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The classes of capitalism

Originally published: Red Flag (April 14, 2021 )  |

Capitalist society is divided into different classes, and the relationships between those classes shape the production of wealth, the dissemination of ideas and the nature of politics.

In 1848, Marx and Engels wrote that “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: bourgeoisie and proletariat”. By bourgeoisie they meant the capitalist class, those who made their living by owning capital, which means both factories and other equipment used in the production process, and the money used to invest in production. By proletariat they meant the modern working class—wage-earners who don’t own land or equipment, and who have to make money by selling their time to capitalists.

At the time that Marx and Engels wrote those words, capitalists and workers were still an emerging minority of the world population. Capitalism hadn’t yet totally transformed the social structures inherited from medieval society; much of the world’s population was still made up of peasants, nobles, and others who lived mostly in pre-capitalist class relationships. In our time, just as Marx and Engels predicted, the production of wealth all around the world is almost totally determined by the interactions of wage-earning “proletarians” and the profit-making “bourgeoisie”: workers and capitalists.

To be a capitalist is to live by owning the means of production. But in capitalism, nobody can live purely by owning factories, mines, office blocks or farms. The process of producing wealth is too complex, its production facilities are too vast, and the output of any facility is too specialised for anyone to live just by their ownership of wealth-producing technology. A medieval peasant might have been able to live mostly on the things they produced from their own little farm, but their capitalist equivalent, the corporate master of the agribusiness sector, can’t live by operating enormous mechanised dairy farms and drinking the billions of litres of milk they produce. Bosses must hire workers to operate the machinery, so that they can sell the products and make a profit.

So capitalists need a pool of potential workers to hire—people who are compelled by poverty to sell their capacity to labour in exchange for hourly pay, and who have to keep coming back to survive day by day. In short, capitalists can’t exist as a class without most of the population being relatively impoverished and unable to survive without selling themselves to bosses. And the day-to-day existence of capitalists consists of transmitting orders to workers, dominating the labour process to make sure that workers produce maximum profits.

A glance at Australia’s rich list gives a sense of who the most successful capitalists are, and how they live through owning and controlling the key wealth-producing resources. Gina Rinehart is perhaps one of the most famous capitalists in the country. She makes a living by owning and controlling mines, particularly those producing iron ore. Anthony Pratt’s Visy company produces packaging materials needed to store, organise and distribute goods—from cardboard boxes and glass bottles to fibre pallets used to stack products in warehouses. Harry Triguboff and Frank Lowy control the construction of the buildings in which we live and work: apartment blocks and commercial shopping centres. These four individuals together have accumulated around $40 billion through their control of capital.

By picturing each capitalist and their industry, we can also picture their opposite: the workers, who don’t own the production equipment, but whose labour produces the goods sold for profit. Rinehart’s mines need miners, engineers and transport workers to operate and maintain the equipment, dig the iron ore from the earth and to help transport it to refineries. Pratt’s container business requires thousands of factory workers turning raw materials into containers. Triguboff and Lowy’s real estate companies need construction workers pouring cement, operating cranes and fitting out the shops and flats.

These are just a few of the most prominent and successful capitalists in Australia. But almost all the wealth of modern society is produced under the control of people like them, who use their control of the means of production to dominate the labour of workers they hire. Modern capitalism produces intricate relationships between working-class people all around the world, but their interactions are limited and determined by whether they produce profits for capitalists—we produce without controlling our work, without knowing each other and without being able to consciously coordinate the process beyond an extremely limited range.

Celebrating the Paris Commune of 1871

The production and sale of a McDonald’s burger in a cardboard container requires the coming together of tens of thousands of workers around the world. There are the McDonald’s workers themselves, who we see putting the finishing touches on the product and serving it. But before that takes place, we need the labour of agricultural workers who rear the cattle, and who grow and harvest the vegetables; the workers in the abattoirs and meat plants slaughtering the cows and processing them into ground beef; the manufacturing workers producing the flavouring agents and sauces, as well as the industrial dyes and cardboard packaging; the workers in all the mines and power plants providing raw materials for the processes, shipping the outputs to the next destination in the web of production; and many others.

Although they are mostly invisible in the corporate media, working-class people doing jobs like these are the majority of the population in most countries. Wage labourers heal the sick in hospitals, raise children in nurseries and teach them in schools, build homes and produce the wealth we all need to live.

The relationship between workers and bosses is the most important one in our society. Most of us live by producing wealth under the control of others, earning an hourly wage and cooperating with our workmates. A small minority experience the opposite: they accumulate wealth by controlling our labour, giving orders and competing against other bosses, both domestically and internationally.

