Taking Another Look at Class

July 1, 1999


The following essays by Sandy Cameron are something of a departure for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Most of what our Centre publishes is "hard" research studies, much of it fairly academic in tone. These essays are the product of one very thoughtful and compassionate person’s experience as an activist and teacher.

The essays in this collection were originally published in the Carnegie Newsletter, the feisty, straight-shooting, clear-talking, justice-seeking, freely-distributed newsletter of the Carnegie Centre, edited by Paul Taylor. Sandy writes regularly in the newsletter, and his articles seek to explain the world and explore our political and economic systems in a way that speaks to his readers’ experiences. The Cargenie Centre is a very vibrant community centre in the heart of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—the poorest postal code in Canada. As Sandy has written, "In the Carnegie Newsletter the people of the Downtown Eastside exercise the power to define their own reality." We are very happy to be co-publishing this collection with the Carnegie Community Centre Association.

I think you will find these essays a refreshingly frank, clear, concise and provocative read. They are inspiring. They remind those of us involved in the struggle for economic and social justice why we do what we do. For those of you involved with popular education work, I think you will find these essays and very helpful educational tool. Sometimes we get lost in the data, the research, the details of debates –– these essays bring us back to what our struggles are all about. They make sense of recent events using a five-letter word that has become taboo in the neo-conservative age –– class. If you thought class politics was a thing of history, I invite you to take another look at class through these essays.

Seth Klein

Director, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office


The division of peoples into oppressors and oppressed is an old one in human history. When John Ball spoke to the poor people in Wat Tyler's Peasant Revolt of 1381, at Blackheath, England, he used as his text:

"When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then a gentleman?"

All the following articles except one were written for the Carnegie Newsletter, starting on Nov. 1, 1997, when the APEC monstrosity threatened human rights in Vancouver. "The New Rabble" was printed in The Ubyssey on Jan. 9, 1998.

Class is not a popular subject in these days of corporate business hegemony, but as Canadians and people throughout the world feel the negative effects of a global casino economy, we are taking another look at class. As a Hamilton steelworker says in the first article, "I really think we need something closer to democracy than we have right now."

Why Is It So Hard To Talk About Class?

We don't like to talk about "class" because we don't like to be put into a category. We say, "I am who I am, and that's it." We are who we are, though, only in relation to others. Human beings cannot live outside a social group. When we think about class, we tend to think of three groups: (1) the rich and powerful who own and control the country; (2) a middle-income group that used to have a secure standard of living but doesn't anymore; and (3) low-income citizens, often employed in temporary or part-time jobs, sometimes unemployed, many facing poverty in the new competitive global economy.

The richest 10% of Canadians own 51.3% of Canada's wealth. The poorest 20% of Canadians own minus -0.3% of wealth.[1] That's a very unfair distribution of the abundant resources of our land. In fact, Canada is one of the most economically unfair nations in the industrialized countries. The Luxembourg Income Study Working Paper 126, July 1995, found that the United States, Ireland, Italy and Canada were the industrial nations with the most inequality, while Finland, Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands had the least.

Yet we are told by the wealthy that we live in a classless society, and that equality of opportunity is alive and well in Canada. Not even Sylvester the cat would believe that. As a Hamilton steelworker said, "I definitely think I'm part of a class system. Anyone who feels that this is an equal opportunity country is sadly mistaken. I believe anyone who thinks that the son of a doctor has the same things to look forward to as my son, is a fool."[2]

In spite of the thousands of books that have been written about class in industrial societies, universities are silent on the subject these days--but not entirely, as the references in these articles show. Sure, there's a crisis in class politics because there's the crisis of a vanishing industrial society, but let's not be too hasty here. To a large extent, we are a country with a small political and economic élite, a large number of wage and salaried employees, and many unemployed.

We are seeing a dramatic decline in upward economic mobility, a growing polarization of incomes, and a declining middle class.[3] A class war, usually unreported in the corporate media, is raging full tilt. As Noam Chomsky has said, "...business tastes blood. They think they can roll back the whole social contract that's been developed over the past century...labour rights, human rights...anything other than making profit tomorrow."[4]

Today, ordinary Canadians are taking another look at the word "class."[5] We know that "the bosses are getting rich off our sweat and toil," as one Hamilton worker said [6], and another observed, "I really think we need something closer to democracy than we have right now--something a little closer to democracy than the club (class) system that Canada operates on...It's a very closed network, a club that takes care of itself and doesn't really care that much about the average citizen." [7]

Most Canadians don't have a strong sense of class consciousness. The exception is the business class with its finely-tuned rationale for monetary advantage. Many Canadians will express greater ethnic, racial, gender, or nationalist consciousness than class consciousness, and that's not surprising in a multicultural soiety that has a populist tradition rather than a class one, as in Europe. The main feature of a populist tradition is the line drawn between the organized few and the disorganized many--a dividing line not between employers and employees, but between represented and unrepresented.[8]

Populist movements in North America have called for the use of state power to resist the destructive power of capitalist market domination, but they have not been anti-capitalist. They have protested against both big business (especially the banks) and big government.[9] The Reform Party has exploited populist discontent in Canada, but, representing and supported by corporate power as it is, this party displays a false populism that deceives those ordinary citizens who have turned to it in desperate nostalgia.

