Without solid data, discussions about class and class consciousness are often just guesswork. Empirical Marxist studies of class structure and class consciousness are invaluable for a robust socialist politics and we need more of it.

Philosopher and revolutionary Karl Marx in a public park in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

Karl Marx’s most vital contribution to modern class analysis was to document the ways in which capitalist owners continually extract unpaid labor from hired workers in the production process as a primary source of their profits.

After his death, many analysts overlooked his focus on this “hidden abode” of production in the capitalist labor process, focusing instead on the inequitable distribution of commodities. Later Marxist intellectuals and others insightfully analyzed other devastating general effects of capitalist development. But the labor process focus was resurrected in the wake of the student-worker protests of the 1960s, most notably by Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (1974). An array of studies followed to identify the class structure of advanced capitalist societies based on paid workplace relations between owners and hired employees.

Marx’s original interest in identifying conditions in which hired workers would develop a class consciousness opposing capitalism faced a similar path: many assertions of the necessity for class consciousness but little empirical investigation of its existence — until the protests of the ’60s sparked an array of studies, such as Michael Mann’s Consciousness and Action Among the Western Working Class (1973). These distinctive studies of class structure and class consciousness occurred as organized labor reached historic membership highs and labor’s share threatened normal profit margins in many capitalist economies. These developments led to the onslaught of capital’s neoliberal counterattack.

This capitalist offensive unfolded at different times and with varying degrees of coordination across advanced capitalist countries. However, by the 1990s its effects had become evident, manifesting in deep corporate tax cuts, business deregulation, deductions in education, health and welfare funding, privatization of public services, and sustained efforts to weaken and bust unions. A consequence of this assault was a decrease in interest and funding for research into Marxist-oriented studies of class relations, coinciding with growing attention to the increasing racial and gender diversity of the workforce. Since the early 1980s, when Erik Olin Wright coordinated national surveys in several advanced capitalist countries, there have been hardly any other major empirical Marxist studies of class structure and class consciousness in the Global North.

Tipping Point

We are probably living in the most dangerous time for the human species since our early origins. The massive numbers of wildfires destroying large swaths of land in many countries last summer are one sign among many that we are mere years away from irreversible environmental degradation. The scientific evidence is now irrefutable that these conditions require immediate human action. The Ukraine War and Israel’s war on Gaza remind us that we could again be facing the prospect of nuclear winter.

We are witnessing historic peaks in wealth inequality and historic lows in public trust regarding elected governments’ capacity to address inequities. The COP28 — 2023’s United Nations Climate Change Conference — ended without any real mechanisms to ensure environmental action, while fossil fuel companies are declaring record profits and production plans with minimal public opposition from elected officials. Recent years have seen the largest social protests in recorded history over environmental and social justice issues. Now more than ever, identifying class forces and mobilizing working people are crucial in the fight for a sustainable future.

Now more than ever, identifying class forces and mobilizing working people are crucial in the fight for a sustainable future.

Important studies of the ways that class relations pervade unpaid housework and community work, as well as interacting with gender and race relations flourished from the 1980s. But recent research focusing on employment class structure and class consciousness have been very rare. However, a significant exception exists. Wallace Clement and John Myles at Carleton University conducted the Canadian Class Structure Survey in 1982, contributing to the international set of surveys of class and class consciousness led by Wright.

Starting in 1998, I was able to conduct a series of similar surveys through funded general research networks I directed. These surveys took place in 1998, 2004, 2010, and 2016. They provide insight into employment relations by distinguishing between employers, managers, and nonmanagerial workers, as well as examining levels and forms of class consciousness. The results are documented in my recent book, Tipping Point for Advanced Capitalism: Class, Class Consciousness and Activism in the “Knowledge Economy.” Some of the most important findings are highlighted here.

Class Structure and Consciousness

The following figure summarizes the distribution of employment classes in Canada in 2016. Corporate capitalists and large employers remained very small in number. A notable trend since the early 1980s is the decline in industrial workers. But there have also been substantial gains in the numbers of nonmanagerial professional employees, as well as growth in middle managers, who monitor the increasing knowledge work of nonmanagerial employees. Professional employees have experienced deteriorating working conditions and underemployment while also becoming the most highly organized part of the labor force. These labor-process-based trends are supported internationally by employment class data in the Comparative Political Economy Data Base.

Class consciousness emerges across three critical levels: class identity, oppositional consciousness, and class-based visions of the future. These levels correspond to key questions: Do you identify yourself with a specific class? Do you hold class interests opposed to another class? Do you have a vision of future society that aligns with the interests of your class? Currently, a common belief amongst leftists is that many working people mistakenly see themselves as middle class, possess confused oppositional consciousness that has been enfeebled by dominant bourgeois ideology, and are unable to conceive of any real alternative to capitalism. This is far from the truth. Comparative analysis of the 1980s Wright surveys with the more recent Canadian surveys have found the following:

While many people accurately identify themselves as “middle class” — in contrast with those who are evidently rich or destitute — this self-identification does not prevent a significant number (steelworkers, for example) from developing progressive, oppositional class consciousness.
People with a progressive pro-labor oppositional consciousness (supporting the right to strike and opposing profit maximization) significantly outnumber those with pro-capital class consciousness (opposing the right to strike and supporting profit maximization), and the number of pro-labor supporters appears to be increasing.
A substantial and increasing number of people express support for visions of a future economic democracy characterized by nonprofit motives and worker self-management.
Those people with a revolutionary labor consciousness, which combines pro-labor oppositional consciousness with support for economic democracy, comprise a small but growing group. This group is much larger than those working people whose viewpoints clearly defend existing capitalist conditions.
Organized nonmanagerial professional employees, such as nurses or teachers, rank among the most progressive activists in current labor and social movement networks, actively resisting and challenging encroachments on economic, social and environmental rights.

