Political preferences are often discussed through a one-size-fits-all middle-class lens. But empirical data shows that class significantly influences voting patterns, with growing class consciousness driving dissatisfaction with established parties.

Empirical studies suggest that more people have pro-labor than pro-capital class consciousness. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Karl Marx’s most profound insight was recognizing how commodity fetishism — the fixation on simple commodities themselves — obscures the ways that workers’ labor shapes most commodities and generates the profits, or surplus value, that capitalists obsessively compete for. This competition is the essential driving force of the capitalist mode of production.

In advanced capitalist states, most mainstream political parties engage in a form of political fetishism. These parties portray themselves as constituted by and representing the general citizenry, with policies and candidates addressing the social demands of the majority. But it is now well documented from a range of critical political perspectives that ruling mainstream parties in many countries continually legislate policies and allocate resources that largely serve the interests of political elites, with minimal response to the needs of the majority. The strategic political relations that shape many policies and resource allocations are largely hidden from view and obscured from most voters.

Marx’s early view that the modern state was merely the executive arm of the bourgeoisie was later developed into a more complex understanding of class relations within and against the state. With the advent of mass production, the industrial working class attained a critical mass sufficient to form its own organizations, including the Chartists in England and the first labor party in the world, founded in the United States in 1828. These parties directly pursued working-class agendas. Many leftists then and since have acted in the hope that democratic class struggle would lead to political transformation toward socialism.

Marx’s early view that the modern state was merely the executive arm of the bourgeoisie was later developed into a more complex understanding of class relations within and against the state.

For nearly two centuries, the capitalist state, established to protect private property rights, has made concessions to social rights demanded by hired workers, especially in places with highly organized labor movements and social democratic political parties. Nevertheless, massive resources continue to be devoted primarily to advertising and promoting fetishized capitalist economic and political interests. In the few cases where transformative movements have posed a political threat, they have been diverted or undermined through the ideological and coercive force of corporate capitalists and their allies.

Hidden Levels of Class Consciousness

Researchers and pundits from both the Left and the Right now assume that class consciousness among workers is muted to the point of irrelevance for political issues in advanced capitalism. The prevailing assumptions are tautological: either there is little actual class consciousness, so political parties have no constituency to shape platforms around class issues, or established political parties avoid class issues, so people have no popular forums to develop and express class consciousness. Consequently, there is little research attention given to the actual relationship between class consciousness and political party preferences. Recent research has found minimal associations between objective class positions or class identity and party preferences, further perpetuating the tautology.

There is a growing consensus around the tripartite character of the employment class structure in advanced capitalism, including owners, managers and nonmanagerial employees. The decline of industrial workers and the growth of professional employees (or “knowledge workers”) are also now widely recognized. Middle-class identity has become much more widespread in the wake of mass commodity consumption and increasing visibility of both the affluent rich and the destitute poor. But most empirical research on class consciousness has largely ignored the most powerful corporate capitalists and upper managers, conflated managers and professional employees, and focused primarily on culturally hegemonic middle-class identity. Little wonder that relations between class and class consciousness have been found to be very modest.

We can distinguish two higher and often hidden levels of class consciousness: oppositional consciousness and class-based visions of society. Oppositional consciousness involves holding class interests opposed to another class: primarily either pro-capital or pro-labor. Class-based consciousness involves holding visions of society that align with class interests, primarily either a hegemonic capitalist vision of a continuing profit-driven, management-led economy, or a revolutionary labor vision of a nonprofit economy with worker self-management.

Many leftist intellectuals now believe that working people generally hold a contradictory oppositional consciousness, enfeebled by dominant bourgeois ideology, and are unable to conceive of any real alternative to capitalism. This is far from the whole truth. The few national surveys that have addressed these questions have found:

People with a progressive pro-labor oppositional consciousness (unconditionally supporting the right to strike and opposing profit maximization) significantly outnumber those with pro-capital class consciousness (unconditionally opposing the right to strike and supporting profit maximization), and the number of pro-labor supporters appears to be increasing.
Those with a revolutionary labor consciousness (which combines pro-labor oppositional consciousness with a vision of anonprofit economy and worker self-management), comprise a small but growing group. This group is much larger than those whose visions clearly defend existing capitalist conditions.

The proportions of people with pro-labor oppositional consciousness are likely minorities in all advanced capitalist countries currently, and those with revolutionary labor consciousness are likely less than 20 percent everywhere. However, these numbers are substantial and appear to be increasing amid current ecological, economic, and political crises. They significantly outnumber defenders of capitalism who hold a class-conscious position.

The capitalist state has made concessions to social rights demanded by hired workers, especially in places with highly organized labor movements and social democratic political parties.

The reproduction of the liberal democratic capitalist state is less reliant on class-conscious defenders and more on working people with pragmatic class consciousness — those who may accept profit maximization with certain conditions or support the right to strike under specific circumstances, and perceive no viable alternative to capitalism. However, small groups with coherent progressive visions and commitment to sustained nonviolent political action have been very successful in leading political movements for change on many issues over the past century. The central question remains: How is class consciousness related to views on political issues and support for political parties?

