B.7 What classes exist within modern society?

An Anarchist FAQ
Index | What's New | Links | Introduction | Bibliography

LINKPDF version of Section B.

B.7 What classes exist within modern society?

For anarchists, class analysis is an important means of understanding the world and what is going on in it. While recognition of the fact that classes actually exist is less prevalent now than it once was, this does not mean that classes have ceased to exist. Quite the contrary. As we'll see, it means only that the ruling class has been more successful than before in obscuring the existence of class.

Class can be objectively defined: the relationship between an individual and the sources of power within society determines his or her class. We live in a class society in which a few people possess far more political and economic power than the majority, who usually work for the minority that controls them and the decisions that affect them. This means that class is based both on exploitation and oppression, with some controlling the labour of others for their own gain. The means of oppression have been indicated in earlier parts of section B, while section C (What are the myths of capitalist economics?) indicates exactly how exploitation occurs within a society apparently based on free and equal exchange. In addition, it also highlights the effects on the economic system itself of this exploitation. The social and political impact of the system and the classes and hierarchies it creates is discussed in depth in section D (How does statism and capitalism affect society?).

We must emphasise at the outset that the idea of the "working class" as composed of nothing but industrial wage slaves is simply false. It is not applicable today, if it ever was. Power, in terms of hire/fire and investment decisions, is the important thing. Ownership of capital as a means of determining a person's class is not as useful as once was, since even many working-class people now own shares (although not enough to live on or to give them any say in how a company is run) and since most large companies are owned by other large companies, through pension funds, multinationals, etc. Hence we now have a situation in which the people who have massive power may technically be "salary slaves" (managing directors, etc.) while, obviously, they are members of the ruling class in practice.

For most anarchists, there are two main classes:

 

(2) Ruling class -- those who control investment decisions, determine high level policy, set the agenda for capital and state. This is the elite at the top, owners or top managers of large companies, multinationals and banks, owners of large amounts of land, top state officials, politicians, the aristocracy, and so forth. They have real power within the economy and/or state, and so control society. This groups consists of around the top 5-15% of the population.

    (1) Working class -- those who have to work for a living but have no real control over that work or other major decisions that affect them, i.e. order-takers. This class also includes the unemployed, pensioners, etc., who have to survive on handouts from the state. They have little wealth and little (official) power. This class includes the growing service worker sector, most (if not the vast majority) of "white collar" workers as well as traditional "blue collar" industrial workers.

Obviously there are "grey" areas in any society, individuals and groups who do not fit exactly into either the working or ruling class. Such people include those who work but have some control over other people, e.g. power of hire/fire. These are the people who make the minor, day-to-day decisions concerning the running of capital or state. This area includes lower to middle management, professionals, and small capitalists.

There is some argument within the anarchist movement whether this "grey" area constitutes another ("middle") class or not. Most anarchists say no, most of this "grey" area are working class, others (such as the British Class War Federation) argue it is a different class. One thing is sure, all anarchists agree that this "grey" area has an interest in getting rid of the current system just as much as the working class (we should point out here that what is usually called "middle class" in the USA and elsewhere is nothing of the kind, and usually refers to working class people with decent jobs, homes, etc. As class is a considered a rude word in polite society in the USA, such mystification is to be expected).

So, there will be exceptions to this classification scheme. However, most of society share common interests, as they face the economic uncertainties and hierarchical nature of capitalism.

