is inevitable conflict in this set up; the lower class always has an incentive to break out of the existing relations and the upper class has an incentive to enforce them. Marxist classes are antagonistic. But Marx believed that we would someday see the end of classes – in a society in which the means of production would be democratically controlled by all and there would be no exploitation.

Mid-level analysis

The division of capitalist society into proletariat and bourgeoisie is the broad picture. At a more detailed level, one finds some people in today's society who do not seem to fit easily into either of these categories. There is some diversity of opinion within Marxism as to how to categorize such people. Often they are assigned to varios minor classes which may be conceived of as either sub-classes of the bourgeoisie or proletariat, or as separate minor classes. The following sections discuss some class categories used in analyses at this moderate level of detail.

Proletariat

Usually taken to mean not just those who are actually currently employed, but those who are employed usually (though they may be `between jobs' at the moment), as well as their dependent relatives.

Lumpenproletariat

Lower class but doesn't usually have a job. Might live off illegal or semi-legal activities, charity, or scavenging among capitalism's torrential flow of discarded use-values.

Petit Bourgeoisie

Like bourgeoisie, owns means of production, but unlike bourgeoisie does not own enough means of production to live off investment income alone; must work. Classic example is a doctor or lawyer with her own practice. Details of definition vary; sometimes includes professionals who do not own means of production, for example teachers.

Middle class

Sometimes roughly synonymous with petit bourgeoisie. At any rate, it is between proletariat and bourgeoisie. Definitions vary, see section below that discusses `contradictory class locations', etc.

Peasants

In modern American English, `small farmers', roughly. In Latin America, `campesinas' and `campesinos'. Classic peasant family has own means of production (land, buildings, equipment), works it themselves with little or no hired labour. Viewed abstractly, is outside of capitalist relations (doesn't hir or get hired), but in practice may be quite connected to capitalist system by sale of their product and/or having to borrow money for operating expenses. Category may also include those who rent rather than own their land. Historically, peasants have tended to be swallowed into the proletariat in large numbers, a process which is still proceeding rapidly in the global South. La Via Campesina reports on this.

Proletarianisation

The most important transformation of society for Marxists has been the massive and rapid growth of the proletariat in the last two hundred and fifty years. Starting with agricultural and domestic textile labourers in England, more and more occupations only provide a living through wages or salaries. Private enterprise or self-employment in a variety of occupations is no longer as viable as it once was, and so many people who once controlled their own labour-time are converted into proletarians. Today groups which in the past subsisted on stipends or private wealth -- like doctors, academics or lawyers -- are now increasingly working as wage labourers. Marxists call this process "proletarianisation," and point to it as the major factor in the proletariat being the largest class in current societies in the rich countries of the "first world."

The increasing dissolution of the peasant-lord relationship, initially in the commercially active and industrialising countries, and then in the unindustrialised countries as well, has virtually eliminated the class of peasants. Poor rural labourers still exist, but their current relationship with production is predominantly as landless wage labourers or rural proletarians. The destruction of the peasantry, and its conversion into a rural proletariat, is largely a result of the general proletarianisation of all work. This process is today largely complete, although it was arguably incomplete in the 1960s and 1970s.

Dialectics, or historical materialism, in Marxist Class

Marx saw class categories as defined by continuing historical processes. Classes, in Marxism, are not static entities, but are regenerated daily through the productive process. Marxism views classes as human social relationships which change over time, with historical commonality created through shared productive processes. A 17th-century farm labourer who worked for day wages shares a similar relationship to production as an average office worker of the 21st century. In this example it is the shared structure of wage labour that makes both of these individuals "working class."

Objective and subjective factors in class in Marxism

Marxism has a rather heavily defined dialectic between objective factors (i.e., material conditions, the social structure) and subjective factors (i.e. the conscious organization of class members). While most Marxism analyses people's class status based on objective factors (class structure), major Marxist trends have made excellent use of subjective factors in understanding the history of the working class. E.P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class is a definitive example of this "subjective" Marxist trend. Thompson analyses the English working class as a group of people with shared material conditions coming to a positive self-consciousness of their social position. This feature of social class is commonly termed class consciousness in Marxism. It is seen as the process of a "class in itself" moving in the direction of a "class for itself," a collective agent that changes history rather than simply being a victim of the historical process.

