Why I don’t use the term “Classism”

Racism refers to prejudice based on race; sexism to prejudice based on sex, &c.  Classism, therefore, refers to prejudice based on social class.  Is it real?  Of course it’s real.  But.

Regarding the working class, prejudice isn’t the most important issue.  Or the second most important, or the third.  You have to go pretty far down to even find prejudice on the list of things that matter.

What matters to the working class is not that it is treated as the working class, but that it is the working class.  The goal is not social justice for the working class, the goal is that the class, as a class, cease to exist.  That by the revolutionary act of making everyone part of the working class, no one is, and the benefits of social production be distributed evenly and fairly (no, stop right now with the bullshit about “what’s even and fair?” and “who gets to decide?” and yada yada.  That isn’t the point of this post, and we can talk about it another time).

Prejudice against the worker, or against the poor, is almost a non-issue; the issue is that some people produce everything, others reap the profit from those who produce, and that this contradiction today threatens all of human civilization.  The worker does not want an end to prejudice, the worker wants no longer to be “the worker.”  It has very little to do with what is in someone’s head, it has everything to do with the social relations that determine all other social relations.

The term “classism” puts prejudice at the front and center of the discussion.  But social classes are not caused by prejudice, rather they cause it.  Class distinctions are the root cause of prejudice in the modern sense of the term (as opposed to tribal loyalty, which I would argue is a different thing).  The very term “classism,” therefore, undermines this understanding, inverts the relationship, and thus makes it more difficult to understand–and therefore eliminate–class distinctions.  And prejudice.

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31 thoughts on “Why I don’t use the term “Classism””

  1. I don’t understand. A lot of people really don’t mind working. I assume that is not what you are talking about. Though one could get that from what you are saying.

    There are working classes and leisure classes and the prejudices between them are real.

    I, as a worker, would rather not be looked down upon for getting my hands dirty. So I can’t agree that I would not like to end this prejudice.

    So I am confused as to what you are saying.

  2. David, it just isn’t that complex. Millions of people are without health care. Tens of thousands are losing their homes just within the US. Millions are malnourished, or, at best, living one paycheck or one sick kid away from losing everything. The problem isn’t prejudice, the problem is those conditions. Those conditions don’t exist because of prejudice, they exist because class society is no longer sustainable. If we destroy class society, we won’t have to worry about class prejudice, will we? If we fail to destroy class society, well, we won’t have to worry about it then either, I guess.

  3. After reading the above, I’m afraid to venture a question about something so basic, but who exactly is outside the “working class”? Since you envision everyone included in it, presumably professionals aren’t excluded. Presumably intellectual property workers who generate inventions and works of art are “working class” the way you intend the term. So, whose services aren’t “working class” services?

    As an aside, I wonder if there’s not a big social gulf between different types of workers that cause them to suspect and discount the work provided by other types of workers, leading to prejudices even within the working class. This ignores that with a sufficiently broad view of who is within the working class, there seem to be very few who are not retired or disabled who are outside it. At present I assume the few who are outside it are the ones you feel are the proper subjects of the revolution you mention, but this is getting beyond the scope of my immediate concern.

    My immediate concern in picturing your description of the future is understanding the basic issue of identifying whose activities are “working class” activities and whose activities are not.

  4. There are retired people (many of whom can’t work), who worked all their lives. There are people wealthy enough not to have to work, who work. Which of those are “working class”?

    I see more prejudice based on type of work (or amount of pay, not the same thing) rather than wealthy enough not to work.

  5. CD Lewis: I am not including everyone in the working class; I’m saying that, after the revolution, classes will disappear. Hence no one will be, or everyone will be, as you please. In either case, the term will be meaningless.

    Seth: I’m not sure what your point is. Class refers to role in the productive process: producing value (working class), exploiting labor (capitalist class), or both or neither (middle class). And, please, in case you have a pedantic side and feels the call to duty, a given individual may not, himself, produce value, yet still be a member of the social class that does. And there are borderline conditions and grey areas.

