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The middle classes in the vertigo of change

Tahrir, Thaksim, Maidan. Hundreds of thousands are protesting around the world. From Tunisia to Thailand, from Ukraine to Egypt, governments are overthrown. The images resemble each other. What do leaders with such vastly different ideologies such as the Bolivarian socialist Chavez, the neoliberal tycoon Thaksin, the Islamist Erdogan and the friend of oligarchs Yanukovich have in common? And how are the demonstrations in Spain, Greece and Brazil different from the protests in Turkey, Thailand and Taiwan?

Joshua Kurlantzick from the US Council on Foreign Relations thinks he found a common thread connecting the dots: the rage of the middle classes against the corruption and abuse of power of what he dubs „elected autocrats“. Starting from the campaign against the Filipino President Estrada in 2000/01, there have been mass protests in Venezuela (2001-2003), Taiwan (2004 and 2006), Ukraine (2004 and 2013), Kyrgizstan (2005), Thailand (2006, 2008, 2013/14), Bangladesh (2006/07), Kenya (2007/08), Bolivia (2008), Georgia (2003 and 2007), Lebanon (2011), Tunisia (2010/11), Russia (2012), Egypt (2011 and 2012/13), Turkey (2013) and Brazil (2013 and 2014). While the occasions and outcomes of these protests may vary, some (but not all) of these crises seem to follow a remarkably similar script.

With the notable exception of the Arab Spring, all these mass protests were directed against properly elected governments. Despite all shortcomings of their defect democracies, the electorates made active use of their constitutional right to elect the government. Amidst epochal social and economic transformation, clever political entrepreneurs have realized that catering to the hopes and demands of the emerging classes in the provinces is a political game changer. With a policy mix of social welfare, local development and populist handouts, they win election after election. The majority population, until recently excluded from the provision of public goods, shows its gratitude with staunch loyalty at the voting booth. Once in power, popular leaders quickly turn into „elected autocrats“, threatening the opposition, silencing media, and undermining democratic institutions. From the perspective of the established elite and middle class, these “elected autocrats” are a threat.

Traditional elites are eager to defend status and privilege and happily promote the discourse of national crisis and moral decay.

Endemic corruption and nepotism breed resentment against democracy. Establishment parties, having failed to update their platforms to cater to the majority population, are losing one election after the other. The desperate middle class in the capital blames democracy for their situation and calls for an authoritarian strong hand to remove the government. Traditional elites are eager to defend status and privilege and happily promote the discourse of national crisis and moral decay. Often it is the militaries who seize the moment to shore up their political power. However, authoritarian intervention does not necessarily break up the backbone of “elected autocrats”. With the help of their popular base, leaders such as Thaksin and Chavez managed to return to power. In Egypt and Thailand, the alliance of traditional elites, established middle class and the military responded by cracking down even harder.

How these power struggles end is of course largely determined by the local balance of power. These local differences are important but should not obscure the bigger picture such struggles have in common: a decade long transformation conflict over the adaptation of the political and social order to a new societal reality. Socioeconomic development and globalization transform societies at breakneck speed, thereby overstretching traditional political systems and eroding normative foundations. The needed “update of the operating system“, however, is not easy in a context of social conflict. In other words: emerging social classes have terminated the social contract, but the renegotiation of a new social contract faces the resistance of all those who benefit from the status quo.

These are not only the old elites trying to protect status and privilege, but all those who feel rapid transformation turns their world upside down. In less than a generation, fundamental concepts such as time, family, work, or the role of men and women have changed completely. Some people happily embrace the new opportunities, while others feel that the loss of the world they were born into threatens their identities. Fear of social decline gives these social struggles a paranoid, aggressive flavor. It is not a coincidence that in times of rapid change, fascist groups are framing scapegoats for the alleged moral decline, and resort to violent tactics to restore an imagined golden past. As Antonio Gramsci gloomily remarked from his prison cell: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

In this transformation conflict between the forces of change and forces of restoration, the middle classes indeed play a decisive role. As long as the established middle class sticks with the old elites, the status quo is upheld. If the middle classes make common cause with emerging classes, change will be inevitable. This is why the protests of “young unemployed graduates” (Paul Mason) from Tunis to London, from Wall Street to Madrid are different: here, a precarious middle class protests for better life chances through economic and political change. In Thailand, the established middle class marched to keep their status and privileges. This seems to contradict common knowledge that middle classes are primary drivers of democratization.

Hence, it may be fruitful to further explore the motivations, frustrations and fears of the “raging middle class” in Bangkok. It is not easy to recognize middle class grievances through the noise of nationalist, sexist, violent-prone, and anti-democratic protest rhetoric. The orientation of the Bangkokian citizens has not always been anti-democratic. On the contrary, in the 1990s it was the urban civil society that installed a liberal democracy after decades of military authoritarianism. Today, some of the same protagonists believe that “Western democracy does not fit Thai society”. How can one explain this change of mind?

Bangkok’s middle class was horrified to find itself in a permanent minority in the new electoral democracy. The Democrat Party, for decades the political vehicle of the establishment, lost election after election against the party vehicles of the Shinawatra clan. Telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra had realized that a mixture of Keynesian local developmentalism, social welfare schemes and populist handouts not only triggered an economic boom in the long neglected provinces, but also won him a loyal supporter base in the populous regions of the North and Northeast. By undermining constitutional safeguards, the “iron fist in a glove” style of the Shinawatra governments made the position of the middle class minority even more precarious. The bloody wars against alleged drug dealers in the North and Malay-Muslim separatists in the South cost thousands of innocent lives.

