What is the “Working Class”?

A Guide for the Perplexed

Despite obfuscation, the meaning of ‘working class’ is very straightforward: the working class is composed of everyone who works for a living. The working class is thereby distinguished from the ‘owning class’ — everyone whose property provides them enough passive income to live indefinitely off of it.

Working class people are not necessarily good people. These days, most of them are “class traitors” — which is to say, most of them try to promote their own well-being at the cost of other workers in ways that ultimately mostly benefit the owning class. While this is unfortunate, it’s also predictable. Meanwhile, some members of the owning class are also “class traitors”, which is more unusual but ultimately a good thing.

The reason the distinction between working class and owning class is important has nothing to do with morality. There’s a fundamental difference in incentives, producing a conflict between these two classes: because the working class must work to live, members of the working class would generally like to work less and live more; meanwhile, because the owning class does not need to work but nevertheless depends upon the labor of others, they would like the working class to work more.

This conflict is fundamental to capitalism. Under Marxist thought, a society that does not have an owning class is not capitalist, even if it has markets, while a society that does have it is capitalist, even if its economy is centrally planned. This conflict is why capitalism is considered unstable: two groups of people have differing incentives, and only one really needs the other.

While some workers must work harder than others (and in more dangerous conditions), everyone who must work to survive is a part of the working class. The so-called “professional-managerial class” — in other words, “knowledge workers” — are generally part of the working class, and it’s mostly important to understand them as a block in order to understand the forces that might discourage them from solidarity with other workers.

Stephen King is not working class: even if he never wrote another word, he could live forever on the royalties from his existing novels. Even if his intellectual property stopped making money in of itself, the profits from that IP, if put into an index fund, would be enough for him to live off forever. Nevertheless, he works hard every day — because he likes it.

Elon Musk and Bill Gates also work, despite not needing to. Both of them inherited vast fortunes. Bill Gates is even ‘retired’, but he still works. They are not working class. Bill Gates works because of his competitive nature, and Elon Musk works in order to preserve a delusional complex related to his belief in meritocracy.

Those dependent on disability, unemployment, or social security income are still working class. Those on disability or unemployment must perform substantial amounts of labor to prove that they qualify for this income; meanwhile, social security distributes money from current workers to former workers, and pensions do the same thing adjusted by work history. All of these mechanisms, while they benefit many people, were put in place to disincentivize the disabled, unemployed, and elderly poor from collectively organizing against the owning class in a militant fashion (as they sometimes did prior to these safety nets being put in place).

A universal basic income added to a capitalist system would not eliminate the working class (since this money will still ‘trickle up’), but it would give the working class a great deal more flexibility. While this might lower workers’ sense of urgency, it would also increase their ability to organize, since many of the privileges formerly limited to the professional-managerial class would be extended to all workers.

Stephen King was once working class, and the runaway success of his novels and personal brand gave him so much money that he became part of the owning class in only a few years. This is not a frequent occurrence. It is substantially less common than winning the lottery. After all, people in the working class win the lottery all the time.

Most people in the owning class inherited their property. After all, under a capitalist model, sufficient quantities of capital are not just self-sustaining but self-growing: you “spend money to make money”, and smart investment involves “using money to make money”. The investment advice you often hear along these lines is good advice — so long as you are rich enough already. If you are not, the money you have tends to shrink rather than to grow — because it is being taken from you and given to the owning class by a vast and impersonal system.

This is not a conspiracy, because a conspiracy requires planning; this is a dysfunctional machine: one that pollutes the atmosphere and pisses most people off, but is kept running through constant maintenance because the people who own it benefit in the short run.

It is possible to have a million dollars and still be working class: the return on investing a million dollars is not a living wage in most of the industrialized world. It is impossible to have a billion dollars and still be working class, for the same reason.

Meanwhile, your average slumlord is worth substantially less than a million dollars but nevertheless is not working class: he gets his income passively through his property, and while he is ostensibly legally required to provide maintenance, a failure to do so would not impact his income very much because the people who he is renting from are trapped by economic conditions and cannot move (except to another, roughly equally bad slumlord).

Capital — the property that the owning class gains their income from — is a source of ‘free money’ because it produces money without requiring labor from the people who receive that money. Any such source of income attracts workers who would like to get more money for less labor. After all, since the capitalist does not need to labor at all for this money, it is possible for a first tier of workers to labor almost not at all for a fair amount of money — especially if most of their labor consists of outsourcing the real work to other workers who will do more work for less. In other words, every capitalist creates around him a hierarchy of pseudo-capitalists who provide him services.

This hierarchy is autonomous: the capitalist does not need to perform labor to outsource his accounting, because accountants will come to him and offer to manage his money for him (investing, paying taxes). His staff can manage the acquisition of labor for the maintenance of land. He doesn’t need to be involved, and this hierarchy of workers does not cost enough to threaten the passivity of his income.

