Archive for October 2010

Defining Class

October 11, 2010

The concept and definition of “class” can be confusing and is as varied as the people who have opinions on and about what class is.

Since 32% of the United States labor force is considered to be working class, 2% as being the corporate elite, or capitalist class, and the 36% in-between to be middle class, it behooves us to define and understand what is meant by the term class if we are going to have a somewhat intelligent discussion about the subject and what is happening socially, economically, and politically in our nation and world.

Michael Zweig, professor and author, helps us with our understanding of class in a very helpful article entitled, “Six Points on Class.” The article was published in Monthly Review (July-August 2006).

Zweig is a professor of economics and director of the Center for Study of Working Class at State University of New York at Stony Brook and a prolific writer of books and articles on the subject of economic, class, working class and labor.

In his article, Zweig lists six points of class that have helped me to better understand the subject.

The first point is:

“We need to change the understanding of class in the United States, going from the division of ‘rich and poor’ to the division of ‘worker and capitalist’.”

Zweig says that class must be understood in terms of power “rather than income, wealth, or life style, although these do vary by class.”

Understanding class in terms of power makes it possible for us to understand class as a dynamic relationship rather than characteristics of any particular category of people.

Under this point Michael writes about different classes in our societies, the working, capitalist, ruling, and middle classes.

The second point of class is:

“The usual talk of a mass middle class with some rich and poor at the fringes around it is deeply misleading and contributes to central problems in American politics.”

The first problem is that people get “trapped in confusion about race and lose sight of class” and the second is “the political target gets confused between the choices of blaming the poor for social-political-economic issues and attacking the rich for the same issues.

Zweig writes that

“The real source of the political and economic misdirection in this country is the increasingly unbridled power of the capitalist class and their arrogant pursuit for the few at the expense of the vast majority of Americans and peoples of the world. This should be the target of our politics …. Conservatives have convinced too many Americans that their problems stem from government coddling the poor. We need to redirect this anger, not towards ‘the rich’ but towards the corporate elite.”

The third point that Zweig makes about class is:

“The reality of race and class in the Katrina-devastated Gulf Coast is dramatically different from the ‘lessons of race and class’ the media touted immediately after the catastrophe.”

The essence of this point is that we cannot/must not think of “race” as meaning “black” and “class” as “poor.”

Here, Michael makes reference to George Bush’s suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires federally financed construction projects to pay union-scale wages to laborers, and the refusal to use Section 8 Housing in the hurricane’s aftermath to house the displaced, to show that both black and white low-income and impoverished  people and families in the greater New Orleans were affected by Hurricane Katrina. (He includes demographic and statistical data to show the poverty rates across ethnic and color lines.)

The fourth point of class is:

“Identifying class forces accurately is an essential starting point for more effective politics to turn back the right-wing tide that has swept across the United States with growing power for nearly forty years.”

Here I would simply refer you a paper entitled “Right Wing Populism and the Working Class” by economist and author William Tabb. In Tabb’s paper, presented at this summer’s “How Class Works” conference, populism is defined and right wing populism, as manifested in today’s Tea Party, is discussed. Tabb suggests that what is needed to stem the tide of right wing populism (and right wing political forces in America, I would add) is an “alternative class narrative” that results in a  “working class movement” that stands in solidarity against the nation’s duopoly of the major parties which are inextricably linked to corporate America.

In the fifth point Zweig makes on class, he writes that

“Class operates on a global scale.”

In order to best understand class, we need to know and remember that we cannot separate domestic and global economies from one another. This means, of course, that we cannot merely think of ourselves and neglect the situations and needs of workers around the world.

Zweig says that “the global reach of the accumulation process (monopoly capital?, my question) is bringing into existence a global working class which already has implications from cross-border labor organizing and within-country responses to immigration.”

Zweig’s sixth, and last, point on class is that

“Class is an idea for a movement of ideas.”

Dr. Zweig writes that

“If there is any hope of  … the rise of a third party that seeks to represent working people, it must become a party of broad vision, not just a party of interest-based policy proposals.”

He continues in the last paragraph of the paper by saying that

“Class allows us to recall the language of economic and social justice and to revive calls for economic democracy that have been the foundation of progressive social movements for over a hundred years. The corporate agenda has stripped all reference to morality from economic affairs. For the right, unrestricted markets are all that is relevant in economic matters. This is a core question that progressives must address directly. Class understanding will help us to illuminate and ground the ethical dimensions of our politics and help us imagine and create organizations, coalitions, and social forces capable of turning back the destructive power of capital and replacing it with values and policies that relieve human suffering and promote the social good.”

I really like Michael’s statement about the rise, and dare I say need, of a third party to represent the working class and our interests. I know that there are many third and fourth and fifth parties out there, but where is the viable third party that has a chance against the duopoly of the Democrat and Republican corporate related and backed parties?

In conclusion. Michael Zweig’s paper was a good read for me. In fact, I have read it several times since it was published and always get something new out of it.

While we don’t hear or read a lot about class and class warfare these days, I think that anyone who is minimally aware of what is going on today – economically, politically, with unemployment, bail-outs, and foreclosures – would have to say that there are class divisions in our nation today along the power lines that Michael Zweig has written of in his paper.

Let me encourage you to read “Six Points on Class” in its entirety, here.