History tells us that in the last few hundred years, political changes have taken place in the world not because of the people who are poor and deprived but because of the middle class. A class that doesn’t belong to the margins, in fact, constitutes the core of the national identity of any state. Political scholar Samuel P Huntington the author of The Clash of Civilizations explains this as a historical phenomenon and writes, “the most politically destabilizing group tends not to be the desperately poor, but rather middle class”. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859),0 the French diplomat, politician and historian, also notes that “the French Revolution was not triggered by indigent peasants but by a rising middle class that suddenly saw its economic and political prospects sink in the decade before the revolution”.
What makes a given middle class such an important constituent of a state identity?
The answer lies in the reaction. Better educated and politically more aware, the middle class remains a group that is very easy to mobilise. Through their education, deep commitments and hard work this group remains very respect-conscious and losing respect stands out as a negativity that it doesn’t consider itself entitled to. The group also carries a responsibility bag on its shoulders which creates an aura around it and acts as a reminder at all times about how useful it is to the society. Termed the core, the middle class becomes the hinge around which the future of any nation pivots. If basking in social, political and economic comforts, the middle class maintains the right-wing notions of order, duty, authority, traditions and civic nationalism. But if left to dry in a struggling political landscape that is making life difficult to live, it can quickly grow into and develop the left-wing notions, questioning the lack of progress, reform, rights, equality and fraternity. If exposed to declining incomes and job losses, the middle class demonstrates tendencies that give up on positive civic nationalism and adopt negative ethnic and sectarian nationalism. Both are dangerous developments and a consequence of a government not doing enough to focus on the wellbeing of a class that constitutes the backbone of the society.
The poor are too preoccupied with their poverty and with the idea of working out their day-to-day survival while being overly committed to making ends meet. Thus they don’t have the luxury to remain committed to long term sustainable protests. The middle class is also not at the top of the heap of the blessed and privileged but at least they believe that with their hard work they can take that direction. They also pay their taxes and all they want in return is not to be laid off from their jobs. That hurts their dignity and respect — something they struggled a lot to earn.
There can be many factors for the rise of protectionism, populism and nationalism but unquestionably the threat of and change in the status of the middle class stands out as a big factor for the growing popularity of this phenomenon. Populist leaders breed on the growing resentment of the middle class. Leaders like Russia’s President Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban, Poland’s Kaczynski and India’s Modi made promises that brightened the hopes of their nations’ middle classes. The increasing left and right political polarisation is also due to these fulfilled or unfulfilled promises. Another important aspect of the middle class is its ability to dominate and influence the lower class. The workers in the factory or the lower category employees in the offices all lend ear to the political opinions of this class which remains superior to them not only in status but in intellect as well. Being well conversant and extensive users of social media, this class actually remains a true driver of the changing political attitudes that society depicts and becomes a game-changer when it matters.
Cynicism is an inclination to believe that “people are motivated purely by self-interest”. People tend to retreat into such a condition when disheartened and disappointed. When the middle class seems to suffer from such a condition, despondency and hopelessness guide their behaviour. It starts thinking that all other interests are important, except for their interests. Resultantly, a majority of the people belonging to this class start finding faults in almost everything that the government does. This only contributes to further a bitter polarization in society.
PM Imran Khan’s government is focused on providing relief to the poor. The PM keeps mentioning the social contract that existed between the ruler and the ruled in the “Madina ki Riyasat” (the State of Medina). While the government may be doing everything to lift the poor above the poverty line, as long as it does not provide the middle class with the required economic opportunities to earn a decent living, more and more people may move to the lower and lower-middle-class with frustrations and resentment growing supreme.
It is in the above context that the government must undertake some kind of research to find the current strength of the middle class in the country and how many people from this class have gained or lost their means of living in the last one year or so. The government must fear the resenting middle class and its accusatory finger and though the government is determined to extend relief to the poor, it should include the middle class in its relief providing scheme of things. Economic distress and marginalisation is creating psychological problems for the middle, lower-middle and poor class and there is a strong realisation in these classes that they are moving backwards and not forward.
The middle class is a trendsetter of playing by the rules in society. It is the class which is the builder and sustainer of order and authority. The hands of the government are full with many contradictions and conflicts but if and when it overcomes them, its best bet would be the very middle class that represents core societal values, attitude as well as behaviour.
For the sake of Pakistan’s future, the middle class must stop shrinking. It should only expand.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2019.