Covid-19 and Class Structure

The Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates the class structure of the US. I’ve written several posts on the issue of class in the US, but most such analysis takes an index of some kind, wealth, education, income, and places people sequentially, then divides the line into groups which are called classes. For example, in this post I described Thomas Piketty’s classes based on wealth.

I discussed a modern Marxian class structure analysis here. Class is defined in terms of social and ownership relationships. Typically we think of three classes, the capitalists, the workers, and a small class of professionals and artisans who own their own means of production and work for themselves, but are to some extent dependent on the capitalist class. [1] This simple structure leads to difficult problems for people trying to use the analysis for social change.

1. In a large corporation, those at the bottom of the hierarchy own nothing but their labor and can only survive by selling that labor. They have little, if any, control over their working conditions. They are subject to the orders of those above them in the hierarchy. In higher levels of the hierarchy workers have limited control over the means of production, and have the power to control the actions of their subordinates. In even higher reaches, people achieve actual control over the means of production and control the actions of larger numbers of people. At the top are people who control the means of production through their power to direct their subordinates. In this more complex setting, the boundaries of class are blurred, and it is easy for people to misunderstand their position in the class structure.

It’s also difficult for people to understand that the problems they face in their jobs are common across all jobs. It isn’t just your boss who’s a jerk, your employer who has appalling policies on health care, sick leave, vacation and day-to-day irritations. Everyone faces those issues.

2. People don’t understand that capitalists exploit workers. This chart shows that the share of national income going to the labor sector has trended down since 1960. It dropped dramatically and stayed low during the last 20 years. That loss goes to the rich. I discuss the way in which capitalists justify this exploitation in this post.

3. Most people do not understand how they are exploited operationally, because everything they experience seems natural. That’s because capitalists exercise substantial control over the public understanding of issues of political economy. Their version of business history dominates. Their theory of economics, neoliberalism, is not threatened by any widespread alternative. Their concept of the role of government has controlled since the 1950s. They have an out-sized input into our choices for political office in both legacy parties. They have used that power to hold onto and increase their power.


This pandemic has the potential to wake people up from their torpor. This article by Robert Reich is a good starting point. Reich identifies four classes defined in relation to the lockdown.

A. The Remotes: “…professional, managerial, and technical workers – an estimated 35% of the workforce” who are working and reasonably well-paid. They are largely unaffected by the lockdown.

B. The Essentials: the people who are required to go to their workplaces despite the lockdown, including health care workers, care-givers, farm workers, meat packers, grocery store and pharmacy employees, employees of gun stores and liquor stores.

C. The Unpaid: the non-essential workers who are now unemployed and subjected to lockdown, about 25% of the work force. Most of them lost their health insurance as well as their income, and face an unpleasant future.

D. The Forgotten: those “…for whom social distancing is nearly impossible because they’re packed tightly into places most Americans don’t see: prisons, jails for undocumented immigrants, camps for migrant farmworkers, Native American reservations, homeless shelters, and nursing homes.” The lockdown doesn’t affect them, as their lives sucked already.

Reich doesn’t mention the Fifth Class, those who are largely unaffected by the lockdown. This group has two segments. One is retirees and those near retirement, who presumably have the income and assets they need and to maintain their lifestyles. They have Medicare, stable housing, access to grocery stores and pharmacies, and generally can shelter in place with no discomfort. The second segment is people who have so much money they are not at all affected. They can just hop on their private jets and come and go as before, maybe with fewer people to serve them drinks.

The Covid-19 pandemic has sharpened the blurred lines described in Point 1. There are only two groups: the Reomoters and the Fifth Class who can can stay home and protect themselves; and the Essentials and the Unpaid. The Essentials who can’t stay home, and are at risk of serious illness and death, with whatever insurance they can cobble together. The Unnpaid are unprotected from financial ruin. The serious risks facing the Essentials and the Unpaid are the same across all jobs.

The exploitation described in Point 2 is now in the open. The rich and their politicians value capital over the lives and well-being of the Essentials and the Unpaid. First, capitalists were heavily subsidized by the Fed and Congress, Second, politicians are granting the demands of the capitalists to reopen the economy and shield them from liability if they don’t protect their workers from deadly illness. Republicans force people to choose between working for the rich or protecting their health at the cost of their unemployment benefits and their life savings.

