The middle class is finally growing by leaps and bounds. Not only is our middle class growing but this phenomenon has the potential to ensure more sustainable economic growth, and enable democracy to finally take root within the country. The ongoing census should provide more tangible data concerning the size of our middle class. Moreover, the lofty spill-over effects being attributed to the supposed middle class growth are also by no means guaranteed.
Being a part of the middle class can mean different things in different parts of the world. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny the importance of seeing more people join the segment of a country’s population which is decently educated, and engaged in professional and business occupations. Such middle-class growth is rightly said to provide the socio-economic backbone of any country.
The middle class is currently confronting challenges within both developing and developed countries, due to elite-led growth, which has instead increased concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Pakistan is not immune to growing inequalities either, yet, we have apparently seen some meagre benefits of growth trickle down to our middle classes as well.
A couple of months ago, The Wall Street Journal, citing estimates largely based on income and the purchase of consumption goods, had suggested that as many as 42% of Pakistan’s population may now belong to the upper and middle classes. Official figures also show that the proportion of households that own a motorcycle and washing machines has grown impressively over the past 15 years.
For MNCs, such trends are wonderful news, promising exploding demand for their products, ranging from pasteurised milk to junk food and more expensive cell phones. Pinning more ambitious hopes on this apparent rising middle class would however be a mistake.
Even if we now have a sizable middle class, this fact alone is not enough to ensure more sustainable and equitable economic growth. Nor does this trend indicate an automatic bolstering of our fragile democracy.
The fact remains that economic growth in Pakistan may have helped reduce poverty, but it has still done little to prevent growing inequalities. While there is a dearth of data, the available evidence does indicate that income distribution has clearly become less equal over the last three decades. It is not just inequality between individuals which has worsened, regional inequalities within and across provinces is also striking.
The middle class also lacks a progressive vision, which is needed to reform the underlying structures of inequality in the country. Academics like Akbar Zaidi are right to point out that middle class politics in Pakistan is hardly progressive. The Islamisation discourse, backed up by Saudi funding and growing jihadism, has turned our middle class away from leftist or progressive tendencies, and instead encouraged conservatism and intolerance, except in the realm of business.
Currently, middle class aspirations seem unable to transcend their own myopic group interests, which are based on patronage economic and political alliances with elite-led models of economic growth, also backed by the state establishment. So, while we may have a growing middle class, the implications of this phenomenon do not necessarily mean good news for addressing the deprivation and disempowerment.
Yet, there are also other ongoing social changes, ranging from girls’ education to technological profusion in communication technologies, which are enabling counter-narratives to form within our middle class. While still very limited in comparison to the prevailing crass consumerism and social intolerance, there is also a growing sense of awareness concerning overarching social justice issues amongst our educated youth. The impact of such trends on the country needs further research. We need to understand how such trends can be nurtured, because it is only by fostering a more inclusive vision amongst the middle class, can we hope to make our country a better place for all its citizens.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 21st, 2017.