Throughout history we read about rich and poor. In our current lives it is not hard to see that there are haves and have-nots. In fact, it is such a permeating reality that one can witness a poor person and not think it abnormal.
The truth is however, that this reality is inherently abnormal. It is abnormal because all people have innate abilities and skills. And yet, there is a small number of people relatively that reap maximum reward for their work, and those that reap minimum (or not at all) for theirs. This is true for a variety of reasons, but the main culprit is the class structure of our society.
“Class” describes how money organizes society into layers-low-income, middle class, upper class etc.
It also describes how money shapes and reproduces the social, cultural and political life of people.
Example #1: A highly skilled worker is generally paid an hourly wage that does not reflect the true value of their work because the surplus value is extracted to pay the manager and their manager for overseeing them. The whole point of a business is to extract the surplus value of the worker’s labor by paying them just enough to keep them in the job, but low enough to boost their income.
Example #2: A lower paid worker is not only paid lower than the value of their work, but their lower salary can only afford to live in certain areas, send their children to certain schools, and presents for them a variety of different options compared to middle and upper class folks. Working class children attend schools with working class students, while upper class students attend wealthy upper class schools–money then, is not just how much you earn, but the options available based on what you earn. And the consequences for life.
A note on Adams, Marx, Fanon, and Mitchell
I have tried to provide a foundational understanding of class. But, it is important to note the competing understandings of class. I will try to summarize them below for those who are interested:
The market is a just an equitable distributor of resources. By providing a needed good or service, the business person is allowed to make a profit. Competition for profit provokes innovation and “weeds out” low performers. Because of this, inequality is justified. Government should only intervene when the market can’t. For example, the government should provide public goods such as education and a police force.
See Adams, J. (1994) The wealth of nations. (6th ed). Modern Library
Marx, witnessing the immense social changes brought about by the free market argued that the surplus value extracted from workers, i.e. the profit, generated unfair political, social and economic power, which turned workers into objects of labor rather than full human beings. He criticized the relationship between government and business arguing that it was business dictating the social needs rather than democratic governments.
Marx hated the idea of a system that inherently entrenches inequality and exclusion of the majority for the benefit of a minority.
See: Marx, K; & Engels, F. (2002). Jones, G, (ed). The communist manifesto (New ed.). London: Penguin
Frantz Fanon, a pan Africanist revolutionary scholar who fought in the Algerian revolution against French occupation reframed Marx’s ideas to account for the anti-colonial struggle (1963). Fanon redefined traditional discourse of class and race by centering skin color and not money as the central unit of value used to stratify and oppress under colonization. Fanon argues that the world is not divided into the working class and the bourgeoisie, but between the colonizers and the colonized. More specifically, between White colonizers and colonized Black and Brown peoples around the world.
Marx’s analysis of class rests on the assumption that elites extract the surplus value of labor of all workers equally. However, as was the case in colonized South Africa, White workers in Britain benefited disproportionately from the labor of Black colonized people in South Africa. Black labor produced value for White elites in Britain and South Africa, while also producing benefits for White British workers who enjoyed higher levels of social services paid for on the backs of exploited Black workers outside of the country. These British workers benefited not because they were workers, but because they occupied white skin.
Unlike White workers whose world is socially reorganized to exploit their labor, the world of Black people is forcefully reconfigured into an encompassing social system of exploitation through colonization, enslavement, and extraction. While British, French, Portuguese or German workers may experience exploitation based on their labor, because they share a broad culture with the elites, their culture and way of life was not under attack. Society in this system is divided into the colonizers, the overseers, and the colonized peoples.
See: Fanon, F. (1963) The wretched of the earth. Grove Press: New York
Mitchell argues from the gender perspective. She purports that the entire system of capitalism works to extract women’s labor. Comparing the home and the factory, she argues that in the home the value of women’s work is extracted by the man in order for him to enter the factory to produce value for the factory owner.
In her analysis, women work double or triple days. If they have jobs, they go to work, then raise the children, while also doing the chores to keep the house going. The value of all of this work is extracted in order for the man to go to work and earn a living at an underpaid wage. If women got paid for the actual work they did, then the entire system of capitalism would collapse because it rests on the gendered role of women.
See Mitchell: Mtchell, J (1966). Women: The Longest Revolution. The New Left Review (40).
To learn more, please see my book list here. See the Race, Power and Privilege Section.
1. Community or Class Struggle
2. Steve Biko, I Write What I Like
3. Sex and World Peace