The domination of discourse raised in Point 3 has been eroded by the rise of the political rhetoric of Sanders, Warren, and others. A large number of working people of all incomes don’t accept the assertions of the rich and their media giants as gospel. They can see the impact of Covid-19 on themselves and everyone they know. They can read about the problems faced by other workers, and see that they are in the same position.

The practical outcome? Workers at a number of giant corporations are planning a work action for May Day.

“It’s more powerful when we come together,” Chris Smalls, a lead organizer of the May 1 walkout, who was fired from Amazon’s Staten Island fulfillment center after staging a walkout on March 31, told Motherboard. “We formed an alliance between a bunch of different companies because we all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities. Right now isn’t the time to open up the economy. Amazon is a breeding ground [for this virus] which is spreading right now through multiple facilities.”

The strikers are asking consumers to boycott Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt. They say that many of the workers will walk out, call in sick, or take other action. Their demands are astonishingly minimal: personal protective gear, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and a few company specific needs.

The Essentials and the Unpaid are forced to risk their health and their finances so the Remoters and the Fifth Class can live comfortably. That’s a concrete way of showing people their position in the class structure. Where are the politicians and media people capable of articulating this so everyone gets it?

[1] In this post, I use the term “capitalist” to mean the top .1% in wealth and the top managers of the largest businesses. It’s useful here where the basis of the analysis is more or less Marxist, but I’m ambivalent about it because I’m not particularly a Marxist. I’m just a guy who reads books. I usually use the term “filthy rich” which my mother loved, but it seems perjorative.

27 replies
  1. dude says:

    Ed, I think your analysis is fundamentally correct. Speaking of reading books, have you read Chris Harman’s “A People’s History of the World”?

  2. vvv says:

    In Chicago, the May 1 protest is scheduled to be *against* lock downs.

    ht tps://

    I think we need a sub-classification “E.” for, … The Politically Deluded? The Self-interested Suicidal? (I know that’s not really parallel and/or congruent with above classifications – it’s the best I can do within the edit time.)

    • Ed Walker says:

      I hoe there’s a counter-protest. If the weather is nice, I might drop by with a sign like: Go Home You Selfish Pigs. Or Why should Nurses risk their lives for your sorry ass?

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Being pejorative because it’s accurate is like facts having a liberal bias when viewed from the perspective of Trump and neoliberals, who expect facts to contort themselves into the shapes that comfort and enrich them.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the layers of lies they use, say, to deny the global climate crisis. My hope is that the spectacular improvements in the air pollution in large cities – Los Angeles, London, Beijing – will help people better see the lies they have been brought up on.

    • Ed Walker says:

      @chrisinparis, a friend of the blog, tweets pics of Paris. Lately the sky has been a stunning shade of blue. Paris is encouraging bikes by increasing their bike lanes at the expense of auto traffic. That’s one thing that happens when you elect a Socialist, Anne Hidalgo, mayor. The sky here has been amazing, and Lake Michigan is beautiful without all the barge pollution. I’ve seen pics of LA that should make even that carsick area think about clean energy.

      • P J Evans says:

        The worst pollution around L.A. is actually in the area east of it, from Pomona to Riverside and Perris. Which is also where a lot of people moved because housing was less expensive. (If they have the money, they take the train into L.A.)
        How bad is it compared to the 60s? I’ve only had my eyes burn from smogonce in the last 40 years. In the 60s it was All. The. Time.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Before air quality standards and automotive emissions controls, which began in earnest about 1968. With generally westerly winds and back pressure from the Transverse Ranges, it seems logical that pollution would be compressed and settle northeast and east of the city, where much of it originates.

      • Peterr says:

        Here in metro KC, the dept of public works in various cities are using the relative absence of traffic to dig up and fix those roads (or pipes/wires/cables below the roads) that are most problematic to shut down when you have normal amounts of vehicles.

  4. Peterr says:

    Back in the Middle Ages, one of the effects of the Black Death was to break the hold of the lords over their serfs. Because the nobility had all these lands that needed to be tended, they needed labor — the serfs, who could not physically leave their allotted plot of land without the permission of their lord. Because so many serfs died in the plague, however, the supply of serfs was diminished. As a result, the surviving serfs had leverage with the lords to improve their lot in life and did just that.