Even small-scale capitalists like landlords reflect this tendency. If you call your landlord about a leaky faucet, he does not (generally) come to your unit and fix your faucet himself: he either has a handyman on staff to fix all problems in his holdings or has a contract with a corporation that employs maintenance personnel, and he will often tell you to contact the maintenance person directly. The job of a landlord is to cash checks, and while a landlord will occasionally perform a little extra labor, it is generally merely to protect the passive nature of his income.

Part of the raw deal that the working class gets is that work takes a lot of time and energy, while often being a lot less lucrative than owning. While we should not depend upon bourgeois class traitors to save us, so long as all of our income comes from working, any organizing effort can be cut off by management simply by wearing us out.

Folks with some free time, some free energy, or some free capital can invest it in something that produces returns or royalty and use this to free up a little more time. This doesn’t make them a part of the owning class: if they lost their day job, they’d starve just like everybody else. But it does mean that they have some flexibility that the rest of the working class lacks: they can be unemployed for a little bit longer because they can build up savings, so they can more easily afford to do risky or time-consuming things (like trying to unionize their workplace, learning or disseminating theory, or building or contributing time to organizations that support the working class).

The folks who can afford to do this are generally part of the professional-managerial class, and therefore generally already have certain privileges that allow them to be uniquely useful to working class organizing: higher wages, salaried positions, access to specialized intellectual skills, and access to existing institutions of the owning class (like universities). The PMC can act as bourgeois-class-traitor-lite: while their material conditions make it more useful to side with workers, they have lesser forms of some of the powers of the owning class, and can often pass as part of the owning class long enough to funnel resources to workers.

Proletarian class traitors operate out of a sense of self-preservation: they believe that they will gain more through sucking up to the owning class than through solidarity with other workers. So long as most workers think this way, it remains true for some of them: being a scab or a toadie is a good way to get ahead (though there is enough competition right now that it’s hardly a sure thing). The more workers organize, the better worker organization looks to each worker, and the riskier strategies like scabbing get.

Of course, some dysfunctional unions reproduce the owner/worker divide in miniature, the same way that Bolshevik-style socialism often reproduces the owner/worker divide in a more centralized manner. This is a risk of vanguardism: if the professional-managerial class reproduces capitalist structures, they can easily become the new capitalists. Direct democracy and federations of smaller-scale structures help combat this tendency, as does education. It is unlikely that the soviet vanguard, for the most part, wanted to become the new capitalist class — or else they would not have come down so hard on the kulaks, who after all were doing exactly what the vanguard party was doing on a smaller scale — but the power of material conditions is difficult to resist, and despite education and ostensible institutional support, they failed to resist it. They knew intellectually that even capitalists are victims of capitalism, but the short term benefits of their elevated positions encouraged them to ignore, excuse, and rationalize their behavior.

Bourgeois class traitors are rarely as pure as the ones who organized the Bolsheviks, and most are so attached to capital and to capitalism that they would become enemies of the working class as soon as their position was threatened. At the same time, they can benefit workers immensely. We should neither depend upon them nor reject what help they give us.

Bill Gates is an example of a very weak and conflicted form of bourgeois class traitor. He is a capitalist, in the classical sense of the word: he owns property (vast quantities of cash, shares in Microsoft, some intellectual property, lots of lucrative investments). He is also a capitalist in the casual sense of the word: he believes that capitalism is a desirable system, and believes that class conflict is not a fatal structural flaw in it. He uses the money gained from intellectual property (the Microsoft trademark, some software he wrote in the 70s and early 80s) and capital (early investment in the Microsoft corporation, salary, inherited wealth) and distributes it through philanthropic organizations that sometimes make him money and sometimes screw people over but also raise the standards of living for a lot of workers. He does this in order to lower the pressure of class conflict. While this technique works well when the global economy is doing well, capitalism is prone to crashes (about every 8–10 years). Each crash, while it hardly affects the owning class, increases the pressure on the working class substantially, raising class tensions. The people who Bill Gates helped rise up out of abject poverty have become proletarianized, and are now more capable of organizing effectively with other workers during a future crash. In other words, Bill Gates is accidentally working against his own class interests simply because he does not fully understand the dynamics of capital.

He is distinct in this way from people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who use their capital to immiserate workers and thereby provide motivation for class struggle rather than means. These folks are not in any sense class traitors, because the source of the motivation here is capitalism itself, and they are merely failing to adequately disguise its nature.

While the means and the motivation for class struggle appear to be in conflict, in practice they often are not. For instance, if someone builds up savings (provided by an increase in effective wages — say, by unionization, as a result of philanthropy, or by some accident of the market throwing off the balance between the price of labor and the price of goods) and then loses their job, they can understand that their runway is quickly slipping by them and use that runway (along with their newly-free time) to organize before it runs out. Long periods of good times decrease worker urgency, but under capitalism, the end of any good time is always immanent: good times are bubbles during which more of the products of worker labor are accidentally distributed back to the workers due to flaws in prediction, and the market will always eventually adjust back to efficiently exploiting them.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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