Classes in Capitalist Society

An article of the Spanish group 'Ruptura' on the nature of social classes in capitalist society.


Since we've started editing Ruptura we've dealt with this as more of a question than an answer. As an invitation to reflection and analysis more than an attempt to lecture, though not everyone has taken it that way. Because of that we've never had problems in posing our doubts or in defending our convictions. In issue 2 we tried to make it clear that our claims to a position of class are based on an intuition that it is a fundamental reality that determines our lives and the word that develops them, and not a subscription to a determined ideology. Nonetheless, as some have criticized us for, we have never attempted in any of our issues to explain in detail what classes are to us, what we mean by proletariat and bourgeoisie, what class struggle means and, above all, what importance we give to these realities. In this article we will attempt to make an initial approximation to a class analysis in capitalist society.

Before beginning we would like to make a number of points. We are not interested in an academic-style analysis, though this does not mean we will limit ourselves to speaking simplistically. So we do not base our 'prestige' or our job on the validity of our theory, we have no need to defend it tooth and nail if someone demonstrates that we are wrong with something. Equally, we understand that there are important questions and some that aren't so much, or that aren't worth going into, however real they are. Nor are we subscribed to any ideology (Marxist, anarchist, situationist, insurrectionist, etc) so we do not need to show however many quotations from this or that author to support our arguments, though when we've systematically used said quotes, and when what we say does not fit into orthodoxies, invariances or principles, tactics and original purposes, then too bad for them.

What we want to understand from what the proletariat is and what is implied by being proletarian, or bourgeois, is to better understand how capitalism functions, but above all, how its destruction works: conflicts, contradictions and crises that are produced in its core. For that we consider it necessary to understand how capitalism is founded in exploitation and domination of one class over another and the characteristics of the modes in which this is presented. This does not mean that capitalism and its conflicts can be reduced to labor struggles. In fact, as we've tried to explain, the labor or economic aspect, as important as it is, is simply one aspect of class struggle. For these reasons we will concentrate fundamentally on the aspects most directly related to our daily lives as proletarians and we won't spend much time on relations that, although important to understand society, are rather far away from us when it comes to practice, for example, like the relations between different kinds of capitalists, etc.

Social Classes in Capitalism

Capitalism is a society based on the production and exchange of commodities for money as a means of obtaining a profit. One could think that what characterizes each class is the way they obtain money: workers get a wage and capitalists a share in the surplus value produced by the former. However, this is a consequence of belonging to a class, not its definition. Workers receive a wage because they are workers, not the other way round. What defines a class is its relationship with the means of production and, through these, with the rest of society, with the rest of classes. The proletariat is defined in the first place negatively, as those dispossessed of any means of production except their capacity to work. Obviously, this is so because there is another social class, the bourgeoisie, which is the owner of the means of production necessary to reproduce this society. The important point here is what this dispossession compels us to do in our daily life: we, the proletariat, don’t have the means to make our own living as we like, to create the society we’d like to live in. Thus, to survive in capitalist society we need the money to buy the commodities it produces. We proletarians have only three ways of getting the money, or the commodities, that we need: wage-work, robbing or begging. That a proletarian makes this or that is their own “free” decision, because, unlike other exploited people such as slaves and serfs, we are juridically equal to the bourgeois, we are not legally compelled to work for them, we can “choose” between selling our labor power or… starving to death. Obviously this “freedom” and this “choice” are purely formal and they hide behind the necessity of working for a capitalist1. Even so, they have a crucial importance for the smooth running of capitalism and for its mechanisms of domination.

However, as we said, wage labor is not the only option that proletarians have to survive. To beg or to rob are the other options left to the proletarians that don’t want or cannot find a job. Nowadays, this can seem quite scholastic, as most “common/ordinary” people spend most of their time in their jobs. But if we go beyond the appearances, we see that nobody misses the opportunity to steal some stuff from work, download some movies, fiddle with the scale in the supermarket, etc.2

That most proletarians have wage labor as their main or even exclusive source of money is not a reason to make wage labor the actual definition of the proletariat, as it is the existence of the proletariat which, historically and logically, determines the existence of the wage work, although later the capital-labor relation reproduces and reinforces the division between proletarian and bourgeois3. It is important to stress this for several reasons. First, we avoid falling into the workerism that reduces the proletarian to the wage-worker, or even worse, to the factory worker. Yet we also avoid the “anti-workerism” (which romanticizes delinquency or living alternatively) and distinctions between “excluded and included”. With the crisis we are suffering from now and only grim chances of recovery on the horizon, the number of people on the dole and those forced into illegal means of getting money will rise, and with this, repression and attempts to turn us against one another will also increase. Wage-worker, unemployed, housewife, student, thief... these are different forms which the proletariat can take in capitalist society. But in their ceaseless flow of activity they, at the same time, constitute many moments of an organic unity where they, far from contradicting one another, are all equally in need, and this equal need constitutes the life of the whole. Understanding that we are part of the same class, with common interests in the long run, will be crucial to develop forms and practices to resist the crisis.

Class and determination

At this point it is important to ask what is implied by being proletarian or bourgeois. The most deterministic of currents, Marxism as much as anarchism, have wanted to see (or better said, they have wanted to make us see) the proletariat as little less than a new messiah to which the development of its productive forces, or some other factor like libertarian education or organizing in a union, etc, would push it to struggle against the bourgeoisie and end up achieving communism (libertarian communism for the anarchists). At this point in the film it is evident that this is not the case.
Capitalist social relations are characterized by the fact that social relations between people are mediated by things (commodities, means of production, coins, bank notes…), so that things acquire properties that actually belong to the social relations they mediate. For example, things have a price, a value, because they are produced in a society in which private producers and consumers socialize the production through the market. Likewise, money in the bank produces interest because the bank charges to transform it into capital (investing in some enterprise to obtain a given aliquot of surplus value extracted from workers), not simply because it is money. This is what traditionally has been called the ‘fetishism’ of commodity and, by extension, of money, of capital, etc.