New communpedia material (2015)

The basic polarity in Marxism is between two classes: capitalists and proletarians, owners and non-owners of means of production, exploiters and exploited. This has left the problem of how to to deal with the obvious existence of people who do not fit easily into either of those two categories – especially the so-called middle class. The problem has intensified in the last fifty years or so in the wealthier countries as the traditional identification of `proletarian' with `industrial or manual worker' has become harder to sustain. A fairly large proportion of wage-earners now consists of professionals, technicians , and managers. Where does one now draw the line between the proletariat and the middle class?[1]

Marx's writings on class can be regarded as being of two kinds:

  1. Elaborations of abstract structural maps of class relations.
  2. Analyses of concrete conjunctural maps of classes-as-actors.[2]

The first of these is found in Marx's main theoretical works, especially Capital. Here he is looking at how production relations divide society into two camps. The second type of analysis appears in his political and historical works. Here he is looking at the specific actions of people within the structure suggested by the first kind of analysis. At this level, the picture is a complex one of `classes, fractions, factions, social categories, strata, and other actors on the political stage' (Wright, Classes, p 7). In writing of contemporary French politics in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, for example, Marx refers to at least the following actors in social conflicts: bourgeoisie, proletariat, large landowners, aristocracy of finance, peasants, petty bourgeoisie, the middle class, the lumpen-proletariat, industrial bourgeoisie, and high dignitaries.[3]

More generally, Eric Olin Wright, a Marxist researcher on class, has noted that class analyses, by Marx as well as later Marxists, can be differentiated by their level of abstraction, and whether the analysis is of class structure or class formation.

Level of abstraction refers to the degree of detail in which phenomena are looked at. Highly abstract analysis looks at generalities, and does not get bogged down in details. Un-abstract, or concrete analyis, looks at reality in all its complicated and chaotic glory but risks `not being able to see the forest for the trees'. Wright characterises Marxist discourse on class as having proceeded at three levels of abstraction, which he labels mode of production, social formation, and conjuncture.

The highest level of abstraction is mode of production. Classes are here analysed in terms of pure types of social relations of production, each embodying a distinctive mechanism of exploitation. When Marx talks above of the `pure form' of classes in capitalist society he is referring to the analysis of classes at this highest level of abstraction.

...

The term `social formation' has come to derive its meaning from the analysis of societies as specific combinations of distinct modes of production or types or relations of production. The analysis of the presence of pre-capitalist classes within capitalist society, and more rarely, the analysis of post-capitalist classes within capitalist society, are examples of analyzing class structure at the level of abstraction of social formation. The analysis of the specific ways in which different forms of capitalist relations are combined within a given society is also a problem of the social formation level of abstraction. For example, analysing the specific combinations of competitive, small-scale capitalist production with large, concentrated and centralized capitalist production in a given society would be a social formation analysis. The problem of alliances between classes and fractions of classes is the prioncipal object of the analysis of class formation at this level of abstraction.

Conjunctural analysis involves the investigation of societies in terms of the concrete institutional details and contingent historical factors that enter the story. The analysis of specific forms of labour-market segmentation within the working class, or the legal practices which define the powers of managers over workers, or the credit relations that link petty-bourgeois to bankers, would all be instances of conjunctural analyses of class structures. The analysis of unionization, party formation, class-based social movements, etc., would be analysis of class formation at this most concrete level.

The conjunctural level of analysis is also the level of abstraction at which the most sustained analyses of the relationshhip between class and non-class relations and practices usually occur (e.g. class and race or class and gender). This is not to say that in principle such issues cannot be addressed at higher levels of abstraction, but the conceptual apparatus for such more abstract investigation is rather undeveloped and when attempts are made they tend to be reductionist. For example, when the gender-class relationship is explored at the level of mode of production, most marxist analyses effectively end up reducing male domination to class domination. Typically this reduction occurs in some sort of functionalist manner: the existence and form of patriarchy is explained by the essential functions it fulfills in reproducing the basic class relations of capitalism.

