The working class in contemporary capitalism

BY:Roberta Wood| July 20, 2017
The working class in contemporary capitalism



It is natural for people to believe that the society they were born into is the normal state of affairs and will continue forever. However, the fact is, capitalism is only a stage of human development –it is not an eternal system.

This is one of the important points that Marx and Engels made when they laid out the basics of capitalism.

Marx and Engels did their studies in the mid-1800s when modern capitalism’s industrial base – giant factories and mass production powered by steam, water and later electricity – was just coming into being.

For sure most people in their day worked, but most of those working people were not members of what they defined as the working class. Instead, most people in Europe, America, Asia and Africa and around the world still lived in the countryside and were engaged in agriculture where they worked as individual family units. Most rural people at that time spent their work lives producing for the needs of their own individual family. They worked, but they were not in what Marx and Engels defined as the working class.

In England, the land they farmed was converted by its owners to more profitable sheep grazing. Meanwhile, new factories using new technologies arose in the cities, making textiles and machinery. The former peasants fled to the cities with nothing to sell but their ability to work in the new sweatshops.


In a peasant society, most of what people produced was for their own use. But today, in a developed capitalist society like ours, the goods and services workers produce are not for their own use, they are commodities –– made to sell in the marketplace. The capitalists sell the goods the workers produce and pay the workers a small portion of the proceeds.  Every important product and service made in our country today is a commodity.

We make it, they take it!

Workers are the force that activates the machinery and software. When workers apply their physical and mental efforts to the production process they produce far more value than they consume.

Because people produce everything as a group, it would make sense if the machinery and technology were owned as a group. It would be logical if the products of the labor, machinery and technology were owned collectively. But instead, in a capitalist economic system, individual capitalists own the machinery and technology. So the capitalists, not the workers, end up owning the goods and services that the workers produce.

What exactly does ‘exploitation’ mean?

Marx and Engels explained the concept of exploitation. The workers produce commodities to get paid; they receive a small portion of what the commodities sell for. The rest of what the commodities sell for goes to capitalists as profit.

“Exploitation” describes the amount of value that workers produce over and above what they are paid for. Exploitation is the source of the profits the capitalists rake in.

In today’s society, it is hard to measure the amount that each individual worker is exploited. It’s easier to see the level of exploitation of our class overall. Exploitation is what accounts for the enormous accumulation of wealth, and what today everyone refers to as income inequality. The world’s billionaires own nearly $7,000,000,000,000 (seven trillion) in wealth. The top 60 of them own more than is owned by half the world’s population put together. This seven trillion is the accumulation of the exploitation of workers around the world.

Even very highly paid workers are exploited because they still produce so much more than they are paid.

The importance of the fight for a shorter workweek

Marx and Engels pointed out that, in effect, workers are only paid for a portion of their workday. The rest of their work time goes to enrich the capitalists. They emphasized the importance of the fight over how many hours a day people should work. Remember, many of the first organized struggles of workers focused on reducing the brutally long workday – 16 hours or more.

Here in Chicago, the clash that led to May Day was the struggle for a shorter workweek.  Marx and Engels saw the fight to shorten the workday wasn’t just a humanitarian issue. Reducing the workweek – working less hours with no cut in pay- meant people not only could live more human lives– but would be less exploited and would receive a larger proportion of the wealth they created.

Workers can only live by selling their labor power

Marx and Engels highlighted the extreme insecurity and misery that capitalism created. Having been driven off the farmland and into the cities, workers had lost access to the fields and tools necessary to produce the food and goods they needed to live. The only way they had left to survive was to sell their labor. In the cities they moved to they found a merciless marketplace where they were in competition with other workers.

Why unity is the toughest challenge

The Communist Manifesto made this slogan famous:  “Workers of the world unite!” In the years since 1848 when the Manifesto was written, we have learned that achieving unity is the most difficult challenge facing the working class. Why?

As much as workers under capitalism have common interests, we are all also competitors for jobs. We compete for jobs in a dog-eat-dog marketplace.

As competitors against each other, where there are always more workers than jobs, we have no bargaining power in relation to our employers. They play us off against each other. Competition in the workplace is the enemy of the working class. No individual worker alone can successfully bargain with an employer.

From the dawn of capitalism, on every continent, workers spontaneously organized one form of union or another to reduce competition between individuals in a workplace. That was the only way to reduce the hours of work and get more pay.

