Defining Class

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Class solidarity often shows itself in surprising places.

By Susan Rosenthal

How do you define class? According to the 2006 General Social Survey, most Americans view society like a giant football, with a small group of rich people at one end, a small group of poor people at the other end, and the majority filling out the middle.

While class is commonly defined on the basis of income, wealth, education, and occupation, these individual characteristics tell us nothing about people’s social relationships.

A social definition of class would measure two variables: the control that people have over their work and the control that they have over other people’s work. Using these criteria, society can be divided into three classes: the class that rules (the capitalist class); the class that obeys (the working class); and the class in between (the middle class).

This definition would structure society like the typical workplace — a pyramid with a boss at the top (the capitalist class), a layer of middle-managers or supervisors (the middle class), and the majority who do the actual work and are unemployed from time to time (the working class).

The class that rules

The capitalist or ruling class has the most power because it owns or controls the natural resources required to create wealth, the process of creating wealth, and the wealth that is created. Because it controls all these things, the capitalist class decides the overall direction of society, determining what will be produced, how it will be produced, and who will have access to the resulting goods and services.

The capitalist class includes CEOs of the largest corporations, presidents and directors of the largest universities and banks, and the highest-ranking politicians, government bureaucrats, judges, and military officers. Each nation has its own capitalist class, and together they form a global capitalist class.

Capitalists compete constantly for capital. Larger corporations swallow up smaller ones and grow larger. Stronger nations dominate weaker ones and grow stronger. Ceaseless competition has caused the ruling class to shrink in size while it grows in wealth and power. By 2005, one percent of people at the top of society owned one-third of America’s financial wealth.

The class that obeys

The capitalist class controls the means of production, but the working class sets it in motion. The working class creates all the wealth in society, yet has the least power. People in the working class own no land, no factories, no machines, no businesses, nor any other means of making a living. (They can, of course, own personal property such as homes and vehicles.) Workers survive only by selling their ability to labor in exchange for a wage. They have no control over how they produce and what they produce. They have no control over the labor of others.

While the ruling class has shrunk over time, the working class has expanded. More than half the global population is now urban working class (with the next largest group being small farmers who are middle class because they own a little land). In the U.S., about 80 percent of the population is working class — the vast majority.

Rising productivity has made it possible to accumulate more surplus from fewer workers. Some of this surplus has been used to expand the service sector — finance, transportation, communications, hotels, restaurants, and the education, medical, and penal systems. While the working class as a whole has continued to expand in size, the proportion of industrial workers has declined while the proportion of service workers has increased.

The class that obeys has the option of not obeying, of taking collective control of production and reshaping society to meet human needs.

The class in the middle

The middle class is the second largest social class. Forming about 20 percent of the North American population, the middle class sits between the two other classes, blending into the capitalist class at one end and the working class at the other end.

People in the middle class have an intermediate level of power, having some control over their own work and some control over the work of others. The middle class owns or controls some means of production: the small farmer owns some land; the self-employed artisan owns some tools: the corner-store retailer buys and sells some produce. Sections of the middle-class employ and exploit workers — on a small scale.

The 18th-century middle class was composed of small farmers and fishermen, artisans, entertainers, lower-level clergy, traders, and owners of small businesses. The process of capital accumulation obliterates the traditional middle class. Agricultural corporations swallow family farms and fast-food chains replace family restaurants.

While squeezing out the traditional middle class, capitalism creates a layer of middle-class managers to supervise the working class. The capitalist also needs middle-class financial, legal, scientific, design, and technical experts to find ways to increase profits. While ordinary workers are micro-managed, salaried professionals are encouraged to think creatively and act independently, within the limits set by the boss.

Middle-class managers and professionals can be distinguished from waged workers by the amount of control they exercise in the workplace. A unionized electrician on a construction site could be more educated, more skilled, and make more money than the site supervisor. However, the supervisor tells the electrician what to do.

The grey zones

An indeterminate number of people inhabit the two grey zones on either edge of the middle class. The zone between the middle and ruling classes includes members of the ruling class who perform upper-level managerial functions, and upper-level managers who are occasionally invited to make big decisions.

There is a much larger grey zone between the middle and working classes. At the one end are middle-class professionals whose degraded working conditions resemble industrial assembly lines. Physicians working for Health Management Organizations (HMOs) are permitted to order only those tests and provide only those treatments that the employer approves. By removing their decision-making functions, HMOs force doctors into working-class conditions. In response, thousands of doctors have joined unions and organized collective bargaining units recognized by the National Labor Relations Board.

At the other end of the zone between the working and middle classes are waged workers with small businesses on the side and blended-class families that form when middle- and working-class people marry. Changes of fortune also create blended-class families: the disbarred lawyer takes a job at the post-office and the steel-worker’s daughter goes to medical school.

The grey zone also includes workers who perform managerial functions — salaried social workers, nurses, grade-school teachers, low level government workers, and prison guards. All are working class because they have little or no control over their own working conditions. At the same time, their jobs give them some control over other people.

Ordinary soldiers are working class because they have absolutely no control over the conditions of their work. At the same time, the soldier has a middle-class function — to control others. Soldiers are not in the same class as police officers. The working-class soldier is drilled to follow commands without thinking, while the police officer is a middle-class professional who is trusted by the higher-ups to know who to target, who to charge, who can be roughed up, and whose life has less value.

When it is difficult to decide if someone is middle or working class, that person probably inhabits the grey zone.

This material was excerpted from POWER and Powerlessness, Chapters 13 & 15. Available at For a class analysis of unions, see “Class-Divided Unions,” March 23, 2007, at the above site. Dr. Rosenthal, a Senior Editor at Cyrano’s Journal Online, has been practicing medicine for more than 30 years and has written many articles on the relationship between health and human relationships. She is also the author of Striking Flint: Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936-1937 General Motors Sit-Down Strike (1996) and Market Madness and Mental Illness: The Crisis in Mental Health Care (1999) and Power and Powerlessness. She is a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. She can be reached through her web site or by

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