Working class

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The working class (also lower class, labouring class, proletariat, or laboring class) are those employed in lower tier, subordinate jobs. These typically include blue-collar jobs, but also include large amounts of white collar and service work. The working class subsists on wages, by working for others, because it does not own independent means of income generation. The working class therefore includes a large majority of the population in industrialized economies, of the urban areas of non-industrialized economies, and also a significant sector of the rural workforce worldwide. The working class generally includes all of those possessing below-average incomes, but may also include layers that earn high incomes.

In Marxist theory and socialist literature, working class is often used synonymously with the term proletariat, and includes all those who expend either mental or physical labor to produce economic value, or wealth in non-academic terms, for those who own means of production. It thus includes knowledge workers and white collar workers who work for a salary.[1] Since wages can be very low, and since the state of unemployment is by definition a lack of independent means of income generation and a lack of waged employment, the working class also includes the extremely poor and unemployed, which are sometimes called the lumpenproletariat.

The term "working class" class usage can alternately be derogatory, or can express a sense of pride in those who self-identify as working class.


As with many terms describing social class, working class is defined and used in many different ways.

When used non-academically in the United States, for example, it often refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage. For certain types of science, as well as less scientific or journalistic political analysis, for example, the working class is presented as less well-educated workers is useful e.g. the white working class in the United States is reduced to white, non-Hispanic workers who have not completed college.[2] Working class occupations are then categorized into four groups: Unskilled laborers, artisans, outworkers, and factory workers.[3] If such approaches are accepted, then the decline of traditional blue collar jobs in postindustrial societies would signify a decline of the working class.

However, if "working class" is defined by occupation, there is no real reason to use the concept, since each occupation would logically constitute a "class." The concept becomes empty and arbitrarily applied, rather than precise and useful.

Another problematic if common alternative, sometimes used in sociology, is to define class by income levels. When this approach is used, the working class can be contrasted with a so-called middle class on the basis of differential terms of access to economic resources, education, cultural interests, and other goods and services. The cut-off between working class and middle class here might mean the line where a population has disposable income, rather than simply sustenance (for example, on fashion versus merely nutrition and shelter).

The problem with an income-based definition is that the cut-off points can be quite arbitrary: why not have, for instance, 30 "classes," based on 30 arbitrary break points? Also problematically, relying on this method of distinction would mean that people in identical jobs, education, interests and lifestyles would appear in different classes depending on employer (for example, a nurse in a private hospital, versus a nurse in a state hospital), depending on wage adjustments (for example, 1 10% wage increase), and other divisions. If that is the case, it becomes difficult to speak about "class" at all; indeed, many of the people who are often identified as working class (for example, factory workers) would be defined in and out of the working class in an inconsistent manner.

This would strip class of its explanatory power: for example, trade unionism, commonly seen as a typically working class phenomenon, attracts waged workers in subordinate jobs, regardless of levels of education, job type or the blue collar/ white collar distinction. By contrast, an understanding of "working class" as comprising all waged workers in subordinate jobs, including the very poor and unemployed wage workers, explains this pattern easily as it draws attention to the common class interests and status and situation of all of these groups.

Addressing the above issues with objective measures of social class, some researchers have suggested that working-class status should be defined subjectively as self-identification with the working-class group.[4] This subjective approach allows people, rather than researchers, to define their own social class.

History and growth[edit]

Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire, England.

In feudal Europe, the working class as such did not exist in large numbers. Instead, most people were part of the laboring class, a group made up of different professions, trades and occupations. A lawyer, craftsman and peasant were all considered to be part of the same social unit, a third estate of people who were neither aristocrats nor church officials. Similar hierarchies existed outside Europe in other pre-industrial societies. The social position of these laboring classes was viewed as ordained by natural law and common religious belief. This social position was contested, particularly by peasants, for example during the German Peasants' War.

In the late 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, European society was in a state of change, and this change could not be reconciled with the idea of a changeless god-created social order. Wealthy members of these societies created ideologies which blamed many of the problems of working-class people on their morals and ethics (i.e. excessive consumption of alcohol, perceived laziness and inability to save money). In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson argues that the English working class was present at its own creation, and seeks to describe the transformation of pre-modern laboring classes into a modern, politically self-conscious, working class.

Starting around 1917, a number of countries became ruled ostensibly in the interests of the working class. (see Soviet working class). Some historians have noted that a key change in these Soviet-style societies has been a massive a new type of proletarianisation, often effected by the administratively achieved forced displacement of peasants and rural workers. Since then, three major industrial states have turned towards semi-market-based governance (China, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba), and one state has turned inwards into an increasing cycle of poverty and brutalisation (North Korea). Other states of this sort have either collapsed (such as the Soviet Union), or never achieved significant levels of industrialization or large working classes.

Since 1960, large-scale proletarianisation and enclosure of commons has occurred in the third world, generating new working classes. Additionally, countries such as India have been slowly undergoing social change, expanding the size of the urban working class.

