Someone’s economic class describes their relationship to the means of production (at least if you’re discussing the matter in a Marxist sense, and not a liberal-identitarian sense, in which case there’s no objective criteria at all and it’s all about the vibe). According to Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, there are three main questions that can be used to determine someone’s class status: Do they own or control the means of production? Do they control their own labour in any substantial sense? Do they control the labour of others? For the capitalist class, the answer to all three questions is yes, for the working class, no. For the various groups that make up the middle class, the answer is “it depends”.1
In a capitalist society like the one we live in, there are two “primary” classes: the ruling class, or the bourgeoisie, are the ones who own and control the means of production; and the working class, or the proletariat, are those who have to work for their income, without substantial agency in what they do. The reason that these are the “primary” classes is that the conflict between these classes provides the central, driving dynamic of capitalism; the other classes (loosely described as the “middle classes”) are kind of peripheral to the primary mechanism of economic activity under capitalism.
In feudalism, the two primary classes were the nobility (or the aristocracy) and the peasantry. Remnants of these classes still exist today; there are still insanely wealthy aristocrats whose wealth derives from their ancestors’ landholdings, and there are still (globally) a large number of subsistence farmers who are not integrated (or at least not directly) into the capitalist economy. But we don’t say we still live under feudalism, because the aristocrats lost political power to the bourgeoisie centuries ago, and these old feudal classes are becoming increasingly marginal over time.
- The ruling class: As mentioned, this is the class that wields economic and political power in modern society.
- The bourgeoisie: The bourgeoisie is the class that owns and controls the means of production (that is, they own controlling stakes in companies, and generally through those companies, they own the infrastructure that is needed to generate profit – factories, mines, logistics chains, etc.). Think also people on corporate boards, or people with hundreds of millions of dollars of capital on hand to invest in startups.
- Arguably, there are a number of people who are not strictly bourgeois (they don’t own or control the means of production) but still form part of the “ruling class” in that they wield political power, just not economic. In this group you could put senior politicians, Supreme Court judges, military generals, etc. Of course, some of these are also bourgeois, or at least have bourgeois families.
- The middle classes: This group consists of everyone who sits between the ruling class and the working class. I don’t think it’s meaningful to talk about “the middle class” as if it was a coherent group; that’s why I like the term “middle classes”. Some of the economic classes that can be considered middle class are:
- The petit bourgeoisie, aka small business owners: These are people who make their livings off exploiting the labour power of workers, but are in turn squeezed by classes more powerful than them. Farmers are included as members of this class. They’re certainly not all right-wing fuckheads, but their class interests (i.e. antagonism with both the working class and the ruling class) makes them the most fertile ground for fascists to recruit from.
- The professional-managerial class, which you could also probably describe as the “upper-middle class”: This is the section of the middle class which consists of managers and those educated professionals whose qualifications and skills allow them to command more autonomy over their own work, and perhaps even migrate between employment and individual practice (like doctors, lawyers, psychologists, engineers, computer programmers, financial advisors, etc.). The original paper which theorised the existence of this class referred to university as the central institution in the reproduction of this class. Members of the PMC can be left- or right-leaning, but are often pretty individualist, and likely to believe that “just making convincing arguments” is a lot more effective as a political strategy than it actually is.
- The intelligentsia: which I think you could probably describe as a sub-section of the PMC, but traditionally they’re defined separately (I think because historically, an identifiable intelligentsia existed before an identifiable PMC). This group includes university academics, career writers in general, artists, people with creative control over TV and movies, and senior journalists (the kinds who get newspaper columns and their own TV shows and lucrative book deals).
- Sole traders/freelancers: Here I’m thinking of people like photographers, freelance journalists, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers, etc. who work for themselves but have no employees. I think Red Flag would define them just as “petit bourgeois” but to me there is a clear difference between someone who exploits others’ labour and someone who does not. I don’t, however, include in this group working-class people who lack stable employment so do odd jobs and gig work. I think the “autonomy” aspect is really important. If you don’t get much say in your schedule, your clients, your fee, how the job is done, etc., that suggests to me “gig worker” rather than “sole trader”.