    The meatpacking industry is on the verge of learning the same lesson that the feudal lords learned. So is the restaurant industry: those owners and chefs who treated their staff well before COVID-19 will have a much better chance of retaining their staff and reopening quickly (whenever that happens) than those owners and chefs who treated the staff like dirt.

    • P J Evans says:

      The serfs did have a legal out: if they could get to a city and spend a year there, they were free from their lord’s control.

        • P J Evans says:

          True – but the lords didn’t have a lot of incentive to try finding them in London or York or Bristol. Lot of work, lot of money, not much return (because you get a really unhappy serf back).

          • posaune says:

            Eventually the serf shortage led to the rise of the guilds, especially in Italy. Specialized, separate guilds in Italy were organized for all the building trades: brick-layers, stone-cutters, carpenters, glass cutters, scaffolding, etc. It was Fillippo Brunelleschi, the Duomo’s builder, that “busted” the unions by forcing all the guilds to adopt a matching standard unit of measure (great leap forward for A & E). He also hired a competent chef and fed the workers every day.

    • Ken Muldrew says:

      The end result was the dissolution of the feudal system with serfs being released from their bond to the land and an increase in their quality of life, but we should remember that this was a slow, bloody, and thoroughly unpleasant transition for the surviving serfs. The lords held a monopoly on violence and they could influence legislation where the serfs were powerless. As the Black Death passed, the lords actually doubled down on keeping the serfs tied to the manor and had legislation brought in to prevent any wage increases. The serfs rebelled across Europe and were brutally put down.

      Ironically, it was the lords themselves who eventually relented and freed the serfs, not in response to leverage obtained by the serfs, but because they needed commoditized labour for the emerging proto-capitalism. Although there was no “market” in the modern sense, the practices of long-distance trade in luxury items were beginning to be applied to commodity trade within states. This process occurred over centuries and is not well documented, but an analogy can be drawn with the start of the industrial revolution in England. What happened there was the development of a process of mutual escalation (an arms race) between cottage spinners and weavers and the merchants who were bypassing the guilds to put-out work to the cottages. Each found ways to outsmart the other in order to keep a bit more “profit” for themselves and free communication networks within each group allowed these innovations to spread rapidly. The positive feedback loop created a sort of institutionalized process of innovation that eventually led to industrialization. With commerce, a similar process occurred from the 1200s into the Early Modern period whereby the “market” was pulled up by its own bootstraps through a process of mutual escalation. Here it was the tendency of European rulers to make war on each other combined with the use of merchants to engage in long-distance trade in luxury goods that started the process. Rulers set up protection rackets for merchants but the merchants, traveling as they did between kingdoms, were able to find advantage by facilitating more local trades in disputed regions with money rather than labour. The lords found it easier to administer armies with currency and this became even more of a factor in the wake of the Black Death. So it was the lords who released the serfs for their own ends (to have a labour force that could move about and provide labour as a commodity) rather than in response to an increase in the serfs’ collective powers. [I beg forgiveness for hopelessly oversimplifying here]

      It would be ironic in another plague created the conditions to free the populace from the yoke of capitalism, but if it does, it won’t be an easy and bloodless transition. The rich still hold most of the levers of power and violence and we can expect them to use these in a purely reactionary manner to preserve their own power in the near term. The essential (but sacrificial) workers of today will not see an increase in their living standards as we come out of the pandemic unless the rest of us fight for it.

  5. Steven Marks says:

    I was hoping you would post on this topic. My wife and I are Fifth Class retirees and way too dependent on investments in stock and bond funds. Our social security income doesn’t really cut it. For that matter, our small investment may not cut it, either. Anyway, I’ve been paying way too much attention to the stock market and somewhat amazed that it is now going up. But, in the context of the neoliberalism onslaught, do you think it’s possible that corporations are seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to tighten the screws on workers (automation, etc.) and increase profits? Hence, the DJIA rise. Maybe it’s not delusional and they really see a future to their liking.

    • PhoneInducedPinkEye says:

      There was a lot of coverage about the tight labor market before covid, companies offering inducements (but not much wage hikes) to get employees. Wouldn’t surprise me if mid to large size companies think they can exploit this – fire expensive workers, pay less in six months.

      I started a new job a few months before this hit and was able to demand 20% more than I was willing to take, nervous now that furloughs are rolling around.

      As a matter of curiosity how does paying monthly expenses with income from investments work? Do you just manually sell stocks in the amount you need?

