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Self-serving middle classes

by Hans Dembowski

In brief

Middle classes are interested in protecting their standard of living, but don’t necessarily want to share with others: private swimming pool of a high-rise condominium in Sao Paulo.

Middle classes are interested in protecting their standard of living, but don’t necessarily want to share with others: private swimming pool of a high-rise condominium in Sao Paulo.

Rising incomes in many world regions have caused growing excitement about middle classes’ role in development. Some hopes are probably exaggerated. By Hans Dembowski

Asia’s growing middle classes will prove a force for transparent and accountable governance, believes Noeleen Heyzer, a special adviser to the UN secretary-general. She argues that the middle classes will not accept state capture by elites in the long run because such state capture stands in the way of their aspirations and negatively affects their standards of life. As more people enjoy rising incomes and become more self-confident, they will become more assertive, Heyzer says.

The history of countries like Taiwan or South Korea confirms Heyzer’s view. There is a link between development and human rights. Development leads to the emergence of new centres of influence, power and sources of wealth in society. In primarily rural societies, the state and landownership are what matters. As manufacturing and service sectors expand, however, private-sector enterprises, stock markets and the enforceability of legal rights matter ever more. In regard to technology and research, institutions of higher education become ever more important. Vibrant stock markets, lively universities and a fully developed legal profession, however, depend on the freedom of speech.

For such reasons, many European development experts share Heyzer’s hope that the middle classes will assume political responsibility and contribute to making societies more democratic and more inclusive. However, what makes theoretical sense in the long run does not have to materialise fast. Indeed, there is little evidence of the middle classes becoming drivers of change in many countries.


Undemocratic attitudes

Ji Chen teaches political science at the University of Idaho in the USA. He has done empirical research on the middle classes in Chinese cities. He says that they are not interested in democracy. The reason, according to him, is that they are thriving thanks to state policies, and accordingly support the undemocratic government. In Chen’s eyes, middle classes that depend on an authoritarian regime cannot be expected to rise up against that regime.

African middle classes are not, by their very nature, inclined to promote democracy either, says Henning Melber of the Swedish Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. In his experience, policies are basically defined by the elites in African countries and, so far, there is not much scope for middle-class involvement. While the middle classes want their own situation to improve, Melber adds, they certainly do not want to share with the poor whom they consider to be uneducated and, as revealed be Afrobarometer surveys, even unqualified to vote.

Luís Lopez-Calva expresses similar doubts about Latin American middle classes’ inherent interest in democracy. He works for the World Bank and points out that middle classes have supported very undemocratic regimes in many countries in past decades. According to him, middle classes tend to be pragmatic and primarily want to defend and perhaps improve their own standard of living. To the extent that they feel protected by the government, they will support it.

At the same time, they are likely to become disaffected if they think that the state is not serving them well. Lopez-Calva says that middle classes are tempted “to opt out of the social contract” if schools and hospitals are unreliable and do not offer the quality services needed to maintain the lifestyles they are used to. Members of the middle classes will then consider taxes an unfair burden and want to spend their money on private schools and health care. To the extent that they are not satisfied with the police, they will want to invest in private security services too. Lopez-Costa warns that ineffective and inefficient public institutions are a recipe for the disintegration of society. He recommends improving social services as the best way to make middle classes endorse democratic governance.

The term middle classes is quite vague. It has become very prominent in development discourse because the incomes of masses of people have risen in Asia, Latin America and Africa in the past decades. The multilateral African Development Bank reckons that there now are 300 million middle-class people in Africa.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Raphael Kaplinsky of Britain’s Open University mockingly stated at the 14th General Conference of the EADI (the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) in Bonn in June that all those “who are not starving” are now considered middle class.

In a similar vein, Bright Simons, a social activist and entrepreneur from Ghana, who specialises in fighting fake pharmaceuticals (http://www.goldkeys.org), emphasises that African middle classes are not only very heterogeneous, but even “conflicted”. On the one hand, trade communities that have many uneducated members have benefited from recent economic growth, he reports, whereas educated youth struggle to find good jobs. Depending on whether one uses income data or educational criteria to define the middle classes, one comes to very different conclusions about how they are faring.


The right definition

Scholars generally agree that, unless the term middle class is defined in a more precise way than an income above subsistence level, it cannot serve any serious analytical purpose. World Bank expert Lopez-Costa relies on such a definition. In his eyes, only those people who are not at risk of dropping back into poverty should be counted as middle class. His criterion is thus a minimum level of social protection by various means. According to his data, there are now more middle class than poor people in Latin America – but the number of people in between is even greater.

According to Lopez-Costa, masses of Latin Americans are no longer poor in the sense of suffering desperate needs, but they are vulnerable to shocks such as illnesses, accidents or losing their jobs. The way to improve matters, he suggests, is to improve social infrastructures. It is no coincidence that these are precisely the things anti-World Cup protesters have recently been demanding in Brazil.

The middle classes of the rich world play a role too, as Jürgen Wiemann, the vice president of EADI emphasises (see D+C/E+Z 2014/04, p. 164 ff.). To a large extent, rising purchasing power in the developing world means that ever more people are copying the consumption patterns typical of North America, Western Europe and Japan. These consumption patterns are known to be environmentally unsustainable, and the more people adopt them, the greater the environmental damage will become. Unless the role models of consumerism in advanced nations change their habits, it seems unlikely that emerging consumers in other world areas will modify their aspirations. Hans Dembowski