Dividing workers against one another prevents formation of class consciousness and collective action against the owner class. Racism and sexism provide obvious examples, aligning white men against what should be their fellows, black workers and women workers. Police and military forces compose a martial class that defends the wealthy’s class interest from the rest of the working class, dividing them from and pitting them against the “civilian” population.

Class consciousness arises from recognizing the alignment of one’s own needs with the needs of others in the same economic situation. Where one worker sees that their colleague suffers the same exploitation they do, and both wish it to end, they can build trust and cooperate with one another against the owner class that exploits them. The owner class also recognizes their shared interest in continuing to exploit workers, so they cooperate with one another to undermine collective action.

Class consciousness can be undermined by disrupting the perception of shared interest. Highlighting non-class identity traits invites workers to align with their identity group above their class. Where the owner class privileges one identity group, workers who identify with that group see their interests more closely aligned with their identity group rather than their colleagues. As a result, the owner class need to contend only with a subset of the working class, and they can mobilize the support of privileged identity workers in the struggle.

While whiteness and maleness continue to serve this divisive function for the owning class, the introduction of professionalism has also done widespread damage to class consciousness. Workers in “professional” careers enjoy high wages and flexibility in their work environment, making such careers highly desirable among workers. Entry into a professional career usually requires tertiary education, limiting the pool of qualified workers. Social inequalities expands access to higher education for members of the privileged group, so race and gender disparities influence the composition of the professional class.

Tertiary education serves as a shared experience between the owner class and the most privileged members of the working class. Many social signifiers students learn in order to enter a professional career are also signifiers of the owner class. In their eventual jobs, professional workers engage in status games similar to those played by the owning class, notably conspicuous consumption and the pursuit of positional goods. When a professional considers the experience of the working class, they may find that experience much different from their own due to their income and working conditions. Professionals may reasonably question whether they belong to the working class or instead to some middle class that stands between the two.

Nevertheless, professional and non-professional workers alike experience exploitation by the owning class. While professionals enjoy an elevated status due to their income and social signifiers, their household wealth remains a fraction of that held by the owning class who employ them. Professional workers generally hold their jobs in order to support themselves and their household because they lack sufficient wealth to do otherwise. Owner class employers claim property rights in all of the creative labor produced by their professional employees, alienating them from the products of their labor. Professional workers usually draw salaries rather than hourly wage, so their employers can demand variable amounts of time from them, alienating them from their family and community.

The owner class also exploits the professional class by making them complicit in the exploitation of non-professionals. Given unbounded demands on their time, professional workers have an incentive to leverage their earnings to pay for time-saving services usually provided by non-professionals. When the owner class creates an opportunity to extract work from non-professionals, professional workers provide the demand for services and become the primary customers. A non-professional then expends their effort and time on the needs of a professional for the profit of an owner rather than serving their own analogous needs. The professional as customer directly engages with the non-professional who must then treat their customer as if they belonged to the owner class, alienating them from one another. As a result, the professional stands in a similar relationship to the non-professional as the owner does, reinforcing the professional’s perceived alignment with the owner class.

By focusing on wealth disparities, professionals can see themselves in the same frame as the rest of the working class. When the class signifiers and delegated oppression are removed, the professional worker finds themselves more similar to non-professional workers than to their owner class employer. Their lives are just as contingent on the whims of the owner class. They have similar ability to influence their working conditions and terms of employment, weak as individuals but strong as a collective.

The owning class creates the illusion of a “professional” middle class to disrupt class consciousness among workers of the most and least privileged classes, limiting their ability to act collectively. Professionals must resist acting as delegates in oppression and reflect on their shared motivation with the rest of the working class. Otherwise, the oppression of both classes will continue.

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