We do not aim to fit all of reality into this class scheme, but only to develop it as reality indicates, based on our own experiences of the changing patterns of modern society. Nor is this scheme intended to suggest that all members of a class have identical interests or that competition does not exist between members of the same class, as it does between the classes. Capitalism, by its very nature, is a competitive system. As Malatesta pointed out, "one must bear in mind that on the one hand the bourgeoisie (the property owners) are always at war amongst themselves. . . and that on the other hand the government, though springing from the bourgeoisie and its servant and protector, tends, as every servant and every protector, to achieve its own emancipation and to dominate whoever it protects. Thus the game of the swings, the manoeuvres, the concessions and the withdrawals, the attempts to find allies among the people and against the conservatives, and among conservatives against the people, which is the science of the governors, and which blinds the ingenuous and phlegmatic who always wait for salvation to come down to them from above." [Anarchy, p. 22]

However, no matter how much inter-elite rivalry goes on, at the slightest threat to the system from which they benefit, the ruling class will unite to defend their common interests. Once the threat passes, they will return to competing among themselves for power, market share and wealth. Unfortunately, the working class rarely unites as a class, mainly due to its chronic economic and social position. At best, certain sections unite and experience the benefits and pleasure of co-operation. Anarchists, by their ideas and action try to change this situation and encourage solidarity within the working class in order to resist, and ultimately get rid of, capitalism. However, their activity is helped by the fact that those in struggle often realise that "solidarity is strength" and so start to work together and unite their struggles against their common enemy. Indeed, history is full of such developments.

B.7.1 But do classes actually exist?

So do classes actually exist, or are anarchists making them up? The fact that we even need to consider this question points to the pervasive propaganda efforts by the ruling class to suppress class consciousness, which will be discussed further on. First, however, let's examine some statistics, taking the USA as an example (mostly because class is seldom talked about there, although its business class is very class conscious). We find that in 1986, the share of total US income was as follows:

One third went to the bottom 60% of society, one third to the next 30% and one third to the top 10%. In terms of total national wealth, the bottom 90% owned a third, another third went to the next 9% of the population and one third went to the top 1%. Since then, the top 1% has managed to raise its share to 40%, showing that class lines have been greatly tightened during the past decade (see below).

In 1983 the richest 0.5% owned more than 45% of the nation's privately held net wealth. This included 47% of all corporated stock, 62% of non-taxable bonds, and 77% of all trusts. 60% of all US families owned less than $5,000 in assets. Half owned $2,300 in assets, or less. In 1986, the top 1% of families owned about 53% of all income-producing wealth. Only about 51 million Americans directly own stocks or shares in stock mutual funds, which is about 19% of the American population of which the top 5% own 95% of all shares. The richest 1% of households in America (about 2 million adults) owned 35% of the stock owned by individuals in 1992 - with the top 10% owning over 81%. The bottom 90% of the US population has a smaller share (23%) of all kinds of investable capital than the richest 0.5% (who own 29%).

The USA leads the industrialised world in poverty -- 17% of those below age 18 and around 15% of the total population. 22% earn less than half the median income. Forty percent of African-American children lived in poverty in 1986.

All these facts prove that classes do in fact exist, with wealth and power concentrating at the top of society, in the hands of the few.

The following figures from the US Census Bureau show the rate at which wealth polarisation, and hence the tightening of class lines, has been preceding over the past 20 years:

 


Percentage Share of Aggregate Household Income by Quintile: 1974-1994
  Lowest Second Third Fourth Highest Top 5%
1974: 4.3 10.6 17.0 24.6 43.5 16.5
1984: 4.0 9.9 16.3 24.6 45.2 17.1
1994: 3.6 8.9 15.0 23.4 49.1 21.2

Percentage increase/decrease from '74 to '94:

Lowest Quintile: -16%
Second Quintile: -16%
Middle Quintile: -11.7%
Fourth Quintile: -4.9%
Highest Quintile : +12.9%
Top 5% : +28.5%

In 1994, the income gap between the top quintile (49.1%) and the bottom quintile (3.6%) was the biggest ever recorded. Clearly it was not just households in the bottom two-fifths who lost ground over the past 20 years, but those in the middle as well. The earnings of a typical full time-worker fell more than $300 in 1993. In fact, as can be seen from the percentage decreases, an amazing 80% of the population was in decline while the top 20% got richer. It's actually more skewed than that, however, because 9.9 percent of the top fifth's 12.9 percent increase went to the upper 5 percent.

