A question of class

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Susan Rosenthal’s letter in December SR defines all professional workers as middle class because they are graduates who allegedly “stand between the capitalist class and the working class, taking orders from above them and giving orders to (or wielding power over) those below them”.

While there is some truth historically in this analysis, I think it is much too sweeping if applied to all teachers, nurses, software engineers and other occupations that require a university degree in the modern day. It ignores the changing structure of the working class and risks relegating all skilled workers to the middle class as if the “true” working class were disappearing.

As capitalism developed during the second half of the last century, many professional workers such as teachers, nurses and engineers lost a lot of the privileged discretion that Rosenthal identifies them by.

It is true that they do still have some discretion over how they perform, but often this is simply because the bosses are unable despite constant attempts via Software Engineering definitions, Ofsted, NHS targets, and so on, to completely routinise the brain work and social interaction required by the roles.

The same arguments could be applied to manufacturing and other industrial segments. More and more workers in advanced capitalism require brain and social skills to do the basic job effectively. Even in my old, largely technical and workstation-bound occupation as a telecoms software engineer, management often said it is a problem when the best technical graduates lacked social and communication skills.

What Rosenthal should take more notice of is the relative position and conflict between professional workers and their managers. The excellent recent TV series School very well illustrated the way the management of the school did indeed spend their time (however much they disliked it) acting as agents of social control but the teachers — and children — were suffering under that control rather than exercising it. The position of the managers was very different from the position of the teachers.

I always argued with colleagues that it is an illusion to think you get more power to make things better via promotion, because it actually means your position becomes more dependent on the bosses’ favour than the rank and file professional’s is. Rank and file (graduate or non-graduate) workers actually have more power to change things as long as they are organised collectively.

It is difficult to see how you can “encourage professionals to identify as workers” at the same time as dismissing them as middle class because of a piece of paper.