The other side of the coin is that people act as personifications of these “things” in which certain social relations have crystallized. When we enter a shop, for the seller we are not “us”, rather just the money in our pocket or bank account. Likewise, behind the seller we see only that thing we want to buy. In the same way, for the capitalist we are a labor force to exploit, as for us he is just the payroll that he must sign us up for4.

As we said, belonging to one class or another will determine the problems we must confront in society. If you are a proletarian, the ensemble of capitalist social relations will force you to choose between working, robbing or stealing to get the money necessary to live. Those who choose to rob must choose from whom, the “rich” or the “poor”, and they will be directly confronting the law and the material means that defend it. Those who choose to work for an employer will soon or later clash with that employer, not necessarily because proletarians are always predisposed to class conflict, but because class antagonism is inherent and necessary to the relation between worker and capitalist. To obtain greater profits, the employer will try to lower wages, freeze them or apply measures of control to assure the worker doesn't slack off and he will enforce rigidity in the workplace. For us, we will try to slack off, work as little as possible and all such small things. We are not the ones who choose class struggle; it is class struggle that chooses us.

However, what the proletarian condition does not determine is what choice will be taken by the proletariat in each case. The decisions each person takes are a result of the intersection of different factors: culture, tradition, education, personal situation in that moment, previous experiences, the response of fellow workmates, the competence of other proletarians, etc. The “sum”, so to speak, of all these factors is what finally determines if somebody decides to squat a house, to buy it or to rent it, if they rob a bank, a supermarket or an ATM machine; if they face their boss for humiliating them or just keep their head down, if they decide to fight for a better wage or look for another job… Our acts are not, nor much less, reflexive actions of our class position, we proletarians are not Pavlov's dogs, we live with our own history on our backs and, in the last instance, it is the synthesis of all our past and present experiences that decide our response to a ringing bell. To sum up simply: class position provides the questions for us but we give the answers.

There is nothing that ensures that one day the proletariat will rise up gloriously and fight for communism. The one sure thing is that this is the only form to collectively free ourselves from capitalism and its alienations, via the social revolution. Whether proletarians decide between freedom by “destroying the actual social order” or continuing to bear capitalist exploitation and alienation is a different question. It is related but different and we will enter into it later.
The same can be said of the other big class of capitalist society. Although sometimes the capitalists are pictures as wicked people with top hats and whips, the reality is rather different. In fact, there are surely some out there that are beautiful people, but if they want to get a profit, if they want their capital to come to fruition, sooner or later they must screw over workers. This is so not because of some congenital evil of capitalist, but because the competition with other enterprises compels them to do it: whether they want to or not. If they do, great, but if not then someone else will. Just to clarify, we should say that the means of production are not immediately capital, nor does their possession make one immediately a capitalist. To become a capitalist it is necessary to use such means of production to extract surplus value through the exploitation of workers. Thus, a self-employed carpenter or a free-lance translator working in their own station or even at home, with their few tools, are not, evidently, capitalists just because the own their means of production. They would be if they, for example, hired some assistant which worked in the same spot with those same tools. If anyone has any doubt about this, they should think how about how the carpenter would behave if their assistant were to ask for a doubled wage. Capital is not a set of things, but a social relation between people, mediated by things.

Class as a social relationship

It is important to mention that all of these relations derived from the ownership or dispossession of the means of production are abstractions from real life, and therefore they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. If we confuse the abstractions we construct to understand reality with reality itself, we end up with erroneous conclusions. The most common of which is trying to encase each person in a particular class as if each class were a clean sociological mold.
If we come down to reality, we find a much greater complexity which escapes any attempt of unilateral classification typical of positivist sociology. To avoid this we have to stress that, as any other social category, classes are abstractions of a social relation, of a set of social relations. The essence of the proletariat is the ensemble of social relations that they are forced to bear due to their dispossession from the means of production. The same could be said of capitalist. To belong to a class is a specific way of being in society, of relating with it.

For example, in the previous section we said that the housewife, the wage-worker, the unemployed, the student, the burglar, etc. were different concrete forms in which the proletariat is expressed in capitalist society. In reality, what all these categories express are different ways of relating to society. They cannot be considered abstractly, isolated from the totality of social relations. This implies that each person should not be pigeonholed into one of these categories, as if these categories were mutually exclusive. The norm is that, as proletarians, we move from one category to another through our lives (university-unemployment-precarious work-the dole-skill training – job- etc.) and, moreover, we are in several of them at the same time (how many housewives work eight hours a day in their jobs, how many attend courses after work, how many are on the dole while working under the table…)

