Six Questions About Your Class Location that Isn’t Asking You to Think About

By Steve D’Arcy

Nurses strike at Mills-Peninsula hospital, 2011. (Photo by Justin Sullivan)
Nurses strike at Mills-Peninsula hospital, 2011. (Photo by Justin Sullivan)

If, like me, you read a lot of the articles passed around on social media that address issues of social injustice and oppositional politics, then you may have seen the recent piece on “class privilege,” posted on the popular liberal-feminist site, (hereafter, “EDF”). The article, written by Carmen Rios, has been widely circulated, but also widely criticized. It’s called, “Did You Do Any of These 6 Activities Today? Then You’ve Got Class Privilege.” 

Although the attempt to bring “privilege” discourse to bear within class analysis does have its defenders within marxism, most marxist readers of the EDF article would agree that the politics of the article represent a kind of inversion of marxism, or a marxism-in-reverse. For instance, whereas marxism describes most forms of full-time paid employment as “exploitation,” the EDF article describes having a full-time paid job as, in and of itself, a form of “class privilege.” And whereas marxism regards 6-8 hours of sleep per night as one of the costs of reproducing labour-power, from which employers benefit but for which workers aren’t paid, making it, too, a form of exploitation, the EDF article says that getting 6-8 hours of sleep per night is also “class privilege.”

Other markers of class privilege, according the article, include being able to purchase fruit and vegetables from a neighbourhood grocery store, spending money on a babysitter while going to job interviews, or being able to take public transportation to work. All of these, according to the author of the EDF piece, are signs that one is “damn lucky, y’all.” In this way, the article depicts the condition of most working-class people, at least in the marxist sense of “working class,” as that of a privileged elite, the fortunate beneficiaries of advantages denied to others, whereas marxism depicts the working class as an oppressed, exploited and dominated class.

A Counter-Listicle — Six More Questions

The article in question follows the standard formula: a privilege listicle — a privilisticle, one might even say. Did you do this today? If so, then you’re privileged, folks! Did you do that today? If so, then you’re damn lucky, y’all.

Although I feel reluctant to do anything that might contribute, even inadvertently, to the pervasiveness of this already ubiquitous genre, I do want to respond to the EDF privilisticle class analysis with six questions of my own. These questions, I think, would serve much better as a basis for thinking about how one’s work situation locates one within the class structure of modern capitalism.  

  1. Are you an employee, hired to work by an employer/boss who is better paid and more powerful than you and your co-workers?
  2. Does your employer — or an authoritative manager acting on behalf of the employer — get to tell you and your co-workers what to do, and to punish or fire you for insubordination if you refuse?
  3. Does your employer benefit whenever you and your co-workers can be made to do more work for less pay?
  4. Is there a market for the kind of work you do and the skills you use in doing it, so that if you were fired or quit, others would compete to be hired as your replacement?
  5. Could you and your co-workers improve your pay, benefits, and working conditions, by banding together to exert collective pressure on your employer to make these concessions, no doubt grudgingly?
  6. Finally, would you and your co-workers benefit if public policy-making and the design of leading social institutions were reoriented to prioritize social and environmental justice, and political and economic democracy, rather than maximizing profits and capital accumulation?

If you answered yes to all six of these questions, then — like most people — you’re probably a member of the global working class. That’s bad news, because it’s an exploited, oppressed, and dominated class. The good news, though, is that, with some luck and hard work, it’s a class that can abolish itself.

{For some qualifications and points of detail, see the Appendix, below, which discusses the difference between “proletarians,” and the broader category of — in the jargon of the Old Left — “toilers” (or “the 99%”).}

Is a “Divided Class” Still a Class?

