May Day — the day to celebrate the struggles of the working class — has come and gone. Exactly one week before the sixth post-apartheid parliamentary elections that have seen a lot of talk about social class.
Media commentators in particular seem fixated on how what they term “the black middle class” will vote on May 8. Generally agreed on all sides in these debates is that this class is now substantial, growing, and apparently has interests different from traditional working class voters.
The ANC and its supporters claim that it is the governing party and its policies that have created the conditions to enable the growth of this class. Many dispute this. But the whole debate begs the question: What constitutes the middle class of whatever complexion?
For most, it seems, class categories amount merely to a matter of money, to income levels. Also, sometimes regarded separately and sometimes together with income, ownership of a house in the suburbs and a car denotes upward mobility to a “middle class”.
The main purveyors of this definition are academics — often economists or sociologists. Journalists, and the media as a whole, then play the role of broadcasting and popularising something that can be described as flawed analysis, if not myth.
Going by some of these definitions, the working class comprises only the poor who happen to have, usually manual, jobs. And the unemployed seldom get a look-in, although these legions of mainly young people are sometimes referred to disparagingly as an “under class”.
At least analyses today are more sophisticated that some in the 1950s. One study in Cape Town at that time concluded that middle class homes were those that had a door mat before the front door.
Professor John Simpson’s definition of middle class, reported in City Press last week, focused mainly on income: A person with a white-collar job, earning between R21 000 and R67 500 a month and owning a car.
But if pay cuts reduced such a person’s income to below R21 000 and the car was repossessed, would that person cease to be middle class?
This does not make much sense, but it highlights the divide-and-rule strategy so successfully applied by elites throughout history. A little bit of flattery, especially with a dollop or two of bribery, can go a long way to dividing workers to the benefit of the bosses.
An old English working class song sums this up at a basic level: “The working class can kiss my arse/ I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.” But a foreman or supervisor invariably remains a seller of labour, an essential cog in a machine aimed at producing profit for a company and its owners.
This example and the song are still used today, but they hark back to the middle of an industrial era of manual labour that is fast vanishing.
More jobs today are “white collar”, but many are very lowly paid. And the jobs of even relatively highly paid workers, with cars, are increasingly precarious in the face of advancing automation.
Against this background it is worrying that so many workers continue to buy into the marketing myth that if they are slightly better off, they are middle class and that their interests are counter to the working class. This is the modern, secular, version of the belief in “pie in the sky, bye and bye” (when you die); clinging to subjective belief rather than objective reality.
It is not a new phenomenon. But perhaps it is time, as in the past, for unions to concentrate on providing sound general and political education for workers.