      • P J Evans says:

        usually the stocks get sold for the unusual expenses – like last year, when my car needed an unscheduled but expensive repair (rechargeable battery pack replacement). I let my financial guy know, and they sold stock to cover it. (I have some from my 401K that’s actual stock, not a fund, so it was easier to sell.)

      • sw_marks says:

        Our monthly expenses are pretty stable, so every six months or so, I tell the brokerage house to sell enough to get through the next half-year. Unless the inevitable something comes up, as P J Evans notes.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I don’t have much insight into the stock market, but here are two ideas.
      1. There is a lot of concentration so that most of the companies with listed securities are oligopolies. Most of our business sectors are dominated by 2-4 companies with at least 80% of the market. They are safe from competition, and seem to be able to profit regardless of the general state of the economy. Meanwhile, interest rates are super low. That argues for buying stocks.
      2. We all knew when things got tough that the government and the Fed would bail out the capitalists and give the working class the least possible assistance. That happened. So the market recovered.
      ? maybe?

  6. James Roy says:

    To some extent at least, the 5th class is the shock absorber that our “just in time” economy lacks. This retired code monkey has cranked out a lot of tyvek gowns and face masks in the last few weeks. I’m not complaining, glad to do what I can. Just observing that this is how “free markets” deal with all sorts of crises — someone has to do it for free.

    • Ed Walker says:

      This is a good point. The Fifth Class helps out where it can. And the Government should do a whole lot more for for the Essentials and the Unpaid for free.

  7. Dysnomia says:

    In your point 3 you lay out some of the ways the ruling class (or capitalists, or filthy rich, whatever you want to call them) controls society, in large part by controlling public understanding and thought about issues of class and economy. I would add another one: their control over the education system.

    Our system of education functions primarily to indoctrinate young people into accepting their class role, into believing that being dominated and subordinated to others is natural. Other functions like learning how to do algebra or memorizing a timeline of the civil war are secondary. Controlling a (practically) universal, compulsory and years long operant conditioning regime for children and young people is tremendously useful to the ruling class.

    I think a lot of people on the left don’t recognize the role our system of education plays in perpetuating the class system. And I think the problem is compounded by our generally authoritarian methods of child rearing that train children to accept being dominated from infancy. I think ultimately we’ll need a transformative change in these aspects of our society in order to really address these class issues.

  8. e.a.f. says:

    much of this in my opinion is the result of the lack of social programs in the u.s.a. its gotten worse since the 1960s and some of that is the result of gated communities, private schools every where. segregation still exists in the u.s.a., voter suppression has ensured the class system remains in place. the courts are loaded with political appointees, the usa has the highest rate of incareration in the world, its not a democracy and never has been. it was in the interest of those who paid taxes to revolt so they could control the narrative. but when it came to voting it was always about those who owned land.

    employers in the u.s.a have never cared whether workers lived or died. it was just how much money they could make. politicians aren’t part of the first tier, they are there to do the bidding of the first tier, the money people. they buy and sell politicians. you can not have a free society where politicians are bought and sold. there is no limit on what is spent in elections.

    We changed that in Canada. There are limits. you go over the limits, its a crime. You go on trial and you can and do leave court in hand cuffs and chains.

    some people are so desperate they want to believe the capitalists look out for them, but not so much. they just want people to work until they;re dead. Just look at the lack of unions in the U.S.A. the u.s.a. is just another 3rd world country, just with more t.v.s and cars but the poverty is going to over take the country with this virus and that is why politicians are so anxious to “open the economy” again. Like who benefits from that/ the capitalists.

    In the Netherlands those staying home receive 90% of their income. rest of western Europe, to varying degrees the same. Australia, $1K a month. Canada, almost every one is in receipt fo some sort of financial aid and it did not go through any banks. straight to the workers. to small business, staight to the owners. Many Canadians are in receipt of $2K a month. It keeps people feed, roof over their heads. British Columbia banned evictions. homeless camps are being dismantled and people being placed hotels so social distancing can be enforced.

    what we see in the usa is the highest death rates due to COVID in the world. How did that happen in the richest country in the world, the country which built some of the most amazing computers, sent people to the moon, just look at what the u.s.a. achieved in the past 100 yrs. and today they can’t or won’t test for a disease which kills and has killed over 60K citizens. It sort of reminds me of that para. about the nazi’s firs they came for the Jews, but I……each group winds up dead. In the usa its similar. each different group is going to wind up dead.
    don’t know what those idiots in Michigan were on about with their guns in the leg. but it made me think perhaps the capitalists were getting worried the politiicans weren’t going to follow orders, so they sent in a few gun men.

