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The Boundaries of Class in History and Society

By: Joseph Burton

Contributing Historian

Joseph Burton is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University. His research explores the transmission of anarchist ideas in North America during the middle and latter twentieth century, focusing on the Industrial Workers of the World and linkages between democracy and revolutionary practice.  His writing has been published in the Canadian Historical Review and he has shared and discussed his work at academic conferences in Canada and the United States.  As an educator and sessional instructor, his teaching has focused on histories of work and working life in Canada.

The language of class is ever present in Canada today.  Elected officials appeal to “working families” and “working class ridings.”[i]  Party platforms vow to build “good, middle-class jobs,” pledging to make life more affordable for both the middle class and “people who are working hard to join it.”  COVID-19 has popularized a new demographic of “essential workers” while exposing the precariousness and vulnerability such workers were long feeling.  For one writer, surveying retail workers at the height of the pandemic, the “working class has had enough.”[ii]

What are social classes?  How are they divided, and where do they come from? Answers to these problems are not immediately clear.  On one hand, social hierarchies have existed for most of recorded history. Slavery and variations of serfdom and indentured labour drove the political economies of antiquity and the medieval period, and persisted long afterwards. For centuries, wealth and material resources have been disproportionately controlled by insular and privileged social groups, whether a landed gentry, royalty, or similar category. On the other, our current economic system is still relatively young, emerging in small corners of the world only during the sixteenth century and covering much of the planet between 150 and 200 years ago.  What exactly determines social class under this system, which we call capitalism? Is membership defined by income, job category, or a wider state of being?  

This article will explore these questions, surveying two broad methods for looking at class and class membership today.  As we will see, income, job status, and similar variables, which frame class as a location or position on a hierarchy, have much to do with class differences.  But these categories alone cannot define class.  Instead, we should see classes as social relationships which develop historically and in tension with one another, and which form out of a series of pressures characteristic of capitalism itself.[iii]

Class as a Location 

As the historian Ellen Meiksins Wood has written, one common framework for understanding class today is as a `location,’ i.e., the place we are situated on a social hierarchy based on socioeconomic criteria, including income, education, occupation, culture, and others.[iv]  This system of stratification is often considered many-tiered, although specific class designations vary from writer to writer or place to place.  One popular designation is a three-tiered structure of working class, middle class, and upper class, while others substitute “lower” for working-class or splice the middle category into upper and lower tiers.  The point in this formulation is that class is a place or level, and this socioeconomic position reflects our material circumstances and contours our identities and opportunities.[v]

Such a framework is often used by writers surveying economic trends or tracking wealth distribution.  Many determine class boundaries by focusing on one variable, such as income.  Professional economists, for example, often use a median income range or a middle fraction of incomes to delineate a “middle class,” and to provide statistical data on wealth polarization.  Some political scientists focus on a single criterion, too, but use job-category instead as the basis for class membership. For one group of scientists in the early 2020s investigating class-based voting patterns, the “working class” comprised occupation categories 7, 8, and 9, and skill levels B, C, and D within those categories, on Statistics Canada’s National Occupation Classification (NOC), which included workers in “trades, transport and equipment operat[ing], ” “natural resources,” and “manufacturing and utilities,”[vi] 

Other writers draw from more diverse sources in their work.  Sociologists, historians, and political scientists often take a constellation of factors into account when determining class location or drawing class boundaries.  One scholar investigating university experiences for working-class students, for example, determined students’ working-class status not by incomes alone, but by a layered definition that also included parents’ educational history — most had never attended post-secondary institutions — as well as their occupational groups.[vii] From this perspective, class location is more than our job or our wealth, but our broader social environments within which we grow and where come to know ourselves and our surroundings.

Where does Class Begin or End? 