These different experiences create different interests, and when the different classes assert their power, they fight for different things. Privatisation of healthcare, education and other vital services obviously harms workers, forcing them to pay market rates for the things they need to survive. But it’s often good for capitalists—privatisation opens more options for them to buy and control wealth-producing equipment, which they can use to make profits, while making workers even more dependent on their job in order to pay for the necessities of life.

The spread of racist and nationalistic ideas confuses and disorganises workers, making it harder for them to unite with other workers to fight for their own interests. But patriotism is great for capitalists, as it convinces at least some of their oppressed employees that the bosses are on their side, and the real enemy is foreign workers.

To promote their interests and convince workers that what’s good for the bosses is good for everyone, capitalists establish think tanks, media outlets and political parties, like Australia’s Liberal party. Organised and funded by society’s wealthiest elites, they promote the most ignorant and backwards ideas: climate denial, racism, sexism and extreme nationalism. While trying to confuse the population with these capitalist superstitions, they strengthen the powers of police and spies, and undermine the rights of workers to organise and resist their bosses at work.

Classes reveal themselves most clearly when they fight for more power. More power for capitalists means a divided working class with fewer rights in a society riddled with more prejudice and ignorance. When workers fight to assert their power, they push society in the opposite direction. The most basic but important form of workers’ resistance—going on strike for higher pay—requires a spirit of cooperation and solidarity among people who might have little material wealth, but who are willing to risk their livelihoods to stand in solidarity with one another and achieve a better standard of living for their fellow workers. The capitalist production process requires the linking-up of dozens, hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of workers. So when workers go on strike and organise together, they create a spirit of solidarity and grassroots democracy that cuts against the individualism and isolation of capitalist society.

In most media depictions, the class dynamics of capitalism are invisible. The media tends to focus more on the middle classes, the intermediaries who sit somewhere between capitalists and workers. Capitalism constantly creates people with one foot in each class, and despite them being a minority of the population, they are massively over-represented in the media. Some are intellectuals, such as academics and journalists: they don’t own the means of production, but they are allowed quite a lot of independence and autonomy in their jobs, and they often feel like part of an elite with a responsibility for producing important and far-sighted ideas. Others are owners of small businesses, who aren’t as rich and powerful as their bigger capitalist rivals, and who might resent big business influence and dominance in their industry—like the corner store owners who can’t compete with the big supermarkets. Then there are middle managers, who might be poorly paid, but live by giving orders to workers on behalf of the capitalist bosses.

These middle classes will always exist in capitalism, but when a major class struggle breaks out, they are relatively powerless. Unlike the capitalist class, they don’t decide what happens on a grand scale. Unlike the working class, they can’t usually affect the economy by going on strike, and they have no collective power to create a new, better society. The politics of the middle classes can veer wildly towards anything that seems to promise them power, or to protect them from other, more powerful classes. They can easily fall for the pro-capitalist lies of right-wing parties, believing that they could get rich if only the free market were unleashed and trade unions were crushed. Others are attracted to elitist politics that emphasise the importance of educated intellectuals rather than ignorant mobs; that often goes hand-in-hand with supporting a powerful and dictatorial capitalist state.

Two particularly important middle classes are generated directly from the struggle between workers and bosses: cops and the bureaucrats who hold paid positions in trade unions. Both are often made up of people with working-class backgrounds and are usually presented as blue-collar workers on TV.

But cops are essentially mobile, armed bosses. Bosses can control us at work, and fire us if we disobey them. But when we’re in the streets, the ruling class need another way to control us. Cops have the power to discipline and brutalise working-class people even when they aren’t at work; their daily life consists of wielding power over others with the threat of violence.

Union bureaucrats emerge out of workers’ organisations. When workers strike and organise, they build unions to harness their collective power. As those unions grow, they develop paid bureaucracies. But because those bureaucracies exist only because of the struggle between workers and bosses, they have an interest in stabilising the system to maintain their own important role within it. That’s why the paid officials of trade unions often want to limit the radicalism of workers’ struggles, channelling them into “respectable” and legal paths that promote collaboration with bosses, often selling-out workers’ struggles or promoting the electoral interests of centre-left parties like the Australian Labor Party as an alternative to workers’ struggles.

But despite the influence these middle classes wield in political and intellectual life, it is the struggle between the bosses and the workers that will decide the fate of humanity. Capitalism is shaped by the interaction between the capitalists, who own the means of production, and the working class, who live by producing all of society’s wealth. Capitalists control our working lives, our politics and the ideas that dominate society. Beneath the capitalists are an array of noisy middle classes, who are presented in the mainstream media as representing ordinary, everyday people, and whose beliefs and opinions often pass for the most enlightened and interesting on offer. But the entire system depends on the labour of the working class, and that gives the working class the power to not only strike back at the bosses, but to create a new world based on collective solidarity and cooperation, rather than domination and competition.

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