But here’s where the issue of privilege comes in. The oppression, exploitation and domination imposed on the working class hits some people rather harder than others. In one notable recent case, some US workers were revealed to have laboured under conditions of employment that were unusually unfavourable to them, compared to many other US workers. At least until a recent class action lawsuit led to promises of reform, these workers produced clothing for Abercrombie & Fitch, Target, and the Gap in “numerous garment factories on the island [of Saipan, a Pacific island governed by the USA],” which “hired impoverished Chinese women” under contracts that “included special recruitment fees intended to put the signer into debt and then require the person to work two to three years to pay off the debt. Factory rules prohibited workers from engaging in basic activities such as dating, getting pregnant, going to church, or criticizing their employers. Workers who broke the rules or tried to quit were threatened with fines, deportation, and imprisonment.” Even basic labour standards like the federal minimum wage were not in place for these workers, because Saipan was exempted by US law from these “floors” or minimum standards. (I could give even more extreme examples of hyper-exploitation in the global economy today, but I want to focus on US workers here.)

Many other workers, in other parts of the USA, have much more favorable terms of employment than those women migrant workers. For instance, consider the 3.1 million working Registered Nurses in the USA. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, these RNs enjoyed a median annual salary in 2012 of $65,470 (which, at time of writing, is almost $90,000 in today’s Canadian dollars), while the top 10% of RNs, at least some of whom must be workers, were paid “more than $94,720” (which is just over $130,000 Canadian dollars). Moreover, according to the Houston Chronicle, most RNs receive “medical, dental and vision” insurance, plus “retirement savings…available primarily through 401(k) and 403(b) plans….Vacation, paid holidays, sick days and personal time off are also common.”

None of this will come as a surprise to the author of the EDF article, or for that matter, to the authors of books like The Worker Elite (Bromma) or Divided World, Divided Class (Zak Cope), both of whom have an analysis of class privilege that partly overlaps with, but is by no means identical to, the one sketched by Rios in the EDF article. Neither will anyone be surprised by the fact that many of these differences in rates of pay, extent of benefits, and degrees of autonomy or on-the-job respectful treatment, are correlated to some significant extent with one’s location in the socio-political hierarchies of race and gender, or one’s place in the imperialist world order.

The Friction of Interests

The question is, how should we think about these differences? Should we adopt Martin Luther King’s view, that the deployment of race (or gender, etc.) to differentiate access to money, power and respect has from the beginning been “a political stratagem employed by…[business] interests…to keep the…masses divided” and to keep wage rates and levels of political influence of all workers lower than they would otherwise be, by always reminding the white worker (for example) that, “no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man”? Or is King being too “class reductionist,” when he advances that sort of view? It’s an important debate. But rather than trying to answer it here, I want to underline the point where King’s position and that of the EDF article are most fully at odds with one another.

What King wants us to see, and the EDF article apparently wants us to ignore, is what has sometimes (since Balzac) been called the friction of interests between employer and employee, boss and worker. It is this friction of interests that my six questions attempted to focus particular attention upon. Is there a power struggle and a conflict of interest here, and if so, where? My six questions suggest that the basic and fundamental conflict and power struggle in the world of work is not between workers who can take a bus to work and workers who have to walk to work. Instead, the conflict is between the employer class and the working class as a whole (including those who can’t find work and those who are dependent on working-class incomes). This conflict is multi-dimensional: a struggle over time, over money, over respect, and over security. But whereas employers are systematically advantaged whenever their employees are granted less time, money, respect and security, better-positioned workers do not (systematically) benefit from the deprivation of their fellow workers. On the contrary, the existence of an especially low-paid, especially disrespected sector of the work force tends to lower the standard overall, exerting a downward pressure on the pay and benefits of even the best paid workers.

For example, if there are hospital workers paid the minimum wage, persistently disrespected and disciplined on the flimsiest pretext, there is no mechanism to transfer the advantages denied to those workers over to another, better-faring employee group, like the same hospital’s RNs. No, instead the forms of power and monetary savings gained at the expense of that first group of workers tends to be used as a basis for chipping away at the standards of pay and benefits that the RNs have previously enjoyed. “What makes you so special?,” the employer will say to the RNs. “If these other workers can make do with less, why can’t you tighten your belts for the common good?” And, if this strategy works, the lowered RN pay and benefits will in due course be used by the boss against the lower-paid workers themselves: “What? Do you expect to be paid almost as much as we pay the RNs, with their years of special training?