- Bureaucrats: I think there’s also overlap between this group and the PMC, but this group includes people like NGO bureaucrats (including what is sometimes described as the Alphabet Left) and even trade union officials, despite the latter group’s obvious identification with the working class.
- Cops and (arguably) the military: Although these groups work for their income and have little autonomy in their work, they basically work as enforcers for the ruling class and this puts them at odds with the “true” working class. Like, when workers go on strike, cops beat them up. If a workers’ strike is really effective, the military comes in to suppress it. The cops in particular are rewarded for their ability to keep the working class in line (that is, “maintain order”). The militaries of Western countries are also often used to enforce the interests of their national bourgeoisie abroad (e.g. maintaining existing cheap access to oil).
- Entertainers, elite athletes, “influencers”: Basically, creative professionals (or highly skilled sportspeople) who get a great degree of autonomy in what they do. (Production crew and things like that are more likely working class.) Often they get paid on a contract-to-contract basis by huge corporations, to appear in movies or TV shows or release singles and albums or to licence their image for advertising purposes.
- The working class: This group makes up the majority of the world population, and it is the group that has to sell their labour (i.e. work for income) to survive. Obviously, people don’t exist in isolation, so people who are retired workers, stay-at-home spouses of working-class people, or dependent children of working-class people are also considered “working class”, despite not personally, currently, having to labour to survive.
- The industrial working class: Marxists generally consider this to be the most powerful section of the working class; these are the people whose labour directly generates profit for the ruling class and any kind of strike, slow-down or other industrial action they take is a direct assault on the hip-pockets of the bourgeoisie. This group includes miners, manufacturing workers, construction workers on big projects, those who work in transport and logistics, and so forth.
- Largely public sector workers like teachers, healthcare workers, social workers, etc.: There is a drive to “professionalise” these jobs, basically to try to make workers in them identify as members of the professional-managerial class so they stop doing pesky things like collectively organising for better wages and conditions, and can be more easily “divided and conquered”. It is true that most of these jobs require a high degree of education, too. However, the thing that separates this group from the PMC is that they do not have much control over their labour (e.g. teachers don’t decide the curriculum or have any say in how many hours of overtime they do; social workers and most healthcare workers have caseloads assigned to them and are run off their feet all shift long). Their work is also often socially necessary to keep capitalism functioning; that is, teachers and nurses don’t directly generate profits for the bourgeoisie, but if workers aren’t educated or kept healthy then capitalism doesn’t function very well.
- There are many other sections of the working class too! Retail workers, hospitality workers, bored office workers (if they’re not managers and don’t have much autonomy over their work), cleaners, public transport workers, airport/airline employees, receptionists, etc.
- Gig workers, or the precariat: This is a section of the working class that does not have stable employment, so they are forced to bounce between short-term gigs. They might also have small business-like “side hustles”, but these “side hustles” don’t provide enough income to live off (so they don’t push people up into the middle class).
- The lumpenproletariat, aka the “underclass”: Basically these are the people so crushed by capitalism that they can’t even make it into the working class. Marx and Engels described them as a reactionary, “parasitic” class that basically consists of petty criminals, but this group also consists of the long-term unemployed (especially intergenerationally-unemployed) and people suffering with drug addiction.
A point that was stressed to me when I belonged to a socialist organisation is that your economic class is not a moral judgement. I mean, we’re all used to middle-class people sneering down their noses at low-paid workers, let alone welfare recipients, for supposedly “not working hard”. But it’s actually a very common thing for socialists, too, to try to lionise the working class as this morally pure class, when they’re just human and flawed like anyone else (the fallacy being known as “workerism”). The thing that makes the working class generally better politically than other classes is raw self-interest: workers win more rights, higher pay, and better working and living conditions when we stand in solidarity together and refuse to be played off against each other. But there are totally workers who have “false consciousness”, and wrongly see their religion or their ethnicity or the country they live in as more important than their class, and thus allow themselves to be used as a pawn against other workers to the detriment of everyone (including themselves, long-term).