Today when workers individually, or even groups of workers in one country, try to deal separately with employers, you know what happens: we end up in what we call “the race to the bottom.” Profit-hungry corporations encourage worker against worker, state against state, union against non-union, country against country and as we know so well here in the United States, white against black, native-born against immigrant.

Even more advanced forms of unity are needed to deal with the other forms of competition.   The working-class movement in our country contributed to the world working class’s understanding of this critical and complicated question.

Lessons from the experience of our working class

Capital, wrote Marx, comes into the world dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.

Nothing illustrates this more than the integral role that the slave trade played in the development of capitalist economics. At the same time capitalism brought into being the working class – a group of people who had nothing to sell but their labor, it brought into being another category of people who could not even sell their labor, but whose very bodies were themselves sold. The rationale that justified pushing peasants off their land was the “free market.” The twin rationale that justified slavery was racism. Racism further provided the template to divide that working class against itself.

Racism is not a quirk, or an aberration of the “free market system.” It is built into it. Racism has been woven into the development of capitalism at every stage from 1492 to today. It was built into the extreme theft of labor that was slavery. Racism was built into the theft of two continents of land. These robberies along with the exploitation of the early industrial workers paid for the huge investment in machinery and technology that made today’s super- productivity possible.

“Jim Crow” followed up the slave system. The complex systems of unequal treatment of African Americans are the blueprints for an infrastructure for de-humanizing and super-exploiting a group. These blueprints for inequality within the working class have been refined and used over and over against other people of color, Native Americans, immigrants, and women. Even more, these blueprints are the provide an infrastructure to attack the unity of the whole working class.

Unity must be based on equality

The U.S. working class has lived and continues to live the experience of Marx’s statement: “Labor in the white skin cannot be free while labor in the black skin is branded.

What has our working class learned about unity? We have learned that unity cannot be achieved unless it is based on equality. So equality, in and of itself, is a central issue for the whole class, not just those who are the direct victims of the inequality.

Equality has to be fought for everywhere: in the workplace, in our social lives, in the political arena, ideologically and culturally, in the community, schools and civic institutions like churches. These are all important places for the working class to struggle against inequality.

Capitalism is also about control

The struggle under capitalism is about profits, but it’s also about claiming control. Beyond hours and wages, struggles for control of the workplace have unfolded.

Control over working conditions and general quality of life – health and safety and environmental issues – are working-class issues.

Issues of respect at work overlap with the struggles for unity and to maximize the working class’s share of the fruits of production.

‘Public goods’

As technology has developed, we find that many of the things workers produce today are not physical products, like food or clothing or cars, which we consume individually. They are more and more “public goods,” like education, the Internet; sewage treatment; bridges; public transportation, cultural and recreation facilities and even social security and care of children. These public goods are a much larger part of the economy than during the time of Marx and Engels.

How do the workers who labor to produce these products fit into the description of exploitation when they don’t directly produce a profit for anyone? Wages and conditions for workers in these sections of the economy tend to parallel the wages and benefits that people receive for similar work in for-profit sections of the economy. The workers who produce “public goods”  are an integral part of the working class as a whole which produces the enormous profits stolen by today’s billionaire class.

Much of working class struggle has moved into the arena of political struggle – fighting for government policies that spend more on peoples’ needs and for taxing the rich. A good example is the struggle about who should pay taxes. That is where, potentially, workers as a group face off against capitalists as a group. As in any conflict, each side tries to pick off allies from the camp of the other side. Each side tries to win over the middle forces. In this case many of the “middle forces” are the small business interests.

The struggle for workers to get a greater share of the product the whole class produces is focusing more and more focuses on “public good” issues – health, education, transportation, and the environment. These issues can’t be won in just one single workplace or region. They need to be established as a standard of life in modern society – free public education, clean water, access to the Internet, landline phones, universal health care, and affordable housing.

Why we work with other forces beyond the working class

Taking advantage of splits among opposing forces in the political arena can be very important. Many workers don’t necessarily see themselves as workers; they still take leadership on political questions from capitalist forces. Or they have a foot in each camp, both working for a boss and running a small business themselves.  If we work together with these “middle” forces and even sections of the capitalist class on issues where we may have the same interests, even if temporarily, it can be to our advantage. In this way, we can help bring the workers who still follow the lead of the small business forces or even the capitalists into coalitions with forces led by the working class.