Solidarity Isn’t Discovered, but Forged

And this brings us right back to King’s analysis. King’s point is that, to understand the antagonisms between Black and white workers, we need to see ideologies and practices of white supremacy as ways that wealthy and powerful elites dole out differential access to power, income and respect to different groups of people as a “stratagem” of governance and social control, “engineered” (as he put it) to strengthen the bargaining position of the wealthy and powerful, and to weaken the prospects for a potent, well-organized response from workers. The appropriate reaction to this stratagem, he assumed, was not to catalogue all the differences between those who get more or less access to this or that advantage, but to forge bonds of solidarity and common struggle, based on a shared understanding of the potential benefits that a solidaristic response makes available to all workers.

This word — the verb, to forge — doesn’t get nearly enough use in the political discourse of the broad left today. Solidarity doesn’t exist, like a material object, the way tables and chairs do. Solidarity is the confidence we can sometimes have that others, sharing with us a common enemy and a core of overlapping aspirations, will have our back when we find ourselves under attack, or when we need their support to win a crucial struggle. We don’t stumble upon solidarity when poring over statistics; we won’t find it by comparing our pay stubs with that of the worker down the street. We forge it in common struggle, and when — as so often — we find it faltering under pressure or dissolving after periods of disuse, due perhaps to sectionalism or short-sightedness, or simply because liberal individualism always threatens to eat away at the collectivist values of the left that were painstakingly built up in the struggles of earlier generations, we can only restore solidarity by reinvigorating the practices and commitments of mutual aid and mutual defence that constitute it. And these only gain their meaning in the heat of struggle, a heat generated by the friction of interests, the class struggle.  

Privilege Discourse

Does the propagation of privilege discourse help or hinder the attempt to forge working-class solidarity in practice? (It is important to insist, upfront, that this is the decisive question, even if we can’t be sure how to answer it.) Does it make good strategic sense, or for that matter social-scientific sense, to understand class in terms of privilege? Although, in general, I’m a skeptic about the strategic effectiveness of giving a central role to privilege when thinking about class, even I would concede that the question isn’t to be answered with a simple Yes or No. There is some complexity and ambiguity that has to be acknowledged. On the one hand, pretending that there are not real differences in the scale and scope of the harms inflicted on different sections of the class by capitalism isn’t going to help forge solidarity, but only to further fuel the festering resentment and mutual misunderstanding that weaken the grip of solidarity already. Viewing the EDF article sympathetically, it could be seen as a (somewhat clumsy) attempt to draw attention to these important differences, in order to forge a more meaningful solidarity, one which ensures that the least well-positioned workers won’t find their needs ignored by the wider workers’ movement. On the other hand, even if drawing attention to these differences often has a valuable role to play in the promotion of solidarity within the working class, nevertheless it would be going too far to replace analysis of the commonalities of working-class exploitation, domination and oppression, with an analysis that depicts many workers as a “lucky” and a “privileged” social group, essentially depicting most workers as beneficiaries of capitalism, even hinting that they would benefit from maintaining the status quo rather than from challenging it. A privilege discourse on working-class differentiation that is denialist about the exploitation and oppression of most workers surely both reflects and encourages the embrace of a politics that has gone decisively off the rails, that has switched sides, and that — in spite of itself, one hopes — now speaks from the standpoint of the employer.

When the question we pose to unionized workers is, “Don’t you see how lucky you are?,” it is a sign that we have lost our way.

My six questions are offered, therefore, as a proposed course correction for those who may have lost sight of the value of a politics, like King’s, founded on the project (not the discovered fact, but the resolutely chosen challenge) of forging solidarity among people who share the predicament — which politically, and collectively, is also a kind of shared strategic opportunity — of being members of the global working-class.


On the difference between the working class and the broader category of the “toiler” classes

Strictly speaking, not everyone who answers ‘Yes’ to all six of my questions will be a member of the working class. In the classical, old-school jargon of global workers’ movements, everyone who answers ‘Yes’ to all six of these questions would be called a “toiler,” but only some of them (albeit a substantial majority) would be considered working-class, in the classical marxist sense. (See The Program of the Communist International, 1929, IV [no.2], which distinguished between “the working class and…the broad masses of the toilers who march under its leadership.”)

