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8 July 2013

From one side of the world to the other, the middle class is revolting

In Cairo, Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro, the people are angry and out on the streets. But why now? These should be the best of times for the up-and-coming, middle income nations of the world. 

Of course, prosperity is not enjoyed by all in these countries, but what we’ve seen in recent months is not, by and large, the unrest of the poor. Indeed, as Francis Fukuyama explains in an essay for the Wall Street Journal – the common theme of these upheavals is the revolt of the new global middle class:

  • “In Turkey and Brazil, as in Tunisia and Egypt before them, political protest has been led not by the poor but by young people with higher-than-average levels of education and income. They are technology-savvy and use social media like and Twitter to broadcast information and organize demonstrations. Even when they live in countries that hold regular democratic elections, they feel alienated from the ruling political elite.”

But, surely, these people have never had it so good? That's precisely the point, says Fukuyama:

  • “Families who have durable assets like a house or apartment have a much greater stake in politics, since these are things that the government could take away from them. Since the middle classes tend to be the ones who pay taxes, they have a direct interest in making government accountable.”

It’s also the case that once you give people a taste of genuine prosperity, they want some more – which means trouble if they don’t get it:

  • “Most importantly, newly arrived members of the middle class are more likely to be spurred to action by what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called ‘the gap’: that is, the failure of society to meet their rapidly rising expectations for economic and social advancement. While the poor struggle to survive from day to day, disappointed middle-class people are much more likely to engage in political activism to get their way.”

As significant as the Turkish and Brazilian protests have been, they’re a mere curtain raiser to what could be the main event – China:

  • “The industrial job machine that the regime has created since 1978 will no longer serve the aspirations of this population. It is already the case that China produces some six million to seven million new college graduates each year, whose job prospects are dimmer than those of their working-class parents. If ever there was a threatening gap between rapidly rising expectations and a disappointing reality, it will emerge in China over the next few years, with vast implications for the country's stability.”

Fukuyama has a further warning for the politicians of the West, which is to keep an eye on their own people:

  • “The U.S. and Europe are experiencing sluggish growth and persistently high unemployment, which for young people in countries like Spain reaches 50%. In the rich world, the older generation also has failed the young by bequeathing them crushing debts. No politician in the U.S. or Europe should look down complacently on the events unfolding in the streets of Istanbul and São Paulo. It would be a grave mistake to think, ‘It can't happen here.’”

There is, after all, a key difference between what is happening in the emerging powers, where the middle class isn't going forward fast enough, and Europe and America, where it's now going backwards.


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