The fruits of working-class productivity

I believe that Marx and Engels saw that capitalism was beginning to create the technology and machinery that would result in a level of productivity through which human material needs could be satisfied with everyone working just a few hours a week. The rest of humanity’s time could be spent pursuing art, music, sports, quilting, heavy metal concerts, gourmet cooking, tattoo design, gardening, biking, hanging out and more human pursuits. I’m guessing they saw this level of productivity coming to pass under socialism, not necessarily under capitalism.

But today the leap in productivity HAS happened and in the U.S. it takes only 2% of our workforce to produce all the food we eat. It only takes 8 or 9% of our workforce to produce all of our manufactured goods. Just 7.5% are involved in construction. Transportation and warehouses take up 7%. Energy workers make up less than 1%. Workers fulfilling the other functions that may be necessary for material production amount to 10%.

The remainder – far more than half of the workforce – is engaged in producing values that didn’t even exist in the times of the founders of Marxism. A dramatic example is health care, which involves 16% of the U.S. workforce. Another huge chunk is education.

Our vocabulary is stuck in the 20th century

We lump all these non-material products of human labor together and call them “service industries.” I think that term hides what has happened as a result of the enormous leap in productivity of humanity. “Service” was originally used to describe the work of a small section of the work force who were servants for the rich. The word “service” makes you think of a minor function.

But the direct labor performed by the many different health care workers – from nurses to physical therapists to home health aides – is an essential part of life in the 21st century, not a sideline. Our vocabulary is stuck in the 19th century. It doesn’t help us explain how our economy works today. We need a term for what it is these workers produce. Their direct labor in many ways has become a critical portion our economy. In fact, what they do is actually produce commodities, even though these commodities are not material objects.

‘Crap jobs’ deserve respect

Marx and Engels wrote in the mid-1800s. That was the time of the birth of the industrial proletariat – those who we call blue collar workers who worked in the giant factories. The explosion of mass production industries increased their numbers. These laborers were looked down on as not really being workers compared to the skilled craft workers. They were seen as lacking skills. When they won union rights they won not only good wages but respect for their jobs.

These industrial workers are still critical. They produce all the goods we use and enormous amounts of profits for the capitalist class.

But since the middle of the last century we have seen the explosion of workers creating other values. And today’s generation of young workers, the millennials, are identified with this new category. Like the first industrial workers, they are also looked down on. Their work is referred to as low skilled and less valuable – “crap jobs,” “hamburger flippers.” Sadly, we sometimes hear these anti-working class terms even in our own circles.

The development of the industrial proletariat as the predominant work force made it necessary to come up with a new form of labor organization – industrial unions. The craft unions that existed previously were not adequate to represent their needs. In the mid 20th century, the industrial unions achieved much success in developing progressive labor legislation to address the needs of workers in the industrial economy.

Today the emergence of this new work force in the “service” sector also demands new forms of organization. I am not saying anything new here. The labor movement has been struggling and experimenting with this issue for more than a decade. This struggle is complicated by the right-wing assault on the progressive labor legislation that was fought for and developed to address what at that time was the new industrial work force.

But the right-wing assault on labor is not the only problem. We have yet to see the emergence of self-sustaining movements and organizations from this new “service” sector and the development of their own internally generated leadership.  And labor legislation is needed today to correspond to the needs of the growing new “service” sector.

Millennials – leaders or ‘accidental workers’?

These are questions for us to ponder.  Our comrades and friends, especially those who spend their work lives wrapping sandwiches or feeding nursing home residents must study and share with us how they and their workplace colleagues see this. We need to also ask ourselves: does our Party fully value these comrades for their expertise in a field we need to know so much more about? Do we see them as leaders, or just as accidental workers?

A conference like this is the rare opportunity to ask more questions than provide answers, to have time to chew over difficult issues. We don’t have to be 100% right on every idea we present today, but let’s lift up the concept of “working class intellectuals.” Members of the working class are not only the receivers of wisdom, we are all the makers of wisdom. I believe that you and I are the ones who together will help figure these issues out and fight for the future.

Photo: Obama archieve



    Roberta Wood, Secretary-Treasurer of the Communist Party, is a retired journeyman industrial instrument mechanic. A lifelong union activist, she was a founding co-chair of the United Steelworkers District 31 Women's Caucus. She writes on labor issues for A Chicagoan, Roberta is married to Steelworker retiree Scott Marshall. Scott and Roberta have four daughters and seven grandchildren.

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