Research connecting class to a location or hierarchy, whether this is defined by income, education, or a broader social environment, can be very useful, especially from a social justice perspective.  It can help us visualize growing disparities in wealth and resources, and track how these disparities grow over time. For example, data compiled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which defines “middle class” as those making 75% to 200% of median incomes, has revealed that middle-class occupancy in Canada is smaller than the OECD average, and that millennials are less likely to cross the middle-class threshold than previous generations.[viii]

However, there are problems with defining class as a location or level on a hierarchy: it is difficult to know exactly where one class ends and another begins.  The OECD’s classification for “middle class,” for instance, is entirely arbitrary.  Why should the middle-class threshold begin at 75% of median incomes?  Why not at 60% or 85%?[ix]  The problem is not much improved if we expand to job categories or education.  Why should “working class” occupations be limited to manual labour, or service-sector work?  What about teachers and nurses, who are often the most militant on the picket line?  If education is a defining variable for middle-class occupancy, what is the cut-off?  One degree? Post-graduate work?  

In this edition of the Ontario Workman newspaper, one writer covers “a great procession of workmen” during the 1872 Nine Hour Movement, in Ontario.  How should we explain this “procession” of the working class? Ontario Workman: Toronto Cooperative Printing Association, 1872. Canadiana, https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.8_06647_1/1

Such a definition often lacks analytical specificity, then.  But there are other historical and sociological problems.  If class is understood principally as an expression of inequality or a marker of difference along a socio-economic continuum, this does not tell us much about the social or structural origins of class inequality in the first place.  For some, the explanation might be selfish or unscrupulous employers while for others it reflects a natural allocation of skill and talent.  The point is that a definition of class as an indicator of socioeconomic status cannot tell us very much at all about the origins or boundaries of class difference.[x]

The problems become worse the more limited our definition of class becomes.  Those who use job-category as a principle basis for class, such as the political scientists referenced above, cannot explain historical (or contemporary) expressions of class formation, such as a labour movement. For if class unity was predicated on the technical process of work, it is unclear why often very disparate groups of workers would organize together for a common cause.  Why, for instance, would bookbinders and engineers march with typographical workers and iron moulders in 1872, in what one writer called a “great procession of workmen”?  What common ground are we missing, here?  What is the unifying principle?[xi]

Class as a Relationship 

To resolve these issues, and to offer an alternative definition and understanding of class, other writers and historians have reframed the terms of the problem. In lieu of searching for an acceptable middle-class income threshold, or ranking job-categories, others have asked how income is earned in the first place, how work is structured in an economy, and who controls or determines this organization.  In doing so, they shift our conception of class from a series of independent levels or strata — based on income, education, or other indicators — to social relationships between people and between people and property in a capitalist labour market.

For many writers and activists in the labour movement, capitalism and the class system are based on the exploitation of the working class.  The above image was first published in 1911 by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical labour union which has attempted, to this day, to develop an economic system beyond capitalism.  Exploitation here is represented by a vast pyramid of wealth, a structure supported by the working class but which offers very little to them in return. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW 1535

For many writers studying working-class history, class is informed by our changing relationship to the means of wealth production, not by individual markers of prosperity or status.  From this perspective, the working class comprise all those denied access to the means of producing and distributing goods — farm land, machinery, etc.  — and who must rely on other methods to obtain the necessities of life, including working for a wage or a salary.  An upper or capitalist class consists of those who appropriate or purchase this labour, and who use the value generated by workers to create more wealth.  

Some scholars, and particularly those in the field of economics, frame this exchange as principally transactional, noting that workers freely exchange their labour in return for a wage and may choose to withhold their labour or sell it more profitably to another buyer.  But others point out that many workers have little freedom to withhold their labour in this way or remain outside of the labour market for very long.  For this reason, and because very little of the value generated by workers is actually returned in the form of a wage of salary, many writers argue the relationship is not really transactional, but instead is based on the experience of exploitation.[vii]

Conceived in this way, the working and capitalist class cannot be separated into independent categories or levels, as in the method outlined above.  As the great historian E.P. Thompson famously wrote, “we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with each other.” [Emphasis in original] Rather, they emerge in history together, because the development of the first is dependent on the growth and exploitation of the second.  To study the origins of the working or capitalist class is therefore not to research immiseration or the emergence of factories, but rather to explore how this relationship came into being and how it was experienced or negotiated by members of those classes themselves.[xiii]