Although the percentage share of wealth owned by the richest individuals and families in the US has been rising steadily since the mid-fifties, the rate of concentration at the top accelerated more during the eighties than at any time on record. According to a report in the New York Times, the number of billionaires nearly doubled in 1986 -- from fourteen to twenty-six -- in one year alone!

By far the biggest gainers from the wealth concentration of the last two decades have been the super-rich. No wonder US politicians have recently been dusting off their anti-class rhetoric!

The recent increase in wealth polarisation is due partly to the increased globalisation of capital, which lowers the wages of workers in the advanced industrial countries by putting them in competition for jobs with workers in the Third World. This, combined with "trickle-down" economic policies of tax cuts for the wealthy, tax raises for the working classes, the maintaining of a "natural" law of unemployment (which weakens unions and workers power) and cutbacks in social programs, has seriously eroded living standards for all but the upper strata -- a process that is clearly leading toward social breakdown, with effects that will be discussed later (see section D.9).

Moreover, as Doug Henwood notes, "[i]nternational measures put the United States in a disgraceful light. . . The soundbite version of the LIS [Luxembourg Income Study] data is this: for a country th[at] rich, [it] ha[s] a lot of poor people." Henwood looked at both relative and absolute measures of income and poverty using the cross-border comparisons of income distribution provided by the LIS and discovered that "[f]or a country that thinks itself universally middle class [i.e. middle income], the United States has the second-smallest middle class of the nineteen countries for which good LIS data exists." Only Russia, a country in near-total collapse was worse (40.9% of the population where middle income compared to 46.2% in the USA. Households were classed as poor is their incomes were under 50 percent of the national medium; near-poor, between 50 and 62.5 percent; middle, between 62.5 and 150 percent; and well-to-do, over 150 percent. The USA rates for poor (19.1%), near-poor (8.1%) and middle (46.2%) were worse than European countries like Germany (11.1%, 6.5% and 64%), France (13%, 7.2% and 60.4%) and Belgium (5.5%, 8.0% and 72.4%) as well as Canada (11.6%, 8.2% and 60%) and Australia (14.8%, 10% and 52.5%).

The reasons for this? Henwood states that the "reasons are clear -- weak unions and a weak welfare state. The social-democratic states -- the ones that interfere most with market incomes -- have the largest [middles classes]. The US poverty rate is nearly twice the average of the other eighteen." Needless to say, "middle class" as defined by income is a very blunt term (as Henwood states). It says nothing about property ownership or social power, for example, but income is often taken in the capitalist press as the defining aspect of "class" and so is useful to analyse in order to refute the claims that the free-market promotes general well-being (i.e. a larger "middle class"). That the most free-market nation has the worse poverty rates and the smallest "middle class" indicates well the anarchist claim that capitalism, left to its own devices, will benefit the strong (the ruling class) over the weak (the working class) via "free exchanges" on the "free" market (as we argue in section C.7, only during periods of full employment -- and/or wide scale working class solidarity and militancy -- does the balance of forces change in favour of working class people. Little wonder, then, that periods of full employment also see falling inequality -- see James K. Galbraith's Created Unequal for more details on the correlation of unemployment and inequality).

Of course, it could be objected that this relative measure of poverty and income ignores the fact that US incomes are among the highest in the world, meaning that the US poor may be pretty well off by foreign standards. Henwood refutes this claim, noting that "even on absolute measures, the US performance is embarrassing. LIS researcher Lane Kenworthy estimated poverty rates for fifteen countries using the US poverty line as the benchmark. . . Though the United States has the highest average income, it's far from having the lowest poverty rate." Only Italy, Britain and Australia had higher levels of absolute poverty (and Australia exceeded the US value by 0.2%, 11.9% compared to 11.7%). Thus, in both absolute and relative terms, the USA compares badly with European countries. [Doug Henwood, "Booming, Borrowing, and Consuming: The US Economy in 1999", pp.120-33, Monthly Review, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 129-31]

Faced with these facts, many supporters of capitalism still deny the obvious. They do so by confusing a caste system with a class system. In a caste system, those born into it stay in it all their lives. In a class system, the membership of classes can and does change over time. Therefore, it is claimed, what is important is not the existence of classes but of income mobility. According to this argument, if there is a high level of income mobility then the degree of inequality in any given year is unimportant. This is because the redistribution of income over a person's life time would be very even. Unfortunately for the supporters of capitalism this view is deeply flawed.

