To make one thing clear in the beginning of this post, the definition of class that is described and used in the post comes from Michael Zweig, a professor of economics at Stony Brook University.
In our current conception of the word, class is generally defined as a subsection of the income distribution. We speak of class as divided between the lower class-those on the lower end of the income distribution-, upper class- those on the high end of the income distribution-, and middle class for those in the middle. However this obscures the real use of class. Class is understood as an economic principle. As per the experience of the average person not everyone interacts with the economy in the same way. Given our consumer-based view of the economy it seems only natural to divide people based on their purchasing power.
In my opinion, there is little to be gained from understanding economic divisions this way. What more do we understand about the economy knowing that some people have greater purchasing power than others? To be sure it is not something that should be ignored, but whether it should be elevated to one of the main divisions of society is doubtful. When people understand the division the populace with respect to their interaction with the economy, division by income distribution is associated with wealth, opulence, and power. After all, in our modern world money is by and large power. It is definitely true that those with more money wield more power in our society, but where did they get this wealth? The answer is also obvious; the wealthy gained their wealth from their jobs and investment. Given more wealth means greater returns for investment, in a certain sense wealth can beget more wealth. What needs to be understood is the mechanism between the original wealth and the greater resulting wealth.
One such source has already been mentioned, namely a job. More specifically, the wealthiest tend to be the head of companies or societal icons. Focusing on the former, we take for granted today that CEO’s are paid well. How could it be any other way? However theoretically speaking a CEO could be paid less than their workers. If under the hypothetical scenario a union is particularly powerful, this is possible. However it has never happened. Why it has never happened is the key. It has never happened because the heads of companies wield power. Notice in the previous description our poor CEO was only poor because the union was more powerful than he or she was. Therein lies the solution; wealth is accumulated by the most powerful. Societal icons owe their power to the fact that those they work for earn even more money, and given their scarcity they can demand large wages from their employers. Hence, a more fundamental and accurate way to define class is by the power relations in the workplace. The power relation is specified for the workplace because that is, of course, the only place wealth is generated and hence the only sector we are concerned with.
Using this definition, Zweig proceeds to define the class structure of the US in the following way: those who have little power, characterized as people who simply do what they are told in the work place is the working class. These are characterized as assembly workers, secretaries, certain teachers and so forth. Those who have some power to control their workflow but do not own the company is the middle class. They are characterized as professionals, lawyers etc. Finally there is the Capitalist class, who control and give guidance to companies. That said small business owners can still be placed in the middle class since their market environment, and thus what they need to do to stay afloat is often influenced by actions of other larger companies. Zweig proceeds then, using various data, to figure out how many people are in each class. The result is startling: the working class makes up 63% of the populace, the Capitalists 2%, and the middle class the remainder. In this conception, it is clear that the working class is the majority of the populace. As a side note exactly how these calculations are done, how to count people who are not working, and the ambiguities around the edges are dealt with in much greater detail in Zweig’s book The Working Class Majority.
The aforementioned definition helps us better understand the world around us. No better example is the attitude of Occupy Wall Street. Their rhetoric mainly revolves around income distribution. It is the 99% vs. the 1%. However I hardly think that the protesters, people angry about how their wages are flat or declining while their bosses earn ever-bigger bonuses, are protesting against Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga is probably in the 1%, she is likely in the upper class, and so by the previous definition she should be subject to protests too. However in our updated definition, the protestors are actually angry with the Capitalist class, of which Lady Gaga (unless she owns some product line) is not a part. Henceforth with our new definition we can point out a specific section of the populace without exception that is the actual subject of protest and anger, whereas in our previous definition we had to provide exceptions.
In sum, our current conception of class does a great disservice to our society as it attempts to grapple with rising income inequality and declining living standards for the working class. The media and politicians propagate it by constantly referring to the “middle class” as the section of income distribution most people belong to. A truck driver making a decent living does not experience events and does not have the same interests as a lawyer in the supposed upper middle class. One grapples with a boss bent on cutting wages the other searches for clients to boost his income. While both may potentially be in the same (although admittedly different ends) of the same income distribution, their experience in the workplace is fundamentally different. The lawyer may not need a union while the truck driver does. The lawyer may see a steady income while the truck driver struggles with bills. One is, in reality, in the working class, while the other the middle class, and this difference in power readily explains the difference in income and experience better than any whimsical division by income.
Aaron Meltzer is an Economics and Computer Science scholar attending Stony Brook University.