In these terms, many debates can be interpreted as disagreements over the appropriate level of abstraction for addrressing certain problems. If gender and class have completely contingent relations between them – that is, the causal interconnections between them occur simply because they affect the same people but not because they presuppose each other in any other way – then their relationship can only really be analysed at the conjunctural level. If, on the other hand, there are structural properties of these two relations which are intrinsically related, then a mode of production analysis may become possible. To take another example, some theorists, such as Nicos Poulantzas, have argued that the relationship between the form of the state and social classes can be nalysed at the level of abstraction of mode of production and this leads him to try to construct a general concept of `the capitalist state'. Other theorists, such as Theda Skocpol, argue that the state cannot legitimately be theorized at this level of abstraction and insist on a strictly historical (i.e. conjunctural) investigation of the relationship between states and classes. (Classes, p 10.)

The distinction between class structure and class formation gets at the difference between what is in various people's interests, based on their economic situation, and what they actually do; the latter consisting of, for example, their feelings, the kinds of alliances they make, the kinds of class activities, struggles, etc., which they engage in. `Class structure defines a set of empty places or positions filled by individuals or families.... Class formation, on the other hand, refers to the formation of organised collectivities within that class structure.'[4]

Within a given structure, various formatins are possible, depending on all the accidents and contingencies of historical detail. `A given type of class structure may be characterized by a range of possible types of class formation, varying in the extent and form of collective organization of classes. Class-based collectivities may be organized, disorganized, or reorganized within a given class structure without there necessarily being any fundamental transformation of the class structure itself.'[5]

The process of class formation is decisively shaped by a variety of institutional mechanisms that are themselves `relatively autonomous' from the class structure and which determine the ways in which class structures are translated into collective actors with specific ideologies and strategies. Some of this research has focused primarily on the political mediations of the process, showing how the process of class formation is shaped by the forms of the state, the strategies of parties and other political factors.[6] Other research has dealt primarily with the role of the labour-process and the organisation of work in structuring the process of class formation.[7] Nearly all of this research has been concerned with showing the complex and contingent character of the relationship between class structure and class formation. (Wright, Classes, p 14.)

Based on his differentia, Wright has produced a 3x2 typology of Marxian class analyses.

Theiretical Objects and Levels of Abstraction in Marxist Class Analysis
Level of abstraction Theoretical object of analysis
CLASS STRUCTURE CLASS FORMATION
MODE OF PRODUCION Polarized class relations Epochal struggle between classes
SOCIAL FORMATION Co-existence of classes based in different modes of production and different stages of development of a given mode Class alliances
CONJUNCTURE Institutional variability in class relations in given jobs Concrete class organizations: parties, shop floor organization unions

Source: Wright, Classes, p 9.

Marx's own analyses were concentrated in the upper left and middle and lower right boxes of this table. Wright says that the two problems which have troubled and preoccupied recent Marxist class analysis are how to conceptualise the middle class in the wealthy countries and the peasantry in the poorer countries. Both the middle-class and the peasantry issues have led in recent Marxism to a lot of work at the middle level of abstraction; i.e. the level of analysis where one considers the mingling and subdivision of modes of production. At this level of analysis, the existence of apparently anomolous classes can be explained on the rationale that they correspond to minor modes of production which appear as enclaves inside the dominant mode (eg. feudal holdovers in capitalism) or that they correspond to sub-modes or evolutionary phases of the main mode. Besides the trend toward analysis at the middle level of abstraction, the other trend has been toward a lot of work on class formation. Here the existence of apparently anomolous classes can be explained by reference to political or technical contingencies.

Two lines of approach to understanding the peasant class in poor countries have been `articulation of modes of production' and world systems theory.

At least six alternative solutions have been offered to the problem of the middle class:

1. The discrepancy between the polarised bourgeois-vs.-proletariat class model and reality is only apparent. Capitalist societies really are polarised. Managers and professionals are part of the proletariat because they work for a wage and do not own means of production.

2. Non-proletarian, non-bourgeois positions constitute part of the petty bourgeoisie, generally referred to as the `new' petty bourgeoisie (and sometimes less rigorously as the new middle class').[8] Sometimes the distinction between productive and unproductive labour is used to distinguish this new petty bourgeoisie from the working class, the new petty bourgeoisie being unproductive (in the sense of non surplus-value producing) labourers. Nicos Poulantzas has advanced a theory of this type, bringing in also some ideological and political criteria to the definition.

3. Non-proletarian, non-bourgeois locations constitute a historically new class sometimes referred to as the `professional-managerial class' and sometimes simply as the new class.[9]

4. Non-proletarian, non-bourgeois positions should be referred to simply as `middle strata', social positions that are not really `in' any class.