Class relations are relations of power. They are about who gets what, and how much. They are about who is in and who is excluded. They are about who gets to define what is happening, and who is silenced. Class relations, however, are experienced differently by people according to racial background, ethnicity, gender, and age.[10] Why? Because race, ethnic, gender and age relations are also relations of power, and this complex dynamic requires a lot of inclusive thought.

The myth that Canada is a classless society has made the problems of ordinary citizens invisible, and has impaired their ability to join together to act on their own behalf. People are frightened. The bills keep coming, and the jobs keep disappearing. Frightened people tend to be angry people, and because Canadians have so little class analysis, their anger is directed at those with less power rather than those with more. Instead of class anger, we see racial anger, and anger against unemployed people, people on welfare, immigrants and women.[11]

Class relations, however, have to be considered along with gender and racial relations because classism, sexism, and racism are all powerful forms of exclusion. It is no accident that in our exploitive society the worst jobs at the lowest wages are held by women of colour. To build solidarity, we have a lot of listening to do.


1. Statistics Canada, June, 1987

2. Livingstone, p. 161

3. Livingstone, p. 2

4. Chomsky, p.50

5. Laxer

6. Livingstone, p. 173

7. Livingstone, p. 175

8. Clement, p. 98

9. Clement, p. 98

10. Clement, p. 4

11. Rubin, p. 140

The Beginnings of Working Class Consciousness

The industrial working class grew out of the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Even in the early 1800s, working people understood that they were being exploited by the owners of the "dark satanic mills." Take the much maligned Luddites, for example.

The Luddites were skilled workers in the English woolen industry in the early 1800s. New machines such as power looms and shearing frames were taking their jobs, and they demanded protection against displacement by machinery as a constitutional right. They wanted a gradual introduction of new machinery, with alternative employment for displaced workers. They also wanted a legal minimum wage, better working conditions, especially for women and children, and the right to organize trade unions.

Luddites were defending more than their own jobs. They saw the huge cotton mills advancing with their long hours of work, exploitation of child labour, and the reduction of workers to objects in the marketplace--all this powered by the mean-spirited, degrading ideology of unregulated, market-driven economics.

As E.P. Thompson said in The Making Of The English Working Class, "The principle behind Luddism was the regulation of industrial growth according to ethical priorities, and the pursuit of profit subordinated to human needs."[1]

Because the English Parliament had blocked all constitutional means of reform, the Luddites were forced into destructive action against property. "We will never lay down arms till the House of Commons passes an Act to put down all machinery hurtful to commonality...We petition no more--that won't do--fighting must," said Ned Ludd, who gave his name to the Luddite cause.[2]

Eventually the Luddite struggle was crushed, but the vision of the workers lived on in the Ten-Hour Movement (which turned into the eight-hour working day) and the fight for the democratic vote. William Cobbett reflected the Luddite dream when he wrote about the rights of working people in 1833, "Among those rights was the right to...have a living out of the land of our birth in exchange for our labour duly and honestly performed; the right, in case we fell into distress, to have our wants sufficiently relieved out of the produce of the land, whether that distress arose from sickness, from decrepitude, from old age, or from the inability to find employment."[3]

Today our rights, including the right to a decent job at a decent wage, are being taken away from us by a global economy driven by the same Scrooge-had-it-right ideology against which the Luddites fought.

Our Luddite brothers and sisters were part of the 200 year fight for a more democratic and just society. We, too, are part of that long haul.


1. Thompson, p.603

2. Thompson, p. 579

3. Thompson, p. 836

A Working Class Vision vs. a Business Class Nightmare

During the 19th century, working class people fought against the oppression of a business class motivated by maximum profit, or "the fury of avaricious commerce," as the English writer John Ruskin described it.[1]

With books such as Thomas Paine's The Rights Of Man as their guide, workers struggled for the eight-hour day, decent working conditions, and the vote. In his book, The Making Of The English Working Class, E.P. Thompson said, "The working class made itself as much as it was made."[2] It had solidarity in shared suffering. It had a sense of the common good that we now call democracy.

