What is the capitalist class?
Why do workers have to struggle just to survive while some have so much wealth? Who rules this society? Is it the rich? Is it the politicians? Is it the owners, the managers? And how can society be changed?
In 1847, people of many nationalities gathered in London to answer questions like these. They were struggling to remove the ruling class from power. They wanted the working class to be in charge, and to use the world's wealth to meet people's needs. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were asked to write a pamphlet explaining the group's positions. It is called the Communist Manifesto.
The Manifesto outlines written history and shows that changes in society are based on struggle between different classes of people. Social classes, Marx and Engels explained, were determined by a common relation to the way wealth is produced and exploited in a society. Today, the class struggle is mainly between the ruling capitalist class and the working class.
Each country has its own ruling class. In capitalist countries, the rulers own the means of production and employ workers. The capitalist class is also called the bourgeoisie. Means of production are what it takes to produce goods. Raw materials, satellite networks, machinery, ships and factories are examples. Workers own nothing but their ability to sell their labor for a wage.
Because they privately own the means of production, capitalists keep profits. They make higher profits by cutting workers' wages and introducing new technology to speed up production.
Under capitalism, the owner, or boss, gets richer as production increases. The working class gets poorer. But capitalists do not control the most important source of power. Production does not happen without the labor of workers. Workers keep the system running, but can also shut it down. Workers use their power by joining together in unions and withholding labor to win demands from the bosses.
Corporations are companies owned by multiple capitalists. Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, and General Motors are the biggest U.S. corporations. They are among the largest in the world. Whoever owns the majority of a corporation controls it. Ruling class families often own a majority of a corporation. The Walton family owns the majority of Wal-Mart. They have $90 billion in wealth. That is more wealth than the 4 million people of Singapore produced in 2003. Bill Gates is the wealthiest member of the ruling class; he has $48 billion. (Forbes.com, "The Forbes 400," 2004) Although he may be the richest, Gates and his company are not necessarily the most powerful capitalists in the ruling class. The intertangling of economic and political power has developed over a long time and has created longstanding networks of power inside the capitalist establishment.
People who run the corporations are called Chief Executive Officers. Lee R. Raymond is the CEO of Exxon/Mobil. His 2003 salary was $25.2 million, according to Forbes magazine. CEOs receive numerous perks like discounts on corporate stock and free use of company jets.
Wealth and power is inherited by new capitalist generations from the old. The Rockefeller (oil) and Morgan (banking) families are two examples. Capitalists do not have wealth and power because they work harder than millions of people or because they are smarter. Through private ownership, the capitalist system allows them to keep the wealth produced by workers.
Politicians, military, small owners and managers
Are elected officials part of the ruling class? Some politicians are. Dick Cheney was once CEO of the largest oil service corporation, Halliburton. George Bush used to be an executive of a small oil company. John Kerry and his immediate family have $747 million in personal wealth.
Millionaires are common in Congress, especially in the "millionaires club" known as the Senate. But whether they are rich or not, elected officials in the U.S. are in office to represent the interests of the capitalist class. Politicians' campaigns are financed by the ruling class. As Marx explained, elected officials act as an organizing committee for the ruling class. They manage the affairs of state for the capitalists.
The ruling class uses the military to protect their private property and oppress workers.
But what class is the military? There are different classes in the military. Generals often come from the ruling class. The majority of soldiers come from the working class, so their loyalty to the ruling class is never a sure bet. Many workers have no way to survive other than taking a job with the military. Due to racism the poorest workers are disproportionately Black, Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American. This is reflected in the military.
The ruling class uses racism to keep the workers divided. They use laws and prisons, schools and the corporate media to spread racism. Fighting racism is integral to fighting capitalism.
Owners of neighborhood markets and landlords are examples of small capitalists. If owners employ other people, they are capitalists-even if the people they employ are family members. If they don't employ other people, they hope to. If an owner's small business does not grow, it fails. The business is taken over by a larger one.
Is a manager in the work place a capitalist? Managers who supervise workers don't usually own the company. They receive higher pay and better benefits than workers. They are not capitalists, but are paid to act in the interests of the capitalist bosses.
There are many different layers within the ruling class and the working class. There is also a huge middle class in the U.S. Yet, both the capitalist and working class have fewer layers within them than any other class in history. The wealth of the ruling class is constantly being concentrated in to fewer hands. Capitalism is always pushing more people into the working class. The working class is becoming poorer and larger.
Society can change
The production of goods and services as a means to maximize profits for a tiny segment of the population-the sole reason that goods and services are produced under capitalism-has created a severe constraint on the potential productive power of society. It has made it impossible to meet human needs.
Because production is socialized, the entire working class is involved in the process, and society produces more wealth than ever before. If the ownership of that wealth was also socialized, instead of being the private property of the few, all workers' needs could be met. Food, housing, education, health care, and a healthy environment could be a right for all. This type of system is socialism. In the first stage of socialism, the principle of equal pay for equal work can be immediately realized.
Regular recessions, depressions and mass unemployment are the consequences of the capitalist boom and bust cycle. Socialism, liberated from this, is the only economic system that can unleash the full productive power of humanity and eventually distribute the abundant goods of society to all based on human need. This is what Marx described as the transition from pre-history to history as human beings themselves-freed from the struggle for individual survival-reconstruct a new society based on social cooperation and individual development.