5. A given individual does not necessarily belong entirely to one class. Some people have a mixture of characteristics from two different classes. Salaried manageres, for example, have the bourgeois characteristic that they supervise the labour of others, but the proletarian characteristic that they are not self-employed.

This thesis is known by the cumbersome name, `contradictory locations within class relations', or by the shorter name, `contradictory class locations'. It has produced the class typology shown below:


         Contradictory class locations in capitalism
         -------------------------------------------




 ╔══════════════════╗ 
 ║ Capitalist class ║    
 ╚══════════════════╝  \
                          - - - - - - - - -
          |              | Small employers |
                          - - - - - - - - -
   - - - - - - - -                          \
  | Top executives |                         \
  |                |                           ╔═══════════════════╗
  |   Managers     |                           ║ Petty bourgeoisie ║
  |                |                           ╚═══════════════════╝
  |  Supervisors   |                         /
   - - - - - - - -                          /
                          - - - - - - - - -
          |              | Semi-autonomous | 
                       / |  employees      |  
  ╔═══════════════╗   /   - - - - - - - - - 
  ║ Working class ║   
  ╚═══════════════╝         





        -----------------------------------------------
Key:

  ╔═══════════════╗
  ║               ║ Class
  ╚═══════════════╝

   - - - - - - - -
  |               | Contradictory location within class relations
   - - - - - - - -


        -----------------------------------------------
                                           (Wright, Classes, p 48.)


6. Out of the contradictory class locations idea came a theory which was similar but more symmetrical and firmly grounded in an analysis of different types of exploitation. This theory was developed by Eric Olin Wright in the 1980s by using the exploitation theories of John Roemer as a basis. I will refer to it as the Roemer-Wright theory. The exploitation part of the theory is described in detail in the Communpedia article, `Exploitation', but, briefly, it holds that in capitalism there are three types of exploitation, each the result of unequal distribution of endowments among the population of three forces (or factors) of production:

  • Means of production
  • Technical organisation
  • Skills

Some people own means of production, some people don't; some people exert control over the technical organisation of production, some people don't; and some people are skilled, some unskilled. Those who possess a factor of production have an advantage over those who don't and are able to use that advantage to exploit. Various combinations of these three types of exploitation lead to a twelve-location map of classes in capitalism:

Typology of class locations in capitalist society
|←— means of production —→|
owners      non-owners _
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers and not work
1Bourgeoisie
4Expert managers
</tr>
7Semi-credentialled mananagers
10Uncredentialled managers
alot
|
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers but must work
2Small employers
5Expert supervisors
8Semi-credentialled supervisors
11Uncredentialled supervisors
some organisational control
Owns sufficient capital to work for self but not to hire workers
3Petty bourgeoisie
6Expert non-managers
9Semi-credentialled workers
12Proletarians
none |
alot some none
|←— skills/credentials —→|

Source: Wright, Classes, p 88.


Wright has used the model depicted in the above table for conducting experimental research. Beginning in 1978 he led a large international telephone survey to gather information about class. Some of the results for the United States and Sweden are given below. Somewhat more than a thousand people were interviewed in each of those countries. Interviewees were randomly selected in each country.

The experimental criteria for placing people within each of the three dimensions, skills, organizational control, and ownership of means of production, are summarized below. Those who reported themselves self-employed were classed as bourgeoisie if they had more than 10 employees; as small employers if they had 2-10 employees; and as petty bourgoisie if they had 0-1 employees. Those not self-employed were placed in one of the remaining nine locations based on their organisational control and skills levels. Two criteria were used to estimate the level of assets in organisational control, as outlined in the table

Assets in organisational control
Directly involved in making policy decisions for the organisationSupervisor with real authority over subordinates
1. ManagersYesYes
2. SupervisorsNoYes
3. Non-managementNoNo

Skill level was guaged by profession, educational credential, and degree of autonomy at one's job, as shown in the following table:

</tr>

Assets in scarce skills/talent
OccupationEducation credentialJob autonomy
1. ExpertsProfessionals
Professors
Managers
Technicians
B.A. or more*
B.A. or more
2. MarginalSchool teachers
Craft workers
Managers
Technicians
Less than B.A.
Less than B.A.
Sales
Clerical
B.A. or more
B.A. or more
Autonomous
Autonomous
3. UncredentialledSales
Clerical
Less than B.A. or no job autonomy
?Less than B.A.

