What is class struggle?

By Allen Myers

Exploitation, as I wrote in the previous issue of Direct Action, is an unequal economic relationship, in which one party to a transaction gains something at the expense of the other. That is a very broad definition; it would include being short-changed by a shopkeeper and other fairly trivial inequalities. The exploitation that is essential to capitalism is not so minor or occasional, but is built into the system. It is there all the time, and people’s roles as exploited or exploiters are essentially fixed. (By contrast, you don’t get short-changed every time you go to the shop, and customers might exploit the shopkeeper by paying with a counterfeit note.)

If you’re a worker in a capitalist society like Australia, you’re exploited by your employer. It doesn’t happen that the employer exploits the workers for some weeks or months and then the workers exploit their employer for a while. In the normal course of events, there is no mechanism through which workers could exploit their employers. And in exceptional situations, such as extreme economic crisis, in which a company has to pay its workers more than it makes from their work, the company simply stops trading.

Workers, aside from a very few lucky exceptions who win the lottery, can’t choose to stop being exploited. Workers generally are in a situation of not being able to feed, clothe and house themselves except by hiring themselves out to an employer. People in this situation make up the working class. Those who hire them in order to live off the profits of their labour make up the capitalist class.

It doesn’t take a great deal of thought to realise that these two classes, workers and capitalists, have antagonistic economic interests. Workers and employers may barrack for the same football team; their kids may go to the same school; they may vote for the same political party. But when it comes to economic fundamentals, what is good for the one is bad for the other. If wages go up, profits go down; if wages go down, profits go up. Wages are not the only thing that determine the size of profits, but they are the most basic thing.

So the working class and the capitalist class have fundamentally opposed interests. This produces conflict between them as each seeks to protect and advance its own interests. There is an ongoing struggle between the exploiters and the exploited. This is most obvious when it is time for a workplace to negotiate a new agreement on wages and working conditions. But there are also broader struggles over things that effect most workers and most capitalists, such as a legal minimum wage or what are considered “normal” hours of work or how taxes will be levied and on whom. The ultimate struggle between them is over which class will decide how society functions.

In developed capitalist societies, enormous amounts of time, energy and money are expended in an effort to convince working people that what I have written above is untrue. Sometimes we’re told that workers and capitalists really have the same interests. Sometimes we’re told that there’s no such thing as a working class and capitalist class, that we’re all just individuals. The people behind the production and distribution of such notions are capitalists; they’re the ones who finance the think-tanks that push such ideas, for example. It’s worth their while trying to convince workers that class struggle doesn’t exist, so that workers won’t act together to resist exploitation and the capitalists’ efforts to increase it.

One way of denying the reality of class struggle is to claim that nearly everyone belongs to the same class, the “middle class”. And it is true that there are people who participate in the economy but are neither workers nor capitalists. However, in developed countries they are not as numerous as the working class, nor does their labour produce the bulk of the goods and services used by society. They include small farmers, shopkeepers, artisans and independent professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

As business operators they have some interests in common with the capitalist class, particularly if they regularly hire some workers. But because they also work themselves and many of them are exploited indirectly by the capitalist class, they have interests in common with the working class. For example, small farmers have more in common with workers because they are exploited through the capitalists’ control of markets in which farmers buy their machinery, seed, fertiliser etc., and in which they sell their produce to the small number of food processing companies or the two big grocery chains (Woolworths and Coles). Far from doing away with class struggle, the middle classes are seen by both capitalists and class-conscious workers as potential allies against their enemy.