Beyond Descriptions of Class Difference  

This framework is useful because it can address some of the definitional or analytical problems of perceiving class as a location.  We do not have to divide blue-collar work from other labour simply for the purposes of classification, or arbitrarily designate one income threshold as “middle class.”  Admittedly, not everyone can fit neatly into either of the two categories just outlined, but it is for this reason the term “middle class” is also used.  A healthcare professional might own their own practice, for example, and bill provincial medicare systems for the patients they treat.  Such a person has much greater access to the means of wealth production, and is neither forced to sell their labour for a wage or appropriate the labour of others (although some do hire staff).  Framing class as a relationship, in this way, can offer a reasonably coherent picture of a three-tiered class society.[xiv]

But the value of such a framework goes beyond the purely definitional.  First, it can give us a clearer picture of how our economy operates and how class inequality is generated within it, rather than only describe this inequality.  In conceptualizing class as a relationship to the means of producing goods and services, that is, we can better grasp the conflicting interests which inhere in the production process itself and which incentivize the domination of one class by another.  The owner of a coffee shop, for instance, has a tangible interest in keeping the costs of production low and exerting downward pressure on the cost of labour.  This might involve depriving employees of collective bargaining rights and other benefits, lowering wages to the legally minimum threshold, or controlling the work process itself to speed up worker activity.  The result, however, is the same: widening disparities in wealth and security between those who own property and those who are compelled to sell their labour to eat and live. 

In particular, this framework can better help us explain the rise and development of a labour movement in Canadian history, and account for expressions of labour conflict like the Nine Hour Movement.  Such a movement, after all, implies certain commonalities of experience and a recognition of collective interests that emerges through struggle, ritual, and cultural celebration. Framing class as relationship based on the collective experience of exploitation, and the broader struggle to extract value from and exert control over the work process, allows us to identify such commonalities and explain why many different work forces might engage in a more united fight for autonomy and dignity.[xv]

Questions for Class Struggle Today

Finally, this perspective also raises important questions for political movements today.  If class inequality reflects the built-in problems of our economic system, what is the best strategy for addressing that inequality?  Is this simply a matter of imposing more legal safeguards on workplace operations, raising the minimum wage, and improving safety regulations?  Is progressive taxation the most viable solution for reducing wealth polarization?  Or are more far-reaching solutions in the workplace necessary, which might involve conferring more decision-making power on workers themselves?  For example, should workers have the right to representation in corporate boardrooms, as many already do in Germany?  Or should workers simply determine how goods are produced based on need and use-value rather than profit, as the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has long argued?[xvi]  Might the state itself assume control over production, offering goods free at the point of access as it already does in some areas of healthcare? 

Again, answers to such questions are not immediately clear.  But perhaps those given in the past, which shall be covered in this project by Defining Moments Canada, will give us some indication of where we might go or offer us clues for envisioning a more just future. 


References

[i]  See, for example, Rob Ferguson, “NDP insider says the party abandoned working-class Ontarians to Doug Ford,” Toronto Star, June 8, 2022, https://www.thestar.com/politics/provincial/2022/06/08/ndp-insider-says-the-party-abandoned-working-class-ontarians-to-doug-ford.html; See also: National Platform of the New Democratic Party, “Building an Economy that works better for more people,” (2021),  https://www.ndp.ca/economy.

[ii] Liberal Party of Canada, “Forward: A Real Plan for the Middle Class,” (2019): 7, 18, https://2019.liberal.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/292/2019/09/Forward-A-real-plan-for-the-middle-class.pdf; Shannon Proudfoot, “The working class has had enough,” Maclean’s, September 13, 2021, https://www.macleans.ca/longforms/the-working-class-has-had-enough/.

[iii] As Ellen Meiksins Wood has noted, these are the two broadest, and perhaps only, frameworks for thinking about class in a general or theoretical sense. Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 76.

[iv] Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, 76.

[v] When EKOS Research Associates polled Canadians in 2015, for example, they asked participants to define their class status according to a four-tiered structure and based on their proximity to poverty: poor, working class, middle class, and upper class.  EKOS Research Associates, “Understanding the Shifting Meaning of the Middle Class,” (2017), 17, https://www.ekospolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/understanding_the_middle_class_final_report.pdf.