 * Note: For managers in Sweden, the criterion used here was high school diploma.


Results

The percentages of the labour force, in each of the class locations defined by the above criteria, is given in the table below:

Distribution of the labour force among class locations (%)
|←— means of production —→|
owners      non-owners _
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers and not work
1Bourgeoisie
US: 1.8
SW: 0.7
4Expert managers
US: 3.9
SW: 4.4
7Semi-credentialled mananagers
US: 6.2
SW: 7.0
10Uncredentialled managers
US: 2.3
SW: 2.5
alot
|
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers but must work
2Small employers
US: 6.0
SW: 4.8
5Expert supervisors
US: 3.7
SW: 3.8
8Semi-credentialled supervisors
US: 6.8
SW: 3.2
11Uncredentialled supervisors
US: 6.9
SW: 3.1
some organisational control
Owns sufficient capital to work for self but not to hire workers
3Petty bourgeoisie
US: 6.9
SW: 5.4
6Expert non-managers
US: 3.4
SW: 6.8
9Semi-credentialled workers
US: 12.2
SW: $17.8
12Proletarians
US: 39.9
SW: 43.5
none |
alot some none
|←— skills/credentials —→|

Notes:
United States: N = 1487
Sweden: N = 1179
Distribution is of people working in the labour force, thus excluding unemployed, housewives, pensioners, etc.
Source: Table 6.1, p 195, Wright, Classes.


With class location determined by the criteria given above, personal incomes varied with class location as shown in the table below:

Personal income by class location in Sweden and the United States
|←— means of production —→|
owners      non-owners _
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers and not work
1Bourgeoisie
US: $52,621
SW: $28,333
4Expert managers
US: $28,665
SW: $29,952
7Semi-credentialled mananagers
US: $20,701
SW: 20,820
10Uncredentialled managers
US: $12,276
SW: $15,475
alot
|
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers but must work
2Small employers
US: $24,828
SW: $17,237
5Expert supervisors
US: $23,057
SW: $18,859
8Semi-credentialled supervisors
US: $18,023
SW: $19,711
11Uncredentialled supervisors
US: $13,045
SW: $15,411
some organisational control
Owns sufficient capital to work for self but not to hire workers
3Petty bourgeoisie
US: 14,496
SW: $13,503
6Expert non-managers
US: &15,251
SW: $14,890
9Semi-credentialled workers
US: $16,034
SW: $14,879
12Proletarians
US: $11,161
SW: $11,876
none |
alot some none
|←— skills/credentials —→|

Notes:
United States: N = 1282
Sweden: N = 1049
Entries in cells are the means for gross annual individual income from all sources before taxes. The Swedish incomes were converted to dollars at the 1980 exchange rate.


An attempt was made to measure class consciousness by using verbally expressed attitude as an indicator of consciousness. Attitude was put on a scale of -6 to 6 (maximally pro-capitalist to maximally pro-worker) based on the interwiewees responses to five Likert items and one multiple choice question. In a Likert item, respondents are read a statement and then asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree with it. The items were as follows:

  1. Corporations benefit owners at the expense of workers and consumers.
  2. It is possible for a modern society to run effectively without the profit motive.
  3. If given the chance, the non-management employees at the place where you work could run things effectively without bosses.
  4. During a strike, management should be prohibited by law from hiring workers to take the place of strikers.
  5. Big corportations have far too much power in American [Swedish] socirty today.
  6. Imagine that workers in a major industry are out on strike over working conditions and wages. Which of the following outcomes would you like to see occur: (a) the workers win their most important demends; (b) the workers win some of their demands and make major concessions; (c) the workers win only a few of their demands and make major concessions; (d) the workers go back to work without winning any of their demands.

