Getting a Sense of Class Consciousness

by Justin Thompson

I have a confession to make—–Karl Marx still has relevance in 2017. Call me crazy, call me a socialist, call me whatever you want. The United States has an unhealthy obsession with wealth, status, and prestige. Going to school we are told if we graduate high school; we will land a big job. We are then told to go to college and pursue an academic program. We are then told buy society; that those who work low wage jobs or choose not to go to college are victims of their own circumstance or they are deemed “unfit” for academia. Why such focus on education? Why are we so hell bent on digging ourselves in debt to pursue an education (knowing that we might not be able to pay it off)?

The answer is easy and complex at the same time. As a sociologist; I am interested in a concept called class consciousness. Karl Marx, one of the biggest and most relevant socialist thinkers, penned The Communist Manifesto in 1848 which illustrated to the reader the plight of class warfare.

Marx stated that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Throughout history we see the oppressor and oppressed in constant opposition to each other. This fight is sometimes hidden and sometimes open. However, each time the fight ends in either a revolutionary reconstruction of society or in the classes’ common ruin”.

Marx also expressed concern for the exploitation of he working class that still haunts low wage workers to this day. Who are the bourgeoisie? In historical terms, it was a dominating class of those who dominated wealth, political power, and decided class structures. Marx believed that this concept started in the middle ages when distinctions of serfs, peasants, lords, and kings became apparent to the everyday worker. In the Middle Ages it was also believed that if you were born into poverty, you had little to no chance in advancing your lot in life. If you were born into a wealthy family, owned land, or were born of royal blood, you clearly had a social, political, and economic advantage. The question you may be asking yourself right now: What does this have to do with today? Are we past class struggles? No.

The bourgeoisie in the United States is most commonly represented as, albeit not strictly limited to, the wealthy ruling class who comprise this 1% of the population we’ve heard so much about in recent years. These individuals have the most political power, crafting legislation to keep the lower classes in place. They decide who will run for office, making sure they maintain an oligarchic way of life in the US by keeping wealthy political dynasties in charge of the government. They will set wages, thereby having considerable influence on the living wage. They will make sure wage earners have a rough time organizing into unions or receiving much needed government benefits when wages don’t address the costs of living. My friends, they are still the ruling class and the workers are being suppressed. Marx argued that the capitalist bourgeoisie mercilessly exploits the proletariat.

Now I bring your intention to the plight of the worker (“proletarian”). The proletarian is the average, everyday worker. In the United States, many of these workers work for wages that do not equal the value of their production. Many lack benefits and even rarer do they enjoy the benefits of a union.

Low wage earners are consistently left behind in the United States. They are shaped by personal and invisible hardships that go unseen to others. Some of the biggest struggles of low wage workers in our society are generational poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, depression, money stress, lack of education, and family dynamics. They typically live in poor neighborhoods with a lack of governmental, personal, or even state support. Many are trapped in low wage work because of their geographic location, lack of a car, or lack of educational and economic opportunities. Because of this, many low wage workers have lost faith in the American Dream; breaking away from the cycle of poverty seems to require a set of invisible conditions.

Many low wage workers lack job readiness skills, a good starting wage, job advancement, and support from the ruling class. Perception of low wage workers is shaped through the media and depicted in politics. Many people feel it is not their job to look out for their neighbor and feel its the problem of the impoverished if they live in poverty. Marx believed that one day the workers would rise up and seize the means of production giving us a classless society. In some symbolic ways; we are moving towards this beautiful idea. Workers are rising up in demanding a $15 dollar an hour living wage, the ability to organize, and to enjoy free or tuition free college. This is slowly happening but it will only if we rise up against an oppressive class.

Justin Thompson is an adjunct professor of Social Science at Herkimer County Community College. He enjoys research in collective behavior, gender & sexuality, and political thought. Justin teaches undergraduate courses in Sociology, Criminology, Psychology, and Criminal Justice.  Justin is involved in the social justice community through a variety of mediums. He serves on his Universalist Church’s Board of Trustees and is a volunteer for the Bernie Sanders campaign for President. The author of The Truth, Justin, and the American Way at SUNY Poly political column from 2009 to 2010, he has also had several articles published for the Utica Phoenix, Observer Dispatch, and Love and Rage.


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