    Don’t know how it will end, but I do hope Canada keeps that border closed to all but essential traffic.

    • Rayne says:

      don’t know what those idiots in Michigan were on about with their guns in the leg. but it made me think perhaps the capitalists were getting worried the politiicans weren’t going to follow orders, so they sent in a few gun men.

      Spot on. These protests have financial support — laundered a couple times through layers of entities — and the protesters showed up this week in particular on the day when Michigan’s legislature was supposed to vote in relation to the governor’s power to declare a state of emergency and the powers that emergency declaration gives the governor’s office. The intersection is federal because the emergency is necessary to access some federal programs. The same financials supporters also want restraints on any federal aid to the state.

      They came to intimidate lawmakers in a state where +60-70% of the population supports the governor’s handling of COVID-19 response.

      But they came to do one thing more, those without masks: if asymptomatic carriers, they may have assaulted lawmakers by infection and the ones most likely to be hurt are those who are more likely to support the governor.

      (I should add that to a post.)

  9. Vicks says:

    I think your point about not being a free society as long as politicians can be bought and sold is what feeds most of the sicknesses you mention.
    Our leader really has goosed the benefits corporations typically get with a Republican administration by handpicking the vilest options one could imagine for key cabinet positions
    Betsy Devos is charge of education.
    God help us
    Sony Perdue?
    Wilbur Ross?
    Mitch got a freaking aluminum factory from Russia.
    Those jackasses swinging their small you-know-what’s and their very long guns are all proud products of the NRA
    Americans are so dead inside they hate so they can feel alive. They believe whatever suits their agenda and gave up asking questions because that’s where the troubles start.
    Politicians don’t solve problems like Immigration or gun control because the divide is what they run on.
    They have their voters so well groomed they know they will jump on any bandwagon displaying their team’s colors even though it will effect the education of their own children or cause the death of a beloved elder.

  10. Pete T says:

    I shared several tweets with Ed and others last week that started with a question: Can “free market capitalism” provide a resilient economy rather than one that squeezes every last penny of profit because it is specialized, complex, inflexible – oh and corrupt?

    I’ll save you the drama as Ed pointed out “why would they” and other salient points and, so, NO (which I sort of thought might be the answer).

    I was really torqued by the literal trashing of good food (retweet by Jim) simply because there had evolved a max profit supply chain for food and other stuff for commercial use and another for retail use and never the twain shall meet including destroying food instead of (capitalism or some entity liek government) being motived to find a way to direct that to food banks, etc.

    One can wander off into the resilient biased (society) ideas of Kunstler, Martenson, Sharon Astyk and others and to their credit they more or less live their ideas though scaling that to 300 million people – I dunno.

    And to be sure, short of a total societal meltdown triggered by name your catastrophe (but you can’t pick pandemic) we aren’l likely to get there with the class structure we have in place at the moment and the – dare I say it – fascism due the marriage of Government and top-dog-capitalists.

    But, damn, can’t “we” start by directing food that appears to be of more economic value to the capitalists rotting in a pile to one where it get’s directed to those in need and maybe even paid for a little bit?!?


  11. Vicks says:

    The testing issue is a real head scratcher.
    Obviously the Trump organization sees the importance of testing.
    It is testing that allows Trump’s “people” to enjoy the basic freedoms of going to work every day and feeling safe.
    I just spent the last 12 days in self isolation because a member of my household had symptoms of the virus.
    He was able to get a screening and a test on day 2, but it took an incredibly unreasonable 10 days to get results (negative) yesterday afternoon.
    I am fortunate, only real issue for me was finding someone to help out my 80 year old mom.
    How can we get back to normal under those circumstances?
    How can we stop the spread if it requires people who feel perfectly fine spend 10 days (or more) in a limbo directly connected to our federal governments game playing?
    The guidelines for tracing are 10 minutes spent less than 6 feet away from someone who has the virus.
    This happened to me and I barely leave the house.
    How many times will this happen to the average person if guidelines are lifted?
    A couple of times a year? A month?
    Now let’s talk about how the need for people to self isolate for 10 days when they are not sick translates when it hits the wall of reality.

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