The idea of “class” — or groups with a shared social or economic position in society — is not often talked about in the United States. How could class be important to people in a nation founded on the idea they are created equal, where they can lift themselves up by their own bootstraps & live the American Dream? Naturally, there will always be wealthy folk at the top (who worked very hard to get there, of course) and, though we speak of a middle “class” of entrepreneurs, professionals, & skilled workers, there is no lower class. A working class, maybe — but not a lower one. In fact, the working class is just the part of the middle that is facing the bottom. But none of these are really classes per se since US Americans can just change classes with a bit of hard work — easy as pie, right?
Or that, at least, is the myth politicians feed to the financially secure and it’s been a fairly good vaccine against socialism in the USA for the last 80 years or so.
Class & Class Struggle
In the United States
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires…“
To get a hold on the situation today, it helps to understand a few terms. A class is basically a group who shares economic & social interests. Higher wages, for example, benefit the working class but the business-owning class profits from lower wages. Inside of a class, individuals or sub-groups are very different and other layers of identity (like skin-color or religion) may still conflict with each other but so long as a group shares fundamental economic interests, they can be called a class. Make sense?
The Working Class
& the Ruling Class
From a Marxist point of view, a group is only called a class when they have a shared relationship to their society’s means of production, which is a fancy term for the materials, machines, & resources used to make all of the stuffs. This is less complicated than it may sound at first! What Marx means is that the working class is a class because workers do not own the places they work in, the tools they work with, or what they create. This relationship working people share (not owning the means to produce wealth) makes them a working class. The other major class is the capitalist or bourgeois (say: boo-zh-WAH) classes, often called the ruling class — these are the investors & business-folk. The relationship shared by the ruling class is that they own the means to produce wealth like land, factories, resources (oil, water rights, etc), big piles of money, or patents & intellectual property.
Any group that fits this description can be a “class in itself” but — when members of a class become conscious of themselves as a class — it is a “class for itself.” This is class consciousness. If a class in itself becomes a class for itself by achieving class consciousness, the members of that class work together for their common interest. As class consciousness spreads grows among the members of a class, they learn to value cooperation for the good of the class This widespread feeling of familiarity and urge to cooperate — even between people who do not personally know each other — is solidarity.
And when class consciousness leads to solidarity, a new possibility is born….
Class Conflict, Class Struggle,
or Class Warfare…
“There’s class warfare, alright, but it’s my class — the rich class — that’s making war. And we’re winning.“
-Warren Buffet, US Billionaire
Class conflict, class struggle, & class warfare are 3 terms for the same idea and the media commentariat use them in almost entirely negative — & incorrect — ways. And since popularizing the concept is totally not in the class-interests of those who own the news-industry, the misuse of these terms may be an ironic act of class warfare. Class conflict, struggle, or warfare is what happens when classes act in their interests, which is always an act against the interests of other classes. This is because all classes share economic interests, which means that folks outside of a class — by definition — do not share the same interests. If they did, they would not be outside of the class.
So long as classes exist, class conflict also exists.
Class Conflict is the Problem
& the Solution is Class Conflict
Class conflict takes many forms. When police break the bones of the poor to protect the assets of the 1% or private “security” bloodies workers who join a union, class conflict is violent. When currency speculators use markets to siphon everyone’s wealth, class conflict is economic. When workers must accept lower wages or lose their jobs and dining franchises leverage public guilt to subsidize their payroll with voluntary tipping, class conflict is coercive & psychological. When Big Oil spends millions to elect politicians who golf with their shareholders & the food industry uses patent law to crush family farms, class conflict is political & judicial. When public space is flooded by consumerist advertisements & state-propaganda as the news hides the people who die in their name, class conflict is ideological & it is cultural & it is moral.
The class war has been on for a long time — but we (the “People” or the workers or something) have not been winning it. In recent US history, class conflict looks a lot like a conflict between a lion & an open can of tuna — class slaughter may really be a better way to put it. There are good reasons that working classes did not find a viable, long-term strategy to build class conscious institutions and movements in the US but life is too short & today is more pressing…
How Class Has Changed Today
In Marx’s day, the rural working classes were pushed into an industrial world that produced more with less work. Unable to compete with cheap, mass-produced goods in an industrial economy, the masses had to seek jobs from the class who owned the new machinery & factories. Bosses could pay lower wages for longer hours in unsafe workplaces because mass-unemployment gave them a big supply of people hungry enough to labor for less. Marx split them in 2 simple classes — the few who owned the land, resources, & factories and the many who only had their hours & days to trade.
