Power to the Middle Classes!

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ImageAs coverage of the Arab Street’s awakening continues to dominate headlines, I find myself making further connections between the Middle Eastern, East Asian, and South African experiences. One intriguing common thread pertains to the role of the middle classes. 

The Arab Spring brings to mind two very different sets of public demonstrations that I have witnessed. The first was almost a quarter century ago, in Seoul, Korea, where street demonstrations in 1987 brought down, the country’s military regime. As a research fellow at the Korea Development Institute, I had a ringside seat. The demonstrations were initiated by students – who in challenging government, were reenacting what was then almost an annual rite of spring. However, the decisive factor this time was that the middle class came out to support them. After a quarter century of unprecedented rapid and inclusive growth, Korea’s middle class was a power to behold. Its unwavering commitment provided a potent platform for the country’s ‘second miracle’ – a virtually seamless transition from authoritarianism to, within a decade, an exemplar of democracy and the rule of law. Korea is considered a poster child by those – Samuel Huntington in an earlier generation, Fareed Zakaria more recently –who argue that rapid economic development under authoritarian rule can provide a powerful platform for subsequent democratization.

The second demonstration occurred a few weeks ago during South Africa’s Human Rights Day.  Close to 15,000 schoolchildren gathered at Cape Town’s open air parade, directly across from the City Hall where, 21 years earlier, Nelson Mandela had spoken to South Africa and the world after his release. How this demonstration links to middle class aspirations – and how these aspirations can act as a bulwark of democracy in a country still fraught with extreme inequality and deep social division – is a complex story, which I will explore in my next post. But for now, it will suffice to note that the rally was far more than a call to fix a still-broken education system; it was an expression of hope in the possibility of a better future.

The centrality of hope as a buttress of democracy is highlighted in a  new generation of research in some of the most hard-nosed sub-fields of the social sciences – game theory, public choice, and experimental economics.  In her 2005 synthesis volume, “Understanding Institutional Diversity”, Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel prize winning economist and political scientist lays out the analytical logic.  Here is a sample:

"[We live] in a world in which there are some sinners and some saints, but mostly regular folk who are capable of both types of behavior….. “ [Research has shown that, though there are no ‘sure things’]  “from this mix norms can evolve to support co-operation….and individuals can craft ingenious institutions that help them reach mutually productive rather than unproductive outcomes…. Learning to craft such rules is a fundamental skill needed in all democratic societies.”

Barry Weingast makes the link to democratic sustainability. Consider, he suggests, the political leader who is neither sinner nor saint but (in the language of public choice theorists) a ‘rational egoist’. Such a leader repeatedly confronts the temptation to further his personal wealth and power by breaking the rules. What potentially restrains him, Weingast argues, are the costs. The key costs are not so much the risks of detection and punishment from the formal system (these, the leader might conclude, are eminently manageable) but the reaction from citizens. Will citizens acquiesce in the leader’s malfeasance? Or will they rise up in revolt?

Korea’s experience, South Africa’s current enviable political stability in the face of continuing stark inequality, plus the current turbulence in the Arab world – all suggest that in middle-income countries the citizens whose views and responses matter most are those of the middle class. A critical mass of middle-class citizens can be a powerful bulwark of both stability and democracy. South Africa’s experience suggests further that what matters may be less the actual middle-class share of the population than the extent to which a combination of the performance of the economy and (especially in the South African case) pro-active policies of affirmative action can make the dream of a better life seem within reach. But this seeming good news for democratic governance also comes with a challenge: Should the music stop, and hope feel thwarted, then look out below!

Photo Credit: Flickr user Chan'ad


Brian Levy

Professor at SAIS and University of Cape Town

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