[vi]  James E. Foster and Michael C. Wolfson, “Polarization and the Decline of the Middle Class: Canada and the U.S,” Journal of Economic Inequality, 8, no. 2 (2009): 249; Matthew Polacko, Simon Kiss, and Peter Graefe, “The Changing Nature of Class Voting in Canada, 1965-2019,” Canadian Journal of Political Science, (2022), 670-671; Published online by Cambridge University Press, July 15, 2022; For a breakdown of the occupation hierarchies, see Statistics Canada 2021, “National Occupation Classification,” https://noc.esdc.gc.ca/Structure/Hierarchy?objectid=%2Fd0IGA6qD8JPRfoj5UCjpg%3D%3D.

[vii]  Wolfgang Lehmann, “Becoming Middle Class: How Working-class University Students Draw and Transgress Moral Class Boundaries,” Sociology, 43, no. 4 (2009): 634-635.

[viii] OECD infographic, “Under pressure: The squeezed middle class — How does Canada Compare?” (2019): https://www.oecd.org/canada/Middle-class-2019-Canada.pdf. Original data compiled in OECD (2019), Under Pressure; The Squeezed Middle Class, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/689afed1-en.

[ix] Many economists are themselves aware of this problem. See Foster and Wolfson, “Polarization,” 249.

[x] James Stolzman and Herbert Gamberg, “Marxist Class Analysis Versus Stratification Analysis as General Approaches to Social Inequality,” Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 18 (1973-1974): 109-110.

[xi] Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New ‘True’ Socialism (London: Verso, 1998), 88; “The Nine Hours Movement: Grand Demonstration on Monday,” The Ontario Workman, April 18, 1872.

[xii] For the historian Bryan Palmer, for example, “class is about being expropriated from ownership of all manner of means of production, and those without, or mostly without, such ‘property,’ be their wages high, low, secure, precarious, or even non-existent, constitute the working class.” Bryan D. Palmer, “Approaching working-class history as struggle: A Canadian contemplation; a Marxist meditation,” Dialectical Anthropology 42, no. 4 (2018): 444; For writers like Peter Meiksins, exploitation is the key principle for distinguishing between classes.  See Peter Meiksins, “Beyond the Boundary Question,” New Left Review, 157 (May-June, 1986): 101-120; For an example of the “transactional” perspective, see Daniel J. Benjamin, “A Theory of Fairness in Labour Markets,” The Japanese Economic Review, 66, no. 2 (June 2015): 182-225.

[xiii] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, (Penguin Books: London, 2013 [1963]), 8.

[xiv] There are of course still ambiguities with this framework.  For some, it can be difficult to determine whether high-level managers, who often rely on a wage, should be characterized as working class, too, because they are often tasked with disciplining workers.  Some writers who frame class as a social relationship, then, have included such a class of managers in the middle-class, because they do not have control over capital but act on behalf of a capitalist class to oversee or facilitate its affairs.  For a discussion of this, see Meiksins, “Beyond the Boundary Question,” 102-104.

[xv] Meiksins Wood, The Retreat From Class, 88; Crucially, this does not mean class is experienced in the same way by all workers.  Rather, as many historians have noted, class oppression intersects with other forms of social control, including those based on gender and ethnicity.  Developing a broader and more inclusive labour movement, which confronts not only class exploitation but racism and misogyny, too, has been one of the principle challenges for Canadian workers in their history.  For foundational historical works exploring this struggle in the Canadian context, and which examine class as a social relationship, see: Gregory S. Kealey, Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism, 1867 – 1892 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980); Joan Sangster, Earning Respect: The Lives of Working Women in Small-Town Ontario, 1920-1960, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995); David Goutor, Guarding the Gates: The Canadian Labour Movement and Immigration, 1872-1934 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2007).

[xvi] For the case of Germany, see: Susan R. Holmberg, “Fighting Short-Termism with Worker Power: Can Germany’s Co-Determination System Fix American Corporate Governance?” (Roosevelt Institute: October 2017): https://rooseveltinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/RI-Fighting-Short-Termism-201710.pdf; For an informative discussion of the IWW and its history, see Mark Leier, Where the Fraser River Flows: The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1990).