Firstly, the fact of income mobility and changes in the membership of classes does not cancel out the fact that a class system is marked by differences in power which accompany the differences in income. In other words, because it is possible (in theory) for everyone to become a boss this does not make the power and authority that bosses have over their workers (or the impact of their wealth on society) any more legitimate (just because everyone - in theory - can become a member of the government does not make government any less authoritarian). Because the membership of the boss class can change does not negate the fact that such a class exists.

Secondly, what income mobility that does exist under capitalism is limited.

Taking the USA as an example (usually considered one of the most capitalist countries in the world) there is income mobility, but not enough to make income inequality irrelevant. Census data show that 81.6 percent of those families who were in the bottom quintile of the income distribution in 1985 were still there in the next year; for the top quintile, it was 76.3 percent.

Over longer time periods, there is more mixing but still not that much and those who do slip into different quintiles are typically at the borders of their category (e.g. those dropping out of the top quintile are typically at the bottom of that group). Only around 5% of families rise from bottom to top, or fall from top to bottom. In other words, the class structure of a modern capitalist society is pretty solid and "much of the movement up and down represents fluctuations around a fairly fixed long term distribution." [Paul Krugman, Peddling Prosperity, p. 143]

Perhaps under a "pure" capitalist system things would be different? Ronald Reagan helped make capitalism more "free market" in the 1980s, but there is no indication that income mobility increased significantly during that time. In fact, according to one study by Greg Duncan of the University of Michigan, the middle class shrank during the 1980s, with fewer poor families moving up or rich families moving down. Duncan compared two periods. During the first period (1975 to 1980) incomes were more equal than they are today. In the second (1981 to 1985) income inequality began soaring. In this period there was a reduction in income mobility upward from low to medium incomes of over 10%.

Here are the exact figures [cited by Paul Krugman, "The Rich, the Right, and the Facts," The American Prospect no. 11, Fall 1992, pp. 19-31]:

 


Percentages of families making transitions to and from
middle class (5-year period before and after 1980)

 

Transition Before 1980 After 1980
Middle income to low income 8.5 9.8
Middle income to high income 5.8 6.8
Low income to middle income 35.1 24.6
High income to middle income 30.8 27.6

Little wonder, then, that Doug Henwood argues that "the final appeal of apologists of the American way is an appeal to our legendary mobility" fails. In fact, "people generally don't move far from the income class they are born into, and there is little difference between US and European mobility patterns. In fact, the United States has the largest share of what the OECD called 'low-wage' workers, and the poorest performance on the emergence from the wage cellar of any country it studied." [Op. Cit., p. 130]

Therefore income mobility does not make up for a class system and its resulting authoritarian social relationships and inequalities in terms of liberty, health and social influence. And the facts suggest that the capitalist dogma of "meritocracy" that attempts to justify this system has little basis in reality.

B.7.2 Why is the existence of classes denied?