It makes no sense to oppose wage-workers to lumpen-proletariat and “criminals” as if they were pure and exclusive entities. No matter where this mystification comes from, either from “workerism” or “lumpenism”, it is simply false. Setting aside the most extreme cases, most of the times the proletariat earns a living through wage-work, but without rejecting theft when they can do it (and above all, when getting caught is unlikely): stealing from work, petty thefts in the supermarket, illegal downloads, squatting unoccupied houses, etc. Recently, precariousness has forced a lot of parents to act as a financial cushion for their children, supporting them while they work until they become financially independent and even after, something that, at least formally, is not very different from charity (giving somebody money for nothing).
Once we move from this pigeonhole logic (every person classified in an pure, abstract category) to a logic of social relations (each person “crossed over” by social relations that conform and determine the problems, contradictions and conflicts faced) we see that the concrete reality is a synthesis of many factors, and hence, a unity of the diverse.
This is what happens when the same person gets crossed over by two contradictory class positions simultaneously, relating to them by being different people. For example, nothing prevents someone from being a part-time shareholder of a firm during “one half of the day”, thus being a personification of capital, while also working in an office during the “other half”, being therefore a personification of labor, although, obviously, this isn't all that normal. Simply put, one must confront different problems in different facets of life, and the same will be done to one's employees as is done by his bosses. We could say that he is in a contradictory position. In this concrete case, we find no different type of relation than the ones already explained. Confronted by one group of people he relates to them as a worker, confronted by another he is a capitalist. Only if we focus on the individual and try to classify him does he looks like both a capitalist and worker (is he then middle class?). If we change the perspective towards the relation he maintains, what we see is that he is either a capitalist or a wage worker.

This last example allows us to change our perspective from a notion of class as an ensemble of individuals to the notion of class as, so to speak, an ensemble of social relations which cross over individuals, positioning them and confronting them in an antagonistic way. At first it can seem strange to of conceive social class in terms of social relations and not in terms of groups of people. However, just as capital is not a thing but a social relation mediated by things, society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of the relations within which these individuals stand. Class is not a set of individuals but a set of social relations between people, mediated by things: money, commodities, means of production, etc.

Which are these relations? Although as we said previously, the proletariat cannot be reduced to just wage workers, the relations that proletarians established between themselves and with the rest of society depend essentially on the relation between wage worker and capitalist, because, no matter what we want, the bourgeoisie obtains its profits from the exploitation based on this relationship. As proletarians, the relations we establish amongst ourselves are mediated by the relations that confront us with the capitalist. The workers of a business compete with each other for the favors of their boss, for being the next manager, etc. The unemployed compete with workers for a job. Students are no more than the labor power commodity in formation for the labor market: that is the essence of capitalist education. Housewives are in charge of private reproduction of labor power and their dependence on a husband is the family's expression of a given class relationship. Theft, drug-dealing, etc. are ways to avoid wage-work when one doesn’t want to work, or to substitute for it when, no matter the hard one looks for a job, there are none to be found.

Obviously, most of us are exclusively or fundamentally in one pole of said relations, which is what allows the notion of class as a group of people to have a real appearance. That is, if we get those people that only personify labor we can construct a “pure and hard” proletariat out of them. The problem is that when we push this notion to its limits, it begins to not congeal and the typical problems of a sociological conception appear: intermediate strata, subdivisions, the need of new criteria for classification, etc. In the coming paragraphs we deal with these limits.

“Middle classes”?

Every time the question of social class is raised, so too appears the question of the so-called “middle class”, a concept as deceitful as they come. The idea that “we all are middle class” has been one of the main ideological bombardments that the bourgeoisie has used against the proletariat. The concept itself refers to nothing more than an intermediate position between two undefined extremes and, depending on each one’s experience, it is easy to convince oneself that one is middle class.

If a worker who has worked for twenty years in an office for a good wage compares himself with the subcontracted, precarious janitor that is at his side and also with the architect who owns the office in the upstairs floor, obviously he is middle class. If the precarious janitor compares himself with the illegal immigrant who sells him bootlegged CD’s and with the office worker or the architect, he is also middle class. And if the architect compares himself with the office worker, the janitor and the immigrant on one side and, on the other, with the banker from whom he receives the loan for his next project, he is middle class. That way, thanks to the infinite gradation of wages and social positions within or between various social classes, everyone can live between the relief and the envy of those that are in the middle.
Middle class is a kind of sociological box in which one can put those that don't fit in the typical criteria for classification . Basically it groups, on one hand, self-employed workers without a wage with all those “liberal professionals” (lawyers, doctors, etc.), that is, the so-called petite-bourgeoisie. On the other hand it groups those who occupy “intermediate” positions in the labor hierarchy: from foremen to middle-level managers contracted by a company. The first group is often called “old middle class” and the second “new middle class”. In this section we’ll see that in reality we are dealing with different social relations.

The “petite-bourgeoisie”

The term petite-bourgeoisie has so commonly been reserved for accusations from Marxists that using it almost incites disgust. Classically it refers to those who own their own means of production without having workers on a payroll (for example, those small businesses or artisan workshops in which at the most there exists unwaged family work) and that therefore don’t exploit anybody. “Middle class” is attributed to them because they show characteristics seemingly associated with the bourgeoisie (having their own means of production, like a small shop or their own tools, etc.) as well as the proletariat (they themselves perform the labor). However, the reality is different. Capital is a social relation, so it is not enough to posses means of production. They must be used to exploit wage labor, which is not just labor, but labor that is realized in exchange for a wage. A self-employed carpenter, the owner of small dollar store or a professional photographer are not capitalists unless they hire a waged assistant. Nor are they proletarian or “workers”, apart from a purely physical yet non-social sense of the term.

Actually, when we talk of the petite-bourgeoisie we are thinking of a relationship completely different from the labor-capital relationship. They are independent petty commodity producers that can be considered as the remains of a “previous mode of production” to capitalism, hence the name of the “old middle class”. Petite-bourgeois relations are confined to a sphere of commodity exchange which excludes that of labor power. They are commodity relations between formally equal subjects. As it is a distinct social relationship, the petite-bourgeoisie confronts different problems from those of the proletariat. Although as commodity relations they are also fetishized relations (as they are established through commodities) and alienated relations (as they are subject to the product of their own alienated activity, in this case the market), this alienation is completely different from that of the proletariat. The wage-worker experiences alienation as a direct imposition on the part of capital, which we feel under the form of its personified authority in our bosses, or as the burden of being subjected to our means of labor. Nonetheless, the petite-bourgeois experiences alienation as the indirect subjectification to the impersonal laws of the market, the competition of huge multinational corporations, the falling of prices, the interest rate that must be paid to the bank to keep business open, etc.

