Proletarianization Defined: Shrinking of the Middle Class

A sign advertising a new Wal-Mart hangs on a chain-link fence near the construction project

Tim Boyle / Getty Images

Proletarianization refers to the original creation of and the ongoing expansion of the working class in a capitalist economy. The term stems from Marx's theory of the relationship between economic and social structures and is useful as an analytic tool for understanding changes in both in today's world.

Definition and Origins

Today, the term proletarianization is used to refer to the ever-growing size of the working class, which results from growth imperative of a capitalist economy. In order for business owners and corporations to grow in a capitalist context, they have to accumulate more and more wealth, this requires increasing production, and thus increasing amounts of workers. This can also be considered a classic example of downward mobility, meaning that people are moving from the middle class into the less wealthy working class.

The term originates in Karl Marx's theory of capitalism articulated in his book Capital, Volume 1, and initially refers to the process of creating a class of workers—the proletariat—who sold their labor to factory and business owners, who Marx referred to as the bourgeoisie or the owners of the means of production. According to Marx and Engels, as they describe in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, the creation of the proletariat was a necessary part of the transition from feudal to capitalist economic and social systems. (English historian E.P. Thompson provides a rich historical account of this process in his book The Making of the English Working Class.)

Processes of Proletarianization

Marx also described in his theory how the process of proletarianization is an ongoing one. As capitalism is designed to produced the continual accumulation of wealth among the bourgeoisie, it concentrates wealth in their hands, and limits access to wealth among all others. As wealth is funneled to the top of the social hierarchy, more and more people must accept wage labor jobs in order to survive.

Historically, this process has been a companion to urbanization, dating back to early periods of industrialization. As capitalist production expanded in urban centers, more and more people moved from agrarian lifestyles in the countryside to wage labor factory jobs in cities. This is a process that has unfolded over centuries, and that continues today. In recent decades formerly agrarian societies like China, India, and Brazil have been proletarianized as the globalization of capitalism pushed factory jobs out of Western nations and into nations in the global south and east where labor is cheaper by comparison.

Current Processes at Work

But today, proletarianization takes other forms as well. The process continues to unfold in nations like the U.S., where factory jobs are long gone, as one of a shrinking market for skilled labor and one hostile to small businesses, which shrinks the middle class by pushing individuals into the working class. The working class in today's U.S. is diverse in jobs, to be sure, but it is largely composed of service sector work, and of low- or unskilled jobs that render workers easily replaceable, and thus their labor invaluable in a monetary sense. This is why proletarianization is understood today as a process of downward mobility.

A report released by Pew Research Center in 2015 shows that the process of proletarianization continues in the U.S., evidenced by the shrinking size of the middle class, and the growing size of the working class since the 1970s. This trend was exacerbated in recent years by the Great Recession, which reduced the wealth of most Americans. In the period following the great recession, wealthy people recovered wealth while middle and working class Americans continued to lose wealth, which fueled the process. Evidence of this process is also seen in the growing number of people in poverty since the late 1990s.

It's important to recognize that other social forces affect this process too, including race and gender, which render people of color and women more likely than white men to experience downward social mobility in their lifetimes.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Proletarianization Defined: Shrinking of the Middle Class." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2023, April 5). Proletarianization Defined: Shrinking of the Middle Class. Retrieved from Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Proletarianization Defined: Shrinking of the Middle Class." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).