Class consciousness is when workers realize they have the same interests as all other workers and work together in groups to pursue those interests. This causes problems on the political level, as workers who are aware of their class try to change the things they all have in common.
Marxist analysis has focused on the workers’ growing revolutionary class consciousness as they move from the point of “class in itself” to a “class for itself.” A “class in itself” is a group of people with the same relationship to the means of production. A “class for itself” is a group of people who are organized to look out for their interests.
Class consciousness is when people in the same social class realize that they share interests based on their class environment and are different from the interests of other classes.
All the class systems place people into groups based on objective traits. People either own or do not own the means of production, have similar positions in the job market, and their jobs give them a certain amount of freedom and choice, no matter what they think about those traits.
Sociologists are sometimes interested in the effects of class that is above economic concerns. For instance, there is a strong connection between class and how often some social issues happen.
Sociological interest in class assumes that people in a class have similar beliefs and values and act similarly. People have a subjective or personal understanding of their class position and a sense of group identity. The objective class position should be matched by class consciousness.
Karl Marx distinguished between class-for-itself and class-in-itself (the awareness of this and developing an appropriate political response). When the objective and subjective do not match up, we may question the value of our classification system or try to figure out why people cannot see that they have the same point of view.
Marxists usually call the fact that the working class does not act together due to “false consciousness” and say it is because the capitalist class’s ideas promote different ways of “divide and rule.” For instance, a chauvinist upper class might stir up racial and ethnic rivalries, making white workers think they are better than black workers.
A less controversial reason for the lack of class consciousness is that the structure of classes changed so much in the 20th century that people have moved through them too often to feel strongly about them.
The term is linked to marxism, where people often talk about how to help the proletariat become aware of their class or why this has not happened yet. The main idea is that a set of values and beliefs and a political organization will or should form to represent and achieve the objective interests of a class. Some of the working class’s work and life situations, like exploitation, isolation, unemployment, and living in poverty, are seen as making them more aware of their shared situation and encouraging them to act as a group.
Most Marxists agree, though, that people only develop a limited awareness and set goals on their own. For example, in a pamphlet published in 1902, Lenin argued that if the working class was left to its own, it would only develop an “economistic” consciousness that would only want better pay structure and living conditions within the capitalist system. Like many other Marxists, Lenin wanted to get rid of capitalism, not just change it.
So, he said that a revolutionary (or “vanguard”) party was needed to change “trade union consciousness” into “revolutionary consciousness” and political action. Marxist writings on the proletariat have often returned to this question of why the working classes of the most advanced capitalist states have never developed a “revolutionary class consciousness.”
Lukacs and Gramsci
In the 1920s and 1930s, Lukacs and Gramsci devised different ways to criticize “crude” marxism. They focused on theoretical and cultural factors that either stopped the development of “true” consciousness or helped it along.
So, there is much writing about class imagery, which is the actual pictures of class that social actors have. At the same time, sociologists have looked into the limits and possibilities of the Marxian idea of “class consciousness.”
Michael Mann said in 1973 that there might be class consciousness and joint solidarity, but it is “rather unlikely” that the labor class or working class can come up with a new vision of society on its own. On the other hand, this type of sociology wants to do more than repeat Lenin’s conclusion from 70 years ago. Instead, it tries to explain what working-class consciousness is by saying that it is made up of four things:
a) “class identity,” which is the idea that you are working class;
b) “class opposition”: the definition of a (capitalist) class that is against another;
(c) “class totality,” which means that (a) and (b) together define “whole society”;
d) A different way of looking at society.
In the classic Marxist explanation, being in a particular class leads to being aware of that class, leading to action by that class. Karl Marx said that society has an economic “base” that determines the social and political “superstructure.” He said that the working class’s revolutionary class consciousness would come about due to economic changes that make the conditions of class inequality more apparent.
Marx did not think a self-aware social class comprised people with the same interests. This was because, even though they lived in similar conditions, the peasant mode of production kept peasants apart from each other instead of bringing them together. So, he said, “the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them.”
Only under certain circumstances does a “class in itself” become a “class for itself.” Economic changes help members realize they have the same interests and work together to reach the commonly shared goals. In Marx’s model, working-class consciousness will emerge because capitalism is competitive. This makes the class structure simpler, which causes society to “split up into two great opposite and hostile groupings, into two great classes, directly facing each other: the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat.”
Since the goal of capitalism is to make money, there are no longer different skill levels in the working class. Instead, all workers are reduced to unskilled labor. The proletariat is becoming more and more alike, and they are working in larger and larger groups. There is a growing divide between a large working class, all stuck in miserable poverty and working together in big factories, and a small group of capitalists who run a few huge monopolistic businesses. The “boom and bust” economy that results from fierce competition between capitalists drives down wages and makes it difficult for the working class to make a living.
All these things make the working class a group that sticks together and knows itself. One of the biggest problems with Marx’s model is that class polarization and pauperization have not happened as he predicted in capitalist societies. Instead, rising wealth and the growth of middle-order groups have made the class structure more complicated, not less. In the same way, when class consciousness has come out, it has done so in a limited, sporadic, and not very revolutionary way.
This has led to changes in the original Marxist model, such as the idea that the working class comprises people with “false consciousness.” This is the idea that ideological beliefs act as a smokescreen, hiding the fact that the working class is exploited and making it hard to see how they are all the same. This keeps them from realizing their shared class interests and acting on them.