Solutions? Cooperatives, self-employment….

Cooperatives deserve their own mentioning, above all because of the importance people give them as a means to change capitalist society. Let’s make it clear that we refer to market-oriented cooperatives and not to other possible production-consumption schemes, whose critique is different. Personally, we have nothing against those who try to earn a living by setting up a cooperative. To us it is just another way to earn a living in capitalist society. It is a form that has its own peculiarities. Most people who opt for self-employment, alone or in groups, keep in mind, above all, not to have bosses, to manage their own time, to gain more independence and autonomy, etc. The problem is that in a capitalist society they compete on an equal footing with other companies and therefore experience pressures of competition just as the others do. Thus, the search for greater autonomy and not having bosses ends up turning into more responsibilities, endless working days, various other burdens and what many people have described as “self-exploitation”. Formally, cooperatives suffer in a collective way what self-employed people suffer individually. This translates to internal collective problems when the pressure of the market squeezes in or when bad streaks must be coped with. Good times aren’t better since, in general, it is not easy to take in new people in a cooperative once it is already established.5

Due to the problems mentioned, we do not consider the establishing of this type of self-managed project of the cooperative variety to be a useful method for social change., much less so when mixed with political projects (that which the most pedantic refer to as 'biopolitical entrepreneurship'), where the political aspects will, at times, need to be sacrificed for the economic needs of the cooperative.

A distinct case is that of occupied factories, abandoned by their owners and put to work again by their workers. Although we think that, in the medium and long term, occupied factories present the same problems as co-ops, “recuperated” factories arise from an extreme situation in which workers have to come out ahead. We don’t gain anything by criticizing for criticism's sake, but nor do we gain from selling the package of self-management or that occupied factories as the germ of the ‘new society’. In reality, we will have to take our position in each specific case, as, by itself, the fact that some workers take the reigns of their factory can mean a lot or mean nothing6.

Cut through by the Contradiction

The second group that is usually included in the middle-class is that which constitutes “intermediate positions” in the labor hierarchy. Depending on the criteria or the authors in question, this group would include anything from from a shop-floor supervisor to a member of the directive board. You don’t need to have gone to college to see that a high end executive of Santander Bank is not the same as the supervisor of a McDonald’s or a call center. But neither must you be a genius to see that, deep down, a boss is a boss. This apparent contradiction has a relatively simple solution: it represents a reality that in itself is contradictory. Let us explain.

In the end, the capitalist is only the personification of a social relationship, that is, it represents one of the poles of said relationship (as the worker represents the other). As the owner of the means of production, being a personification of capital means basically two things: the organization and supervision of the labor process and the ownership of the products of this process which ultimately implies the right to a surplus value. The development of capitalism has allowed both of these functions to disassociate from each other totally or partially thanks to shares, bonds, etc. You can obtain a profit without getting your hands dirty supervising a business (the so-called “rentiers”) and you can supervise a business without owning it. Without a doubt, the latter is the most controversial figure: from the supervisors to the high rank executives. We will leave aside the last ones7 to focus on those proletarians that carry out supervision based tasks. Nothing prevents a proletarian from being hired to act as a representative of a capitalist and therefore as a personification of capital. But he does not cease to be a proletarian nor a wage worker, he simply turns into a kind of “waged representation of capital” and, as such, is crossed through by contradictory relationships. Against his subordinates he is a representation of capital, but against his superiors in the labor hierarchy he is a representation of labor. We could say that the exploitation of the worker by capital is here realized through the exploitation of the worker by the worker. What is implied by this in practice? The worker will simultaneously confront the problems a capitalist must face (how to increase efficacy and greater profits) and those of the worker (will have a superior that organizes the labor, will feel the pressure of unemployment or the competition of other proletarians, his subordinates may be willing to take his job, etc), and he will therefore have to choose in each case which side he is on8.

Another particular case of contradictory relationships is that which accompanies the so-called “financialization of domestic economies”. This is primarily presented under two forms: when savings are actively financiers, as shares, bonds, etc, or when the funds of pensions are privatized (something that in many countries is not an option, but instead a necessity). When this happens, an individual's savings convert themselves (or are converted) into capital, in which the profits are almost never seen (in reality the little that comes their way simply compensates for the depreciation of the savings over time) and always run the risk being completely lost in the event of a stock market collapse. Without a doubt, this can seem to many to be little more than a nuance, but when your pensions depend on a future orchestrated by a bank, will you be for or against the state coming to the rescue when the bank is about to crash?

This does not mean that some are middle class, nor that they belong to a distinct class. Rather, they find themselves crossed through by contradictory class relationships, the same that we have seen before in “pure form” between worker and capitalist. If we try to enclose a supervisor in one class, or tend to understand the demonstrations of those that lost everything solely through the fall of the Lehman Brothers, we would find ourselves with the same problems previously commented on. But if we look beyond the people to their social relations, that which seemingly looks like a contradiction demonstrates that, in reality, it indeed is a contradiction.


So called 'self-employed workers' deserve a separate consideration now that they constitute a legally recognized group that is truly a mixed bag of social relations and conditions9 . It's obvious that to speak of 'self-employed workers' as a professedly homogenous group is to be confused by legal categories that hide what happens in reality. We won't go into the cases that we've already touched on: small-time employers or owners of small businesses (stores, workshops, hair salons, etc). Our interest is in the forms of waged labor that are hidden under the name of “self-employed labor” and the confusion they can cause.

