You are Working Class

17 Jan

If you’re reading this, you’re working class. Rather, you are probably or likely to be working class—as one of my favourite sociologists once said: “one should always speak statistically. It’s more precise.” Accordingly, I have the numbers to back myself up.

A breakdown of the 2006 workforce by occupational classification shows that, of all of the employed (roughly 85%) and self-employed (roughly 15%) people in Canada, just under 10% are in “senior management” positions. With the possible exception of a smattering of professionals in business and finance (2.5%), university professors (.3%), doctors, dentists and veterinarians (.6%), the majority of the rest of you have to sell your labour to make a living.

Whether you’re in a clerical job (10%), in sales and service (24%), a tradesperson, transport worker or equipment operator (16%), some other sort of labourer in manufacturing (6%) or primary industry (4%), you only get paid if you sell your physical, mental and emotional toil to somebody else, who in turn sells it to a consumer for a profit: a profit you, personally, do not see. Even in the public sector, the police and other protective services (1.6%) and bureaucrats like program officers (1%) have to sell their labour. Their employers don’t necessarily sell it at a profit, but when they look for ways to break even, labour costs are some of the first to get cut.

That’s capitalism, as we know it.

That makes most of us workers.

And that makes us, for most intents and purposes, in the ways that matter to our well-being and security, working class.

Are you still with me?

Class is, and has been for some time in Canada, somewhat of a four-letter-word. Into the ongoing public exchange about Occupy, income inequality, CEO pay, plant and factory closures and labour disputes, a few people have tossed the phrase “class warfare.” Some of them, dismissing critics of income inequality as “envy peddlers,” accuse those critics of raising the issue of CEO pay to incite class warfare, or deem the revelation of upper crust salaries an act of class warfare itself.

Others distance themselves from the term – like My Favourite, Margaret Wente, who tepidly agrees that CEO pay should be “brought down to earth” but reminds us, as though we could ever forget, that she is “no class warrior.”

More often, people don’t want to talk about class at all.

Several writers pointed this out about Western media coverage of the Arab Spring. They noted that most news stories worked with the boiled-down, black-and-white narrative of youth revolting against despotic leaders, ignoring the fact that the real fuel for those fiery revolutions was a rapid decline in material living standards. These were and are class revolts. The despots just made the enemy a little easier to identify.

In the West, even Occupy had to find purchase with numerical categories – the 99% vs. the 1% – instead of the language of class.

But it’s not that class is taboo, necessarily.

In the last federal election, parties fought tooth and nail to win over the “middle class”, a “shrinking” category of Canadians who ostensibly sit “around the kitchen table”, send their grown children to universities and colleges.

Rather, it’s that class has become detached from its more logical moorings to one’s position vis-à-vis the “means of production”—the levers of power, really—and has drifted to the shores of income, lifestyle and subjective distinctions between certain “tastes”, as Bourdieu might put it.

Class has become something you decide and display, with the things you buy, what you wear to work, where your kids go to school. It has come to be determined, in our minds anyway, by your place of work and the company you keep, and not the very simple division between those who have to sell their labour for income, and those who buy the labour of others and reap the profits on whatever that labour produces.

The division is simple, yes, and in many cases overly simple.[1] It’s way simpler than how Marx would put it. But generally, there is one very important difference between the two groups: the amount of control they have over what is done when profits slip, or when it becomes possible to increase profit by decreasing labour costs. And therein lies the inescapable bit, no matter what colour your collar: it is only in the immediate interests of one group to decrease labour costs.

I hate to break it to you, honey boo boo chile: you likely aren’t in that group.

[1] Admittedly, there are groups, e.g. university professors, who sell their labour but have a great deal of control over the “means of production”—in this case, their brains—but they lack control over certain working conditions, and they are increasingly at risk of having benefits chopped and job security minimized.


One Response to “You are Working Class”

  1. RockyRacoon February 13, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

    Class also has to be defined relationally as to your relation to the mode of production and the state-police are not working class they are the hired guns of the state to enforce capitalist social relations on the rest of us. Moreover, academic who take up the cause of the elimination of class relations surely, must be considered as part of that class as well. Hopefully, those middle manager’s and technocrats will see that their future and that of their children lie in furthering that elimination.

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