Class-Based Activism

Many nonmanagerial workers in advanced capitalist countries express a pragmatic stay-the-course mixture of hopes and fears. But few workers defend a profit-obsessed capitalism that prioritizes managerial authority while many more clearly prefer a transformation to a sustainable nonprofit, worker-managed economy. Among those with progressive class consciousness, there is nearly unanimous support for taking action against global warming and reducing poverty.

The strongest support is among nonmanagerial workers who are visible minorities. The growing numbers of workers with a well-developed revolutionary labor consciousness were still small in 2016 (less than 10 percent). But history has demonstrated that small, organized groups can effect transformative change when they address genuine democratic concerns.

These recent Canadian class surveys suggest that nonmanagerial workers possess a much greater latent progressive class consciousness than many leftist intellectuals often presume. Consciousness of exploitation in paid workplaces along with wider senses of racial and gender discrimination are animating widespread, if still occasional, social protests. Class conscious workers are core activists in most progressive social movements.

Looking Forward

Following a rise in votes and demonstrations for right-wing parties in recent years, numerous pundits have speculated about unrepresentative small groups taking political power undemocratically. The Canadian surveys confirm that majorities of these small numbers of corporate capitalists, large employers, and high-level managers are clearly inclined toward right-wing policies and parties. However, the weight of this survey evidence, along with a few other recent surveys — sensitive to objective classes defined by paid work relations in advanced capitalist countries — indicate that professional employees are, in the main, strongly supportive of progressive social policies and left-oriented political parties.

Unionized industrial workers and service workers have generally maintained a progressive political stance. However, in countries with weaker union movements, even some established nonmanagerial workers — distinct from visible minority workers facing discrimination and exploitation — have found themselves increasingly drawn toward anti-immigration and anti-diversity movements due to growing material precarity.

Reactionary ideologues and radical right-wing parties have often used chronic material and psychic insecurities to appeal to greater nationalist glory and stoke racist fears and coercive actions especially among relatively well-to-do class and ethnic groups concerned about losing their privileges. This is as true of the January 6 insurrection as it was in the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany. Limited empirical evidence from a rare opinion survey in Weimar Germany suggests that a majority of employees and skilled workers continued to support leftist political views and reject authoritarian sentiments. But only a small minority of left party supporters showed sufficient commitment to democratic rights to resist Nazism.

The most significant difference today is that in most advanced capitalist countries the majority of nonmanagerial workers, especially those with strong class consciousness, are more protective of their hard-earned fundamental democratic rights. They are more prepared to defend them when seriously challenged — as US workers will be if Donald Trump wins in November and Project 2025 plans become operational.

Class-grounded surveys can track basic changes in employment class structure and links with class-based sentiments on political issues quite accurately.

The limits of population sample surveys for predicting actual behavior are well-known. But class-grounded surveys like these conducted in Canada can track basic changes in employment class structure and links with class-based sentiments on political issues quite accurately. Since the last survey in 2016, significant events have occurred, including the pandemic, heightened economic inequities and racial grievances, more global warming events, and wars affecting advanced capitalist countries more directly.

A partial pre-pandemic survey in 2020 in Canada indicated a growing support for transformation to a sustainable economic democracy. There is an urgent need for full surveys of class and class consciousness in all advanced capitalist countries. These surveys are crucial for assisting progressive forces to mobilize anti-capitalist sentiments that appear to be more widespread and intense than in 2016. The survey questions from the Wright 1980s network and subsequent Canadian surveys are now publicly accessible.

Near-universal access to social media, the availability of many sympathetic qualified researchers, and the growing issue-based social movements in need of such grassroots intelligence make representative surveys of current classes and their political consciousness more practical than ever before. Researchers could easily undertake a new Swedish survey to compare with the Wright surveys conducted in early 1980s, which showed strong worker support for the Meidner Plan, posing a significant threat to the capitalist ownership of the economy. Similarly, a US survey could offer valuable insights by comparing current findings with those from the 1980 survey, especially since the union movement appears more active today than back then. Such surveys could significantly inform strategic mobilization efforts.

Surveys grounded in the labor process are now much easier and quicker to conduct than when Marx attempted one with French workers in 1880.

Recent experimental US surveys by Jacobin are promising, finding significant connections between progressive economic policies, electoral candidates, and some of Wright’s class divisions and class identities. Researchers should continue these studies and more thoroughly link them with Marxist class structures and class consciousness. Failing to seize these current opportunities for Marxist class analyses to support progressive political action — as we approach the tipping point between capitalist oblivion and a sustainable alternative — would be a profound mistake.

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