Interesting piece – where are we going? Beth, this is for YOU! 🙂
All over the world, argues Francis Fukuyama, today’s political turmoil has a common theme: the failure of governments to meet the rising expectations of the newly prosperous and educated.
Corporations are salivating at the prospect of this emerging middle class because it represents a vast pool of new consumers. Economists and business analysts tend to define middle-class status simply in monetary terms, labeling people as middle class if they fall within the middle of the income distribution for their countries, or else surpass some absolute level of consumption that raises a family above the subsistence level of the poor.
But middle-class status is better defined by education, occupation and the ownership of assets, which are far more consequential in predicting political behavior. Any number of cross-national studies, including recent Pew surveys and data from the World Values Survey at the University of Michigan, show that higher education levels correlate with people’s assigning a higher value to democracy, individual freedom and tolerance for alternative lifestyles. Middle-class people want not just security for their families but choices and opportunities for themselves. Those who have completed high school or have some years of university education are far more likely to be aware of events in other parts of the world and to be connected to people of a similar social class abroad through technology.
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. 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.
This dynamic was evident in the Arab Spring, where regime-changing uprisings were led by tens of thousands of relatively well-educated young people. Both Tunisia and Egypt had produced large numbers of college graduates over the past generation. But the authoritarian governments of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were classic crony-capitalist regimes, in which economic opportunities depended heavily on political connections. Neither country, in any event, had grown fast enough economically to provide jobs for ever-larger cohorts of young people. The result was political revolution.
None of this is a new phenomenon. The French, Bolshevik and Chinese Revolutions were all led by discontented middle-class individuals, even if their ultimate course was later affected by peasants, workers and the poor. The 1848 “Springtime of Peoples” saw virtually the whole European continent erupt in revolution, a direct product of the European middle classes’ growth over the previous decades.