For each item a score of +1 was given for the pro working class response, -1 for the pro-capitalist response, and 0 if the response was non-committal. In item 6, (a) was scored +1, (b) 0, and (c) and (d) -1. The results are shown in the table below:

Class consciousness by class location
|←— means of production —→|
owners      non-owners _
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers and not work
1Bourgeoisie
US: -1.31
SW: -2.00
4Expert managers
US: -1.46
SW: -0.70
7Semi-credentialled mananagers
US: -0.34
SW: +1.03
10Uncredentialled managers
US: -0.29
SW: +1.81
alot
|
Owns sufficient capital to hire workers but must work
2Small employers
US: -0.87
SW: -0.98
5Expert supervisors
US: -0.78
SW: +0.07
8Semi-credentialled supervisors
US: -0.24
SW: +0.74
11Uncredentialled supervisors
US: +0.54
SW: +1.98
some organisational control
Owns sufficient capital to work for self but not to hire workers
3Petty bourgeoisie
US: -0.09
SW: +0.46
6Expert non-managers
US: -0.09
SW: +1.29
9Semi-credentialled workers
US: +0.78
SW: +2.81
12Proletarians
US: +0.78
SW: +2.60
none |
alot some none
|←— skills/credentials —→|

It is notable that class attitudes are more polarized in Sweden than in the United States. Wright has given some reasons for this difference between the two countries:

While the overall patterning of consciousness is structurally determined by class relations, the level of working-class consciousness in a given society and the nature of the class coalitions that are built upon those class relations are shaped by the organisational and political practices that characterize the history of class struggle. For all of their reformism and their efforts at building a stable class compromise in Swedish society, the Swedish Social Democratic Party and the associated Swedish labour movement have adopted strategies which reinforce certain aspects of working class consciousness rather than absorbing it into a solid bourgeois ideological hegemony.

These strategies have affected each of the three elements of class consciousness discussed earlier: perceptions of alternatives, theories of consequences, and preferences (or understandings of interests). To a much greater extent than in the United States, the discourse of politics in Sweden often explicitly involves `class'. The very name given in the mass media to the conservative parties in Sweden – the `bourgeois parties' – reflects the salience accorded to class in defining the terrain of politics. But more important than the use of words, the Social Democratic Party has been an arena in which issues of power and property have been debated and have become part of the agenda of politics in Sweden. The effect of these debates has been to emphasize the existence of alternatives to the existing distributions of power and property. Proposals such as the Meidner plan – a programme currently under consideration to gradually erode the private-capitalist ownership of the principal means of production through the use of union controlled investment funds – illustrate this well. The Meidner plan has been widely debated as a proposal to transform power relations in the society as a whole. Even though the more radical versions of the proposal have not received wide support, the very fact of the debate itself opens up the terrain of alternatives.

The strategies of parties and unions in Sweden have also had the effect of shaping the real and perceived interests of various categories of wage earners. State-welfare policies pursued by the Social Democratic Party have generally had a relatively universal character to them, distributing benefits of different sorts to most categories of wage-earners, thus reducing the tendency for wage earners in contradictory exploiting class locations to see their interests as polarized with those in exploited positions. Above all, perhaps, the effectiveness of the Swedish labour movement in massively unionizing white-collar employees and even substantial segments of managerial employees, has heightened the degree of perceived community of interests among wage earners in different class positions. This does not imply that the objective basis of conflicts of interest among wage earners in different classes has disappeared, but simply that their common interests as capitalistically exploited wage earners have assumed greater weight relative to their differential interests with respect to organisation and credential exploitation.

In contrast to the Swedish case, political parties and unions in the United States have engaged in practices which, wittingly or unwittingly, have undermined working-class consciousness. The Democratic Party has systematically displaced political discourse from a language of class. While there are exceptions of course, the general tendency has been to organise social conflicts in non-class ways and to emphasize the extremely limited range of alternatives for dealing with problems of power and property. State welfare policies have tended to heighten rather than reduce class-based divisions among wage earners. And the ineffectiveness of the labour movement to unionize even a majority of manual industrial workers, let alone white collar employees, has meant that the perceived divisions of exploitation-bassed interests among wage earners have tended to be large relative to their common interests vis-á-vis capital. As a result, as the rhetoric of the 1984 Presidential campaign demonstrated, the labour movement is regarded as a `special interest' group in the United States, rather than a representative of the general economic interests of wage earners.

The net result of these differences in the political strategies and ideologies of parties and unions in the two countries is that class has considerably greater ideological salience in Sweden than in the United States: class location and class experiences hava a bigger impact on class consciousness; classes are more polarized ideologically; and the working class coalition built upon that more polarized ideological terrain is much bigger.

Non-economic conceptions of class

In contrast to simple income--property hierarchies, and to structural class schemes like Weber's or Marx's, there are theories of class based on other distinctions, such as culture or educational attainment. At times, social class can be related to elitism, and those in the higher class are usually known as the "social elite".

