Social class

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Basically, it's a right old mess. Toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom, and me in the middle making a fat pile of cash out of both of them.
—Mr. Blackadder, Blackadder the Third

Social classes are demographic groups within a society, in some sort of ranked hierarchy, with those in higher classes exerting greater economic or political influence, and enjoying greater privileges than those in lower classes.

Class systems[edit]

Historically, class systems in many countries were rigid élitist hierarchies, such as the feudal system in Europe and caste systems in many parts of Africa and Asia. Under such systems, people of the lower classes generally had relatively few civil rights and usually no hope of achieving greater wealth or status.

In modern capitalist societies, social forces define class much less rigidly, and there are vastly greater opportunities for social mobility. For example, people from working-class backgrounds may take up traditionally middle-class careers. Meanwhile, communist countries have endeavoured (theoretically, at least) to get rid of class systems altogether. Nevertheless, class divisions continue in both capitalist and communist societies.

Class and politics[edit]

A lot of left-wing politics and analysis focuses heavily on class issues, especially since Karl Marx (1818-1883) put pen to paper. Marx saw classes as bound by common economic interests and "class struggle"[1] as a defining factor throughout human history. Socialism ultimately aims to destroy the class system, and socialist movements appeal strongly to working-class interests and promote "class consciousness", as do trade unions. The hammer-and-sickle emblem of the Soviet Union and emblematic derivatives (such as that of the Workers' Party of Korea) represent the combination of workers of both agriculture and industry.

However, there is also a strong tradition of working class conservatism, backing parties such as the U.S. Republicans, as demonstrated, for example, in the Joe the Plumber interlude during the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election campaigns. When workers support such parties, it raises a number of questions that intrigue the theorists of social class no end, viz.:

  1. Whether these parties truly serve the interests of their working-class supporters. This remains a disputed issue, especially among left-wing critics of these movements, with workers voting and left-wingers stating that the workers are voting against their own interests.[2][3]
  2. What exactly are the "interests of the working class"? One will often get vastly different answers to that question from a worker and a theoretician; the latter often state that such interests consist of "empowerment", the adoption of "liberatory dialectics", etc., while the former may regard them as being "better wages and shorter working hours and nobody bossing you about"[4] or dispute that the "working class" has any unique common interests at all.
  3. Assuming agreement on what the "interests of the working class" are, whether or not workers should consider factors such as other people when advancing such interests. The belief that they should is often termed "false consciousness". A common example is when workers consider that all people, including non-workers, have certain constitutional rights, such as the right not to be disseized without due process, which tends to slow down the pace at which the "interests of the working class" are advanced.[5]

Far-right movements such as fascism and Nazism appealed strongly to working-class communities at the time, and many Neo-Nazi and white supremacist subcultures continue to recruit working-class supporters.

None of this should be surprising, however, given that working classes form the largest section ("the masses") in any society[citation needed], and so can be a powerful political factor in societies with universal suffrage and/or with mass media. Naturally there are movements from all sides of the political spectrum aimed at working-class voters and supporters. Promising to "create jobs" and to stop immigrants and/or globalizers and/or uppity types with different physical characteristics from stealing jobs usually does the trick, unless some pinko internationalist has already corrupted the hearts and minds with visions of universal worker solidarity.

Class and Culture[edit]

Although class is largely defined by occupation, education and income, the divisions are not purely economic: they are partly cultural too, with different lifestyles, interests, behaviours, dialects and subcultures being associated with different classes. These class differences have a marked impact on the spending habits, and thus are among the factors, along with age, gender and income, considered by corporations and advertisers when assessing their target markets.

This cultural aspect of class may be one reason why the class system is still perpetuated in societies where (theoretically at least) equal opportunities are available. Class divisions may also be perpetuated in part by attitudes and values within classes, such as peer pressure and the work ethic, which compel people to follow conventional expectations rather than seeking their own fortune.

Class structure[edit]

There are any number of different theoretical models and schematics for defining or understanding social classes in modern societies, but most of them share some common features, being loosely divided into upper, middle and lower classes. A loose breakdown looks something like this:

Upper class[edit]

The upper class is usually known as the "ruling class" in post-Marxist discourse. In pre-capitalist societies, the upper class was made up of hereditary aristocracy, but aristocrats are largely irrelevant or non-existent in modern societies. Marxist doctrine sees the upper classes as the "owners of the means of production"; in common, contemporary parlance, upper classes are made up of the wealthier segments of society, such as corporate executives and "fat cats", often from privileged backgrounds.

Middle class[edit]

The middle class is more affluent than the working class, but less wealthy than the upper class. University education is common, and "white collar" jobs are most usual, though these cover a wide array of roles and incomes, including professional, clerical, academic, retail and service jobs.

The middle class and is often subdivided into an upper and lower subset. The upper middle class tend towards professions such as law or medicine, to bureaucratic positions, civil service, or middle management levels of administration. The lower middle class, or "petit bourgeoisie" as Marx would have it, include office workers, shopkeepers, salesmen and some skilled trades.

Working class[edit]

The working class is usually thought of as the lowest social class of people in societies that care about class structure. Often, they are labeled "lower class" to reflect this, the others being the comfortable middle class and the upper class. Historically, the rough definition of "working class", give or take at various times and in various places, has been those who worked for others as opposed to being self-employed, and whose livelihood depended upon their next paycheck coming through; this would include many people employed in manufacturing, agriculture, and (today) the service industry. Another traditional definition, most commonly heard in the UK, is that the working class is those who "work standing up."

Another term for the working class, used often in socialist literature, is "proletariat". The term, derived from the Latin word for "wage earner", was popularized by Karl Marx, and it refers to people that are owners of labor power, but have no other capital to speak of.[6] It also can be used as a generic term for the lowest class in a given community.[7]

In the United States, the term "lower-middle class" is sometimes used as a synonym for "working class", including both the traditional working class as well as small business owners and family farmers who have some capital, but are dwarfed in such by the upper classes.

People in rags[edit]

Followers of the various derivatives of Marxism will often describe the working class as the second lowest class, the real lowest being a "benefits class" or "underclass", which comprises the poor that other classes don't feel empathy for.[8] Marx described this class as the lumpenproletariat or "rag workers".

Marx considered the class to include "swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, beggars, and other flotsam of society."[9] Since these people tend to be selfish libertarians criminals and gangsters with no class consciousness, he regarded them as completely useless for revolutionary purposes except as means to an end. Later theorists disagreed on this point; thinking that some use might be got out of the lumpenproletarians after all, they have included among their number the permanently unemployable and those who lost the Skin Color Lottery.

See also[edit]


  1. See the Wikipedia article on class struggle.
  2. A Gingrich-era example
  3. A 2010 example from Noam Chomsky
  4. George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
  5. Hence, one sees Thom Hartmann singing the praises of constitutional rights, until the Bad Guys start asserting theirs, at which point he starts calling for the wholesale abolition of judicial review.
  6. Marx on Social Class
  9. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.