    Is there someone who said there aren’t borderline conditions or grey areas? That wasn’t me. If there are borderline conditions between asteroid and planet, or between moon and planet, and even, under certain conditions, between planet and star, and yet somehow astronomy muddles on, I think we can accept that there are borderline conditions in social classes without economics suffering excessively.

  6. Quick definition of terms:

    The working class, aka the proletariat, are people who work for business owners.

    The capitalist class, aka the bourgeoisie, are people who own the businesses.

    Being working class doesn’t mean you work. It means that when you work, your work makes someone else richer. The unemployed working class and the employed working class are members of the same class.

    Being of the capitalist class doesn’t mean you don’t work. It means that if you work, the money you get from your work is in addition to the money you make from owning your business.

    If you don’t understand this, I strongly advise you not to start a business that requires you to hire anyone.

  7. The only thing that is wrong with this is the idea that racism is just prejudice. A lot of racism is structural, maybe reinforced by prejudice but not requiring it. For example there are economic stratas within the working class, and all sorts of economic horrors that go with the working class hit some groups harder than others. Take a comparatively mild example. These days you can be denied a job based on credit score. For a lot longer than recently your access to housing was and is based in part upon credit score. And because African-Americans (to take just one ethnic) group were systematically denied access to income and wealth, they are likely to have lower credit scores, not because of behavior, but because of wealth and income. This is separate from very real disparate treatment based on race. :Even if at one point the lower income and wealth was due to prejudice, at this point it is due in large part do having parents with lower wealth and income than average, and class mobility in USA always having been exaggerated. It has never been true that “anyone can make it” , though it is less true now than in the past. I always thought Horatio Alger was more realistic than given credit for: most of his “heroes” got ahead by marrying the bosses daughter. And I know you don’t disagree on the Horatio Alger thing or class mobility.

    Understanding social history begins with class analysis. It does not end with it. Lots of other hierarchies mediate between class and individuals. And even though race and much of what we think of as gender are arbitrary social constructions, those social constructions creep into institutions and exist beyond simple prejudice. Many posts ago I point out in passing that attempts at socialism (I’m leaving aside the question of whether or not they were socialist – that discussion is endless and usually unproductive) often left racism and sexism intact. I suppose you could either argue that they were not successful enough in fighting prejudice or that their lack of success settles the questions of whether or not they were socialist. I don’t think it is that simple.Whether things like racism and sexism start as simple prejudice, they shape institutions. They become part of the structure of society and that means that changing hearts and minds is not enough to overthrown them – nor is overthrowing capitalism enough. Takeover of institutions by the working class is not enough to rid those institutions of the mark of racism. That is why democratic struggles can just be matter of the class struggle first and all other democratic struggle subordinated to working class organizations. You need independent organizations that are not at the mercy of “vanguards” in dialectal tension with class focused groups. Not identity politics, which is narrow and counter productive. But independent groups that are class conscious, that support working class struggles, but are in alliance with rather than subordinate to organizations that focus on direct class struggle.

  8. What solutions do you have for racism that do not address class? A quote from Martin Luther King that I wish everyone knew:

    “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike. … I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

    There are still twice as many white poor as black poor.

  9. The point is not that racism can be addressed without addressing class, but that it cannot be addressed ONLY by addressing class. Again, I point out that in countries that were attempting socialism, that certainly were economically much more egalitarian than ours, that generations of effort failed to eradicate racism. Doesn’t that indicate that something besides tackling class is needed. And what else you need depends upon where the struggle is taking place. The struggle against racism in a socialist society would be very different than the struggle against racism in a capitalism society where the working class was gaining power, which in turn would be very different from a society like ours currently is where capitalism is advancing everywhere and successfully crushing working class resistance. Solutions depend on how the problem mutates. However key is independent groups who know racism first hand opposing it, so the if the problem mutates they know it and can struggle against the new form.