It is clear, then, that classes do exist, and equally clear that individuals can rise and fall within the class structure -- though, of course, it's easier to become rich if you're born in a rich family than a poor one. Thus James W. Loewen reports that "ninety-five percent of the executives and financiers in America around the turn of the century came from upper-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Fewer than 3 percent started as poor immigrants or farm children. Throughout the nineteenth century, just 2 percent of American industrialists came from working-class origins" [in "Lies My Teacher Told Me" citing William Miller, "American Historians and the Business Elite," in Men in Business, pp. 326-28; cf. David Montgomery, Beyond Equality, pg. 15] And this was at the height of USA "free market" capitalism. According to a survey done by C. Wright Mills and reported in his book The Power Elite, about 65% of the highest-earning CEOs in American corporations come from wealthy families. Meritocracy, after all, does not imply a "classless" society, only that some mobility exists between classes. Yet we continually hear that class is an outmoded concept; that classes don't exist any more, just atomised individuals who all enjoy "equal opportunity," "equality before the law," and so forth. So what's going on?

The fact that the capitalist media are the biggest promoters of the "end-of-class" idea should make us wonder exactly why they do it. Whose interest is being served by denying the existence of classes? Clearly it is those who run the class system, who gain the most from it, who want everyone to think we are all "equal." Those who control the major media don't want the idea of class to spread because they themselves are members of the ruling class, with all the privileges that implies. Hence they use the media as propaganda organs to mould public opinion and distract the middle and working classes from the crucial issue, i.e., their own subordinate status. This is why the mainstream news sources give us nothing but superficial analyses, biased and selective reporting, outright lies, and an endless barrage of yellow journalism, titillation, and "entertainment," rather than talking about the class nature of capitalist society (see D.3, "How does wealth influence the mass media?")

The universities, think tanks, and private research foundations are also important propaganda tools of the ruling class. This is why it is virtually taboo in mainstream academic circles to suggest that anything like a ruling class even exists in the United States. Students are instead indoctrinated with the myth of a "pluralist" and "democratic" society -- a Never-Never Land where all laws and public policies supposedly get determined only by the amount of "public support" they have -- certainly not by any small faction wielding power in disproportion to its size.

To deny the existence of class is a powerful tool in the hands of the powerful. As Alexander Berkman points out, "[o]ur social institutions are founded on certain ideas; so long as the latter are generally believed, the institutions built on them are safe. . . the weakening of the ideas which support the evil and oppressive conditions means the ultimate breakdown of government and capitalism." [ABC of Anarchism, p. xv]

Isolated consumers are in no position to act for themselves. One individual standing alone is easily defeated, whereas a union of individuals supporting each other is not. Throughout the history of capitalism there have been attempts by the ruling class -- often successful -- to destroy working class organisations. Why? Because in union there is power -- power which can destroy the class system as well as the state and create a new world.

That's why the very existence of class is denied by the elite. It's part of their strategy for winning the battle of ideas and ensuring that people remain as atomised individuals. By "manufacturing consent" (to use Walter Lipman's expression for the function of the media), force need not be used. By limiting the public's sources of information to propaganda organs controlled by state and corporate elites, all debate can be confined within a narrow conceptual framework of capitalist terminology and assumptions, and anything premised on a different conceptual framework can be maraginalised. Thus the average person is brought to accept current society as "fair" and "just," or at least as "the best available," because no alternatives are ever allowed to be discussed.

 

B.7.3 What do anarchists mean by "class consciousness"?

Given that the existence of classes is often ignored or considered unimportant ("boss and worker have common interests") by the mainstream media, its important to continually point out the facts of the situation: that a wealthy elite run the world and the vast majority are subjected to hierarchy and work to enrich others.

This is why anarchists stress the need for "class consciousness," for recognising that classes exist and that their interests are in conflict. To be class conscious means that we are aware of the objective facts and act appropriately to change them. Although class analysis may at first appear to be a novel idea, the conflicting interests of the classes is well recognised on the other side of the class divide. For example, James Madison in the Federalist Paper #10 states that "those who hold and those who are without have ever formed distinct interests in society." For anarchists, class consciousness means to recognise what the bosses already know: the importance of solidarity with others in the same class position as oneself and of acting together as equals to attain common goals. However, anarchists think that class consciousness must also mean to be aware of all forms of hierarchical power, not just economic oppression.

