The myth of the middle class is persistent in our society. Its existence is questioned only by those who question the system of capitalism itself, for the existence of a “middle class” is an ideological construction built to protect and preserve the antagonisms in capitalism. In The Myth of the “Middle Class,” we briefly summarized the origins and composition of this status group, but there is more to be said about the groups it is composed of. Who are the petty bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy?
The first of these two, the petty bourgeoisie, can be more easily accounted for as a subset of the bourgeoisie. They own their own means of production, but don’t have the same power coming from their property that the bourgeoisie does. The labor aristocracy is not defined in the same structural manner. Just as the middle class itself is defined superstructurally (that is, in terms of culture, status and institution — terms that are not grounded in economic reality) so to is the labor aristocracy. Understanding how the labor aristocracy is formulated is important to understanding the common interests among workers and the bourgeois ideological currents which seek to divide them.
Who are the Labor Aristocrats?
The labor aristocracy is a sub-group of the proletariat who enjoy higher wages, typically paid in the form of salaries rather than at an hourly rate. The labor aristocracy is referred to as being composed of “professional workers” since most of these “professions” require prerequisite credential documentation in the form of degrees, licenses and other certifications that document the formal education of labor aristocratic workers. These credentials, in the eyes of bourgeois ideology, make them “skilled workers” — as if all other labor is unskilled and therefore should require less wage compensation — which justifies their higher position in the wage stratification experienced by all workers.
The Nature of Division: Status, Not Class
The relatively higher compensation enjoyed by the labor aristocracy might lead one to believe that they are in a different class than the proletariat, since their wages would seem to put them in a position of having more economic power than workers. However, this is fundamentally incorrect, since it ignores what it is that defines class, and that the true origin of one’s power in capitalism isn’t who has the highest wages, but how one fundamentally relates to the means of production in capitalism, and the relative power their relationship gives them.
It must first be understood that professional workers lack means of production. Rather than making a living by owning and controlling means of production, benefitting from the surplus value generated by other workers, the labor aristocrat still only has their labor to sell. While they have more to bargain with in terms of credentials, they still lack the power that ownership provides the bourgeoisie. Their success is in how well they “sell themselves” rather than how they sell products or utilize property, which ultimately makes their relation to the means of production a proletarian one.
So, if the fundamental position of the worker from the labor aristocracy differs little from workers in concrete structural terms, what is it that distinguishes them? The answer lies, once more, in the American conception of class and the role of status in this conception. The labor aristocracy enjoys a higher status in the cultural sense because of the fetishization of their credentials.
To illustrate how this status functions, let’s look at two hypothetical workers. One worker, while having only a High School diploma, has worked many jobs and has accrued a wealth of practical experience about their role in production and how that work coincides with the work of others. The other worker has just graduated from a prestigious business school, having little practical work experience outside of odd jobs they have worked in their youth. These two workers apply for a management position. Which worker is likely to be chosen for this line of work? Typically, the fetishized credentials of the college graduate will outweigh the experience of the worker who lacks the same documentation.
Both workers will have to work for a living, and both workers will ultimately be compensated a pittance of the value they create for the bourgeoisie. The difference is that one worker enjoys a higher status than other, since it is believed that the credentials they present demonstrate that worker having a certain “skill” or “professionalism” that workers without such credentials lack. This status, like a caste status, is a social classification that not only defines the position of one worker or workers in the present, but also has implications as to whether their children will be able to join the labor aristocracy, since the position and increased wage of the labor aristocratic worker allows them a better opportunity to ensure that their children will be able to attain similar credentials by being able to afford supplementary education.
The Function of Status in the Stratification of Workers
The emergence of a labor aristocracy and attempts to separate them from the working class are no accident. In the transition from an earlier stage of capitalism to modern imperialism, the bourgeoisie found that it was more effective to replace the petty bourgeoisie with higher paid workers than to slow their growth and allow any matter of competition between the industries of modern monopoly capitalism and the self-employed.
By providing compulsory education through the state and by rewarding education with higher pay, the bourgeoisie was able to gather the knowledge needed to maximize profits and productive capacity with less cost than would be demanded by independent technicians. As a result, more and more professions have become proletarianized in that, rather than requiring workers in those professions to have all of the skills and technical experience that artisan or craftsman would have needed to understand every aspect of their craft, instead the same work can be done more efficiently by having one labor aristocrat who is the “professional” and a number of lower paid workers who do manual labor.
Let’s look at modern medicine. In the past, doctors were self-employed petty bourgeois who owned their own practices and could practice medicine in a manner more or less independent from larger industries. Today, you are more likely to find a doctor working as a labor aristocrat in a hospital or HMO, where they are put to work seeing many patients while medical technicians and nurses do most of the practical work necessary for the treatment of wounds and illnesses. While the MD is comparatively better paid than his fellow technicians, they still both must sell their labor, produce much more value than they are compensated for and are vulnerable to being fired or laid off by their hospital or HMO.
While one cannot deny that, ultimately, both labor aristocratic workers and the rest of the proletariat are under the dominion of the bourgeoisie, we are taught not to see this common thread binding us, but instead focus on the differences in wages and the comparatively more comfortable position in which the labor aristocracy find themselves. In the American conception of class, a well-paid worker can be in the same income bracket as someone on the lower end of the bourgeoisie. What this does is advance a conception that purposefully ignores the role one plays in production and the power that role gives them, thus redefining class as a plurality of different sub-groups within an all-encompassing wage hierarchy. With all of these “upper middles” and “lower uppers,” class becomes something that isn’t a conflict of interests among principle groups in production, but rather, a plurality of arbitrary wage statistics.
This attempt at the pluralization of class antagonisms serves to divide worker against worker, to destroy the solidarity among the masses of working people by dividing those masses into rungs on a latter where the idea is to hold onto your rung, kick down at those on the rung below you, and usurp the next highest rung for yourself. This scenario, where worker fights worker in attempts to appease the bourgeoisie and be rewarded for it, is the dream of the bourgeoisie in their desire to divide and conquer the proletariat.
At the same time that this works to divide workers, it also serves as an effective camouflage for the bourgeoisie, since it conceals the fact that they are the ones with the most power and gives the false impression that wealth is more evenly distributed within society. If class is a spreadsheet of different wage levels, there can be no antagonism between exploiters and the exploited, since they too can occupy varying levels of the wage ladder.
Conclusion: The Bourgeoisie’s Definitions Are Not Our Own
The labor aristocracy is not a class in and of themselves. They have no relation to the means of production different from that of an ordinary worker. Rather, capitalism fosters a division in earnings and prestige for some workers based on their credentials. The reason for this division is both practical and ideological; paying some workers more allows one to pay other workers less, and it pluralizes class antagonisms, making it harder to see that the real conflict lies between all workers and the bourgeoisie. When we examine the common position of all workers, the exploitation felt by all working people and the fact that capitalism simply doesn’t work for most of us, the battle lines become clear.