According to traditional left-wing analysis, capitalism is a class society with exactly two classes. The capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, is said to own the means of production (such as land and factories), while the working class, or proletariat, is said to depend on selling their labour power to the capitalist class for their survival. According to this analysis, there are two opposing forces in society that exist in an antagonistic relationship with each other, where the capitalists control the fate of the workers and extract from them a surplus value called profit. According to Karl Marx, this antagonism would eventually erupt in the form of a revolution, and the capitalists would be overthrown.
Yet capitalism has not yet been overthrown, and the organised working class - otherwise known as the labour movement - seems to have become weaker, not stronger, in the latest phase of capitalist society. What the left calls ‘class consciousness’ may well be at an all-time low, as very few people actually accept the idea that they belong to one of these two classes.
I argue that:
Most people have a conception of class with multiple, fluid categories including “middle class”, based on various factors like income and occupation.
They reject the two-class analysis not because they’re wrong about class, but because they’re right.
The defining feature of capitalist society is not class, but the process of generating surplus value, which everyone participates in to some extent.
Because of this, there is a continuum of wealth, income, property, opportunities and power, but they are subject to immense inequalities.
I am not arguing for a reconciliation with capitalism. Everyone in society loses out by living in a capitalist society - not everyone meaning ‘workers’ but everyone meaning human beings. Hence I argue for an anti-capitalist movement that is not antagonistic, but co-operative and constructive.
Now let me present my case against the two-class picture, by responding to the obvious objections:
In fact, everyone makes a profit. If they don’t, their livelihood and perhaps their survival are under threat.
In any economy based on money, it is always necessary to have a surplus left over once your expenses have been subtracted from your income. This comes down to survival anxiety. Your survival depends upon having money: since you can’t risk losing money, you must therefore always aim to make money. Survival anxiety is the motivator, and security is the goal.
The logic is the same whether you are an individual or a business. An individual is worried about their own personal survival, while a business is worried about the survival of the business in the market. In both cases, your livelihood is threatened if you fail to turn a profit.
Furthermore, you generally won’t spend all of this surplus money, but rather you save as much as you can in order to maximise your future security. As an individual, your surplus money is a security against future shocks, such as unexpected expenses, a job loss, a pay cut or a death in the family, as well as a fund for your future retirement. As a business, the surplus is also used as a security against unexpected expenses and to give people pay rises.
The profit made by a business has other functions that demand further scrutiny. Firstly, it is used to pay dividends to investors and interest on loans. However, this surplus is rooted ultimately in the very same logic that guides individuals. An investment is a risk. Merely breaking even is too much of a risk, in a money-based economy, because lack of money will result in your ruin, you will leave the market, or your livelihood will be destroyed. Therefore you must aim to have a surplus. Investors and banks expect this surplus not because they are ‘greedy capitalists’, but because they are following exactly the same logic that individuals have to follow by sheer necessity. An individual would not invest in a new central heating system in their home unless they expect it to pay off, financially, in the future.
Individuals also have to repay loans, notably mortgages and student debt. This is broadly comparable to the dividends that businesses must pay to their investors or to banks. An investor supplies the business with money to buy the real estate, tools and equipment that are needed to set up a business, and demands a profit in order to mitigate the risk. Similarly, a bank supplies an individual with money to buy a house, and charges interest on the mortgage for the same reason. A bank also supplies an individual with money for studying, and again expects that person to be able to pay it back in the future with a surplus. Housing and education are necessary for the survival of an individual just as tools and equipment are necessary for the survival of a business, and in both cases you have to make a profit in order to be capable of paying it back.
Yes, businesses use their profit to reinvest in the business and hence to expand it. This too is rooted in exactly the same logic, but at a slightly higher level of abstraction. In Volume I of Capital, Karl Marx explains this in great detail. The goal, in a money system, is to convert physical goods into money, because - as we have seen - money represents security. As Marx explains, money has the property that it can be converted into anything else, and is therefore the most flexible kind of security you can have - more flexible than any other physical asset.
Marx even explains that this logic arises naturally from any system of money, starting with the simple circulation of commodities. The simple circulation of commodities refers to an idealised trading system in which every individual has something to sell as well as things to buy. Think of a society of artisans who own their own means of production and simply trade for the things they need. In the beginning, everyone has to sell something before they can buy what they need. But merely because of the existence of money as a mediator of this exchange, the actors in this system are encouraged to seek a method by which they can buy things without having first sold something. The rest of capitalism, according to Marx, springs naturally and inevitably from this drive to attain security, which can only be provided by money. (However, Marx failed to recognise the fundamental similarities between the behaviour of capitalists and workers, probably because his concept of historical materialism compelled him to see all societies as class societies.)
Individuals can accumulate capital by ‘saving up’ - that is, hoarding and expanding their surplus. These savings can then be used to “buy without selling” in the future - that is, to buy something without having to wait for your next paycheck first. But to be able to save up, you have to turn a profit. It is not just ‘greedy capitalists’ who wish to accumulate money, but everyone. Hence workers like to have not just a pay rise that keeps pace with inflation (so that they can ‘break even’) but an above-inflation pay rise, so that they can ‘make a profit’. And just like in business, making cutbacks can be a wise and even necessary course of action to facilitate this generation of surplus value.
Individuals even reinvest in themselves to increase their money-earning potential. While businesses must compete in the marketplace, individuals have to compete on the job market. As a result, investing in your education is a reinvestment that enhances your profit-making potential and hence your survival prospects, in just the same way that a business reinvests in its own production in order to enhance its own profitability as a business, and hence its survival in the market. An individual’s investment in driving lessons, or even new shoes and clothes might be a way of enhancing their employability.
Everyone wants to make a profit, to have something left over at the end of every month, and to save up those surpluses as much as possible to maximise their security, their future profitability. If everyone is following the same logic, then there is no justification for dividing people into two classes.
