This topic is my interpretation of the main capitalist classes but in the modern era.
Proletariat is the class of wage-earners in a capitalist society whose only possession of significant material value is their labour-power (their ability to work). A member of such a class is a proletarian.
First this is the basis for this interpretation of classes and social groups.
Human beings are social creatures and so will innately form social structures to address problems in society. Every social structure will have a hierarchy for the members where someone is assigned responsibility for the group's decisions (for accountability). Simple examples are the father of a family, the pastor of a church, the mayor of a community, the governor of a state; a small service business owner with a few employees. Larger business entities could have a middle layer for partial responsibility like a lead man or supervisor. In that corporate hierarchy the bottom level can express their displeasure with decisions at the top but the effectiveness of that attempted correction depends on the environment being based primarily on cooperation or perhaps on the relative strength of the parties at the time. The mother will have more influence with the father than the children; the pastor could be replaced by the parishioners; the mayor could be replaced in the next election; the governor must deal with the representatives in the state's legislature (who are elected to represent the interests of their district) or he could be replaced in the next election.
In each case the mechanism for accountability depends on the social structure. The employees of a small business can first try getting cooperation from management, where a demonstration of unity among employees on the issues will help. If the employees have the legal protection of a union they can temporarily stop working without losing their jobs (i.e., a strike) until management will discuss the grievances. This mechanism enables those of different responsibilities in a large company to meet as equals for negotiation; otherwise, the employees depend on their employer's empathy in dealing with complaints. In a corporation, the top management is held accountable by the board of directors, a construct to represent the shareholders who ultimately own the corporation. In the case of corporate debt the financial institutions might make demands on the board to protect their investment.
When social groups unite for a common goal, they will be more successful when they are trying to achieve something specific, not just trying to stop something. People can be motivated more for a positive goal but less for a negative goal.
The proletarii constituted a social class of Roman citizens owning little or no property. The origin of the name is presumably linked with the census, which Roman authorities conducted every five years to produce a register of citizens and their property from which their military duties and voting privileges could be determined. For citizens with property valued 11,000 asses or less, which was below the lowest census for military service, their children—proles (from Latin proles, "offspring") —were listed instead of their property; hence, the name proletarius, "the one who produces offspring". The only contribution of a proletarius to the Roman society was seen in his ability to raise children, the future Roman citizens who can colonize new territories conquered by the Roman Republic and later by the Roman Empire. The citizens who had no property of significance were called capite censi because they were "persons registered not as to their property, but simply as to their existence as living individuals, primarily as heads of a family."
For Marx, however, wage labor may involve getting a salary rather than a wage per se. Marxism sees the proletariat (working class)and bourgeoisie (capitalist class) as occupying conflicting positions, since workers automatically wish their wages to be as high as possible, while owners and their proxies wish for wages (costs) to be as low as possible.
In Marxist philosophy the bourgeoisie is the social class that came to own the means of production during modern industrialization and whose societal concerns are the value of property and the preservation of capital, to ensure the perpetuation of their economic supremacy in society. Joseph Schumpeter saw the creation of new bourgeoisie as the driving force behind the capitalist engine, particularly entrepreneurs who took risks to bring innovation to industries and the economy through the process of creative destruction.
In contemporary society these social classes have been given other names. Below are the wikipedia definitions and my brief interpretations:
Upper class This is the rich ruling class, or bourgeoisie. They either own large companies or participate in the intricate web of both corporate and financial boards of directors. They do nothing productive other than delegate to others the tasks of implementing and monitoring the corporation's production of goods and services. They have a high level of income but all or most of it comes from investments not a working wage. They are sometimes called rentier capitalists. The members of this class do have a unity of purpose: the perpetuation of their economic supremacy. With that common purpose a social structure arises.
In 1878 an initial, informal group formed the Bohemian Club
The Bohemian group quickly relaxed its [original] rules for membership to permit some people to join who had little artistic talent, but enjoyed the arts and had greater financial resources. Eventually, the original "bohemian" members were in the minority and the wealthy and powerful controlled the club.