The most obvious and evident case are the so-called 'falsely self-employed': workers whose bosses take on the self-employed to convert a labor relation of capital-worker to a market relation between businesses, with the consequent advantages that this entails. There is not much to say about this case now that it is even considered illegal. However, there exist other forms of legal 'falsely self-employed' labor which are in essence forms of wage labor and, because of that, hidden forms of class relationships.

The first and most evident is that which recently has been regulated under the denomination of “dependent self-employed labor”. The principal characteristics of such a person are that 75% of earnings are from a single client, the laborer does not employ additional workers and should posses 'productive infrastructure and proper materials' that are 'economically relevant, which is to say, should contribute part of the means of production. In exchange there are partially recognized “rights” reserved for these workers such as vacations, indemnification in case of an unjustified breach of contract, being under social jurisdiction rather than that of the market, etc. That is, in some forms the proper laws recognize that they find themselves in an “intermediate” situation between waged labor and the contract between businesses. Nonetheless, reality surpasses the laws since the self-employed worker that is in a situation of “dependency” does not have the capacity to attain that which recognizes him as such, and the employer that he depends on does not have any interest in it being that way. This hidden class relation shows itself during the appearance of this legal figure between July 2007 and June 2008 when only 1,069 workers received this classification, while in the studies of the Self-Employed Workers Association of 2005, there were 400,000 dependent self-employed workers counted in Spain10.
Lastly, we find what most of us have in mind when we speak of the self-employed worker. It is someone, owner of few means of production, that “provides services” to a larger enterprise or a particular client in what can apparently be considered an 'individual business'. As we've repeated throughout the article, when speaking of classes we should concentrate on the relations that people establish. Although it is the same worker, the class relations that he establishes are distinct depending on if he directly sells his labor on the market or if he is subcontracted by another business, which is what is really meant by “providing services”. In the first case, it is the same relationship that we went over in the section of the petite-bourgeoisie; a purely market relationship of buying and selling and it doesn't matter whether a product or service is sold. In the second case, although the same relation can be established, the more interesting cases are those which, below a supposed contract between businesses, mixed in is a hidden wage relation where the worker is an owner, in a real or formal way11 , of the means of production. That is to say, its as if the contractor on one side rents a part of the means of production and, on another, buys labor power in exchange for a piece wage, under the form of a providing of services. From this form, the costs of maintenance of the means of production are saved, and instead rack up for the self-employed worker, and additionally the supervisional aspect of the production process realized by the worker as well. This kind of relationship is very useful in jobs that are realized in a diffuse form, where part of the means of production aren't excessively costly and, because of that, are available to the worker by way of leasing, lending, etc, and where the productivity of labor depends more on the skill of the worker than on the machine. The transportation sector, construction and new sectors such as designers, translators/editors, programmers, freelance photographers, etc are some that are best suited for these “new” forms of waged labor12.

The fundamental question is that, to be a possessor of his own means of production, the self-employed worker is immersed in both kinds of relations. On the one hand a worker can act as an independent producer, for example if a cameraman decides to film a small-time documentary intending to sell it to street venders, or if a historian decides to produce an encyclopedia on Austro-Hungarian art to be placed in some journal. But each as much as the other can be contracted by a program producer or a university publishing house to film the program or prepare the art collection. Although the labor is the same, and surely they do it with their own means (camera, microphones, computers), the control over the production process and the ownership of the final product are totally separated. This is not limited to “creative” workers or “immaterial” laborers now that the same can be said for some electricians contracted for installation work. The poorly named “post-Fordist self employed labor”, a confused denomination grouped in generally with activities considered (and pompously called) “cognitive labor”, which usually includes tasks of “design”, translation, information (programming, layout), investigation, etc., or “affective labor” such as care for the elderly, children, the disabled etc., can both show the same relations as masons, plumbers or transport workers. That the first two can have a series of concrete problems that are relatively new, such as the “domination of knowledge”, the “commodification of affective capacities”, the alienation of communicative capacities, the excessive consumption of cocaine or festive competition, does not imply anything too distinct since the mason or electrician also have their own problems which, although older, remain important, such as working in the rain or in below-freezing temperatures, dying by electrification, being crushed or dying from alcohol poisoning.

Some Material Bases of Capitalist Domination

In this segment we are not going to touch on mechanisms of repression and control, those that anti-capitalists so love to talk about. Although it is evident that capitalism could not survive without them, it is also evident that it survives only thanks to them. What we will deal with here are some of the material bases for the so called “voluntary servitude”, truly indispensable for the maintenance of order and capitalist peace. It is often considered that this servitude is the consequence of the dominant ideology injected into us via TV, the media, school, etc. Basically, “people don't rebel because they are fooled, made stupid, etc”. Although in part this is correct, all ideology is a partial and superficial representation of reality, so to understand the real base on which ideology sits is crucial to combat it.

Capitalism is not only the workplace, it is also the shopping mall. Both spheres, production and circulation, form the organic whole of what constitutes capital. The class relation has a base in production and in fact it’s in labor where this is manifested most clearly, yet, as we will see in the next section, it permeates all social relations. Nonetheless, in the sphere of circulation things are different. In the market there are apparently no social classes, we are all formally free buyers and sellers. Atomized citizens juridically equal to one another, with the same rights. Although in capitalism, the formal equality of independent citizens hides the material inequality of classes, separation and legal equality constitute the material bases of the grand ideological pillars of capitalism: individualism and a drive for upward mobility ('arribismo').

