Revolution in the Global Middle Class

What has to happen to make a patriotic Pole leave his homeland and refuse to have children, to make a football-loving Brazilian insult Pelé and choose demonstrations over football, and to make a wealthy Turk take to the streets, subjecting himself to tear gas and being beaten by police batons?

Although Poland, Brazil and Turkey are linguistically, historically and culturally distant from one another, they do have one thing in common: they are emerging markets and emerging democracies. Their inhabitants individually have it better off, and in spite of the global crisis, prosperity has risen compared to the situation 20 years ago. Polish emigration and the demographic crisis, Brazilian protests against the poor state of infrastructure during preparations for the football World Cup and the outbreak of dissatisfaction in Turkey towards the democratically elected Islamic government have shown that the large and newly developed middle classes have clashed against the boundaries that with varying aims have defined dysfunctional state institutions, a corrupt political class, an immature political culture and deceleration of the rapid economic growth of recent years.

The liberal, urban segment of Turkish society came out into the streets to protest against the arrogance of power under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who apparently believes that a hat trick of election victories gives him the right to forsake one of the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, which his party, the AKP professes to support—and that is listening to its opponents.

Initially, Brazilians were unhappy with an increase in ticket prices of public transport, but their protests sounded mainly like dissatisfaction with government corruption and the megalomaniacal projects surrounding the football World Cup, which won’t bring any improvement to people’s daily lives. Again, the ruling class assumed it could push everything past its citizens.

Facing a similar case of their government being too slow to improve infrastructure and bureaucracy, the Poles chose a different, though for the Polish state and society potentially more destructive in the long term, tactic: two million of them have left to work abroad and those that have remained have almost stopped having children. According to statistics, Poles who have lived abroad a long time have given birth to more children per capita than those who have remained at home.

The Polish case is particularly noteworthy because its large-scale reflects the considerable challenges of the post-communist world. Instead of analyzing the attitudes of protesters like in Brazil or Turkey, it can be helpful to look at the detailed research carried out on a large sample group by the Social Diagnosis project (Diagnoza społeczna) since the year 2000. This year’s data shows some alarming trends. For the first time in 20 years, the number of Poles who consider democracy the best form of government has dropped. In the private sphere, the feeling is as good as it’s been since 1989, but satisfaction with public administration and policy is dropping. This is a common feature of the growing wealthy middle classes in emerging markets and democracies. For example, Poles pay a third more for medicines and health care even though politi cians have promised and promise that it will be lowered. One of the reasons to emigrate, besides the small amount of available jobs at home, is the higher quality of public services and user- friendliness of governments in Western Europe, where two million Poles are now estimated to live on a permanent basis.

The dissatisfaction of the increasingly wealthy people from these three countries (along with many others) with the performance of the state also grows depending on the development of modern technology. It allows a rapid exchange of information, a clear comparison of earnings, costs, terms, price or quality as well as a fast and efficient organization of the protests. It also facilitates reporting on the protests, such as when in Turkey the media felt under threat or there were other reasons to keep information from being disclosed. In the case of emigration, it provides convenient, inexpensive and effective links with home.

Governments have reason to be concerned by the protests regardless of the forms they take. They are not only facing the most technologically advanced adversaries in the history of social and political protest but the best educated. The classic sign of belonging to the middle class is having a good education, and thanks to the democratization and economic development of the last twenty years, this is what Polish, Turkish and Brazilian malcontents have.

They can’t be so easily duped. That must be said right off. They are relatively wealthy consumers. And they have the opportunity to vote in elections. This last factor is a key one. In China there are hundreds of similar protests every year and the world hears nothing about them. In Russia, the government pacifies the disaffected middle class after elections only slightly less brutally than the Chinese.

On the other hand, as was pointed out at the end of June in the Wall Street Journal by wellknown American thinker Francis Fukuyama, the revolt of the global middle class represented by the protests in Brazil and Turkey shows how difficult it is to turn a protest focused against a particular target into a coherent political force. The young, educated elite initiated and led the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. Yet in subsequent elections they proved unable to reach a wider audience by joining forces with the more conservatively-oriented rural and urban working class populations.

In Poland, similar protests over the ACTA Internet treaty and its restrictions concerning online freedom brought together conservatives and internet punks. But aside from a sole instance of joint action, which legitimately frightened the government, their coalition fizzled out.

The traditional division in Turkey is between the “white” urban liberal supporters of a secular state and the “black” conservative rural population. In recent years, the latter group has been gaining economic power and represents Prime Minister Erdogan. Here is where the problem of the new middle class becomes rather complicated.

A political program and its implementation demands perseverance. In this, the emerging middle class in emerging economies has the same problems new democracies have with stability and the effective performance of their institutions. “Anger is not a program,” was what the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk once said.

Enemies point to the Brazilian and Turkish protests as a sign of the weakness of democracy. They are actually signs of strength that even in crisis, a subject we often discuss in Europe, drive development forward. Politicians will either find something to offer the new middle class or lose their votes.

Brazil hasn’t stopped building stadiums for the World Cup and the Olympics, but the reaction of President Dilma Rousseff is an indication that she will have to rethink how the political system works and invest more in infrastructure. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan hasn’t abandoned his authoritarian excesses, but hundreds of thousands of young Turks have realized that in the next election it will be better to vote for someone else. Poles haven’t stopped looking for work abroad, but the center-right government has at least started to talk about how to relieve taxpayers life in order to be able to start a family.

Young democracies are fragile structures, with weak institutions and various corrupt ruling classes. But it is still a democracy, where it is possible to express an opinion and try to influence public policy without endangering your life. This year Turks tried to walk on the edge where Russians and Chinese live. Their middle class may have similar aspirations, but their government will not even let them publicly discuss, let alone actually carry out the assertion of their rights.

But that does not mean things will stay this way forever. The pressure put on the state by the new middle class in recent months on the front pages of the worldwide media hasn’t only been in Brazil, Turkey and Poland, but also in Bulgaria and Egypt. And then there will be the growth of the wealth of individuals that will require improved governance even in other developing countries where there won’t be enough taxpayers for the simple conversion of GDP per capita. The time of a dissatisfied global middle class is on the way, which, according to American author Steve LeVine writing in The Atlantic, will grow by as many as two billion people in the next seven years alone.

Martin Ehl

has been working for different Czech print and online media since 1992, from 2006 to 2018 as Chief International Editor and now Chief Analyst at Hospodářské noviny daily. He writes a regular bi-weekly column Middle Europe for the English language internet magazine Transitions Online, for this column he was awarded the „Writing for Central Europe“ prize in Austria in 2012. Co-editor of Visegrad Insight magazine.

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