Class Consciousness and Politics

This issue of poverty reduction has historically been highly divisive in many advanced capitalist countries. The affluent tend to view poverty as an individual responsibility, while the less well-to-do point to general economic conditions. In recent decades, with increasingly conspicuous wealth and visible impoverishment, there has been a general increase in support for poverty reduction in many countries. The relations between broader forms of class consciousness and such sentiments of support for the poor in Canada in 1982 and 2016 show pronounced and increasing differences, as summarized below.

Support for poverty reduction by class consciousness in Canada, 1982 and 2016.

Over the period, general agreement on need for poverty support measures increased from two-thirds to over 80 percent. A small minority, comprising about 2 percent, who saw themselves at the upper level of the class structure and believed in the rightness of its profit-driven nature, resisted measures that might diminish competition among potential hired labor. In contrast, a much larger group, encompassing over a third, with varying degrees of sympathetic, oppositional, or revolutionary labor consciousness, increasingly supported initiatives aimed at improving the living conditions of the poor.

Similar patterns were observed in the 1980s in other advanced capitalist countries, as indicated by data from a few relevant surveys. However, despite these sentiments, state austerity measures have prevailed, aligning with the preferences of the small minority holding hegemonic capitalist views and their influence over elected politicians.

The recent class consciousness pattern on the pressing issue of global warming in Canada mirror this trend. In 2016, a strong majority of Canadians agreed that global warming poses a threat to human life, with virtually unanimous support among those with pro-labor consciousness. Conversely, those with hegemonic capitalist class consciousness tended to deny the relevance of this threat — a vintage elite class mentality.

In summary, the limited direct survey evidence on relations between higher forms of class consciousness and widely debated political issues indicates that those with pro-labor consciousness express the strongest support for progressive political agendas. Those with pro-capital consciousness exhibit the strongest opposition, while those with more pragmatic consciousness hold mixed views on political issues generally. While not a simple tautology, these findings are not entirely surprising. What stands out is the significant disparity between hegemonic capitalist views and popular opinion.

But what about association between class consciousness and support for actually existing political parties, which are the current elected organizations for shaping policies that respond to the entire electorate? Direct evidence on this matter is scarce. Some data comes from Erik Olin Wright’s 1980 survey conducted during the presidential election in which Republican Ronald Reagan beat Democrat Jimmy Carter. Those with pro-capital consciousness were four times as likely to vote Republican as those with pro-labor consciousness, whereas nearly half of the latter group opted for an independent or other party affiliation.

The 1982 Canadian survey was conducted in the wake of the 1980 federal election that brought Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Party back to majority party rule. Those with pro-capital consciousness were twice as likely to opt for the Conservative Party as those with pro-labor consciousness. Those with pro-labor views were four times as likely to favor the social democratic New Democratic Party, which received about 20 percent of the vote.

A more recent analysis from the 2004 Canadian survey around the time of the federal election of Paul Martin’s Liberal minority government shows significant findings. Those with pro-labor consciousness were only half as likely to vote for the mainstream Liberal or Conservative parties as those with pro-capital consciousness. Instead, nearly two-thirds opted for either supported social democratic parties or others, or refused to align with any party. The limited evidence shows substantial differences in party preferences based on forms of class consciousness. It suggests that the increasing numbers of individuals with pro-labor consciousness, along with others, are becoming less inclined to support mainstream capitalist parties.

Going Forward

We are now facing an unprecedented combination of threats, including systemic ecological degradation, economic inequities, potential nuclear winter, and a widespread lack of confidence in established political institutions. The main political consequence so far has been an unprecedented level of social and environmental protest. Voting for mainstream capitalist parties is now commonly understood as a limited political gesture, often approached cynically or avoided altogether, with little expectation that parties will address these pressing issues.

In this election cycle, Joe Biden’s Democrats are obviously offering more progressive policies than Donald Trump’s Republicans. People absolutely should go ahead and vote for their preferred progressive candidate — but they shouldn’t get their hopes up. The likelihood of either party implementing policies that challenge the established agendas of corporate elites, who fund most elected candidates, remains slim. There is a need for many political parties to be constituted or reconstituted on more democratic social bases, with more democratic policy and resource programs.

The prominence of MAGA reactionaries in Trump’s version of the GOP highlights how far established parties have become from inclusive democratic organizations.

The rise of extreme right-wing movements making political hay of xenophobic anxieties reflects the failure of established mainstream parties in power to address the democratic concerns driving these widespread social and environmental protests. The prominence of MAGA reactionaries in Trump’s version of the GOP highlights how far established parties have become from inclusive democratic organizations — and how vulnerable they are to narrow, populist authoritarian appeals.

Progressive political activists should now be engaged more than ever, both within relatively democratic parties and growing social movements. The potential for sustainable alliances between labor unions, race and gender equity collectives, environmental action groups, and other concerned citizens’ groups has never been greater. Whatever the immediate results of the numerous 2024 national elections, progressive class consciousness is likely to persist and increase. Progressive researchers should be making unprecedented efforts to document hidden class consciousness levels and reveal their links with narrower voting patterns. The recent experimental US surveys by Jacobin are a promising start. Widely sharing this political intelligence could be invaluable aid for democratic actions within and beyond established political party organizations.

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