In fact, almost everyone owns some of the means of production, and nobody owns all of them. There is of course no such thing as a monolithic Capitalist Inc. that owns all of the land, buildings, tools and factories in the world. As a result, businesses also have to pay for the products and services that they do not own, just as individuals have to pay for them, and they have to pay rent or usage fees just like anyone else. They do this by spending from their accumulated capital, just as individuals do.
Individuals also own many tools and devices that can be considered ‘means of production’. If you own a computer, for example, then you are in possession of one of the most important and versatile means of production of modern society. With it, it is possible to produce written documents, novels, essays, poems, art, music, software and films. These can be produced for one’s own entertainment or they can be sold on the market. Either way, millions of people who are called ‘working class’ by the left in fact own a computer - they don’t just rent one.
A large proportion of these same people also own their own vehicle. Again, this is part of the means of production that facilitates transportation, in just the same way that a bus is part of the means of production for running a capitalist bus service. An allotment or a vegetable garden is also quite obviously part of the means of production, just as arable land in general is a productive resource for a capitalistic farm.
You could probably argue that practically everything is part of the means of production, since even the clothes on your back are necessary for being productive, and hence ensuring your value-producing potential in a capitalist society. The important point is that there is a continuum of ownership. Some people own nothing more than the clothes on their back. Others own an entire portfolio of textile factories. This inequality is inevitable in capitalism and is intensely problematic, but this speaks against the existence of a binary model of class, rather than being a result of it.
The Occupy movement’s focus on “the 1%” is quite probably a recognition of this continuum, and a rejection of the traditional two-class analysis. This alternative view of capitalist society is in my view more useful and better reflects reality.
Private property has a narrower definition, where it refers to property that you control without actually using it (“alienated property”). For example, landlords own houses that they don’t live in, and business owners can control a business without themselves working in it. David Ricardo, who influenced Karl Marx, identified landlords as being in opposition to the rest of society, lumping capitalists and labourers together in the same class. The Ricardian schema is probably still applicable in some parts of the world where access to land is crucial for people’s livelihoods.
Nevertheless, becoming the owner of this kind of property is in my view not decisive for creating a class relation. A two-class society would have two mutually exclusive groups of people with fundamentally opposing interests in society (e.g. slaves and slave-owners). If somebody merely buys some shares in a company, then they have legally become the owner of property that they do not themselves use. But this doesn’t cause a massive shift in their interests, identity and behaviour. On the contrary, as we saw at the beginning, doing so was already in their interest merely as a person who lives in a capitalist society and wishes to make a profit.
This argument relates to the more general idea that capitalists have power over workers in the workplace. That’s true for hierarchical workplaces, but not true for co-operatives or for the self-employed. Both of those things still count as capitalist despite not being hierarchical.
The two-class analysis generally implies that every definition of class intersects: capitalists are said to own private property, control the means of production, are the buyers of labour power, have the ability to hire and fire, and accumulate capital. The left has often struggled with the fact that domination within the workplace isn’t exercised exclusively by the owners of that workplace, but rather by a hierarchy of managers and supervisors who are also working for a wage. Some people within the left even claim that these managers form a third, separate class (the “coordinator class”).
In my view, this isn’t a class relation - it’s just a hierarchical one. Workplace hierarchy is just one of many examples of hierarchy, and I think the left makes a mistake in trying to tie together all of these definitions of class, apparently just so that they can point the figure at a single ‘enemy’, the so-called capitalists. Placing the emphasis on workplace hierarchy understates the significance of the less formalised, but still pernicious hierarchies outside the workplace. Patriarchy affects people within families and communities, and it’s highly suspect to claim that it is somehow still capital’s fault.
Whether or not you have to sell your labour power depends quite simply on how much money you have. A retired pensioner does not have to sell their labour power, so long as they have either saved up a suitable surplus or is in receipt of a pension (which is also the result of hoarding surpluses). But retired pensioners are not normally demonised by the left as ‘capitalists’. Similarly, children do not or cannot sell their labour power, but that doesn’t make them capitalists. They depend, again, on the availability of a suitable surplus. Having this surplus is the defining feature of capitalism, and it applies to literally everybody. Indeed, the very terminology of a ‘labour’ movement and the ‘working’ class implicitly leaves out or devalues those entire sections of the population - children, the elderly and the sick and disabled - who cannot work. They just don’t fit into the two-class picture.
Except the richest of the rich, most business owners still work. It makes no sense to claim that they “don’t have to work”. If that were true, they probably wouldn’t bother running a business. What motivates them to run the business is precisely the same thing motivating everyone in capitalism - the desire to maximise their security by converting the material world into money.
It’s very helpful to consider how co-operatives fit in to this picture. It is frequently noted that workers in a workers’ co-operative have the characteristics of capitalists and workers simultaneously. In a workers’ co-op, the workers own the business collectively, and hence share the profits. Yet they are all still workers who “have no choice” but to sell their labour power for a wage. So to whom are they selling their labour power? They aren’t selling their labour to some higher power, the capitalist class, because they are the capitalists. Rather than suggesting that these workers suffer from some kind of split personality disorder, having two opposing interests simultaneously, it makes more sense to say that they are just capitalists, just like everyone else.
In a capitalist system nobody really has any choice: owners must turn a profit in order to survive, just as individuals must. There is no evidence of a class distinction. Everyone is motivated by the pursuit of money, profit and security.
Everyone is a capitalist. The endless insatiable pursuit of more and more security requires that the entire material and non-material universe be converted into money, leaving behind a diseased and dying planet. We are all complicit in this process, whether we want to be or not, whether we identify as ‘workers’ or as ‘capitalists’ or, as I prefer to call us, ‘humans’.