Life was brutal for working people in 19th century England. The books of Charles Dickens dramatized their harsh conditions. Yet workers also nourished a sense of mutual aid and co-operation--the feeling that we were all in the same boat, and that we had a responsibility to help one another.

The business class ridiculed the poverty and roughness of the workers. Putting people down was a way of excluding them from power. It was ironic that, of the two classes, the working class had the nobler vision: a vision of democracy built on the foundation stone of equality of opportunity.

The business class would agree with former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who said, "There is no society, only individuals."[3] Since human beings are only individuals in relation to one another--i.e., in a society-- Thatcher's remark is absurd. The driving force behind the business class is the dynamic of accumulation expressed by individuals making self-interested decisions in the market. The end result of this competitiveness is the war of all against all. This is not a life-affirming vision, but a nightmare.

For 200 years, the business class has extolled some of the most distasteful human qualities--greed, domination, and aggression--as virtues, and has institutionalized them in a laissez-faire economic system that includes the stock market and a global casino economy. Life has been reduced to buying and selling, and this perversion of the richness of our lives together has produced a dehumanized human species

--homo economicus--who lives in mathematical abstractions completely separated from real life. Market relations are monetary relations, and that's all they are. Like King Midas, the business class would turn the world into gold, and like King Midas, its touch is deadly.


1. Sinclair, p.485

2. Thompson, p.213

3. Hobsbawm, p.337

Class War and the Betrayal of the Great Canadian Dream

More than one million veterans returned to Canada after the Second World War. Many remembered the misery of the Great Depression of the 1930s, for the First Canadian Division was made up of men who went directly from unemployment to the front lines. All citizens had seen what a united war effort could do, and they were determined that Canada would never again experience mass unemployment and poverty.

Forty-three thousand Canadians were killed in the Second World War, and many thousands more were wounded. These tragedies, along with the bitterness of the Great Depression, caused ordinary citizens to think seriously about the kind of Canada they wanted to live in. Their dreams were not so very different from the dreams of human beings in other parts of the world, and were expressed in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, three years after the war was over. This document included the right to decent work, decent income, adequate food, clothing and shelter, respectful relationships, and the opportunity for each person to participate fully in the life of a healthy community.

In 1944, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), led by Tommy Douglas, was elected in Saskatchewan, and in the same year the Conservative Party, sensing the longing for justice of ordinary Canadians, changed its name to the Progressive Conservative Party.

Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King also realized that citizens wanted to be treated with more respect than as commodities in the market. So successful was he in establishing a new social contract after the war that he won the election of June, 1945, and led the country into an era of prosperity. Full employment, adequately-funded education, and improved social programs were priorities for his government.

We were proud of ourselves in those days. We had seen what we could do in a cooperative war effort. We thought of ourselves as a people with a common democratic purpose, and we even dreamed of having our own flag.

In the economic storms of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the social contract, with its commitment to high employment and stable income, was undermined by powerful business interests pushing for maximum profit in the global economy. Funding for education and social programs was slashed. Unemployment became a terrifying reality for many people, and food banks and homeless people could be found everywhere. The dream of a better society that had emerged after World War Two had been betrayed. Canadian social democracy had become a big business oligarchy.

The Shattering of the Industrial Working Class

After World War II, a feeling of hope swept the world. Ordinary people believed in themselves, and in their right to a decent life. Canada moved in the direction of social democracy. The Labour Party was elected in Great Britain, and it, too, moved in the direction of a fairer society for ordinary people. A wave of national liberation swept across Africa and Asia, thrusting aside--at least for a while--the debilitating efects of colonial exploitation.

Labour leaders assumed that the democratic feelings aroused by the unusual conditions of war would last, and they didn't take seriously enough the intense political education needed to firmly establish democracy with its vision of the common good. They underestimated the power of capitalism to turn working people with their hard-won sense of class interest into consumers with an individual, possessive view of human purpose expressed in the phrase, "Those with the most things when they die, win."

Most workers (but not all) could find decent jobs at decent wages after the war. Social programs were improved. This move toward social democracy turned out to be the salvation of capitalism. A majority of people were relieved of the crippling anxiety about employment, health, food and shelter. Working people had money to spend, and capitalism was quick to show them how to spend it. Citizens and workers were transformed into consumers and taxpayers. The market (private power) was no longer the stern taskmaster, but the bringer of good things.[1]

Even Harold Wilson, a British Labour leader, underestimated the colonizing power of commercial culture-- television, rock and roll, and movies, for example. He thought the Beatles were Labour's secret weapon because they were working class boys, but he was wrong. The Beatles, through no fault of their own, became part of the fragmented, individual consumer culture that obscured the long history of class struggle.