After economic growth, this ruling class group seeking global dominance was embodied in the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
CFR began in 1921 after the League of Nation entity, an initial attempt at world government, was doomed to fail because America did not join, with a vote not to join in late 1919.
Perhaps because one social structure had too many members in the CFR, but the Bilderberg Group started in 1954, with a mission like CFR; Its members are mostly from Europe; its meetings are separate. Of course personal contact is not always required for high level decisions to be made.
In addition to sharing their unity of purpose, both entities have no mechanism for external accountability. Humanity must rely on their members' judgment. Unfortunately it is widely recognized that absolute power corrupts absolutely; with no accountability these members essentially have absolute power. One consequence is the widespread death and misery around the world. As all their meetings are in secret there is no way to know if there is ever an attempt by one member to rein in another.
Middle class This is the most productive working class having attained a relatively high level of income. Typically this class is attained with a relatively high wage (or salary). The spending by this class is the primary driver of a consumer based economy. There is no unity of purpose for this class in society so it does not have its own social structure. The middle class is just a statistical collection within society. The members of this class will be members of a variety of social structures.
Lower class this is the poor economic class with each household having a relatively small income, which could come from either a low wage (the lower working class) or from government subsidies. There is no unity of purpose for this class so it does not have its own social structure. However its members participate in society, like their community; they just have fewer resources.
The members of all the social classes constitute the voting public. The American democracy is based the concept everyone can cast a vote for a candidate or referendum to make their voice heard by their elected representatives in government; the politicians make promises they will address after getting office; these promises help the voters decide who will represent one's top interests. Politicians have many ways to distort the electoral process, like through voter suppression, gerry mandering or fraud in the vote counting mechanism. Broken promises made during the campaign cannot be addressed until the next election. Political parties become a social structure when its politicians share common goals. Years ago the Democratic Party pushed for civil rights and tolerance while the Republican Party pushed for corporate subsidies based on the assumption of trickle down economics, a concept long ago shown to be invalid. Voters would pick candidates from either party to find those who will support their interests; Now everyone knows the political parties are corrupt. Everyone knows Congress ignores the needs of the public, as demonstrated by the recent big tax cut for the ruling class while its funding came from adding to the public debt so now the public must pay interest on the money given to the ruling class. The elected representatives are essentially bought by special interests. America is not a functioning democracy.
Unlike the caste system in India membership in a class in America is not hereditary. However the class at birth will certainly define the extent of opportunities available to the maturing youth. Whether an individual will change their social class during their lifetime depends on too many factors.
Following is my interpretation of the working class on our society.
There have been academic studies that find the very rich appear to exhibit less empathy. This is not caused by the money but by the perception of privilege. This attitude of privilege leads to less regard for those of a lower status. Even a famous celebrity might remark upon getting caught misbehaving "Don't you know who I am?." That attitude indicates a reluctance to follow the same rules as everyone else, due to their privileged status.
There is no question our society has several socio-economic classes. Historically income tax rates were based on earned income ranges, to roughly define classes; now investment income is allowed to skip that progressive tax system so the rich pay less taxes.
The working class (for Marx) lacks a cohesive role in current society. The members of this class have a role in society as individuals but that class itself not so much. To be effective a social structure must have unity in purpose. There is no social structure that embodies the entire middle class or lower class because there is no unity in purpose (i.e., no assignment of responsibility for that economic class) for those classes. They will be members of many other social structures or social groups (like community, a religious institution, a team of employees). They are held accountable by the local criminal justice system (e.g., police and judge).
There is a working class in our current society, but the working class is rather just a statistical collection. A wage earner has a more complex role in society than one defined by income level.
For example the wikipedia entry for social classes (summarized above) also does not have working class as one of the social classes.