    MLK when faced with legal discrimination focused on race. He may well have been right that a guaranteed minimum income would have been the right step at that time both in class struggle, and that the moment had come for that. Bear in mind though that if that had been won, it would have a victory for the working class, greatly decreasing capitalist leverage, but not the same as socialism – not while the means of production remained in the hands of capitalists and great disparities in wealth and income remained as an inevitable byproduct. So there would have been other steps if that had been won. And maybe none of those steps would have involved race specific policy. But it damn well would have needed participation of an independent Black movement that made sure further advances working class struggle did did not ignore the need to maintain racial equality. The same thing applies to feminism. Back when the Communist Party was powerful on the left, there were feminists who suboridnated themselves to the CP anad often ignored issues like sexual harassment and rape. Today, there is no real left, though there are leftists. But many feminists subordinate themselves to the Democratic party – which is not at all a left Party of course. There is a tension. On the one hand you need unity, and aside from being fundamental class struggle is a great potential unifier since the work class is a vast majority. But on the other people need to defend themselves where they are attacked. And what gives me hope is not only MLK, but people like Cornell West, who comes from a place of defending the rights of Black people, but also sees the links to larger struggles where he supports workers rights, and compares Snowden and Manning to John Brown. Solidarity that does not forget that Black people still are singled out targets often of institutions rather than just prejudice.

  10. Yes, Basic Income is not socialism: that’s why I think socialists should support it, because it’ll help desperate folks of all hues, and even members of the right can support it.

    But that wasn’t my point. King saw the problem was greater than race. That doesn’t mean he thought we should accept or ignore racism. I’ve noticed many capitalists complain about racism, then get huffy when anyone brings up class: The reductionism in these discussions is race reductionism, not class reductionism.

    Another favorite quote, from Adolph Reed Jr’s “The Limits of Anti-racism”: “My position is—and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said this bluntly, yet to no avail, in response to those in blissful thrall of the comforting Manicheanism—that of course racism persists, in all the disparate, often unrelated kinds of social relations and “attitudes” that are characteristically lumped together under that rubric, but from the standpoint of trying to figure out how to combat even what most of us would agree is racial inequality and injustice, that acknowledgement and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway. It doesn’t lend itself to any particular action except more taxonomic argument about what counts as racism.”

    I’m a pragmatist. I don’t want to be offered moral solutions to economic problems. I can get those from churches. I want things like universal health care and guaranteed income. Talk to me about race-based solutions like reparations or quotas, and I’ll be sympathetic to your intent, but I’ll point out that those things ain’t gonna happen for damn good reasons.

  11. Capitalism is the problem. By identifying classism in the context of social justice we can start conversations that will lead to dismantling classism.

  12. abp123: I think you are exactly right. It will lead to dismantling classism. And leave capitalism in place, and no one noticeably better off. As I keep saying, the problem isn’t “classism” the problem is class.

  13. Rather than abolishing classes(which I believe to be impossible), I view them as a fundamental part of society – and I think that the fascist solution was the best one. Every class from the working to the rich is valuable to the nation, and should be treated as such.

    The classes will always exist, there will always be the rich and the poor, but there’s no reason that there should exist unnecessary conflict between them, and corporations and rich business owners shouldn’t be allowed to harm the nation for nothing but profit. It’s disgusting.

  14. LeJohnathon: I let your comment through on the gamble that you are only confused, and not actually advocating a position I hate so thoroughly that I’ll not engage with it on the level of debate. To wit: Are you aware that the fascist “solution” to “unnecessary conflict” involves utterly crushing all working class organizations, and murdering the leaders of the working class, and destroying any means the working class has to to resist?

  15. Elite authoritarian rulers and tyrants often profess a sentimental attachment to the lower classes, especially to peasants, who being “close to nature” are naturally superior in their eyes to factory workers. But speaking of hypocrisy, this is perhaps the ultimate expression of it. When it’s draft-time or tax-time, the sentimentality abruptly vanishes.