For example, Bourdieu seems to have a notion of high and low classes comparable to that of Marxism, insofar as their conditions are defined by different habitus, which is in turn defined by different objectively classifiable conditions of existence. In fact, one of the principal distinction Bourdieu makes is a distinction between bourgeois taste and the working class taste.

Class in different parts of the world

At various times the division of society into classes and estates has had various levels of support in law. At one extreme we find old Indian castes, which one could neither enter after birth, nor leave (though this applied only in relatively recent history). Feudal Europe had estates clearly separated by law and custom. On the other extreme there exist classes in modern Western societies which appear very fluid and have little support in law.

The extent to which classes are important differs also in western societies, though in most societies class as an objective measure has very strong empirical effects on life chances (e.g. educational achievement, life-time earnings, health outcomes). Only in the strongly social-democratic societies such as Sweden is there much long-term evidence of the weakening of the consequences of social class.

The effect of class on vote or life-style is more variable across countries and over time.

See also

External link

Further reading

  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1848. (The key statement of class conflict as the driver of historical change.)
  • "Class, Status and Party", Max Weber, in e.g. Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958. (Weber's key statement of the multiple nature of stratification.)
  • Classes (London: Verso, 1985), The Debate on Classes (London: Verso, 1990), Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1997), all by Erik Olin Wright.
  • The Constant Flux: a study of class mobility in industrial societies, Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992. (An important analysis of social mobility in a neo-Weberian perspective.)
  • The Death of Class, Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, London, Sage. 1996. (A somewhat postmodern rejection of the relevance of class for modern societies.)
  • Consumer's Republic, Lizabeth Cohen, Knopf, 2003, hardcover, 576 pages, ISBN 0375407502. (An analysis of the working out of class in the United States.)
  • Rethinking Cultural and Economic Capital - Jan Rupp

Notes

  1. Eric Olin Wright has stated that `among wage earners, the growth of professional and technical occupations and the expansion of managerial hierarchies in large corporations and at the state level have at least created the appearance of a considerble erosion of a simple polarized structure.' (Classes, pp 8-9).
  2. The two points are from Wright, Classes, p 6.
  3. Wright, Classes, p 7.
  4. Wright, Classes, p 10.
  5. Wright, Classes, p 10.
  6. Wright's footnote here reads: `The most innovative and important work on the political mediations of the process of class formation has been done, in my view, by Adam Przeworski. See inparticular, `From Proletariat into Class: The Process of Class Struggle from Karl Kautsky's The Class Struggle to Recent Debates', Politics and Society, vol. 7, num. 4, 1977; `Social Democracy as an Historical Phenomenon', New Left Review, 122, 1980; `Material Interests, Class Compromise and the Transition to Socialism', Politics & Society, vol. 10, num. 2, 1980; `The Material Bases of Consent: Economics and Politics in a Hegemonic System', in Maurice Zeitlin, ed., Political Power and Social Theory, vol. 1, Greenwich, Connecticutt, U.S.A., 1979. Other examples of important work on the political mediations of the process of class formation include, G&oumlaut;ran Therborn, `The Prospects of Labour and the Transformation of Advanced Capitalism', New Left Review, 145, 1984; David Abraham, The Collapse of the Wiemar Republic, Princeton, U.S.A., 1981; Ron Aminzade, Class, Politics and Early Industrial Capitalism, Binghampton, 1981.
  7. The following information is from Wright's footnote: See especially Michael Burawoy, Manufacturing Consent, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., 1979; and The Politics of Production, London, England, 1985; Richard Edwards, Contested Terrain, New York City, U.S.A., 1979; David Noble, `Social Choice in Machine Design', Politics & Society, vol. 8, nos. 3-4, 1978.
  8. Wright, Classes, p 38.
  9. I could add Wright's footnote here. Wright provides the following footnote: `The expression "professional-managerial class" (or PMC) was introduced in an influential article in the American Left by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, "The Professional-Managerial Class", Radical America, vol. 11, no. 2, 1971. This article, along with a series of critical responses has been reprinted in a book edited by Pat Walker, Between Capital and Labour, Boston 1979. The expression "new class" has a longer pedigree, but most recently has been associated with the writings of Alvin Gouldner and Ivan Szelenyi.

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