For economic issues in our society those who would be in the Marx working class actually are in either the middle or lower class, based on relative income. For a socioeconomic class to be effective as a social structure (not just a list of names by some criteria) it must demonstrate unity in purpose , to work for change or accountability.
The working class tried different approaches to seek changes in their treatment by the ruling class. Each effort involved a group with a leader to keep the group focused on their goal, so the social structure had a unity of purpose.
An early example is the Luddite movement in England, in 1811. Textile workers felt the new machines were depriving them of their livelihood. The protest involved damaging the new machines.
The plan was to improve the worker's bargaining position with management. This plan did not work as the movement was suppressed with military force. Another approach was needed, on a larger scale. The A new movement in America was at the national level.
Knights of Labor (KOL) is the first important national labor organization in the United States, founded in 1869. Based on a belief in the unity of interest of all producing groups—shopkeepers and farmers as well as laborers — it proposed a system of worker cooperatives to replace capitalism. Because its leader was unwilling to initiate strikes or use other forms of economic pressure to gain the cooperatives’ objectives, eventually effective control of the organization shifted in the 1880's to regional leaders. Membership in the Knights grew after the railway strike in 1877, reaching a peak of 700,000 in 1886. At that time the Knights were the dominant labour organization in the United States.
Before unions became widespread the working class had no other recourse to get change than widespread public demonstrations at the national level like the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
The labor riots demonstrated a unity of purpose for the working class so a social structure evolved to coordinate the participation of members toward their common cause, to achieve labor reform.
Unions were not involved in this 1877 strike but the national attention on working conditions lead to further demonstrations and to new labor organizations.
In October 1884, a convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard. As the chosen date approached, U.S. labor unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day.
The Haymarket massacre in Chicago on May 1, 1886 was the result of the suppression of a peaceful rally that began in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day. With this event the labor movement became international, and also resulted in several cultural changes like that 8 hour day..
In 1886 Samuel Gompers organized the American Federation of Labor. The AFL eventually superceded the KOL.
In 1889, AFL president Samuel Gompers wrote to the first congress of the Second International, which was meeting in Paris. He informed the world's socialists of the AFL's plans and proposed an international fight for a universal eight-hour work day. In response to Gompers's letter, the Second International adopted a resolution calling for "a great international demonstration" on a single date so workers everywhere could demand the eight-hour work day. In light of the Americans' plan, the International adopted May 1, 1890, as the date for this demonstration.
A secondary purpose behind the adoption of the resolution by the Second International was to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and other workers who had been killed in association with the strikes on May 1, 1886. Historian Philip Foner wrote "There is little doubt that everyone associated with the resolution passed by the Paris Congress knew of the May 1 demonstrations and strikes for the eight-hour day in 1886 in the United States ... and the events associated with the Haymarket tragedy."
The first international May Day was a spectacular success.
These large public demonstrations led to the 8-hour work day and 40-hour work week as a standard, affecting the corporate management culture.
Trade unions arose when the workers, having a common trade, could demonstrate a unity of purpose among the employees when negotiating with management. Labor unions arose from employees of different trades but having a common employer. A union will arise when there are sufficient members having agreement on their negotiation tactics. For example a company having employees of different skills and different employment packages would probably lack a common long term grievance in common to be addressed in one agrreement. When those conditions are met then this social structure has unity in purpose, and the employees can select their representative for a negotiation. In past years when unions were more prevalent a union could span multiple work sites in one company having the same management over many employees. A larger union enabled its members to draw on the union's resources like funds while on strike. A union in one company does not benefit a union in a different company as they are dealing with separate negotiations so they lack a single corporate entity for their negotiations.
Unfortunately national legislation, like in America, can protect the corporations from having to negotiate with the unions, so the management remains unaccountable to its employees.
With the economic prosperity and technical advancement labor became more specialized, beyond simple repetitive manufacturing, so unions dealing with diversity could lose that unity of purpose. Membership also dropped as companies moved the work among different facilities, even to foreign countries. Profit became more important than the employees who made the company successful or the community whose infrastructure had supported that company.