As the industrial revolution mutated into a world-wide nuclear-wireless-computerized-industrial space-revolution, a lot of things changed. In the United States, factory & agricultural jobs have become fewer, while service industries (retail, healthcare, dining, etc.) now employ 80% of the workforce. Unlike the long hours & workweeks in factories of the 1800s, today’s service industry offers more part-time & fewer full-time jobs. Large numbers of part-time & temporary jobs make it harder for the working classes to organize unions and hides unemployment with higher but less-visible rates of underemployment. The overall effect is that the same relationship of exploitation exists between the ruling class & the working class, except the working classes are more fragmented & isolated.
Children of the Great Recession:
Cry ‘Havoc!’ & Let Slip the Dogs of Class War…
“To a large degree, these people, the millions of poor people in America, are invisible, living under the radar screen. Their suffering is not seen on our evening news. But it’s there.”
As the conservative influence of the Boomer Generation fades, the scales may finally be starting to tip and — at nearly 80 million strong — Millennials are now the largest generation in the US workforce. The children of the great recession — this was the description of millennials Hillary Clinton offered when she thought only her wealthy class-peers were listening. Then, WikiLeaks showed Clinton some of the risks of holding public & private positions in an election season and apparently one of those risks is that millennials will spelunk your transcripts. It is a pretty neat title, though — “children of the great recession.”
And it’s accurate, too.
The Economic System Has Failed Millennials
The recession hit millennials the hardest, right at the beginning of many of our adult lives. Also, we have not quite recovered but please — don’t wait up or anything. Ah, but maybe they don’t make make these bootstraps quite like they did when the boomers were growing up. Or maybe they were made by a manufacturing plants that was abandoned after free-trade let their owners set up sweatshops in other countries, instead.
The key to success, our parents & teachers told us, was a college degree — we listened & we are now the generation with the highest number of college degrees in all of history. We also have more debt than any generation in history, more of us are out of work than many other groups, and we are the first generation in the US to make less money than our parents did at our ages, which we spend more of to buy less. So we have that going for us and — as the failed democratic candidate was pointing out — it is something that is informing our worldviews, now.
And did I mention that there are 80 million of us? Because there are — and it bears repeating….
Was Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution
The Beginning of a Greater Class Solidarity?
Up until the moment when democrats chose to run the one person who could lose to a racist clown, it seemed like 2016 might be the year that working classes finally punched the billionaire class right in its face. And then the exact opposite thing happened — but a self-described socialist did still get more primary votes from young people than both of the major party’s candidates combined. And that has to be worth something, right?
2016 also showed us that:
- Younger generations in the US — especially Millennials — have drifted much further to the left of Boomers than most had realized.
- A majority of people under 30 in the US now say they have an unfavorable view of capitalism. And more feel favorably about socialism than capitalism, too.
- More young people are unhappy with the levels of income inequality & unemployment than any previous generation in the US since polling was invented.
- Despite being the most educated generation in history, a majority of Millennials identify as working class.
Is the United States Finally Ready
For Class Conscious Movements?
Although it is pretty depressing that Donald Trump was able to become the president with votes cast by less than 1 in 4 US adults, there may also be a weird glimmer of hope here. Half of the US stayed home on election day because the vote did not feel worthwhile (well, a mix of that & voter suppression). A choice between 2 old, rich, white golfers has become so meaningless that being ruled by the cartoon of an evil landlord is not threatening enough to even get 1/3rd of us to check a box that says “nope.”
Toward an American Working Class Struggle
“Sanders has mobilized a large number of young people who are saying, ‘Look, we’re not going to consent anymore,’ and if that turns into a continuing, organized, mobilized force, that could change the country.”
Bernie Sanders said the truth about class — that billionaires have no idea how it feels to have no money, no idea what not having healthcare is like, & appear to have no interest in helping those who do. Occupy Wall Street struck the same chord a few years before — the 1% has no business ruling the 99%. Occupy & Sanders both swept the country for the same reasons. Sanders named the problem when no other politician would — and that is why people love him. Though Occupy was evicted & Sanders lost the nomination, the popularity of Sanders’ insurgent campaign & the enduring influence of Occupy are signs the US could be ready for a class conscious movement to take root.
Millennials, along with the working classes at-large, have zero reason not to fight the 1% ruling class tooth-&-nail- by every means they can — electoral politics, direct action, & revolutionary struggle (if folks are still into that kind of thing). We have nothing to lose — no wealth, status, or bright economic future in this system — nothing to lose but our chains. And everything to gain.
If you enjoy the posts on this website, please consider buying the writer a cup of coffee through this PayPal link or making a monthly donation through Patreon — think of it as a voluntary subscription directly to an artist & journalist