Its not entirely true that people 'do not understand' or are 'fooled'... many know that they are worker bees that kill themselves working their entire lives and that their bosses live much better than they do. Conclusion: many want to become bosses. Does this make them any less proletarian? No. Though one may want to start their own business this does not make them any less alienated or exploited, nor does the boss relinquish control or raise the wage. The question of class follows there, what does change is the way in which one faces class. The same questions, different answers. Capitalism has neither eliminated the proletariat nor the contradiction between capital and labor. What it has done in the last few years is radically change the way in which people are confronted by class. On one side we search for fundamentally individual solutions rather than collective ones, we try to save our own asses instead of holding each other up or we live with the hope that with whatever (a firing, eviction, some new reform), at least it won’t affect us: in some way, capitalism condemns us to individualism. On the other side, capitalism has made it so that the only only conceivable way to stop being a proletarian is to be a capitalist. How did it get us to swallow this illusion? Because it is not an illusion, not entirely at least. In differentiation to slavery or feudalism, in capitalism it is truly possible to stop being a worker and become a business owner and, a priori, it can be any of us because capitalism condemns us to 'arribismo'.

The other face of this ideology is that ,although any of us can cease to be a proletarian, we can't all do it at the same time. Yes, any of us can become an employer, we also have to be disposed to exploit and step on everyone else. The majority of 'entrepreneurs' end up being, after a certain time, proletarians that are even more indebted than before or they have indebted their family and friends that endorsed them, reinforcing capitalist exploitation.

Another pillar that is much talked about is consumerism. With the development of capitalism, some sectors of the proletariat from Western countries (not all as non-Western countries aren’t mentioned) have accessed a whole series of commodities: iPods, televisions, washing machines, internet, cars... that although not eliminating vital misery that proletarians suffer under capitalism, they at least make things bearable. No one theorized this better than the Situationist International. In reality the case of consumerism is similar to what it was. One does not stop being a proletarian upon owning a TV, a Walkman or having youtube at home, but it is yet another factor that will influence how we relate to the world, including class contradictions. And it can influence both sides: buffering class conflict thanks to a more comfortable life and better leisure, or bringing out to light the misery and alienation of capitalism that no abundance of commodities can eliminate.

In our opinion, revolution does not deal with enlightening a proletarian who would have otherwise lived fooled. It is to establish ties of information with those that collectively discover the other side of the coin for any capitalist ideology and, above all, put into practice collective alternatives and solidarities in confrontation with the system that are acceptable to anyone. It doesn't make much sense to limit ourselves to criticizing unions and telling people that they're sell-outs and bureaucrats (most wouldn't be discovering anything new there) if we aren't capable of building alternatives of struggle beyond those that people solve their problems with by being on the margins of (including against) the unions. It does not make sense to limit ourselves to dismantling the fallacies of the progressive left if we are not capable of supporting the workers with a real, collective practice, however minoritarian it can be in the beginning.

The Importance of Social Class

Taking up again the subject of classes, many would ask what is the real importance of class relations in present society, and therefore, in the anti-capitalist 'movement'. Leaving aside those that directly negate the existence of social classes, many, although recognizing the existence of class relations, affirm that they actually have no importance in social conflicts so intervention in them should be based on other criteria (against 'domination', against 'development' or 'technology', almost always in such generic terms). On the opposite side there are those that consider class struggle to be practically the only thing that has any real importance and any other kind of conflict is almost 'petite-bourgeois humanism'. Additionally there are those that think that everything is directly class struggle and they see, for example, in 'imperialist' military interventions an effort to squash a fictitious local proletariat. Finally, it’s evident that capitalist society is not divided exclusively along lines of class: there exist differences of sex, skin color, sexual orientation, culture, age, hair color, etc. Many of them give home to specific relations of domination, oppression or discrimination and therefore to struggles and resistances: the gender struggle, against racial oppression, LGBT struggles, national liberation, etc. Many place these struggles, including class struggle, beside another and, on occasion, set one on top of others, giving place to 'identity politics' or 'new social movements'.

To avoid falling into any of these simplifications it is necessary to deepen a bit the essence of class relations. Only that way can we determine its real importance, like its relation to the rest of the mentioned struggles.

Human beings are social beings, we exist in and through our relations to other human beings and with nature. These relations are the principal product of our creative-practical activity, our capacity to transform and comprehend the world around us. The principal products of human praxis are not only the material (things) or mental (ideas, categories, concepts) results but the human relations and those with nature that shape our existence. Nonetheless, these relations do not exist in an abstract or generic way more than they do in our minds. In reality they present themselves under historically concrete and transitionary forms that depend on material conditions of human praxis13. Class relations are, in fact, the historical forms adopted by human relations as a function of the real and formal distribution of means through which humans reproduce the material conditions of sociability. Concretely, due to distribution and the kind of ownership of the means of production and subsistence in capitalist society, human relations are presented in the form of capitalist social relations. That is to say: fetishized (mediated by things), impersonal, alienated and above all, of class.

This small 'philosophical' excursion was necessary to show that class relations are not relations that are imposed externally from a social reality. Rather, reality is constituted and reproduced through them. Cars, houses, what we eat, so called 'culture', activities normalized as leisure, are all produced in their immense majority through capitalist class relations; that is to say, through exploitation of some for the benefit of others by way of the buying and selling of the commodity of labor power. Struggles that are put forth to fight the 'commodification' of health, education, sexuality, etc grasp this, but only superficially. Commodification of what already exists is not the cause, but the consequence of submitting to the logic of capital, and this can only be the logic of exploitation and class struggle.