Many working people forgot their past, and the sense of class solidarity and mutual aid that had been characteristic of the working class before World War II was badly weakened. Workers who did well in the post-war economy tended to acquire a conservative and individualistic outlook, rather than a cooperative and collective one on political and economic issues.[2]

Yet the consumer world that opened up to working people didn't bring happiness. In fact, middle-class consumer aspirations placed an almost intolerable burden on working class families.[3] People became trapped by things. They had followed the rules, worked hard, yet they weren't happy. They were stuck with large payments for the goods they bought, some of which they seldom used. They had mistakenly equated the acquisition of consumer items with the good life.[4]

The transformation of citizens into individual consumers has been devastating for democracy, which concerns the common good, and for the working class that once treasured the values of mutual aid and solidarity.

Consumerism, with its intense, ubiquitous advertising, builds the addictive society. There is a commodity for every anxiety, and without that "thing" our lives are incomplete. Consumerism annexes the energy and generosity of citizens for its own profit. It replaces genuine relationships with the commoditized shadows of pop and sports heroes.[5]

The consumer attitude sees social problems in an individual, technological way. It reduces the problem of control over our lives from collective action for the common good to a multitude of small purchasing acts.[6] It makes it difficult for us to understand "class" as an organizing principle in society.

The consumer attitude privatizes issues so they are not seen as public.[7] It makes my life my individual affair, and ignores the relationships that bind us together as human beings in a community.

Consumerism refers the whole of life to the market. Market relations, however, are only monetary relations. The market discriminates on the basis of wealth. It reinforces inequality, and divides people into winners and losers. In market relations, those who have much, get more.

Deep in our tired, disillusioned bones, we know that consumerism does not bring happiness, and is addictive. Instead of that addiction, we long for real, respectful relationships with others, and a sense of belonging to a place and a people.

We have been twisted out of shape by consumerism and the casino society, but not completely out of shape. We know that the unregulated global economy isn't working for us. We see the unemployment and part-time work at low wages. We see the family violence, alcoholism, drug abuse, and youth suicide. We see the growing gap between rich and poor. We know that all the commodities in the world won't fill the emptiness at the centre of a society obsessed with the individual accumulation of material goods.

We still have a sense of common decency and responsibility. Our hopes for the kind of Canada we would like to live in differ sharply from those of the wealthiest Canadians.


1. Seabrook and Blackwell, p.82

2. ibid: p.105

3. Rubin,

4. ibid, p.205

5. Seabrook and Blackwell, p.101

6. Bauman, p.204

7. ibid

Canadian Identity and Class War

What does it mean to be a Canadian? What kind of a society do we want to live in? Canadians have been asking these questions since they first decided to build a nation north of the 49th parallel that would reflect characteristics different from the extreme, sometimes violent, individualism of the United States.

In his book, Lament For A Nation, the Canadian philosopher George Grant wrote: "Our hope lay in the belief that on the northern half of this continent we could build a community which had a stronger sense of the common good and of public order than was possible under the individualism of the American capitalist dream."[1]

In July, 1995, Joan Fraser of The Edmonton Journal wrote about a study involving 2,400 ordinary Canadians and 1,000 members of the Canadian establishment (the wealthiest and most powerful Canadians). This study found a wide gap between the attitudes of the two groups. Among the concerns of ordinary people were personal and economic security (including steady employment), a healthy population, a clean environment, human rights, and equality. The élite group was more concerned with competition, deficit cutting, and minimal government. From a list of 22 possibilities, ordinary Canadians ranked the élite's first choice, "competitiveness," 20th, and the élite's third choice, "minimal government," last.[2] Obviously, ordinary Canadians have a much stronger sense of community responsibility than does the élite of Canada.

An Angus Reid poll of December, 1995, pointed out that the deficit, although recognized as important by everyone, was an élite-driven issue. "It's as if a fog settled over Canada in the past few years and the only voice governments hear crying out for help is the voice of the wealthy," Reid said. "But the voices of the poor and much of the middle class are also crying out--for jobs, for security, for fairness--and they don't sense they're being heard."[3]

A Globe and Mail/Environics poll (Jan/97) found that a majority of Canadians supported increased public spending for employment creation and the protection of social programs, and they were not in favour of across-the-board tax cuts.[4] An Angus Reid poll of February, 1997, reinforced the Globe and Mail/Environics poll by finding that Canadians, by a great majority, preferred that the federal government spend deficit reduction savings on health, education, and job creation rather than implement tax cuts. This poll found, as had other polls, that job creation was the top public concern of ordinary Canadians. [5]

What are we to make of these polls? In a general way, they show that we have two classes in Canada: an owner élite with its trained professionals who run the system, and the rest of us. Noam Chomsky, in his book Class Warfare, suggests that the élite bunch might include approximately 25% of the population. Ordinary citizens would make up the other 75%.[6] Clearly, the interests of the élite are not the same as the interests of ordinary Canadians, and these interests can best be understood in terms of class.


