Monday, 4 February 2013

More banality on the middle-class

Another whizzy op-ed in the NYT linking together the middle class, the proto-middle class (now called the "virtual middle class") and of course that philosopher's stone - tech.  It's no longer a surprise that these types of pieces constantly come out, and are of course picked up and reflected into the echo chambers of concordant worldviews...but they do make for some interesting observations.

There is a growing tautology to these arguments around the middle class.  If you want "the rights, roads, electricity, uncorrupted police and good governance normally associated with rising middle classes", then you are labelled as part of the emerging middle class.  REALLY?  Do the poor (or the working class) not want such things either?  If wanting such rights is what makes you middle class, then isn't everyone middle class (except perhaps for the elites)?  And what use, then, is that label?

Am I the only one who finds the implied denial of such wants to the non-middle class as insulting, boorish & patronising?  It certainly shows that these commentators are completely disconnected from those who they would claim to help.  Is it really an exclusively middle class thing to "think and act...demanding human security and dignity and citizens' rights"?  Have the poor and dispossessed never wanted those?  Have these folks heard about the independence and civil rights movements, today's adivasi movements?  Did these not exist?  Or are they also to be celebrated as "middle class" movements (visions of lattes in Dantewada...)?

You might say, so what if there is this glomming together under one label?  Am I not just splitting semantic hairs?  Well, not quite.  To put them all together into a lumpenmiddleclasseriat is also the first step on a slippery slope of conflating all their interests as being a cohesive group.  To start the sly norm-shaping of blending their interests together.

And therein lies the fallacy.  The social, political & economic interests of all these people do not necessarily all coalesce.  In fact, in India (and many other places) many in this proto-middle class may well legitimately see those in the actual middle class as part of the historically privileged strata who have exploited them.  These people have experience - both historical, and more contemporary - of sustained and rising inequality first hand.  They may well be quite happy to mobilise their political weight to improve their positions at the expense of those in the traditional middle classes.  Clientelism can be a rational tactic when those who have been economically dominant for so long continue to really be motivated by their own interests, not by encompassing interests.

If a nation is an imagined community, then frankly so is the idea of an automatically encompassing middle class.

I can't help but wonder whether these efforts to create a lumpenmiddleclasseriat is really a rhetorical attempt to smother these differences of interest.  Or perhaps more than just rhetoric - the deliberate glossing of a trope that is really aimed at slyly trying to change the scope of conflict.

Smothering shouldn't work - and hopefully won't.  There have to be real changes in social, political and economic calculus to make these proto-middle class vs middle class antagonisms diminish (ie, the scope of the conflict to change).  Changes in calculus that mean paths to lower inequality (or else a more equal sharing of the spoils).  Changes in calculus that the political entrepreneurs will be constantly testing, tweaking and jockeying to exploit.

And perhaps therein lies the interest among these folks who have done very well these past decades to try and pull people who have done much less well into the same broad "middle class / virtual middle class" tent .  At the expense of those who are even poorer off.  Which way will these "virtual middle classes" sway?  Perhaps it will depend upon how big the poorest classes (and their political mobilisation) is.  The machiavellian virtuoso political machines will be doing their sums - lets see where it plays out.

But in the meantime, enough of this NYT op-ed style nonsense.  At least don't deny the poorest the dignity of wanting dignity (last time I checked, that was a human condition, not a class-based one!)...

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