From this it is easy to understand how class struggle is related to other struggles (of gender, racial domination, etc). Sexual relations, relations between genetically different individuals14, between men and women, the old and the young, between distinct languages and cultures, are the content of human relations. All of these differences are natural biological and ethnographic differences that we make into an abstraction when we talk of human relations. When human relations are presented under the form of class relations, form and content cross through one another: class relations pervert, subsume and cannibalize the content of human relations, and this tends to get confused with the historical forms that are adopted. For example, capitalism did not invent the domination of women since it appeared in the heart of a society that was already patriarchal. Nonetheless, the appearance of capitalism supposed a brutal transformation of the forms in which the domination of women are presented: the witch hunts, the reduction of women as exclusively being the mother of the reproduction of labor power, the physical and psychological destruction of sexuality, etc, have all been phenomenons related to the so called 'primitive accumulation'15 . Equally, 'racial' relations have changed alongside history in line with the interests and struggles of class 16 . Of course, class relations can seem altered by racial prejudices, machismo, etc.

What is fundamental here is that capitalism is not inherently white, heterosexual or male (or racist, homophobic or chauvinistic), rather it is this way because it emerged from a society that was already like that. Capitalist social relations emerged from these prejudices but also transform them during their development: they change them, and sometimes, in response to the struggle of the dominated, they try to supersede them. It is often said that capitalism can accommodate such demands (gender and racial equality, between different sexual orientations, etc), yet this is only partially true. On one hand, that which can potentially make such a change cannot necessarily do so in every concrete situation. Nonetheless, what is most important is that capitalism incorporates these demands in its own way, the capitalist way. The so called 'equality between the sexes' has attained in many cases women being able to assume the same disgusting behavior that was traditionally reserved only for men. Equality is not, and cannot be, that now on TV there are musclemen in thongs alongside the same old pneumatic women in bikinis, nor that now a woman can grab a man's ass in a club, nor that women can work eight hours outside of the home and so many more inside of it. The 'assimilation' and visibility of homosexuality is now in a totally commercial form, based on the commodification and selling of certain cliches and stereotypical behaviors, giving a place to the so called 'pink capitalism', and it happens in that order... There is no true liberation or equality inside of capitalism, the class division makes it so that the only thing to aspire to is capitalist 'liberty' and 'freedom', yet in the background there is always the inequality of class and the submission to wage labor. Just as a true politics of class must be feminist, a true feminism must be 'of class'.

To finish up we will make one last point. Facing the aforementioned differences (genetic, sexual, ages, sexual preferences, etc.) that are given biological differences, class relations are an alienated product of our social activity as human beings under determined material conditions. This implies that we can destroy class relations, we can abolish them by way of a transformation of our social relations and the destruction of material conditions of which are the cause and consequence. We create them, we destroy them. On the contrary, we cannot (nor do we want to!) end the differences between men and women, between different skin colors and blood lines, between homosexuals, bisexuals or heterosexuals, etc17. This does not mean that we equalize ourselves abstractly with 'rights' or whatever, it means we learn to live while accepting rich biological diversity, ethnography and cultures as a virtue and not a curse, to live thankful for them and not despite them. And we cannot, nor do we want, wait for the destruction of capitalism to do so.


In this article we have tried to start to expose the structure of classes in capitalism. We've treated class relations in 'objective' terms, as alienated forms that adopt human relations due to a real and formal determined distribution of the means of production. Our principal objective was to try and understand the material bases of conflicts in the belly of capitalism (class struggle) and how these relate to the rest of struggles and oppressions that reside there: gender, race, etc.
For reasons of space and mental health, we've limited ourselves to the individual experiences of class relations leaving for later their collective experiences. Neither have we gone over 'subjective' aspects that are derived from these relations. From these necessarily antagonistic and contradictory relations there can arise movements and projects that transcend the limits of capitalism... or that stay within it, like ideologies that sublimate the class conflict and separation in which capitalism is based. All this and much more in some upcoming boring article from Ruptura.

