Class and the means of re/production

One of the recurrent themes in lefty blogs that I frequent that have a non-Marxist perspective is the theory of “classism”.  Now as any good Marxist knows from when they were just a little ity, bity Marxlet, class is based on the relationship to the means of production – yes there are lots of discussions around exactly how that manifests, what “ownership” of the means of production consists of and its relation to global capital (err.. but lets not to into that here), but all Marxists will agree class is based on the relationship to the means of production. That is not to deny the other power structures which go on in the world, but analysing power structures without Marx is like trying to put up a tent without poles.  It descends into this convoluted durkheimy, privilaged based, sociological type oppression. Another -ism to be added to sexism, racism, cissexism, heterosexism as a way in which those with more privilege (the “classier” ones presumably) oppress the class-challenged.  Most manifestations do have at least a passing reference to wealth or income, but either dont look closely or refuse to see where that wealth and income is coming from that gives rise to this “classism”.  .  The worst offenders for this, without a shadow of a doubt are the feminist blogs, liberal or radical you see this woolly “classism” come up time and time again.

Class is the relationship to the means of production (it is, really, really it is, honest,).

The “means of production” comprises of two bits.  First of all there is the subjects of labour (natural resources, land, raw materials etc).  These are (basically) free, in the sense that they are just there, nothing done to them, just there, lying about, minding their own business.  Secondly there are the instruments of labour (factories, machinery, tools etc) which are used to produce things, these were created with a specific purpose in mind and a result of labour being applied to the subjects of labour.  Labour is “work done”, that is specific activities done to achieve a particular end goal. Ownership of the means of production is not just a property relation (although it is quite frequently manifested that way), but it also has a broader sense, of taking responsibility for.  Anyone who has ever worked on any project will tell you about the frustrations of getting people to “own” things.  In the same way, managers and Boards of Directors “own” companies, even although their actual property ownership of that company might be middling to negligible and although some people own (have a direct property relation to) shares in companies, particularly through their pensions, the ownership rights that they can deploy is limited.

Which is where class comes in.  Ownership of the means of production – the ability to allocate and direct resources – is power – class power, it is what keeps the whole system ticking over, it allows those who own the means of production to allocate resources to best generate capital which can then be used to gain greater ownership over the means of production. One of those resources to be allocated is labour or “human resources” if you prefer.  The allocation of labour is achieved by purchasing labour through payment. And herein lies the class divide.  Those who have no ownership of the means of production have no way of sustaining themselves without money, so they exchange their labour power for money which allows them to buy goods and services they are unable to create themselves.  Very few people are ruling class (able to sustain themselves according to the norms of the society they live without labouring); very few people in the West are entirely working class (completely unable to sustain themselves without labouring), with a large middle class who through investments and state provision of goods and services supplement their sustenance through labour. Looking back over this what we have is

  • Natural resources (subjects of labour)
  • Instruments of labour (subjects of labour which have already had labour power applied)
  • Human Resources (units of labour)

At its root then we can see that there are two fundamental resources: natural and human

Creation of the Subjects of Labour

At its most fundamental, this is land.  Land creates the subjects of labour.  The iron, the coltan and the gold; the wheat, the plantain and the corn; the wood, the oil and the gas all spring from the land.  And ownership over the land gives ownership over the resources.  Although ownership is encoded in property law, as above, ownership has a broader meaning of control and people have a connection to land even although they may have no direct property relation to it, they feel affinity with it.  Some particularly in subsistence economies have a direct relationship; in advanced capitalism the nimby phenomenon displays that connection.  Colonialism works on ownership of creators the subjects of labour.   Although there may be no legal connection to the land, the use of hegemonic (neo-)colonial power contrives to undermine the attachment of indigenous peoples to the creator of the subject of labour.

Creation of the Units of Labour

The creators of units of labour are women.  They gestate and bear each generation of labour units.  The plumber, carpenter and builder; artist, musician and poet; doctor, nurse and midwife all spring from women.  Direct ownership over the creators of units of labour is formally illegal under international law. Control over the production of these units is regulated in various ways, sometimes directly through abortion and contraception laws, sometimes mediated by social structures, such as marriage, and sometimes through culture. Patriarchy works on ownership of the creators of the units of labour, although there may be no legal ownership, the use of hegemonic patriarchal power contrives to undermine the agency of women as the producers of units of labour.

Patriarchy and colonialism thus work in a two step – one aiming to own and control the creators of the units of labour with a view to obtaining power over those units; the other aiming to own and control that which produces the subjects of labour all with a view to extracting maximum surplus value.

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It's worthwhile to keep this structural definition of class in mind. As you write, many forget about it. I find the whole idea of middle class - especially the way it popularly appears here in the states - opaque and more often than not a matter of cultural/ideological identification with the bosses. Lots of folks who live paycheck to paycheck describe themselves as middle class. You can make numerous class distinctions, but I consider the following four categories most useful: the working class, the coordinators (managers and others who work but have significant power over other workers), the petit bourgeoisie (those who own the means of production on the small scale and still put in hours to get by), and the bourgeoisie.


I've been meaning to write for a while about modern class structure, but I'm still trying to get my head around it. US blogs are among the worst offenders for the sociological/cultural definition of class, but I'm not sure that I agree with you in terms of "categories", I think its more of a continuum with a number of factors for "ownership of means of production", which give you a kind of "class quotient" which situates you within the class structure. There is ruling class and working class and your material interests are defined by how high your class quotient is. Middle class is just a way of staying that you have conflicting class interests. Important things to me are: 1. How much capital you own 2. What your citizenship gives you (eg healthcare, education etc) 3. How much you have control over things you dont have a direct property relation to 4. How much you own or have control over which can provide for you (eg an allotment to grow food) But like I said I'm still thinking it through


I like that concept of "deviates from the w/c by [a period of time]". Its not just benefits tho that protect the (nominal) w/c of the west from the harsh realities tho, its also things like free healthcare and schools (Within Europe at least). I dont think you need starvation to occur to have the existance of w/c, all you need is a situation where people are forced to work because of the threat of starvation. in terms of the sub-replacement fertility, I'm not sure its such a sub-concious strike as a concious one.Richer women have less children, globally and nationally. Reproductive rights, protection from forced impregnation and marriage is much greater in richer countries because women have fought to get these. As with everything else it would seem that we are subcontracting the production of units of labour to the Global South.

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I agree with this article - I find it incomprehensible that people think class is just another ism when we live under Capitalism. Surely it is obvious that the most important issue has to be our relationship to Capital? I think this is key to explore further: "...very few people in the West are entirely working class (completely unable to sustain themselves without labouring)..." This is obviously true, but we need to look at what this actually looks like. The Guardian says ( that "On average, a Brit has the grand total of just £2,205 sitting in the bank.... 1.7 times the average monthly take-home pay." This means that this imaginary average British person deviates temporally from being 'true working class' by 1.7 months. After that point they are technically destitute. But of course, at this point (for the moment) people have a claim on the resources of the state - basically there is no 'pure' working class in the UK (arguable we could mention migrant communities). In nations where starvation occurs regularly, we could argue that these people are working class (I would never argue that they aren't). However, I would say that these are often not properly functioning Capitalist societies - as you say, Capital usually has no interest in killing its work-force - units of Labour. "The creators of units of labour are women." Yup. Do you think the 'sub-replacement' fertility that much of the West is entering is a form of (subconscious) strike against the conditions of such work?

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