While it is being commented that the middle class in Western societies is valuing market goods increasingly less, on the other side of the globe, in Asia, the growing middle class seems to value the market goods increasingly more, proportionally to their increased purchase power. So while we are being told stories of an unprecedented explosion in the ‘world middle class’, there are opposite concerns – of the shrinking middle class that is fighting against the tide of inequality incurred by financial crisis in Western countries. This may reflect a paradoxical trend at the global level of economical system with regards to the social inequality and income levels, as some global investment consulting firms state. The irony here is that while the economic inequality between countries worldwide is decreasing, given that the number of countries approaching ‘middle income nations target’ is growing, the social inequality within these countries itself, including the developed ones, is rather on the rise. Thus, economic inequality remains pretty much a widely debated issue, even though in terms of absolute numbers the middle class is growing, with another two billion expected to join in 2030, and the bulk of them will be coming from Asia. As it is often the case, these glowing statistical figures may camouflage more grim realities on the ground as experienced by people in their daily lives.
The ‘normal’ majority
The heated debate about the middle class that unfolds in the media, research papers and economic discourses may be mainly due to the fact that middle class in the West historically have been the engine of economic growth, a stabilising power, beacon of national and cultural values, and even more important, a game-changer in the election arena. In the West, middle class used to be a producer of political parties, supplying professionals and skilful traders to the new political force in 19th century. Thinkers and philosophers attributed a big deal of responsibility for countries’ development to the middle class. Lord Brougham, an anti-slavery activist of the 19th century highly estimated the potential of the middle class: “By the people, I mean the middle classes. The wealth and intelligence of the country. The glory of the British name’. Of course, he was not a pioneer in his findings. As early as in ancient Greece, Aristotle, the mastermind of the ‘golden mean’, wrote in his Politics: “Those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both other classes.”
It’s become a truism nowadays that a large and relatively wealthy middle class, well-educated and well-connected, is a major contributing factor to the political stability. Countries that are deprived of the middle class, with a majority of population under the middle income threshold, but with an elite class, rich in power but meagre in distribution scale, have a skewed correlation between income groups, a distribution which is not ‘normal’. On the contrary, a middle class that consists of the majority of population in a country, with a minimal proportion on both outlying ends, the extreme rich and the extreme poor, mathematically would testify a normal distribution.
In fact, the majority of the distribution in the naturally occurring environment is explained based on the Gaussian distribution model. This is also known as the ‘normal distribution’, on which rests the whole theory of probability, that is a good part of modern science and our modern daily practice. This is a mathematical model according to which 95% of the data in nature is presumed to be accumulated in the center and only 5% in the extreme ends of the spectrum, which presumes that the majority of population within a country should belong to the middle class. However, in contemporary socio-economic systems, in the domain of perfectly operating markets, the laws of nature seem not to work as may have been logically expected. And this is a question not often raised, at least not from this angle.
Media headlines capture contradictory trends in the middle class dialectics. Look at the headings: ‘The Strange Death of the British Middle Class’, ‘America’s middle class: An endangered species?’, that lament of how the great stabilising force in some Western societies is quickly disappearing. Now shift focus onto Asia with its different narrative: ‘Will the middle class shake China?’ or ‘The Irresistible Rise of the Muslim Middle Class’, or ‘Middle Class already not a Stabilising Power’. Apparently, in non-Western countries, opposite to the Western historical experience, middle class is beginning to be seen as not exactly a stabilising factor for countries’ political system. Even though the rising middle class is tempting some of the BRICS or N11 countries to join groups like G7 or to become a decent competitor to them in future, respective governments often look at it as a source of instability. Will the middle class in China, India, Mexico and some of the Muslim countries (Turkey, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, etc.) remain loyal to the market ball game? Will the powerful today’s middle class in China, yet yesterday’s proletariat, comply with the market expectations or reinvent the rules? Will the governments in these countries manage to offer these powerful and demanding masses a satisfactorily umbrella of political visions and economic performances?
This question mark is also reflected in Maslowian self-actualisation needs and motives of this middle classes, as to where exactly will the identity-generation engine of the middle class be positioned. Given that Maslowian pyramid of self-actualisation is supposed to be universal, we expect predictable outcomes. But questions of cultural and geographic sensitivities are still being raised. At the time when the market philosophy is penetrating the heart of Asia, Middle East, and Africa, will self-actualisation remain at the level of physical consumption, or focus on dignity and freedom, human rights, equality, social solidarity, or any other values? The outcome is even harder to predict given that the majority of eastern countries nowadays consist of young generation – Gen Ys, that significantly differ in their attitudes and expectations from the preceding generations. The middle class in the eastern countries may continue to reformulate its priorities and values; to demand more respect from the government as it is happening in Turkey, Malaysia, China and Thailand; or it equally could be suffocated and neutralised as in Syria or Bahrain, or even Iran; or it may continue to opt to pamper itself with luxury consumerism as in the Gulf states, where the authorities have literally purchased legitimacy in the post ‘Arab Spring’ shake up.
Middle class in Western countries earned their rights as a result of fighting for it and this historical success is still fresh in its memory. But in real life the self-actualisation motives of the Maslowian pyramid are not ranked in hermetic isolation or in inflexible order. They all interact in unpredicted and intricated ways. Sometimes the insistence on advanced needs of rights for self-expression or political freedoms in authoritarian regimes which in Asian countries is more often the case, may potentially become a cause of threatened existence, due to the lowered importance of basic needs for physical survival and safety. And in other times, a mere lack of necessary daily meals, a basic need, can become a cause for people to commit to higher ideals of self-actualisation, such as the rights related to self-determination.
If all ‘civilising’ attempts from Enlightenment onwards aimed at attaining and securing the social equality for all, how come that the modern economic system is trending in the opposite direction? There is a media and political fuss that comes up when the theoretical construct of social equality or individual freedoms are threatened or infringed, as it often happens in some of the above mentioned N-11 countries that are experiencing a transitional period. However, when it reaches the socio-economic equality in both developed and developing countries, not to speak of the rest, the issue is neglected. Nowadays, respectable middle-class jobs do not pay what they once did. On both sides of the Atlantic, market economies are failing to deliver fruits to most of its citizens. As reported, for an American worker each economic downturn since 1981 has been more bruising than the previous one, with the jobs market taking progressively longer to recover to the pre-recession levels.
Theoretically speaking, the middle class should be the key factor to positively integrate the third world countries into the global economic system, while contributing into the improvement of democratic conditions in these societies. But this is not happening yet and in fact it is said that the economic inequality between countries in Asian subregions is even more striking than the inequality between classes in each of those countries. Besides, the concepts of freedom, equality, altruism are being reformulated according to the neoliberal logic, whereby freedom means mainly freedom to purchase and to sell at a selected price, as long as the rights of others are not infringed. Freedom becomes an entirely economic construct. Equality is narrowed down to the equality of purchase power. Expression of identity becomes a function of brand marketing.
Above all, in Eastern countries, these concepts about the middle class, Maslowian motives, normal distribution and many others are flavoured with an inherent mysticism along with the other spheres of life. Perhaps only this mystic element may explain why an objective understanding of the middle class is considered a stabilising factor in one part of the globe, but a destabilising in the other.