The working class (also labouring class and proletariat) are the people employed for wages, especially in manual-labour occupations and in skilled, industrial work. Working-class occupations include blue-collar jobs, some white-collar jobs, and most service-work jobs. The working class only rely upon their earnings from wage labour, thereby, the category includes most of the working population of industrialized economies, of the urban areas (cities, towns, villages) of non-industrialized economies, and of the rural workforce.
In Marxist theory and socialist literature, the term working class is often used interchangeably with the term proletariat, and includes all workers who expend both physical and mental labour (salaried knowledge workers and white-collar workers) to produce economic value for the owners of the means of production (the bourgeoisie in Marxist literature). Since working-class wages can be very low, and because the state of unemployment is defined as a lack of independent means of generating an income and a lack of wage-labour employment, the term working class also includes the lumpenproletariat, unemployed people who are extremely poor.
As with many terms describing social class, working class is defined and used in many different ways. The most general definition, used by Marxists and socialists, is that the working class includes all those who have nothing to sell but their labor-power and skills. In that sense it includes both white and blue-collar workers, manual and mental workers of all types, excluding only individuals who derive their income from business ownership and the labor of others.
When used non-academically in the United States, however, it often refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage. For certain types of science, as well as less scientific or journalistic political analysis, for example, the working class is loosely defined as those without college degrees. Working-class occupations are then categorized into four groups: Unskilled laborers, artisans, outworkers, and factory workers.
A common alternative, sometimes used in sociology, is to define class by income levels. When this approach is used, the working class can be contrasted with a so-called middle class on the basis of differential terms of access to economic resources, education, cultural interests, and other goods and services. The cut-off between working class and middle class here might mean the line where a population has discretionary income, rather than simply sustenance (for example, on fashion versus merely nutrition and shelter).
Some researchers have suggested that working-class status should be defined subjectively as self-identification with the working-class group. This subjective approach allows people, rather than researchers, to define their own social class.
In feudal Europe, the working class as such did not exist in large numbers. Instead, most people were part of the laboring class, a group made up of different professions, trades and occupations. A lawyer, craftsman and peasant were all considered to be part of the same social unit, a third estate of people who were neither aristocrats nor church officials. Similar hierarchies existed outside Europe in other pre-industrial societies. The social position of these laboring classes was viewed as ordained by natural law and common religious belief. This social position was contested, particularly by peasants, for example during the German Peasants' War.
In the late 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, European society was in a state of change, and this change could not be reconciled with the idea of a changeless god-created social order. Wealthy members of these societies created ideologies which blamed many of the problems of working-class people on their morals and ethics (i.e. excessive consumption of alcohol, perceived laziness and inability to save money). In The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson argues that the English working class was present at its own creation, and seeks to describe the transformation of pre-modern laboring classes into a modern, politically self-conscious, working class.
Starting around 1917, a number of countries became ruled ostensibly in the interests of the working class. (see Soviet working class). Some historians have noted that a key change in these Soviet-style societies has been a massive a new type of proletarianisation, often effected by the administratively achieved forced displacement of peasants and rural workers. Since then, four major industrial states have turned towards semi-market-based governance (China, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba), and one state has turned inwards into an increasing cycle of poverty and brutalisation (North Korea). Other states of this sort have either collapsed (such as the Soviet Union), or never achieved significant levels of industrialization or large working classes.
Since 1960, large-scale proletarianisation and enclosure of commons has occurred in the third world, generating new working classes. Additionally, countries such as India have been slowly undergoing social change, expanding the size of the urban working class.
Karl Marx defined the working class or proletariat as individuals who sell their labour power for wages and who do not own the means of production. He argued that they were responsible for creating the wealth of a society. He asserted that the working class physically build bridges, craft furniture, grow food, and nurse children, but do not own land, or factories. A sub-section of the proletariat, the lumpenproletariat (rag-proletariat), are the extremely poor and unemployed, such as day laborers and homeless people.
In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that it was the destiny of the working class to displace the capitalist system, with the dictatorship of the proletariat, abolishing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future communist society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." Some issues in Marxist arguments about working-class membership have included:The class status of people in a temporary or permanent position of unemployment.
The class status of domestic labor, particularly the children (see child labour), and also traditionally the wives of male workers, as some spouses do not themselves work in paying jobs outside the home.
Whether workers can be considered working class if they own personal property or small amounts of stock ownership.
The relationships among peasants, rural smallholders, and the working class.
The extent to which non-class group identities and politics (race, gender, et al.) can obviate or substitute for working-class membership in Enlightenment projects, where working-class membership is prohibitively contradictory or obfuscated.
Possible responses to some of these issues are:Unemployed workers are proletariat.
Class for dependents is determined by the primary income earner.
Personal property is argued to be different from private property. For example, the proletariat can own houses; this is personal property.
The self-employed worker may be a member of the petite bourgeoisie (for example a highly paid professional, athlete, etc.), or a member of the proletariat (for example, a contract worker whose income may be relatively high but is precarious).
In general, in Marxist terms, wage laborers and those dependent on the welfare state are working class, and those who live on accumulated capital are not. This broad dichotomy defines the class struggle. Different groups and individuals may at any given time be on one side or the other. For example, retired factory workers are working-class in the popular sense; but to the extent that they live off fixed incomes, financed by stock in corporations whose earnings are profit, retired factory workers' interests, and possibly their identities and politics, are not working class. Such contradictions of interests and identity within individuals' lives and within communities can effectively undermine the ability of the working class to act in solidarity to reduce exploitation, inequality, and the role of ownership in determining people's life chances, work conditions, and political power.