This label is applied to the process by which sections of the middle class become absorbed into the working class. In The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that capitalism would encourage a polarization in the class structure, between the ‘two great hostile camps’ of the bourgeoisie (business owners) and proletariat (working class). Intermediate groupings, such as small producers and self-employed artisans, would gradually disappear. The middle class of white-collar workers would also join one or other of the hostile camps.
Class analysts have long criticized Marx and Engels for ignoring the growing importance of the so-called new middle class of advanced capitalist societies: the expanding numbers of managers, administrators, and professionals. In reply, Marxist sociologists have maintained that the Manifesto deliberately paints an abstract picture of a pure type of capitalist system, whereas Marx's writings elsewhere acknowledge the complexities of actually existing societies. It is certainly true that in Capital, volume i (1867), for example, Marx observes that the development of joint-stock companies tends to generate a separation of the labour of management from the ownership of capital. The former is conducted by a growing army of ‘officers [managers] and NCO's [supervisors], who command during the labour process in the name of capital’.
The debate was given new impetus by Harry Braverman 's claim, in Labour and Monopoly Capital (1974), that many groups of hitherto middle-class workers (notably routine clerical employees and skilled artisans) were being effectively proletarianized by having their labour dehumanized or de-skilled. According to Braverman, such a process was endemic to capitalist societies, since the imperatives of capitalist production compelled those who owned or managed industry to fragment tasks according to the principles of scientific management, in order to sustain profits and maintain control over labour. Braverman's work attracted much comment and provided the theoretical foundations for numerous neo-Marxist studies of the labour process.
Although Braverman's own data have largely been discredited, the popular perception is that debate about proletarianization remains unresolved, because participants have yet to agree about the criteria by which the process is to be measured. At least four different conceptions of proletarianization can be identified in the literature. For some commentators the argument is one about the relative size of classes. Proletarianization in this sense implies a growth in the proportion of working-class places in the overall class structure. Others have looked at social mobility data, attempting to calculate the likelihood of individuals being proletarianized by downward mobility into the working class, either from middle-class backgrounds or during the course of an occupational career. For these authors it is people, rather than places in the structure, that constitute the subjects of the process. A third criterion refers to the labour process itself. Some researchers have argued that many seemingly non-proletarian places in the class structure (such as those occupied by routine clerical workers) have often been so de-skilled, in terms of job content and the routinization of tasks, that they are indistinguishable from those occupied by the manual working class. A final criterion refers to proletarianization in its sociopolitical sense; that is, the extent to which certain middle-class groups within the labour-force come to identify themselves as working class or as allies of the working class, and so to share its political aspirations and culture.