    Anyway, the obvious goal of human development should be to eliminate classes, not with the idea of crushing everyone down to the same low level (though that may be tactically necessary where the ruling class is exploitative and criminal, which is to say pretty much everywhere), but with the intention of raising everyone up to the highest level.

  16. Will: My question was directed at the occupations of people in the intended future.

    But your definition proposals leave a wide swath that concerns me intensely: are people who work for themselves “working class” though the fruits of their labor are presumably theirs (less taxes, fees, etc.)? Are people who work for themselves “capitalist class” because the computers they use to write their works are the means of production, which individuals should not own?

    When I say I have a concern about definitions I don’t mean it in some little way. I mean it in the deepest possible way.

    In the intended future, what will we call the people who administer the government? It’s hard to imagine really believing that people whose roles include allocating everyone else’s means of production are going to be called “working class” with a straight face. It seems difficult not to view them as a separate class. (Here I think of the communist-with-a-capital-c governments that arose in the last century, and shudder.) Or do we envision the world Krapotkin imagines, in which we become free when there is no government of any kind to create oppression?

    That’s the nature of my definitional concern, without which I really can’t picture the scene that’s being described. I would like to imagine what’s being described so I can make up my mind what I think about it, but until I know the intended meaning of the words that are being used I’m not optimistic the pictures I imagine bear any relation to the one imagined by skzb.

    That’s why I’m appealing for help with the intended meaning of the words.

  17. There are social classes intertwined with economic classes. We could argue about it indefinitely.

    A man who owns stock in a bunch of companies might get some income from it. He could churn his accounts, gambling that he’s better than average at predicting price swings. He is a by-product of capitalism and not in any way central — if he gambled his money in casinos it would be about the same except he might lose it faster.

    A corporate president might not own very much stock at all, but he has a whole lot of control. He makes the choices that decide which places have jobs and which places have big unemployment. He decides how much automation to do, how many people to throw out of work entirely. Is he working class, because his work is to make those choices? I say no. If he’s working then the gambler who chooses which stock to buy is doing work. Unless somehow he makes *right* decisions. But if there was a way to measure how good his choices were in the short run, we could use that method to make the choices instead of him. Likely we could replace a lot of executives with random number generators at no loss….

    I don’t want to get bogged down in detail, but maybe a few details are important. There are the people who work to make stuff. There are the people who make decisions like who gets to work to make stuff. And then there are people who get the benefits. This stuff gets all mixed up, but that might not matter much. Maybe it’s more important to slice it up a different way.

    There are the people who want a beneficial change, and the people who want to prevent it, and then people who are confused. A poor working class man who wants to keep things just the way they are is on the other team apart from his economic class or his social class. He may be powerless to do much to help them….

  18. C.D.,

    Technically, Steve’s right, but I think his answer’s too simple. There are huge groups of people who “work for themselves”–freelancers, contract workers, etc.–who’re effectively ronin: to survive, they have to “work for themselves” for someone else. Many writers consider themselves self-employed, but so long as publishers can tell us to cut things, expand things, change things, etc., we really aren’t. But I admit, I have an extreme definition of what it means to be your own boss.

    J Thomas is right that there are rich working class folks–sports stars are my favorite example, because they rightly have unions–and poor bourgeois folk who’re just scraping by.

    The difference between social class and economic class is that if you lose your money, it doesn’t matter who your folks were or where you went to school, economically, you’re working class. Conversely, if you were working class and get some money and buy stock or a business, you’re now a capitalist.

    As for administrators, one of the reasons I believe in democratic socialism is you’ve got to be able to watch your administrators and get rid of them if they’re doing badly or creating anything that could be called an administrative class.

  19. > … or creating anything that could be called an administrative class.

    Or as Trotsky called them, a caste, because the notion of class as described in this thread is more of a status than a permanent condition due to the possibility of mobility, whereas the ruling class always seems to ossify into a caste due to their natural tendency to accrue power, wealth and privilege, and to share only with culturally and demographically similar juniors.