1. Grant

2. Fraser

3. Vancouver Sun, 1995

4. Greenspon and Winsor

5. Beauchesne

6. Chomsky, p. 8

The Class Consciousness of the Business Class

Of all the various groups in society, the business class is the one with the strongest sense of class consciousness. They know what they want: maximum profit. In their narrow, monetary world, anything that increases profit is good. Anything that decreases profit is bad.

The establishment writer Peter Newman is a graduate of Upper Canada College, the school Conrad Black was kicked out of for selling examination papers that he had stolen. Newman wrote about the business class that runs Canada in his books on the Canadian Establishment. He said, "Canada's establishment (ruling élite) consists of a surprisingly compact self-perpetuating group of perhaps a thousand men who act as a kind of informal junta, linked more closely to each other than to their country."[1]

"The most important establishment group is that formed by the businessmen who control the Canadian economy's private sector. Canada's establishment is dominated by the corporate elite."[2]

"Operating outside the constitutional forms, the establishment's adherents exercise a self-imposed mandate unburdened by public accountability...They consider themselves an untitled aristocracy whose virtue has been certified by their elevation to one of the dominant élites. They are, therefore they rule."[3]

To sum up, "Corporate power is Canadian society."[4]

Newspaper columnist Allan Fotheringham once said that we didn't need to read Marx to understand that Canada has a ruling class of mainly white businessmen. All we had to do was read Peter Newman on the Canadian establishment.

According to Newman, the business oligarchy that runs Canada believes "all men...are essentially a product of the marketplace; everyone therefore and everything has its price."[5] In other words, monetary and market relations are the only relationships worth considering. That's what Scrooge meant when he said "Humbug" to Christmas.

Let's close with a quote from George Black, one-time corporate director and former president of Canadian Breweries, "...Sure, there's an establishment in Canada. It consists of about one thousand wealthy families. It works by exclusion...What it consists of is a sharing of attitudes even if the people involved don't have the same politics...money is power."[6]

If working/middle class Canadians had the same strong sense of class interest that the business class possesses, we wouldn't be blaming poor and unemployed people for our deteriorating lifestyles. We would be blaming the economic policies of the business élite that push the corporate global economy.


1. Newman, p. 446

2. Newman, p. 446-447

3. Newman, p. 446

4. Eayrs in Newman, p. 447

5. Newman, p. 153

6. Newman, p. 195

The New Rabble

The APEC conference in Vancouver in 1997 was opposed by First Nations organizations, by churches, by trade unions, by teachers' organizations, by women's groups, by a wide range of community groups, by immigrant groups that know oppression at first hand, by the unemployed, by citizens on income assistance, by the homeless, by students at secondary school and university, by seniors' groups, by environmental groups, by peace groups, by business groups with a conscience, and many others.

These were the people who made up the large demonstrations against APEC, including the Pepper Spray War at the University of British Columbia. The students who were in that war are now heroes. They fought for the basic rights of ordinary people.

Yet Prime Minister Chretien dismissed the Pepper Spray War as insignificant. He puts pepper on his plate, he joked. For him, and for the élite he represents, the students are fools, the church leaders are fools, the Native leaders are fools, trade union leaders are fools, women are fools, the unemployed are fools, low-income citizens are fools-- everyone is a fool except those who make up the Canadian establishment.

What do we do when our political and economic leaders, and their media, treat us like fools? What do we do when we understand that government no longer works for us, but only for the most privileged people in society?

We can protest in the streets. We can practise civil disobedience. We are the new rabble--women, men of the working/middle class who do not own wealth in any overwhelming sense (the richest 10% of Canadians own over 50% of Canada's wealth.[1]) We are seeing our country being destroyed by those who would turn community into commodity.

The Ubyssey (Nov.28/97) contained letters from students and professors that expressed shame for the behaviour of the Canadian government and the police who carried out the government's orders. Welcome to the citizen rabble of Canada and the world.


1. Statistics Canada Cat. 13-588, June, 1987.

* printed in The Ubyssey, January 9, 1998.