What's it mean to be working class these days? 


June, 2007 

     What do we mean when we use the term 'working class'? We have to admit that the term has pretty much lost any meaning in normal conversation. If anything, the term has been reduced to a cultural description, implying stereotypes such as mullet haircuts and flannelette shirts. Politicians, journalists, radio loudmouths and academics would have us believe that anyone with a bit of vocational training in developed economies like Australia and NZ are now miraculously middle class, whilst the unemployed and underemployed don't even rate as working class, but are now referred to as an underclass. Somehow, over the last half century, the working class has magically evaporated from the face of planet earth.

     And yet, things aren't all rosy. There's isolated, small-scale industrial action all over the place. And the Australian government has pushed through Australian Workplace Agreement contracts that have seriously undermined wages and conditions. Doctors aren't bulk billing anymore. Public hospital waiting lists are six months or more long. Higher education fees are increasing. And of course there's the constant assault of propaganda whipping up fever for the latest wars. We believe that these are indeed working class issues, and that the people who run our society side step them by claiming that in the modern economy "we're all middle class".

     In the advanced economies where our forebears have fought for and won relatively decent conditions, it's easier for the papers and radios to push the middle-class myth. When our goals are home ownership and good food, rather than avoiding destitution and starvation as in some other sectors of our class in other countries, it's easy to fall into an "us and them" mentality. Some of us can even save for (or more likely buy on credit) neat things like fishing boats, or if the exchange rate is favourable, holidays overseas.

    The situation's made worse by the fact that within countries, the class is severely divided, mainly between those with a bit of vocational training (like a trade or degree or something) or maybe full-time employment in a highly paid sector on the one hand, and underemployed casual workers and unemployed on the other.

     But focusing on these differences ignores the main point: all of us who work for a living are affected by capitalism. So if working people in a certain country reach a degree of strength and demand better conditions, bosses move industries to other countries where the working class isn't as united from decades of struggle and can be ripped off. This means the loss of traditional blue-collar jobs in the first country, but now the population has a higher standard of living and is better educated, so some can slot into the high-tech service economy. But some can't.

      And if over time the people in the newly industrializing countries unite and get stronger and win themselves better conditions that affect profits, then conditions and wages have to be attacked in the first country because businesses are trans-national. So even those hi-tech workers will be under the pump, and this is what we're seeing now.

      Everything is interconnected. Class struggle here can result in the industrialization of other countries and thus a changing of the workforce here to fill the newly created high-tech niche. And just because a lot of us now go to uni, or some of us can afford homes doesn't mean we're middle class because in the quest to maintain or increase profits, all these things will change, probably for the worse as our conditions and wages are attacked. We have more in common with a worker in, say, Bangladesh, than a business person in our own country. It's the great lie of nationalism that because we might share some cultural behaviours or skin colour with our bosses that we have a lot of interests in common with them. Workers here and overseas have their interests attacked by capitalists, capitalists here and overseas attack workers.

      Nowadays, even though we're not all employed in the blue collar jobs we're still the ones that create profits through our work – only a fraction of which go to us! Politicians, academics and radio loudmouths like to tell us that we're all middle class so we don't think about the way things work.

      We don't tell anyone what to think. But if you'd like to see some things change then we have to start asking ourselves questions. Like: who benefits from the profit system? And who else is in a similar position to me and wants similar things? How do we link up and unite?

      Class consciousness is at an all time low, and the political space is being filled by middle class liberals and career politicians who want to manage capitalism to make it "fairer". Maybe asking ourselves the right questions will change this situation, because after all, we want to make bigger changes.