    This seems to have been a major problem for almost every Communist and soi-disant Communist state since the Paris Commune. Viz “nomenklatura”, “princelings”, etc. etc. etc. Of course it’s a problem in other systems too, but in these various abortive or eventually mistaken attempts at Communism such as the USSR and Communist China, it’s ironic and pathetic.

  20. Caste works for me. And I’ll add that it’s not the problem of nepotism that bothers me–kids often want to do what their parents did–it’s the problem of accountability. I was reading something about the dictatorship of the proletariat recently that stressed that the word has problems in contemporary English: what Marx was talking about is more like the rule of the working class. If the administrators serve the working class the way they currently serve the capitalist class, I won’t complain.

  21. Will/Miramon: A government without an administrative class? This brings me back to how we’ll avoid the results of the China, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other places that seized the means of production and then made serfs of everyone who wasn’t administering the state. Is there some plan to avoid this result, or does it remain a dream like Krapotkin’s?

    The last time I asked about this I was told to read The Revolution Betrayed, but I confess I haven’t got a copy yet. My worry was that it complained about the derailment of the Soviet revolution without actually describing how to obtain effective representative governance – something that’s been a problem as long as we’ve had representative governance, which has been a few millennia now. I have some unfortunate personal experience from the internal workings of government that persuade me that putting capital in the control of a government bureau will only increase the motivation and the incentive for corruption.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Assuming the printing presses and computer servers are declared “means of production” and subjected to seizure in favor of government allocation, we’ll have even less chance of public oversight than now exists. Am I missing something?

    skzb: In light of Will’s point about “self-employed” people really working for others “for themselves”, is it really obvious who the working class is presently? But of more interest to me: if everyone will be working class, is this achieved by (a) everyone working for themselves, (b) everyone working for the government, (c) all the non-working-class activity being halted, or (d) something you’re kind enough to describe in terms I can picture?

    I’ve read more Brust than Krapotkin, but not on the topic of liberation through revolution. So while I can imagine the future he would (have) see(n) made, I can’t yet picture yours. Care to share?

  22. To be a “working class” musician, must someone else own the guitar? If property ceases, how will people make music?

    I’m not sure how far people envision this going. Must property be a “means of production” before it’s subject to state dominion? Is a poet’s pen a “means of production”? What it means to eliminate property has a big impact on what it will look like once private property is no more.

  23. “Care to share?” A proletariat strong enough to exercise its dictatorship over society will allow no one to exercise a dictatorship over it. For details, I’ll repeat my recommendation that you read The Revolution Betrayed.

    There is no such thing as property without the State. There is possession, but that is a relationship between a person and a thing, whereas property is a relationship among people and requires the State to enforce it. Personally, I don’t care about “owning” a computer so long as it is easily available for my use.\

    Those who both own and work the means of production are called the middle class, or the petty bourgeoisie, or the petit bourgeoisie. At the lower end, their interests lie with the working class; at the upper end, with the ruling class.

    I make no distinction between “social classes” and “economic classes.”.

  24. skzb: I have recently tried to read it. In light of history … well. The first sentence of its introduction, and the second, left me trembling in outrage. It may be a while before I’m through it to the point of finding a kernel of information about the practicality of the solutions it proposes. If the assumptions underlying these first two sentences are any indication of the quality of the assumptions on which the remainder of the conclusions are based, I am unlikely to find any value in author’s conclusions. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the facts relayed by the author, and their import for practical experience in the future. But then, if the truth of the facts assumed in the first two sentences proves representative of the truth of the facts reported elsewhere in the book, I may have a very great difficulty finding value in it beyond the light it may shed on its proponents. This may be worthwhile, of course.

