Workers play a big role in global ‘middle-class’ revolutions

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

Writing on the protests in Brazil recently, a New Yorker columnist posed the conundrum of “revolt in the midst of relative prosperity“: “Since 2003, some 40 million Brazilians have joined the middle class … the protests have been widespread, popular and, most striking of all, dominated by the middle class.” The explanation, he said, was that Brazil is a middle-class country with the infrastructure of a poor country.

This is not a new trope. According to the UN assistant secretary general, Heraldo Muñoz, a “new middle class” is responsible for a wave of protests across Latin America. Francis Fukuyama, seer of “the end of history”, says we’re in the middle of a global middle-class revolution. This analysis suggests that protest arises from the thwarted aspirations of a thrusting new petty bourgeoisie. The UN says a member of the new global middle class earns between $10 and $100 a day, and thus has spare income for consumption. On this basis, it estimates the middle class will grow from 1.8 billion in 2009 to 3.2 billion in 2020.

The Financial Times explains: “With their basic needs mostly satisfied, they begin to look more widely … these aims amount to a call for the development of fully functioning democracies, with the rule of law, financial transparency and respect for minority rights.”

This is reheated Fukuyama-ism. The “end of history” thesis was that after the cold war, liberal capitalism no longer faced serious competition. This analysis interprets the protests as a middle-class attempt to expand and deepen liberal capitalism. Whereas some people detected a challenge to the post-1989 consensus in the Arab spring, these analysts find only its further confirmation.

There is a novelty here. In traditional mainstream social theory, the middle class was a bulwark of stability, neutralising the antagonism between workers and capitalists. Through social mobility, it would dissolve both antagonistic classes into a common stew, ending class as such. In short, the middle class was a class-of-no-class. When Tony Blair declared the class war over, it was linked to his conception of a largely middle-class society. Now, far from being a factor in cohesion, the middle class is “revolutionary”. Only, the limit of its revolutionary ambition is the deepening and consolidation of a neoliberal consensus.

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