University of the Philippines, Diliman

Oscillating Factor of Middle Class in Democracy by Santosh K. Digal @ University of the Philippines, Diliman

Every society has some form of inequality. The trajectory of class based on the economy is complex. One of the ways of inequality is said to be based on economy or purchasing power. The slabs for economic categories of people in a democracy or democratization do matter because they can affect political change or democratic stability.

The first category of the creamy-layered people in society is the so-called “elite” who are affluent and influential. They can afford anything and everything in life. Such people are few in number. Once they are rich, their successive generations can have all the comforts and luxuries of life in the years to come.

The next segment of people is the middle class, who are neither opulent nor poor. They are in between the rich and lower class. They are the great majority in terms of number in a democracy. They have some form of buying power due to a stable source of economy. They have ‘enough’ for their daily consumption and survival. They do matter to a government in power—in terms of both number and influence.

The third type of people is the lower class, whose population may be high or low depending on the context. The problem with such people is that they do not have a stable and sustainable source of economy. This poses a great threat to ensure socio-economic and political stability.

The focus of this short write up is to highlight the power and importance of the middle class in a democracy. Knowing its great significance, Aristotle, centuries ago, proposed a theory of the middle class as a part of the basic theory of politics. According to him, there is a casual intrinsic connection between the middle class and democracy (Read more: https://underground.net/aristotle-and-the-middle-class/). He argues that a large section of the well-off middle class may intervene between the rich and the poor. Such an underpinning structural basis upon which democratic political processes may function is notably because of the commercial nature of the middle class. Thus, the middle class is the key to democracy—a pulling and pushing factor. It is the middle class that oscillates democratic institutions of law, power limitation and electoral participation.

Any government in power envisages a careful and calculated move when creating either long or short-term economic policies or programs for the people. It is always done for the sake of political implications keeping in mind the middle class. The government at the helm of affairs will basically consider how their political decisions affect the middle class, especially in terms of inflation, tax reforms, social security, healthcare and patterns of consumption-expenditure. The growth or slowing of an economy basically depends on the middle class and thereby it can ensure the legitimacy of socio-economic constancy or otherwise.

Let us take an example to understand the middle class phenomenon. India’s about 600 million people or more than half of its population belong to middle class. How to define a middle class in India? According to the National Council of Applied Economic Research, as reported in The Economist (Read more: https://www.livemint.com/Opinion/TvcFydQcN6KEFkvdW7BprM/Indias-burgeoning-middle-class.html), a middle class may earn between US$ 2 to US$ 10 per person per day and its income should be combined in relation to material poverty lines. However, there are two categories of the middle class: the first, lower middle class that lives with US$ 2 to US$ 4 per person per day and the upper middle class having US$ 6 to US$ 10 per person per day. India’s middle class is so diverse and fragmented as they come from various vulnerable or disadvantaged groups who engage in jobs like farming and construction as explained by BBC’s Soutik Biswas in the link (Read more: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-41264072). When there is an economic meltdown, the middle class may fall back to poverty as they are known for their socio-economic vulnerability.
The middle class is really politically significant because it can cause or rupture political instability (Read more: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/view-point/why-does-the-middle-class-matter/articleshow/4452735.cms). Let us consider an example. In 2013, the price of onions, an Indian staple used in nearly every dish, jumped so dramatically for months that no middle or lower class family could afford it. In ordinary times, a kilogram of onions would cost 10 Indian rupees, but due to inflation, it went up to 70 or 85 Indian rupees per kilogram. It was so expensive for the common people. It created panic for all. The sharp rise in the price of onions was on account of crop damage caused by erratic rainfall. The government tried its best to regulate the price and address the pitfalls of onion procurement and distribution. It did not convince the people. The Government urged people to endure the crisis for some time, but people lost their patience and nation-wide rage and street protests sporadically continued for days. Concurrently, the price of other necessary commodities also grew sharply. Inflation soared high unabated. It was the middle and poor class that bore the brunt drastically and painfully.

The rising food prices, including that of onions, became a political issue. The opposition parties picked up the matter taking a deep dig at the ruling party. This and the widespread protests led to a drastic change. Consequently, the coalition government fell within 13 days of assuming power as political parties in the coalition opposed the government for its failure to control and regulate the inflation. As the political impasse continued for days, the President declared a fresh general election. This adversely affected the economy, as the country had to bear the heavy expenditure of another election within a short while after the previous one.

This was one of the hardest lessons to learn for the government from the food inflation fiasco and its consequent unfavorable impact on the middle class.

Given the above experience, the rise and importance of the commercial nature of the middle class in a democracy should be always taken into consideration because the structural basis of a democracy largely depends on the middle class (Read more: http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/11/03/importance-of-being-middle-class-in-india-pub-74615). Knowing this fact, any government would always wish to appease the middle class with populist economic reforms and policies.

Thus, the landscape and discourse of the middle class wield a great influence in a democracy.

1 Comment

  1. Hannah Bodegon

    April 24, 2018 at 5:21 am

    This is an interesting article. Indeed the middle class plays a significant role in the democracy of a country as they are viewed as a form of vertical accountability. In the case of the Philippines, it has been the middle forces that had played a crucial role in the success of EDSA I and EDSA II in restoring democracy in the country. However, as the middle forces are outsiders of the political system, restoring democracy is usually mounted through a contentious form of politics, and not through the legal means, meaning elections. This of course is pernicious to democracy as change in leadership through extra-constitutional means defeats one of the bulwarks of a democratic set-up – the peaceful transition of power from one leader to another. Thus, I think Dr. Arugay perfectly summed up the issue associated with the middle class in relation to democracy by asking the question if the middle class is the “saviours or spoilers” of it.

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