Health care insurance is typically a concern for union members (and for everyone else) so it usually was part of the union contract. Unfortunately these individual union packages left the rest of the middle or lower classes without health care insurance. The current push for national health care is driven by all social classes except the upper class so it requires national legislation and funding. This change in American society has been very difficult to achieve as private insurance companies might lose their profits drawn from people suffering when denied access to proper health care (so they share a common goal).
With the prosperity of the industrial revolution American society became more complex causing cultural changes as well. More social structures evolved to address society's problems, with each having a unity of purpose and a mechanism of accountability for those having responsibility. With population growth these structures had to evolve to handle more members and new challenges; a summary of some: family, community (or a suburb of neighborhoods) with mayor or administration, school board for teachers, supervisor for employees/workers, manager for supervisors, executive for managers, union steward for workers, union manager for stewards, social clubs, recreation sports leagues, lobbying groups.
As should be evident from many topics in this web site my interpretation of classes does not truly conform to Marxian class theory. I don't disagree with everything, but one issue involves the current social classes and the need for a social group to have unity in purpose to be effective. Many have pointed out over the years Marx has many valid points. Perhaps a different perspective within this site (not a comprehensive new economic theory, but just topics spread over several pages) will be useful to the reader.
From a review of The Communist Manifesto:
Perhaps the most significant aspect of this theory [by Marx] of history is what it does not deem important. In Marx's theory, history is shaped by economic relations alone. Elements such as religion, culture, ideology, and even the individual human being, play a very little role. Rather, history moves according to impersonal forces, and its general direction is inevitable.
As should be evident by this web site's name of "culture and religion" and by its content my perspective assumes these elements and individuals are important, to society though perhaps less to just the economics with capital. Also the direction of history is not inevitable.
[Marx suggests] some of the ways in which the modern era is unique. First, class antagonisms have been simplified, as two opposing classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, emerge.
As described above (in this topic) modern society cannot be acceptably compressed into only two simple social classes. With a quick glance these two coarse classes exist but that crude representation is not necessarily useful.
Marx's theory should be understood in the context of the hardships suffered by 19th-century workers in England, France and Germany. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries created a seemingly permanent underclass of workers, many of whom lived in poverty under terrible working conditions and with little political representation. The Communist Manifesto was written on the eve of the Revolution of 1848 in Germany. The failure of this worker and student-led revolution caused Marx to later revise some of the arguments and predictions that appear in the Communist Manifesto. However, the general structure of Marx's original arguments, as well as its revolutionary tone, remained unchanged.
Current society in 2018 is quite different than in 1848 (though we are getting closer to the dystopia described in the book 1984).
I have not read the original works by Marx but I hope the references I used were accurate enough for this perspective.
The reduction to only two classes: working class or ruling class, totally ignores the major issues of today and the accompanying social dynamics, like the lack of accountability in many levels of society. Missing in that 'revolutionary tone' of 1848 is how current society could address social issues without a revolution though some cultural changes are needed. This web site has a group of topics about accountability.
In this topic and others in this site I have tried to address these contemporary problems that are far beyond just a two class context.
In this group, the combination of topics Libertarian Socialist and Capitalism vs Socialism presents a different (from Marx) socialist economic model for the future, one without a strong central government.
There are two goals in this topic (Proletariat):
1) my interpretation of the evolution of the current social classes, and
2) recognition that activism by the working class in the 19th Century was successful in affecting the ruling class to bring about labor reform.
In each case a social structure arose with its members having a unity in purpose and a leader for its accountability, and for focus on the goal. That unity in purpose is critical in achieving change.
Even as a New World Order descends on the world, with its global empire, the only available mechanism for change and accountability seems to be social activism. It is very difficult to imagine the many incremental changes required to attain a just society.
created - April 28, 2018, updated May 9, 2018
last change - 05/09/2018
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