The term “toilers,” now seldom used, was meant to include at least three groups of people: (1) tenant farmers (or “peasants,” as one used to say), who work on land leased from a rentier class, (2) proletarians, whose labour is fully commodified and so have “nothing to sell but their labour-power,” and (3) waged or salaried “craft” or “skilled trade” employees, usually partly protected from wage competition by “guilds” or “professional associations” that insulate these employees from some labour market effects (notably downward pressure on wages due to competition, but also often the pressures of deskilling), giving them more autonomy on the job and sometimes more security. Famously, the practice of collective bargaining by proletarians has tended, as a practical matter, to blur the difference between proletarian and craft employees, so that increasingly this contrast takes the form of a continuum, as the Registered Nurse example illustrates. At the same time, the craft protections (or “privileges,” if we’re to use the term) traditionally made available by guild membership tend to be eroded over time, as employers try to subject craft employees to market discipline (as seen, for instance, in the ever-expanding use by universities of “contract faculty,” who are largely denied access to the guild protections available to the “tenure-track” professoriate, even if they are sometimes able to protect themselves as workers by union membership and collective bargaining). Marx, and many later marxists, have noted that “professional” or “skilled craft” employees tend only to be receptive to forming an alliance with the proletariat when they find their traditional protections to be eroding or under attack, a fact which renders them politically erratic, rather than reliable allies of either capitalists or proletarians.

By some classical definitions, the “toilers” also included (4) self-employed people and small proprietors, such as shopkeepers (the “urban petty bourgeoisie”), but members of this group wouldn’t answer ‘yes’ to all six questions, because they would not be employees. In the jargon of the contemporary (official) labour movement, the term “toilers” has been replaced — for better or for worse — by terms like “working people,” “working families,” or even “hardworking families,” which are more vague and expansive than the term “working class,” a feature that endears these terms to some AFL-CIO officials, among others. The pros and cons (mostly cons) of these terms have been widely discussed. But what hasn’t happened, perhaps regrettably, is that no one seems to have found a word to replace the old word, “toilers,” even if it remains as politically important as ever before. Possibly the best proposal was put forward by the late George Jackson, who — inventing a formula that simultaneously echoes Marx’s term, “the mass of the people” [die Volksmasse], and anticipates the #OWS slogan, “We are the 99%” — introduced the term “the 99%” in contrast to “the 1%,” as a novel way to describe the toilers.

Finally, a word on managers — a big topic. While few if any people with opinions about class would call a high-level, upper-management employee either a member of the working class or a “toiler,” there are obviously a series of gradations of broadly supervisory or quasi-managerial functions undertaken by employees at a range of different levels. For instance, there are shift supervisors at a fast food restaurant, who may exercise some minimal, low-level managerial functions, and exercise some limited authority in the workplace, albeit clearly subject to the whims and the instructions of higher-level managers or owners. But these low-paid, low-level supervisors are not plausibly depicted as bosses in any strong sense. They seem, at most, to be a hybrid employee group, working-class in most respects (probably answering yes to all or almost all of my 6 questions, and not protected by guild restrictions on labour market effects), but granted limited authority in the workplace to act as managerial delegates in the absence of a proper boss. At this point, the line between working-class and non-working-class just isn’t as clear as it is in more standard cases, because the job-description of the low-level supervisor — in contrast to upper management on the one hand, and workers with no managerial functions at all — is inherently ambiguous in this way. Marx used the the term, “intermediate classes,” to describe hybrid or ambiguous cases. More recently, Erik Olin Wright has used the term, “contradictory class locations.”

The End.






1 thought on “Six Questions About Your Class Location that Isn’t Asking You to Think About”

  1. Invariably, intersectionalists are race reductionists, even though they often make a token mention of class before they go on to ignore it. Privilege Theory is effectively a strategy to make the field slaves resent the house slaves, and make the house slaves feel guilty for being better off than the field slaves.

    And anticipating the stock objection from race reductionists: no, this doesn’t mean racism “is over”. It means Malcolm X was right when he said “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” Capitalists will never voluntarily share the wealth to make the distribution of wealth racially proportionate, so anyone who complains about proportionality is failing to see the real problem.

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