    To claim there is a difference between ownership and possession is true, but your particular statement doesn’t go quite far enough to be useful. Property rights as they currently exist are important to understand if one is to propose abolishing them, I would think, because they help one understand the concerns of individuals that gave rise to the development of the rights. The rights certainly were not created in a vacuum; in the peculiar common-law system predominating in the United States, property laws were developed to reflect the expectations of the people who elected the people who pronounced the law. Certainly possession is viewed as an important right in tangible property (try dispossessing someone from the place she calls home and see how she likes it), but possession is not the ownership of the property. The right to control who may obtain possession is ownership of tangible property. A state that enforces its view of who should possess property is the owner of that property in any meaningful way. If your computer and mine – your home and mine – are subject to re-allocation by a government committee, we aren’t free. Under such a scheme we have no rights but what government deigns to grant. If our means to work and live are subject to seizure at the whim of the state we become no more in our rights than chattels ourselves.

    And the word you use for it is apt: it is dictatorship. But we don’t need a revolution to achieve it. We can move to one of those any day we please.

    Surely you hope for something better?

  25. Will – Your point that many who “work for themselves” are really doing it for others – and are really working-class – deserves some amplification.

    Some employers who wish to dodge the employer taxes imposed on payrolls purport to “contract” for “non-employee” services solely to avoid the responsibilities owed by employers to employees under local law. So they call their lowest-tied employees “contractors” to dodge the tax, which has the practical effect of imposing on workers self-employment taxes to which employees are by law not required to bear. And as “contractors”, they may have less clear means to secure protection in the form of unemployment benefits or even wrongful-discharge remedies. They may not choose this status for themselves but have it thrust upon them by employers.

    The point that interests me is that even among some of these lowest-tier “contractor” employees are many who are required to own the means of their production: they must supply their delivery trucks, or communications equipment, or what have you – without which they cannot provide the services that feed their families. I’m interested whether they will risk losing the right to possess the means of their sustenance, merely because – though working class – they have the ill luck to require capital to perform their work.

    Without property, would only a cappella singers be free to do their work?

  26. What Steve said about the middle class, but I’ve had enough experience with social classes that I’m willing to try to deal with them. The economic middle class is not the social middle class; it’s effectively the “upper middle/lower upper” social class. Social class in the US is complex–it may be that identitarians prefer to deal with social class because they come from communities where your zip code matters and so does the place you summer at.

    I like socialism’s class system for at least three reasons:

    1. When you grasp it, it’s beautifully simple.

    2. Unlike every social class system, it has no exceptions.

    3. It never obscures who has power under capitalism.

  27. Good addition about the ways business owners use contractors. I’m reminded of cowboys who were expected to own their own saddles, and of migrant farm workers who knew they were only there until the crop was in.

    There seems to be an assumption that socialists would take everything everyone had, put it in a pile, and redistribute it. That’d be horribly inefficient. We have homes enough for everyone; there’s no reason to evict anyone. If you’re using your computer, why should it be taken away from you? Socialists don’t plan to stop making new things. They just plan to take the profit motive out of making new things, so new things are made because, as William Morris would say, they’re necessary or beautiful.

  28. > Unlike every social class system, it has no exceptions

    The thing is, when you apply it rigorously to the US, you end up with at least a electoral plurality, and probably a sizeable majority, as middle class. Statistics on this are surprisingly hard to come by. It’s comparable to France, where the official ideology is that there is no such thing as race, everyone is a Frenchman. So no-one measures to what degree that is true.

    Now your classic old-school communism aims at a classless society where everyone is working class; no capital in private hands means no other classes. So its a hard sell politically in the US when that would be a step down for so many.

    The more general problem is that practically there are a lot of necessary jobs, like administration, that are hard to do from within the culture and ethos of the working class. So you get new classes forming, with the consequent repetition of the bloody history by which classes gain experience. By the time of the end of the Soviet Union, the new ruling classes were approaching competence, and hardly ever had to resort to open massacre.

    Not sure exactly what ideology wants a classless society where everyone is middle class. Would it be one way of describing Social democracy, or even (american) liberalism?

  29. do you think “prejudice” is the biggest hitter in racism or sexism? because i would say it was structural support of white supremacy and patriarchy.

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