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Study Notes

Social Class (Socialism)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 22 Jun 2020

Social class refers to a group of people in society who have the same socioeconomic status.

In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels boldly proclaim that “the history of all hitherto societies is the history of class conflict.” They believe that the social classes can be distinguished between those who own the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and those who work the means of production (the proletariat). The means of production is a Marxist term which refers to those elements of the production process that can be legally owned such as land and machinery. Moreover, the means of production is both physical and mental. The former is focused upon economic resources whereas the mental means of production refers to how the media serves the interests of the capitalist elite (Miliband, 1973 & 1982). With regards to the latter, Marx perceived that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

According to the socialist analysis of the economic system, the bourgeoisie have every incentive to pay workers the lowest wage possible (and offer the poorest working conditions) in order to maximise profit. If an employee refuses to accept this arrangement, they can be threatened with the sack and be replaced by members of the reserve army of labour. Work undertaken by the reserve army of labour is characterised by low-wages, low-status, little or no job security, zero-hours contracts and poor working conditions.

Under the exploitative conditions of the capitalist economic system, the surplus value of the proletariat is appropriated by the bourgeoisie. Marxists claim that this leads to an acute sense of alienation because workers do not benefit from the products being made. They become de-personalised from their own work and the fruits of their labour are stolen by the bourgeoisie. The interests of these two social classes are therefore in conflict. This represents a key area of disagreement between socialists and conservatives. Whereas Marx compares capitalists to “vampires” and “werewolves,” conservatives emphasise the goal of social harmony based upon shared values.

Socialism also entails a rejection of the liberal assumption that the individual is somehow free to exchange their labour. In reality, the worker is little more than a cog in a heartless and brutal capitalist machine. He/she is reduced to the status of a wage slave in which their labour is exploited by the owners of capital driven solely by the profit motive. Under the capitalist system labour is bought and sold in a manner little different to how slaves were treated in feudal times. As such, the only solution to this wretched economic mess is radical change – a view best summarised in the provocative final words of the Communist Manifesto (“The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite”).

The co-author of the Communist Manifesto, Friedrich Engels, argued that as capitalism operates via fluctuations in the economic cycle, it must have a permanent reserve army of labour. In the modern era, the reserve army of labour originates not just from the younger generation but those who toil away in third world countries. In an era of globalisation, multi-national companies can very easily outsource to those corners of the world where labour is cheap, working conditions are harsh and union membership is brutally suppressed by the police. Furthermore, the ‘rules’ of the global economy are fixed in favour of the owners of capital at the expense of the disadvantaged. In the contemporary era, the Washington consensus is a manipulative system designed to enable those with existing wealth to extract the most they possibly can from the oppressed and downtrodden.

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