What Is Class?

What Is Class?

As with all forms of social division, social class is a human construct. The division of labor that characterizes class did not emerge until the Neolithic era, approximately 8,000–10,000 years ago (Little, 2016; Rueschemeyer, 1986). This period of human history was marked by agricultural advancement and land settlements by human population, prior to which many human communities were nomadic hunter–gatherers. This era is sometimes described as the agricultural revolution, and resulted not only in settlements of land, but in the organized, systematic production of crops that could be harvested, shared, traded, and sold to others. Where once resources might have been scarce or difficult to gather, they were now more plentiful, and the outcome of increasingly managed processes.




STOP: Remember, in the same way that terms such as “feminism” have been reduced to simplistic caricatures (e.g. “femi-nazis”), so has the terminology of Marxism and Socialism. In recent years, activist movements have returned some legitimacy to this terminology. In thinking about language as political, we want to ask ourselves how our perceptions are shaped by the terms we use and who those perceptions serve.

According to the foundational social class theorist Karl Marx, this era of collective agricultural output created the initial divisions of labor that form the basis of class division: those who own the land (whom he called the bourgeoisie) and those who owned their labor (whom he called the proletariat). Class division today might arguably be drawn back to these same binary groups: those who own the resources of a society and create the rules of exchange and ownership, and those who trade their bodies (their minds and hands) to work, and whose opportunity for work depends on the increase of capital, which the bourgeois control.

STOP: Remember, oppression is less about numbers and more about inequity in historical, ideological, cultural, and institutional control. The wealthiest people are a numerical minority yet wield an extreme amount of power in social institutions.

An example of owner control is the fight for minimum wage. When workers organize to raise the minimum wage, they are told by the owners that the prices of goods must then be increased, hours cut, or people laid off. What is rarely questioned is why the owners cannot tolerate making slightly less profit. For example, in 2012 the average CEO in the United States was paid 354 times what the average worker in their corporation earned (354:1), and 774 times what full-time minimum wage workers made (AFL-CIO, 2013). Chief executives took home, on average $11.7 million annually in 2012, while the average employee earned $35,293. In Canada the gap is 206 times wider (206:1). These are the highest gaps between workers and owners in human history. Illustrating how astronomically this gap has widened, in 1968 the gap between workers and CEOs was 20:1. When workers ask for a living wage and owners threaten to take their jobs away or lament how raising wages will “hurt the economy,” the effect is to shift our focus away from the owners and back onto the workers, who are essentially being blamed for income inequality, as Figure 10.1 satirizes.

When owners threaten to take away workers’ livelihoods, workers




back off, for as Mr. Rich White warns, any job is better than no job at all. Sometimes owners pacify workers by insisting on “trickle-down economics,” which is the claim that cutting taxes and increasing benefits for the richest will improve the standard of living for everyone else. The basic idea is that the more money those at the very top make, the more money will trickle down to the bottom. The claim is that in order to ensure that owners make more money, they need to be less regulated and less taxed than workers are, and this will result in more jobs being created, higher wages for the average worker, and an overall upturn in the economy. However, data from the past 50 years strongly refutes the argument that cutting taxes for the richest will improve the economic standing of the lower and middle classes (OXFAM, 2017; United for a Fair Economy, 2003).

Data compiled by the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO, 2012) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows the ratio between average workers’ and their CEO’s annual pay (in U.S. dollars) (see Figure 10.2).




Figure 10.1. The Boss

Source: soc331.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/420748_183792161725872_129370207168068_259071_2121981741_n1.jpg

Until the mid-1990s, income polarization in Canada and the United

States remained relatively stable (Hulchanski & Murdie, 2013). However since then, the gap between the richest and poorest has widened




immensely. In other words, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer. Here are some examples:

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