Does Class Matter in Canada?

A script I wrote in 1993 for a Knowledge Network telecourse.

There are various ways that we can think about the question: Does Class Matter in Canada.  Because the question arises in the context of the conflict perspective in sociology, I want to address it from that perspective, but from a classical conflict perspective as well as from a more contemporary perspective.  From the classical conflict perspective in sociology, the question relates to the genesis of capitalism.  That is, to what extent class analysis can explain the course of history.  There is a contemporary conflict perspective on the question too, but it focusses on inequalities in society and life chances.


The question “Does Class Matter” arises partly because, in the popular mind, history is created mostly by politicians and political and military decisions.  That’s what gets into the history books.  Class, by any definition, doesn’t enter into the picture.  But there’s more to it than that.  In an article called “Does Class Matter,?” Wallace Clement of Carleton University notes that class analysis is currently under attack for being too narrowly focussed and for not bringing ethnicity, region and gender sufficiently into sociological and historical analysis.  I agree with Clement when he concludes that these factors are important, but that fact alone doesn’t lessen the importance of class.  And it’s necessary to point out, I think, that class doesn’t refer only to the “economic” relationship between the working class and the capitalist class, it refers to the entire spectrum of relations in society that are the experience of living in class society.


Class does kind of hit you square between the eyes, though, in a situation like the one surrounding closure of the Cassiar mine in northern British Columbia in February, 1992   In this case, the “company,” a subsidiary of the Princeton Mining Corporation of Vancouver, decided to close the mine for various reasons.  The effect of this closure, whatever the reasons, was the dislocation of 400 workers and their families, who were required to move out of their community, the company-owned town of Cassiar.  The place was then put up for auction.  The mine owners had every right to close down the mine and, in a sense, miners have to expect that mines must eventually shut down.  The decision on the part of the mine owners, nevertheless, demonstrates clearly the absolute power that the capitalist class has in disposing of the working class as it sees fit without regard for community, democratic process or anything else.  There’s no question of who’s in control here.  Same goes for mill shutdowns in Port Alberni and in single-industry towns all over the province.  Just ask the people of Sparwood how they were affected by the bankruptcy and shutdown of a Westar mine there.


The clear demonstrations of power by the capitalist class in these circumstances are not so clear in others, especially with regard to the experience of everyday life in capitalist society.  Many contemporary conflict theorists have focused on class inequality and its effects in everyday life.   Here, the overwhelming “collective consciousness” or ethos of capitalist life more often than not masks its class-based origins and sometimes, as with racism, family violence or education, there seems to be no connection whatsoever with class.  We have the illusion of living in a relatively classless society.


Class analysis from a classical conflict perspective is not concerned so much with documenting the personal experience of life in capitalist society as with how history unfolds in the dynamics of class conflict.  According to Marx, if you occupy a position in the class that owns the means of production, the factories, mines, mills, etc., then you are considered a member of the ruling class.  If not, you’re working class.  Obviously, however, there are significant differences in the life chances of a bank vice-president sitting in the top floor office in a downtown Vancouver skyscraper and those of a kitchen worker in a fast food restaurant, even though they’re both, technically, working class.  Furthermore, there are a number of ways that we get sorted out in our society, by gender, ethnic origin, religion, education, occupation, income, citizenship, organizational affiliation, etc…

There’s a very significant fragmentation and stratification of the working class in our society.


There’s very little chance of moving from one class into another in our society if we think in terms of a ruling class and a working class.  Hope burns eternal in most of us, however, of “getting ahead,” or of doing just a little bit better than the Joneses…even if we’re all on welfare.  Even at this level, however, there is really not as much mobility as you might think and we hold our relative positions in the class structure remarkably consistently from generation to generation.  The reason is that once a particular group gains an advantage in the class structure, it will do whatever it has to to maintain, strenghten and transfer that advantage to the next generation.


When sociologists talk about life chances in capitalist society, they refer to the ability or potential to live a happy, healthy and economically secure life…to quality of life.  It’s pretty obvious that there are different qualities of life, that there are major differences in the life chances of a single mother on welfare and those of a college president.  Conventional wisdom and liberal ideology don’t recognize the existence of social class, so inequality between a single mother on welfare and a college president is always seen as the result of personal characteristics.  The burden is always on the individual.  You occupy your place in society because of intelligence, or lack of it, willingness to work, thrift, courage, etc… By this analysis, those of you who have poorly-paid jobs, who are unemployed, underemployed, or on welfare, with low levels of schooling and no money are that way because you’re stupid, aren’t willing to work hard enough, or you’re wimps, or all three.  You may even believe that yourselves.  If you’ve bought the dominant ideology in our society, you probably do go along with this “cream rises to the top” business.


The problem is that persistent inequality in our society is not explainable with reference to personal characteristics alone although they may play a role in some cases.  In our society there are gradations of statuses on the basis of income, occupation and education.   Sociologists often refer to these gradations as strata or classes.  These should not be confused with the classical conflict definition of class, which refers only to your relationship to the means of production.  It’s not quite as simple as this, but if you score high on all three characteristics, good job, high education and lots of money you are considered upper class.  Score low and you’re lower class.  It’s only too obvious we’re not all equal in terms of condition, but what about opportunity? We have equal opportunity don’t we?  If we work hard, we can get ahead, can’t we?  Sorry to disappoint you.


If you were born female to native parents in Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands what do you think your chances would be of being appointed to the Board of Directors of Noranda, or General Motors, or the Bank of Montreal?  Would your chances be any better if you were born male to a single mother in Burnaby?  What about if you were born male or female to the president of a major corporation living on the waterfront in West Vancouver, in Point Grey or Shaughnessy?  What all of these questions address is the relationship between social stratification, social mobility and life chances, but at the individual level.  Stratification goes much beyond the individual level.  It is a social fact.  What we have a hard time accepting is that we are somehow locked into a particular strata or class.  Is there social mobility? Let’s look at the way most of us think of as the best way to get ahead: education. Is there a class bias in access to higher education in B.C.?  Is a post-secondary education accessible to all and does it lead to social mobility and a better life?  In a paper called Education Under Seige: Financing and Accessibility in B.C. Universities, published in 1985 but still very much relevant today, Neil Guppy of UBC concludes that there has been no democritization of access to university.  He reports, based on a study he conducted that vocational institutes and community colleges cater to working class or lower middle class students while universities continue to cater to upper and upper middle class students.  And the reality is that a university education still produces greater material rewards so unequal access to university tends to reinforce social inequality.


For most of us, most of the time, class, defined both in classical and contemporary terms, has an enormous influence on our life chances. There you have it.