In Bangkok, the high-handed Thaksin harassed the opposition, media and civil society. The Bangkok middle class felt threatened. The mass protests in 2006, 2008 and 2013 were partly triggered by the abuse of power by the government. What really mobilized hundreds of thousands, however, was the impotent anger over corruption. If corruption really spiraled out of control, or only the perception of it, is subject of fierce debates. What matters more is the convergence between electoral democracy and the old patronage system. Behind the institutional facades, the patronage system controls political, economic and social life all over Thailand. In the provinces, the patronage system takes the form of a more violent, mafia-esque form of feudalism. Any successful patron rewards his supporters, protects his clients, favors his kin, distributes the spoils, cuts out non-supporters and crushes his enemies.

The elected representatives bring this logic from the provinces into the capital. The middle class sees these practices simply as the most vulgar form of corruption and nepotism. The problem was quickly identified: the uneducated and uncivilized rural people (derisively called “buffalos”) who sell their votes to the highest bidder. From the perspective of well-to-do Bangkokians, the social welfare and development programs were nothing more than the cynical attempt to buy votes. Soon, a paranoid fear emerged that these “populist programs” would lead to state bankruptcy. Despite the fact that Bangkokians pay below average taxes and benefit above average from public spending, the established middle classes felt cheated. In other words, the Bangkokian middle class fears “to be robbed by corrupt politicians who buy the votes of the greedy poor with populist schemes”.

The short circuit conclusion of conservative protesters: if the uneducated masses keep on electing “bad people” into office, then their right to vote needs to be suspended.

In a Buddhist political cosmos, this is an untenable situation. Instead of moral “good people”, now corrupt “bad people” were at the top of the social hierarchy whose behavior brought more suffering into the world. The short circuit conclusion of conservative protesters: if the uneducated masses keep on electing “bad people” into office, then their right to vote needs to be suspended. This reactionary moralist discourse is furthered by the traditional elites who smell the chance to make some headway in the fight over the political and economic control of the country. Under the pretext to restore order and morality, the military and judiciary repeatedly intervened to destroy the political machine of the Shinawatra network. However, despite the dissolution of political party vehicles, political bans, criminal charges, and behind-the-scene interventions, the Shinawatra network made triumphant comebacks at the elections of 2008 and 2011. After the eighteenth military coup in the history of modern Thailand, the junta tries to achieve with a hard hand what its predecessors failed to do: to root out the power base of the Shinawatra network once and for all. Given how far Thai society has already been pluralized and politicized, this attempt to turn back the wheel of history may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.

On the other hand, protracted transformation conflicts seem to reaffirm the notion that while the majority population can drive democratization processes, democratic consolidation needs a stable social foundation which includes the middle classes. The rage of Bangkok’s well-off protesters shows that the established middle class is not satisfied with the current „deal“. This is precisely the dilemma of transformation: while a new social contract with equal rights and duties would be in the enlightened interest of all citizens, such a social contract cannot be agreed upon as long as elites and middle classes do not recognize the majority population as equals. The precondition for social solidarity is a collective identity which accepts all subjects as equal members of society. So in order to lay the foundation for a new social contract, the egalitarian and universal normative foundation of this social contract already needs to be widely recognized. That is by no means a theoretical problem. The emerging classes will only be satisfied if they are granted equal opportunities to participate in political, economic, social and cultural life. The provision of full capabilities for all, however, cannot be financed without a significant broadening of tax revenue. In other words: the raging middle classes hold the tax key to the new social contract.

This is why the social conflict can only be solved by a social compromise between all classes. The elites embrace democracy as the only game in town and compete for electoral mandates on a responsive platform. The majority population agrees to limitations of majority rule by the rule of law in return of full capabilities. The middle class benefits from social peace, rule of law, good governance and quality public goods in return for picking up the tax bill.

In order to overcome the transformation with a social contract based on such a social compromise, the political, economic and social order needs to be fundamentally overhauled. Such far-ranging political and social innovations are not easy to implement in a climate of fear and conflict. In the absence of a cultural tradition of social solidarity, it is even harder to build the necessary trust after years of divisive conflict. Maybe the cost of conflict needs to become unbearable before social groups come to realize the benefits of social compromise.

In many societies there is little understanding of the connection between political and economic development and the social ability of innovation. Social innovation is not given, but depends on the ability of society to forge a consensus on the same development path. If social groups feel excluded or threatened in their identities, they will resist change. All around the world, we currently have to witness the pathological excesses of such fear of change. This is why it is indispensable to maintain societal consensus for political and economic development. Such a broad societal consensus can only be built on the basis of a social compromise between all classes.

All those who lay the axe on the social contract to further their narrow interests should take the transformation conflicts around the world as a warning. Social contracts are easier to destroy then to renegotiate. However, as long as economic and social lives are changing, there cannot be an “end of history”. The emerging Third Industrial Revolution has already begun to transform Western economies and societies. First struggles over fairer distribution (“Occupy”), deeper participation (“Stuttgart 21”,), and property rights (“IPRs”) have already sprung up. With progressing economic and social transformation, these struggles over the political and social order will intensify. The transformation conflicts of tomorrow will be fought by us.

This originally appeared on Social Europe, and has been reprinted with permission.

Photo: Oxlaey.com/Creative Commons