It could therefore be argued that anarchists actually want an "anti-class" consciousness to develop -- that is, for people to recognise that classes exist, to understand why they exist, and act to abolish the root causes for their continued existence ("class consciousness," argues Vernon Richards, "but not in the sense of wanting to perpetuate classes, but the consciousness of their existence, an understanding of why they exist, and a determination, informed by knowledge and militancy, to abolish them." [The Impossibilities of Social Democracy, p. 133]). In short, anarchists want to eliminate classes, not universalise the class of "worker" (which would presuppose the continued existence of capitalism).

More importantly, class consciousness does not involve "worker worship." To the contrary, as Murray Bookchin points out, "[t]he worker begins to become a revolutionary when he undoes his [or her] 'workerness', when he [or she] comes to detest his class status here and now, when he begins to shed. . . his work ethic, his character-structure derived from industrial discipline, his respect for hierarchy, his obedience to leaders, his consumerism, his vestiges of puritanism." [Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 189] For, in the end, anarchists "cannot build until the working class gets rid of its illusions, its acceptance of bosses and faith in leaders." [Marie-Louise Berneri, Neither East Nor West, p. 19]

It may be objected that there are only individuals and anarchists are trying to throw a lot of people in a box and put a label like "working class" on them. In reply, anarchists agree, yes, there are "only" individuals but some of them are bosses, most of them are working class. This is an objective division within society which the ruling class does its best to hide but which comes out during social struggle. And such struggle is part of the process by which more and more oppressed people subjectivity recognise the objective facts. And by more and more people recognising the facts of capitalist reality, more and more people will want to change them.

Currently there are working class people who want an anarchist society and there are others who just want to climb up the hierarchy to get to a position where they can impose their will to others. But that does not change the fact that their current position is that they are subjected to the authority of hierarchy and so can come into conflict with it. And by so doing, they must practise self-activity and this struggle can change their minds, what they think, and so they become radicalised. This, the radicalising effects of self-activity and social struggle, is a key factor in why anarchists are involved in it. It is an important means of creating more anarchists and getting more and more people aware of anarchism as a viable alternative to capitalism.

Ultimately, it does not matter what class you are, it's what you believe in that matters. And what you do. Hence we see anarchists like Bakunin and Kropotkin, former members of the Russian ruling class, or like Malatesta, born into an Italian middle class family, rejecting their backgrounds and its privileges and becoming supporters of working class self-liberation. But anarchists base their activity primarily on the working class (including peasants, self-employed artisans and so on) because the working class is subject to hierarchy and so have a real need to resist to exist. This process of resisting the powers that be can and does have a radicalising effect on those involved and so what they believe in and what they do changes.

We recognise, therefore, that only those at the bottom of society have a self-interest in freeing themselves from the burden of those at the top, and so we see the importance of class consciousness in the struggle of oppressed people for self-liberation. Thus, "[f]ar from believing in the messianic role of the working class, the anarchists' aim is to abolish the working class in so far as this term refers to the underprivileged majority in all existing societies. . . What we do say is that no revolution can succeed without the active participation of the working, producing, section of the population. . . The power of the State, the values of authoritarian society can only be challenged and destroyed by a greater power and new values." [Vernon Richards, The Raven, no. 14, pp. 183-4] Anarchists also argue that one of the effects of direct action to resist oppression and exploitation of working class people would be the creation of such a power and new values, values based on respect for individual freedom and solidarity (see sections J.2 and J.4 on direct action and its liberating potential).

For anarchists, "[t]he class struggle does not centre around material exploitation alone but also around spiritual exploitation, . . . [as well as] psychological and environmental oppression." [Bookchin, Op. Cit., pp. 229-230] This means that we do not consider economic oppression to be the only important thing, ignoring struggles and forms of oppression outside the workplace. To the contrary, workers are human beings, not the economically driven robots of capitalist and Leninist mythology. They are concerned about everything that affects them -- their parents, their children, their friends, their neighbours, their planet and, very often, total strangers.