Why do socialists always go on about the working class? After all, workers are not always the poorest people in society-small farmers in the Third World are worse off than skilled workers in Britain. Neither are workers always militantly rejecting capitalism-many ordinary people read the Sun and seem to care more about football than politics. Workers are not even the majority of the world's population. But the working class is unique. Karl Marx called it the 'special and essential product of capitalism'.
The working class produces the wealth on which the whole of society depends. This process is often hidden. The bosses would have us believe that machinery or their entrepreneurial spirit makes profits. But it is the labour of workers which is fundamental to society. All bosses need to employ workers. All machines need to be operated by someone. Workers are paid less than the value of what they produce. The surplus is grabbed by the capitalist but created by the worker.
This is true of the physical things workers make, such as cars and mobile phones, and also of services. Without transport workers no one would get to their office. Without postal workers businesses would stop functioning. Without nurses the workforce could not stay healthy.
Workers are central to production. The system cannot function without them. Workers are also a collective class. This doesn't mean that workers are never selfish and individualistic. It means they have no other way of making a living except to work for someone else.
It also means they can improve their conditions only by collective action and organisation. The majority of workers cannot get promoted, even if they wanted to become supervisors or managers. There is not room at the top for everyone. Working class people cannot improve their lives by walking off with their bit of the production line. The experience of work cuts across the idea of competition for individual advancement.
That is important because work is one of the most dominant experiences of our lives. We spend the majority of our waking lives travelling to or at work. Many of our most important relationships are forged there. Despite new technology, most workers spend their days alongside others, performing the same tasks, putting up with the same pay and conditions. This process affects more and more people. Women are increasingly central to the workforce.
The working class today is not a narrow, exclusive group of cloth cap wearing manual workers (although there are still millions of industrial workers across Britain). The workplace is one of the main areas where people from different backgrounds are thrown together.
People may be rooted in a family or a local community. They may have prejudiced ideas. But at work they are all in the same boat, sharing their tea breaks and abusing the same boss.
The bosses compete with each other to grab ever bigger shares of the profits their workers produce. They constantly try to increase the rate at which workers are exploited by making them work longer, faster and harder.
These pressures lead workers to organise collectively, to join unions to defend their pay and conditions. They become active resisters, not passive producers. Industrialist Henry Ford once complained, 'Every time I hire a pair of hands I get a human being.' It is hard to stand up to a bullying manager alone. It is near impossible to fight for a wage claim alone. If workers are pushed into taking action it can have a dramatic effect on society and on workers themselves.
People can find their own lives are more interesting than the TV soaps. Unity and solidarity make more sense to workers the more confident they become in their own power.
Karl Marx called the working class the gravedigger of capitalism. Capitalism has created a working class wherever it has spread. There is conflict between the minority who want to increase exploitation and those who seek to lessen it. Workers can get a sense of what they are capable of through seeking to win that conflict.
They have the power to bring this system to an end, and they have the collective outlook necessary to build a different world.