Please activate JavaScript!
Please install Adobe Flash Player, click here for download


36 D+C Vol.42.2015:2 The Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn asks whether this will be the century of the middle class. He ar- gues that the labour movements of the past century are no longer relevant since the project to emancipate citizens all over the world under the leadership of the proletariat has been replaced by an aspiration to attain middle-class status. Therborn sees his view reinforced by the 2012 OECD survey of global perspectives, which stressed the need to strengthen emerging middle classes. The sociologist also refers to a plea by Nancy Birdsall, the president of the Center for Global Development, an influential think tank in Washington. Birdsall wants policy-makers to shift their priorities from “pro-poor growth” to “pro-middle-class growth”. The same attitude underpinned the Human Development Report 2013, which was published by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the conference of the European Association for Develop- ment Research and Training Institutes (EADI), which was held in Bonn in June 2014. The EADI plenary takes place every three years, and last year’s topic was: “Re- sponsible development in a polycentric world. Inequality, citizenship and the mid- dle classes.” Jürgen Wiemann, EADI’s vice president, argues that more equitable and sustainable development can only be achieved world- wide with the help of the new middle classes in emerging-market countries (see his ar­ticle in D+C/E+Z 2014/04, p. 164 ff.). According to him, “steering the global econ- omy onto a more sustainable path of devel- opment depends in large part on the ‘new’ middle classes”. He writes that they “must review and modify their consumption ha­ bits as quickly as possible in order to pre- vent environmental damage and social ­catastrophes”. Wiemann believes that the “old” middle classes in OECD member states must take a leading role and provide a mod- el of sustainable production, consumption and lifestyles. The real winners This theory of the middle class is contra- dicted by the bestselling book “Capital in the twenty-first century” by Thomas Piket- ty, a French economist. He makes it clear that material inequalities within societies have been sustained and exacerbated by the reproduction of financial wealth for two centuries. Piketty’s evidence shows once again that the theory of equal oppor- tunity is an ideological farce under the supposedly free capitalism of a market economy. Piketty uses empirical statistics to demonstrate convincingly that capital and its owners have always tended to pro- duce ever-greater inequalities. This trend is nothing new. Piketty explains the phenomenon by pointing out that the returns on capital normally exceed increases in work in- comes. Over time, the gap between the one percent of the truly rich and everyone else has grown significantly. The notion that the middle classes are the winners of our era is therefore mistaken. The real winners are first and foremost those who use profits to generate ever more private wealth. According to recent Oxfam data, one percent of the world population will con- trol more than half of all measurable wealth by 2016 if current trends continue. In light of such striking disparities, it is un- clear how the middle classes should pave the way for a better future. Definition issues The idea of the “middle class” is rarely the subject of critical scrutiny. It took shape as a result of the erosion of the working class and the increasingly blurred boundaries between social classes. Even the question of who belongs to the middle class is up for debate. Raphael Kaplinsky from Britain’s Open University criticises the fact that some institutions, for instance the African Development Bank, consider anyone mid- dle class whose income exceeds two dol- lars a day, basically counting anyone who is not starving as “middle class”. Back in 2009, Martin Ravallion as chief economist at the World Bank proposed to classify households in developing coun- tries as middle class if their per-capita con- sumption ranges from two to $ 13. In con- trast, the Human Development Report 2013 relied on a definition from the Brook- ings Institution according to which people are middle class if their daily expenditure ranges from $ 10 to $ 100 per person. These figures diverge dramatically, but at least there seems to be a consensus that per- sons who have $ 10 a day at their disposal have reached a socio-economic territory that is more or less safe. Since the definitions are so vague and correspond to quite different lifestyles, it is hard to see how thus conceived middle classes should position themselves in so­ ciety. Many academics agree that these classes are driven by self-interest and of- ten have a “NIMBY” attitude. NIMBY stands for “not in my back yard”. Basically, these people feel that their interests should be protected and are likely to op- pose worthy reforms that affect them in any negative way. They are not willing to compromise their group’s interests and privileges. There is evidence for representatives of the middle class being more likely to guard Development studies The middle-class hype By Henning Melber In development debate, the middle classes are often seen as new beacons of hope. Whether they are actually driving progress is doubtful however, and determining who belongs to the middle class is certainly not a simple matter.