Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Labour in vain

(March 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.162, March 1993, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There is enormous confusion, even on the left, about the nature of the class divisions in our society.

This should not surprise anybody. The way the media, parliamentary politicians and establishment academics treat class is always confusing – sometimes deliberately so. They are concerned only with the most superficial features of society.

Their starting point when it comes to class is the way people dress, their accents, the particular character of the jobs they do. They do not look deeper to see what underlies these superficial features.

Such approaches lead to assertions that all white collar occupations are ‘middle class’, that the growth of non-manual employment is creating a new ‘service class’, that ‘deindustrialisation’ is doing away with the working class or, the most recent fashion, that we live in a ‘two-thirds, one third’ society, in which most people are ‘prosperous’ and a minority make up an ‘underclass’.

What is obscured is the fundamental divide in any society – that between those who control the means of production (often, although not always, through formal private ownership) and those who toil for them.

Lifestyle, dress, levels of income and consumption are a product of this division, not its cause. It is irrelevant if occasional members of the possessing class choose to ‘slum it’, living in a style hardly different to that of the toilers, or if some of the toilers are given marginal advantages over others and allowed to imitate part of the lifestyle of their exploiters. The fact that the head of Barclays and the counter clerk in one of his branches both wear a suit and tie does not in any way bridge the yawning gap between them – nor does the company uniform supposedly worn by the plant manager and the assembly line worker in Nissan.

The point is very important. In advanced industrial societies there is a tendency for a growing proportion of the workforce to be white collar workers. There is also a tendency for service employment to grow more quickly than industrial employment. These two trends should not be confused, since many service jobs are usually thought of as ‘manual’ (bus drivers, dockers, refuse collectors), while a considerable proportion of manufacturing employees are ‘white collar’ (those who work in drawing offices, for instance). But together they can give a very misleading impression of what is happening to the class structure if you identify the working class simply with manual industrial workers.

So in the US during the Reagan years the ‘service industries’ accounted for almost all the 12 million new jobs. A few of these involved relatively high salaries and relaxed working conditions, but the great majority did not.

What is more, the recession of the early 1990s has hit ‘service’ workers, both white collar and manual, especially hard. Some of the biggest sackings have been of routine, low paid white collar workers in what was the most rapidly expanding industry of the 1980s, banking and insurance. Other employers, for instance in further education, are pushing hard to worsen the conditions of what were once a relatively advantaged group of employees. In the US, companies have used the recession to cut back service employment by using computerisation to push up productivity.

None of this means that all service employees or salaried staff are workers. In any society there are gradations between the small minority at the top who control the means of production and the mass of people at the bottom. In a capitalist society, as well as the big capitalists there are a mass of small capitalists. There is also a layer of managers, top civil servants, police chiefs and so on, all of whom get salaries worth much more than any labour they might perform – and who, in return, help big capital to exploit the mass of the people.

This layer is organised through bureaucratic hierarchies. Those at the top partake fully of the fruits of exploitation and have a common interest with big capital. Those at the bottom get very little from exploitation and share many interests with the white collar and manual workers below them. But those at the bottom often identify with those at the top.

The presence of this middle layer obscures the basic divide between the exploiting and the exploited class. But it does not do away with it, any more than the presence of a slope joining a hill to a valley does away with the contrast between the two.

There is a final confusion that sometimes arises when it comes to the working class itself. This concerns the distinction between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ workers. Much was made of the distinction by the right wing in the mid 1970s to justify public sector cuts. It was claimed that teachers, nurses and local government workers all produced nothing and were dependent on the labour of ‘productive’ private industry.

It is true that from the point of view of capitalism, there is a distinction between those who produce profits for the system and those who don’t, which is why Karl Marx made a distinction between productive and unproductive labour.

But the distinction does not determine who is in the working class – nor who can fight back against the system. Bank clerks or teachers may not be productive in capitalist terms. But their pay is determined in the same way as that of a steel worker. The employer tries to pay them no more than the equivalent of the amount of society’s labour required to reproduce their ability to work, while grabbing several hours a day extra labour off them for nothing. And international experience shows they can be just as militant in fighting back as the steel workers – with bank workers, in particular, able to do enormous damage to the system.

Finally, the distinction between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ does not tell us whose labour would be useful in a rationally organised, socialist society. So we would need more of many of those jobs deemed ‘unproductive’ under capitalism – nursing and teaching, for example. But we would not need many of the jobs capitalism regards as ‘productive’, such as manufacturing nuclear weapons or putting gold plate onto Rolls Royces. The skills of workers in those industries would have to be employed for other useful purposes, just as much as the skills of ‘unproductive’ bank workers or poll tax collectors.

This does not stop any of them seeing the relevance of the struggle against the existing system. In every arms factory, in every tax office, in every luxury car manufacturers there are workers who are only too aware that they are toiling away to no purpose, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. If more are not won to a socialist vision, the fault certainly does not lie with them working in ‘unproductive’ rather than ‘productive’ jobs.

Last updated on 18 June 2010