Marxist definition[edit]

Class War: Workers in battle with the police during the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934.

Karl Marx defined the working class or proletariat as individuals who sell their labor power for wages and who do not own the means of production. He argued that they were responsible for creating the wealth of a society. He asserted that the working class physically build bridges, craft furniture, grow food, and nurse children, but do not own land, or factories. A sub-section of the proletariat, the lumpenproletariat (rag-proletariat), are the extremely poor and unemployed, such as day laborers and homeless people.

In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that it was the destiny of the working class to displace the capitalist system, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, abolishing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future communist society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." In Capital, Marx dissected the ways in which capital can forestall such a revolutionary extension of the Enlightenment. Some issues in Marxist arguments about working class membership have included:

  • The class status of people in a temporary or permanent position of unemployment.
  • The class status of domestic labor, particularly the children (see child labor), and also traditionally the wives of male workers, as some spouses do not themselves work in paying jobs outside the home.
  • Whether workers can be considered working class if they own personal property or small amounts of stock ownership.
  • The relationships among peasants, rural smallholders, and the working class.
  • The extent to which non-class group identities and politics (race, gender, et al.) can obviate or substitute for working class membership in Enlightenment projects, where working class membership is prohibitively contradictory or obfuscated.

Some answers to some of these issues, as argued, analyzed, and formulated over the centuries, are:

  • Unemployed workers are proletariat.
  • Class for dependents is determined by the primary income earner.
  • Personal property is clearly different from private property. For example, the proletariat can own houses; this is personal property.
  • The self-employed worker may be a member of the petite bourgeoisie (for example a highly paid professional, athlete, etc.), or a member of the proletariat (for example, a contract worker whose income may be relatively high but is precarious).
  • Students' class status depends on that of their family, and also on whether they remain financially dependent on them.
  • Race, gender and class are overlapping social stratification categories. It is possible for capitalists to strategically substitute the members of race, class, and gender groups to attain capitalist objectives; but once these stratification categories are formed and deployed, membership balkanizes experiences and interests.

In general, in Marxist terms, wage laborers and those dependent on the welfare state are working class, and those who live on accumulated capital are not. This broad dichotomy defines the class struggle. Different groups and individuals may at any given time be on one side or the other. For example, retired factory workers are working class in the popular sense; but to the extent that they live off fixed incomes, financed by stock in corporations whose earnings are profit, retired factory workers' interests, and possibly their identities and politics, are not working class. Such contradictions of interests and identity within individuals' lives and within communities can effectively undermine the ability of the working class to act in solidarity to reduce exploitation, inequality, and the role of ownership in determining people's life chances, work conditions, and political power.

The position of core capitalists is not nearly as contradictory within a capitalist system. Capitalists own the means of production and they will have it managed for their own aggrandizement. From the capitalist perspective, it would be silly to manage production (or build political resources that could influence economic relationships) for the benefit of workers. To the extent that workers sometimes benefit in some ways from capitalism, it is not a central goal, but a byproduct. Thus, operating with less class interest contradiction and less identity contradiction, and more resources for political coordination, capitalist class members can often coordinate and prosecute their interests with a great deal of efficacy, over and against workers.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Martin Glaberman (17 September 1974). "Marxist Views of the Working Class". Retrieved 18 January 2013. 
  2. ^ Thomas B. Edsall (June 17, 2012). "Canaries in the CoaMine" (Blog by expert). The New York Times. Retrieved June 18, 2012. 
  3. ^ Doob, B. Christopher (2013). Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 0-205-79241-3.
  4. ^ Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). “I am working-class”: Subjective self-definition as a missing measure of social class and socioeconomic status in higher education research. Educational Researcher. doi: 10.3102/0013189X14528373

Further reading[edit]

  • Blackledge, Paul (2011). "Why workers can change the world". Socialist Review 364 (London). 
  • Engels, Friedrich, Condition of the Working Class in England [in 1844], Stanford University Press (1968), trade paperback, ISBN 0-8047-0634-4 Numerous other editions exist; first published in German in 1845. Better editions include a preface written by Engels in 1892.
  • Ernest Mandel, Workers under Neo-capitalism [1]
  • Moran, W. (2002). Belles of New England: The women of the textile mills and the families whose wealth they wove. New York: St Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-30183-9.
  • Rose, Jonathan, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Rubin, Lillian Breslow, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, Basic Books (1976), hardcover ISBN 0-465-09245-4; trade paperback, 268 pages, ISBN 0-465-09724-3
  • Shipler, David K., The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Knopf (2004), hardcover, 322 pages, ISBN 0-375-40890-8
  • Skeggs, Beverley. Class, Self, Culture, Routledge, (2004),
  • Thompson, E.P, The Making of the English Working Class - paperback Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013603-7
  • Zweig, Michael, Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Cornell University Press (2001), trade paperback, 198 pages, ISBN 0-8014-8727-7

External links[edit]