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Why the U.S. isn't the "land of opportunity"
The myth of a classless America

August 15, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

DINA ROY exposes the lie that the U.S. is a classless society--and explains why socialists believe that understanding class is so important to the goal of changing the world.

WE ARE constantly bombarded with the myth that we live in a classless society. Unlike older European societies with a long feudal past, we're told, the U.S. is based on equal opportunity.

There are some rich people, of course--the Bill Gateses and assorted film stars--and some poor people. But the vast majority of people belong to the middle class.

We aren't usually presented with any evidence to back up this claim. But when pressed, defenders of the myth of a classless society point to the lifestyles that Americans lead. Because a large percentage of people in the U.S. own television sets, phones and cars--and, less often, their own homes--they must be part of the middle class, and therefore benefit from the capitalist system.

Americans do have relatively higher living standards and greater access to consumer goods than people in other countries. But beneath this surface, we find another picture.

Since the 1970s, wages--after adjusting for inflation--have been in decline for 80 percent of U.S. men on the lower end of the income scale. For households to maintain their lifestyles, married women have taken jobs outside the home in large numbers. This is the only reason that household income in the U.S. has kept pace in the past three decades--because of the increase in the total number of hours worked by everyone in the household.

And still, for the bottom 60 percent of families, this it been a losing battle. The average U.S. household is deeper in debt then ever before--and barely able to keep up with expenses from paycheck to paycheck. This is a stark contrast to the image of the happy middle-class family enjoying the fruits of consumerism.

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THE MAINSTREAM media play no small role in promoting these ideas about class in the U.S. For instance, most newspapers have a business section, but not a corresponding labor section. This gives the impression that news written from the point of view of business is of value to all Americans--and that there are no conflicts based on competing class interests.

The reality could not be further from this media construction. Take the recent corporate scandals--like at Enron, the energy industry giant that went bankrupt at the end of 2001. Enron CEO Ken Lay and other top executives sold off large amounts of their stock in the company before the value plummeted--and raked in big money. Enron employees, on the other hand, not only lost their jobs when the company folded, but also their retirement savings invested in Enron stocks.

If everyone had the same interests in common, then we couldn't explain the Enron disaster. We would also be hard pressed to explain why the gap in income between the average CEO of a large corporation and the average worker is 531 to 1. Or even why most American households have a net debt, while almost all wealth in the U.S. is concentrated in the hands of the richest 10 percent of the population.

What all this points to is that we do have classes in U.S. society.

But Karl Marx and the socialists who have followed in the tradition he founded don't look only at who has wealth or what kind of lifestyles people lead to understand social class. Rather, we begin by looking at the real world and examining how society organizes production to meet its needs.

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MARXISTS IDENTIFY the ruling capitalist class in society by recognizing how that class owns and controls what Marx called the "means of production." The means of production are the factories, the offices, the mines, forms of transportation, etc., necessary for producing goods and services.

Those in the working class, on the other hand, don't own or control the means of producing what they would need to live. In order to survive, they have to sell their ability to labor--to work at some job for a wage, which they then use to pay for food, rent and so on.

These are the two main classes in society--the capitalist class and the working class. The relationship between them is based on exploitation--that is, the fact that the working class produces profits that the capitalist class appropriates. In between the capitalist class and the working class, and pressured by both, lies a middle class.

It's important to see that Marxists understand class as a relationship--how people are connected economically to each other and to the means of production--rather than something to do with lifestyle, or even income or status.

Also, this relationship is based on power--because control over production determines who has power over society. Thus, while some of Enron's employees had good incomes and were able to lead an expensive lifestyle, this didn't prevent them from losing their jobs and savings. Ultimately, they had little power over their conditions of work. By contrast, Ken Lay and the rest of the corporate crooks could get away with highway robbery because of their power as owners or executives in control of the company.

If you accept the Marxist definition of class, then out of the roughly 145 million people who are considered to be part of the U.S. workforce, only about 2 to 3 percent are part of the capitalist class--in the sense that they exercise substantial control over the means of production or the important institutions of society. Some 70 to 75 percent of the workforce belongs to the working class, and the remainder are part of the middle class.

These numbers and percentages aren't fixed for all time. Rather, class composition changes with changes in the economy. For instance, during an economic expansion, the ranks of the capitalist class can increase--as can the size of the middle class. During a recession, the opposite occurs--as, for example, sections of the middle class whose businesses go bust fall into the working class.

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DOES EVERYONE who owns a business--regardless of how big or how small--belong to the capitalist class? No. There is a vast difference between the owners and executives of Fortune 500 corporations and, say, a family-run beauty salon. The two don't have the same social power and aren't part of the same class.

In fact, the majority of small businesses consist of no employees at all, except the owner. Often, these businesses are meant to supplement the income that the owner gets from their job as a worker. Only 13 percent of all businesses in the U.S. have any employees beyond the owner. And within this minority, there are huge differences between small businesses with only a few employees and larger ones with hundreds or thousands of workers.