A more radical set of criticisms sees the failure of revolutionary class consciousness in the real world as a sign of a more severe theoretical flaw in Marxist class analysis. In particular, they question Marx’s economic explanation of how social consciousness and social groupings come to be. People say that Marx’s admission that class solidarity does not always come from shared class interests raises the critical question of how class consciousness and solidarity come about and what keeps them going.
Some people have called the fact that there does not seem to be a clear link between class location and class consciousness the “weakest link in the chain” of Marxist class theory.
Max Weber had another way of looking at the question of class consciousness. He said that classes are not communities but rather “possible and frequent bases for social action.”
Based on how economic relationships tend to go, Marx’s model says that being in a particular class will lead to class consciousness and action. Weber said there is no logical reason why economic classes with different life chances lead to social classes, class struggle, or revolution.
Weber thinks that economic location and the life chances that come with it are just one of many things that affect our social consciousness and sense of self. So, we cannot say for sure that a shared class situation will lead to class consciousness or action since this is just one of many possible outcomes.
Weber thought that skill and property differences made social classes different from each other, so they were always a potentially unstable basis for commonality. He also thought that status and party affiliations were other bases of social consciousness that cut across economic interests and could weaken the formation of “class” consciousness.
Much of the class analysis after Weber’s has taken a neo-Weberian approach. This means that it rejects the idea that political action is directly related to the class position and instead argues that class position only creates “potential interests” and is just one source of influence among many others that shape identity and action.
In neo-Weberian terms, the class analysis aims to determine how much an objective class situation affects subjective class consciousness, social identities, and political action. Some critics have taken this change as a sign that class theory has run out of things to say about how economic and social behavior are related.
Also, when Michael Savage looked at the evidence of the link between class position and social attitudes and beliefs, he concluded that most studies have found that class consciousness has many limits. People can and do identify with their class, but this often does not last and does not seem to be a significant source of group belonging.
Savage concludes that people’s social attitudes are “too ambivalent about being seen as part of a consistent class-related world view.” Only some of their views are affected by their class in “highly mediated and complex ways,” he says.
In recent years, the problem of class consciousness has been renamed the problem of class identities. We no longer talk about the lack of revolutionary consciousness. Instead, we talk about how a class does not seem to explain differences in social attitudes, beliefs, and identities.
Pakulski and Waters
Critics who talk about the “death of class” point to the lack of class consciousness and clear class identities as proof that class is becoming less important in late modern or postmodern societies. Pakulski and Waters say that “class” was most important when it happened in tight-knit communities based on a single industry, like mining or steel towns, where the dominance of one class over another was easy to see, and people from the same class had similar interests.
However, since service economies have grown and the job market has become more flexible and fragmented, these communities no longer exist. People say that because of wealth and different ways of spending money, societies have become more individual and divided, and material inequality is less likely to lead to class communities, solidarity, consciousness, or political action. Beck, for example, says that people in the same class now live very different lives, so knowing a person’s class does not tell much about their outlook, social and political views, family life, or sense of self.
Critics of neo-Weberian class
Even though this claim is disputed, traditional neo-Weberian class analysis has become more cautious about how much class relationships create class identities.
Neo-Weberian theories have focused on how class continues to affect people’s objective life chances. This has made it easy to forget how people’s beliefs and identities affect them. Critics say that neo-Weberian class analysis has ignored the cultural and subjective aspects of class, even though cultural identity is becoming increasingly important in the social sciences.
A later generation of class theorists, influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s 1984 book, focus on questions of cultural identity, but they argue that the weakening of class consciousness should be the starting point for class analysis. “Culturalist” class analysis looks at how certain cultural practices are linked to how hierarchy is kept alive. Such accounts are based on Bourdieu’s research on how differences in “class” are kept alive by the way tastes and attitudes are arranged in a hierarchy.
Bourdieu says that our everyday tastes in food, clothing, music, art, decorating, gardening, sports, and even our intellectual attitudes reflect and reinforce “class” differences. However, “class” is a broad term that refers to where we are in economic and cultural space. Bourdieu says that “taste” reflects internalized class attitudes formed by the people and social situations around us.
However, Bourdieu says that these class attitudes and tastes are primarily unconscious and unreflective because, he says, the effects of social location on social perception and behavior usually happen in ways that are not thought about and are just taken for granted. The focus here is not on how class consciousness develops but on how certain social and cultural practices are linked to class. People do not have to be aware of class issues or put themselves in specific class groups for class processes to happen.
Class identities are seen as ways to stand out instead of belonging to a group, and “class” processes work through individual differences instead of social groups. For a later generation of class theorists, this helps solve the paradox that people’s lives are still shaped by their class, but this does not mean they have a cultural identity that they consciously “claim.” Work on class “dispositions” suggests that “class identities” are much more implicit and not self-aware, but it still argues that “class” continues to shape people’s social identities. Even if “collective class consciousness” goes away, the class will still be necessary as a “social filter” for “placing” ourselves and others in society.
Such models make it clear that reflexive or self-aware forms of class consciousness are less critical than they used to be. They also show how much class analysis has changed since Marx’s time. Instead of the classic Marxist model of “class in itself” leading to “class for itself,” in which inequality leads to awareness and action, this new model shows that the process works in the opposite direction. Explicit class identification and awareness may fade, but class dispositions remain implicitly encoded as a form of identity through (primarily unconscious) class-differentiated tastes and practices.