Between 50 and 60% cent of the population identify as ‘working class’. Despite the term ‘working class’ vanishing completely from the language of the Labour Party, the proportion claiming this now-unspoken identity has been fairly stable since the 1950s.
To be working class is to be at one pole of a pair. The other pole is the capitalist class. The picture is blurred by what Marx called “the constantly growing number of the middle classes, those who stand between the workman on the one hand and the capitalist and landlord on the other’. But the two main poles are clear. Most of us sell our labour-power to capital (or try to), and receive in exchange a more-or-less ‘living wage’, but not enough to accumulate wealth. At the other pole is another group, small in numbers but very weighty in society, who own or participate in capital. They live from property income (shares, interest, etc) or from high ‘wages’ (aka fat-cat salaries!) which they allot themselves. They accumulate wealth.
That core class division defines capitalism. With enough organisation and mobilisation, the working class can reduce the gap between the classes somewhat. Without that organisation and mobilisation, inequality breeds inequality. As in Britain today.
Inequality of wealth and income has grown since Margaret Thatcher's Tory government took office 38 years ago. This inequality has increased further under New Labour, though not as fast as under the Tories. The top 1% increased their share of national wealth from 20% to 23% in the first six years of the Labour government. The wealth of the poorest 50% of the population shrank from 10% in 1986 to 7% in 1996 and 5% in 2002.
But there's more equal opportunity, isn't there? You can ‘make it’ if you’re smart and hard-working? That's what the myth says. Barrow-boys become bankers, as long as they have the wit and the energy. If you fall behind, it's because you’re idle or stupid.
Actually, Britain is at the bottom of the league for social mobility, among the richer countries - along with the USA, another country where free-market economics and union-bashing have been unleashed with exceptional force. In Britain, if A’s dad has twice the income of B, then A is likely to end up with 40% more income than B.
And social mobility is getting less. Born in 1958 into a family in the bottom quarter of income-earners, you had a 17% chance of getting into the top quarter by the age of 30. Born in 1970, your chance was down to 11%.
There's a mountain of evidence that kids from poorer families lose out just because they are poorer. Part of it is that their parents can't afford to win the ‘postcode lottery’ by buying a house in the catchment area of a high-achieving school. But most variation is explained by other factors: lack of security at home; lack of the sort of things at home that help you learn; reduced support from shiftwork-stressed, harassed, and unconfident parents ...
Is Equality Possible?
Should we aim for a fairer ‘meritocracy’? No. Everyone should have an equal right to education, but there is no reason why those who do well academically should be paid more than others.
Some right-wingers argue that to be bothered about inequality is just envy, and that inequality is inevitable because people have different talents. But inequality in capitalist society has very little to do with the differences between individuals. It is a class division. It is not just that some climb higher. They climb higher by pushing others down.
Thirty years ago poorer men died 5.5 years before the well-off; now the gap is 7.5 years. The gap has grown despite improvements in housing and food availability, and despite a decline in heavy manual work. Evidence is conclusive: poorer people are more stressed and less healthy because they are unequal, not just because they are poor. Being part of an exploited class is bad for your health.
Perhaps exact inequality is impossible. But as Engels put it, "As between one place and another, living conditions will always evincea certain inequality which may be reducedto a minimum but never wholly eliminated ... The real content of the proletarian demand for equality is the demand forthe abolition of classes".
Capital Increases Inequality
Capitalism lurches fromslump to boom to slump again.In slump, the capitalist class makes the workers pay by cutting wages and throwing people out of work. In boom, there may be more jobs and better wages, but the capitalists will make sure that their profits – and their fat-cat payouts to themselves – grow even faster. And at the same time, they will develop new technologies and methods to further increase the profits they make from our work. Whichever way, inequality grows.
How Can We Abolish Classes?
By abolishing the pivotal exchange between capital and wage labour; by the working class, democratically and collectively, making productive wealth social property.
The labour movement is far from ready for that. It will become ready by fighting against and pushing back the increased inequality which capital is pushing onto us.