Madrid, Spain, December 2009

Grupo Ruptura

The spanish original article can be found here

  • 1. The other side of the coin is that the capitalist is equally free to hire or fire this or that proletarian and does not have, like lords and masters used to, any obligation to the workers yet nor is there direct power over them beyond the working day. That exploitation proceeds under the form of the buying and selling of the labor power commodity between two juridically equal subjects is what characterizes capital.
  • 2. In the beginning of capitalism, the so called primitive accumulation (which could also be called the original dispossession) dislocated a large part of the peasant population from their means of life and destroyed all communal ties. In many cases these dispossessed did not have any way of making a living, in others they refused to submit to the discipline of wage work. In both cases, by choice or obligation, they were relegated to begging and many others to theft. The majority alternated between these things and work, travelling here and there. In England and other European countries, the establishing of laws against the poor was necessary to enclose vagabonds in asylums or the so-called Work Houses. In England, for example, laws against private property offenses were introduced (between 1660 and 1820 the number of crimes punishable by death rose to 190, the majority of the offences were related to property. In 1785, for example, the death penalty was applied almost exclusively to economic offences) or the development of new forms of morality specifically directed to combat homelessness, combat the abandoning of families and to exalt wage labor. That is to say, to get proletarians to be dedicated to manual work, a long, costly and tremendously expensive process was necessary that combined the use of force, the modification of laws, the evolution of ideological forms, etc.
  • 3. The principal product of the labor-capital relation is the maintenance of said relation, reproducing class division on an individual or collective level.
  • 4. Obviously, reality is more complicated, now that over these relations there is a layer of relations pertaining to friendship, hatred, complicity, distrust.... that is to say, human relations.
    The best texts to deepen an understanding of the fetishized nature of social relations in capitalism are the chapter entitled 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret” of the first volume of Capital and the first part of the 'Essays on Marx's Theory of Value' by Isaak Ilich Rubin.
  • 5. “...due to competition, the complete domination of the production process by the interests of capital – that is to say, the most ruthless exploitation – turns into an essential condition for the survival of an enterprise. This manifests itself in the need to, in line with the exigencies of the market, intensify all rhythms of labor possible, lengthen or shorten the working day, take in more labor or throw it into the street..., in a word, practice all of the already known methods that make a capitalist enterprise competitive. In play with the paperwork of the business, the workers of the cooperative see themselves in the contradiction of having to govern themselves with all of the proper severity of business including against themselves, a contradiction that ends up sinking the production cooperative, that either turns into a normal capitalist enterprise or, if the interests of the workers predominate, just dissolves.” Reform and Revolution. Rosa Luxemburg. We do not cite this text as an argument for authority, but because it was written in 1899! As is seen, we are not very original in our critique, nor did we need to be.
  • 6. For example, the National Movement of Recuperated Factories (Argentina) said, about the film The Take by Naomi Klein, “We regret that she wants to use the recuperation of factories for an internationalist political action inside of the anti-globalization struggle with a clear strain of ideological Marxism and, from this historical materialist perspective the entire process is seen. This Movement is not in agreement with the title The Take or with the subtitle Occupy, Resist and Produce, nor with the script of the film” the whole text can be seen at:
  • 7. Executives interest us very little, now that they only affect is in our daily lives, if we mention it it is to clear up all of the critics that use them as an example of “worker”, etc. Nonetheless we must specify that in most cases, the 'salary' is a hidden form of participation en the profits. Not to mention that a large part of the income are offered in form of of participations in the business, stock options, etc. That is to say, participations in capital.
  • 8. When in factories the methods of ‘Toyotism’ were introduced, in which cooperation from the workers in groups was asked for to make production more efficient, the delegates the represented the group to the bosses were beginning to be left out and treated as bosses despite them having been elected democratically by the workers... See John Holloway, The Red Rose of Nissan.
  • 9. According to the data of the Minister of Labor, in December 2008, of the approximately 2,150,000 “properly called” self-employed workers, 80% do not have wage workers under them. The other 20% have between 1 and 5, of which half of them have only one worker. Another 800,000 are “members of societies” that are members of different small and mid-sized businesses. 200,000 more are “family collaborators” with self-employed workers. Lastly, 150,000 are advisers and administers of businesses with at least a third of the social capital of the business. The majority of these cases have been treated in one way or another.
  • 10. Sources:,
  • 11. We say real or formal, because many of the supposed owners of the means of production are not so other than in nominal terms now that in reality 'their' means of production 'belong' to the bank provided the loans to buy them and take portion of the work through its interests
  • 12. We put in quotation “new” because the system suspiciously like the so called domestic industry, generally textile, in the beginnings of capitalism (XV-XVI) also known as “putting out system” or “verlagsystem” whereby a merchant gave the first materials to artisans or peasants to use them in their own homes, and then would take them back to sell them.
  • 13. For 'material conditions of human practice' we do not refer to “economic conditions”, and even less to “technological” conditions, just simply to the means by which we change the world and survive in it.
  • 14. In the end, so-called “races” are no more than social constructions based on the manifestation of human genetic diversity. See note 16.
  • 15. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Silvia Federici. Autonomedia.
  • 16. We put in quotes the term 'race' because we think that it is in large part a social construction based on our perception of reality being fundamentally visual. That is to say, biological differences in skin color or morphological characteristics (lips, eyes, hair), that are real differences as a product of our evolution, are grouped in categories that we call race, while other biological differences like blood lines or different shapes of the Alcohol Dehydrogenase enzyme (for example), that are not visible at first glance, do not give place to much controversy.

    There are very interesting examples of how capital interferes with the social category of “race”. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was due to a confrontation between the Hutu and Tutsi “ethnicities”, however these “ethnicities” share a language, religion and skin color, differentiating themselves only in their average height and, in fact, they two realize that they cannot tell one another apart by sight alone. According to certain authors, although it is possible that there are some differences, it was Belgian and German colonization that encouraged and exacerbated the separation between Hutus and Tutsis (for some it was the colonizers that created the groups) as a means of controlling the native population, giving the Tutsis the lead in colonial administration.

    A contrary case is that of Irish immigration to the United States during the 19th century. At that time Ireland was a British colony were the Irish were as discriminated against as blacks in the US (with the difference being that the Irish were not slaves). Arriving in the US they were treated in the worst of ways, sometimes worse than African American slaves (that were more expensive) and were considered “white negroes” while African Americans were considered “smoked Irish”. Despite some Irish promoting unity with black slaves to struggle for abolition of slavery, the majority Irish immigrants decided to value their 'whiteness', casting off their Catholicism and Irish heritage, to strive for the racial privileges whites, Anglo-Saxons and Protestants. An example of this is that the Ku Klux Klan, the representation of racism of the Civil War, initially equally hated blacks and Catholics. In addition to being a good example of the social character of “races” it is an obvious case of the way in which the exploited are divided, in this case based in racial prejudice. (More info: “An Interview with Noel Ignatiev – How the Irish Became White”)
    Other historical examples of how relations between “races” are used by capital for its benefit can be found in A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

  • 17. At this point we refer to keep the biological differences (when they exist) and not, obviously, the social roles and social constructions created from these biological differences. Live in communism must mean create new social relations in which these biological and ethnographical differences were not taken as a mean to separate, dominate and exclude others, but as an end in itself.

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Nov 26 2011 17:10


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