Only 0.2 of all businesses in the country have more than 500 workers, but they obviously wield power far greater than their numbers. The "captains of industry" who run these big corporations--and who often sit on multiple boards of directors, with a degree of control over many companies at once--number only about 200,000, according to one estimate. They comprise the core of the capitalist class.

Economic power is the main factor here--but not the only one. Thus, for example, George W. Bush shouldn't be considered part of the capitalist class only because he is a major stockholder in various corporations. More importantly, he heads the U.S. government and therefore helps coordinate the national policy of the American ruling class. Likewise, Gen. Richard Myers, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, may or may not own stock in big corporations, but he is part of the ruling class because he runs one of the most important institutions of capitalist society--the armed forces.

On the other hand, the vast majority of people in the U.S. belong to the working class.

There has always been a stereotype that only blue-collar workers--that is, those who do manual labor--are part of this class. This is incorrect. The question for Marxists isn't the kind of labor that workers perform, but whether or not they must sell their ability to work for a wage to survive.

By this definition, service jobs--janitors, waiters and waitresses, retail store clerks, dental assistants, nursing aids, private guards, hairdressers, for example--are overwhelmingly working class.

Office work and clerical jobs are also working-class occupations. In the 19th century, before capitalist firms grew in size and complexity, clerical work was handled by a few men who received good wages and were part of the middle class. Today, office work has become de-skilled--and looks very much like factory work. Mainly female clerical workers are hoarded into huge departments, and every aspect of their work is calculated and timed for maximum efficiency. The profits generated from their work--and from the work of white-collar workers generally--don't go to them, but just like their blue-collar counterparts, go to the capitalist class.

Overall, even though the number of workers involved in industrial production--the heart of the blue-collar workforce--has declined as a percentage of the workforce as a whole, the working class has only grown in size.

Another long-held stereotype about the working class is that it consists only of white men in hard hats. This, too, is wrong. White men are a minority of the working class, and people of color are disproportionately working class compared to whites.

Thus, among Black men, by one estimate, 77 percent are part of the working class. Among Black women, the figure is 87 percent. Just 8 percent of African American men and 2 percent of African American women belong to the occupation category of expert managers--and Black men and women together don't account for even 1 percent of the capitalist class.

The capitalist class tends to be overwhelmingly white and male. These fat cats benefit from the exploitation of working-class people--forcing them to work harder and longer for less, and then skimming the profits off what they produce.

Socialism would put an end to a world where only a tiny minority of people control the resources and institutions of society--and enjoy the enormous wealth it produces. The power to do this lies with a united working class--the source of the profits that makes the capitalist system function.

Who is part of the middle class?

THERE IS a middle class in the U.S., but it's a smaller percentage of the population--between 22 and 28 percent by one estimate--than we're led to believe.

The middle class is sandwiched between the capitalists and the workers, and it faces pressure from both sides. Broadly speaking, the middle class consists of three groups: small business owners, managers and supervisors, and professionals.

Small business owners share an interest with capitalists in opposing workers' power. At the same time, they share an interest with workers in trying to find security in an economic landscape dominated by the priorities of the capitalist class for profits and power. During times of recession, many such owners find themselves thrown into the working class when their businesses fail.

Supervisors and managers make up a significant portion of the middle class. This group is assigned the task of monitoring the labor of workers and enforcing discipline. In exchange, they are usually paid well above the wages of the average worker.

One characteristic of this group is the lack of a clear separation at its upper and lower ends--and a greater degree of fluidity. For instance, lower-level supervisors have far less control over the process of production and take their orders from those higher up in the hierarchy. Those at the upper end, thus, have a closer relationship to the capitalist class--and vice versa for those at the lower end.

The third section of the middle class consists of professionals--certain technical specialists, college professors, researchers, lawyers, doctors and so on. These individuals aren't part of the working class because they have a degree of control over their work--how they work and what they produce. But they don't have control over investment, the allocation of overall resources or the physical means of production. They also typically get wages well over what they need to survive and enjoy a better lifestyle--which tends to tie their consciousness about where their interests lie to those above them.

Working and still living in poverty

ACCORDING TO the Department of Labor, 31 million people lived in poverty in the U.S. in 2000.

A large percentage of this 31 million are children, and many of the others are adults who are jobless. Some 6.4 million people out of the 31 million--about one in five--were working-age people with full-time jobs, yet whose incomes didn't rise above the poverty level. These are the people who are officially considered the "working poor."

Yet if we looked at how much it actually costs to make ends meet, we would find that the numbers of the working poor are much higher.

The poverty line for 2000 was set at $17,603 for a family of four, but economists from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) point out that this isn't sufficient to meet the needs of working families. The EPI estimates that the expenses for a family of two adults and two children runs between $27,000 and $54,000 a year, depending on where they live. The national median is about $33,500--about twice as high as the poverty line.

EPI researchers found that at the end of the 1990s--when the decade's economic expansion was at its height--29 percent of one- and two-parent families with one to three children didn't make enough money to meet the family budget. In other words, almost one in three families of this size can't meet basic family expenses.

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