"Class and wealth surely have everything to do with each other, but they are not the same thing. A stable, well-paid job (to the extent that these still exist) such as a train conductor in New York City may pay upward of $70,000 a year, and a small bodega owner in the Bronx may earn much less. But the former is a worker — who does not control her own hours and conditions of work, and the latter is a small business owner, charged with his own exploitation, as well as that of others (even if few in number).
The numbers on someone's paycheck can't tell you everything. It can't tell you, for instance, that a manager at Starbucks, who makes less than a subway conductor, has the power to fire every worker in the store. We can see then that wealth is just one part of the picture, and one that is more symptomatic of class inequality than explanatory of its origin. In fact, power, control over working conditions, and financial decision-making are the bedrocks of exploitation.
Economics Professor Michael Zweig explained it this way: 'By looking only at income or lifestyle, we see the results of class, but not the origins of class. We see how we are different in our possessions, but not how we are related and connected, and made different, in the process of making what we possess." [emphasis added] The Marxist explanation instead emphasizes that one's position in society is not measured quantitatively, but is determined by a person's relationship to labor, the fruits of labor, and the means of production. Anyone who controls the means of production, has political power, dictates the terms of other's working conditions, or owns capital that can be invested in production, is part of the CAPITALIST CLASS. And anyone who must sell their labor-power for a wage and has no access to the means of production themselves is part of the WORKING CLASS.
This does not just extend to workers engaged in production of physical goods. Teachers and nurses must sell their labor in order to provide services, and thus are part of the working class. As Marx argued: 'If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a school-master is a productive worker when, in addition to belaboring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation.'
It is in this sense that Marx and Engels wrote that the 'proletarian is without property.' PROLETARIANS is another word for workers; and private property does not mean personal belongings, like your TV or laptop, but the means of production — the buildings, machinery, software, equipment, tools, and other materials owned by capitalists. Marx wasn't saying that workers literally have nothing, although that is often and increasingly true. He meant that we are without any means to produce and reproduce our livelihoods, and therefore we are at the mercy of capitalist exploitation. A construction company has mechanical shovels, drills, and dozers, which allow them to exploit laborers and turn a profit. I have a shovel, which I can use to grow flowers or tomatoes...
Wealth and poverty do not determine class, rather they are manifestations of it."
- Hadas Thier, from A People's Guide to Capitalism: An Introduction to Marxist Economics, 2020.
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