May 24 2016 (Dawn, Pakistan) – The middle class is viewed as a positive force for progress given its higher education, mobility and wealth. But this view is based on its role in developed states in fostering egalitarian progress, democracy and the rule of law by initiating social movements.
In lower-income states like Pakistan, the middle classes usually eschew this role. They become passive agents under unfair systems or even their partial supporters. Why is this so? As a social scientist, I believe in structural explanations. Structural approaches view widespread negative traits not as coincidentally rampant individual moral failings but the result of broader structural factors which shape societal behaviour potently.
Western middle classes played positive roles within rapidly growing and transforming post-Second World War economies. Such change reduced the conflict between middle-class personal progress and broader egalitarian national progress. Thus, they easily adopted liberal outlooks and supported egalitarian struggles. In contrast, middle classes in places like Pakistan face anemic economies. As such, their personal progress can often only be achieved under unfair national systems which marginalise the masses.
Sections of the middle classes in such situations often become conservative. In fact, as Western economies have stagnated, their middle classes too have done so.
The Pakistani middle class, though small proportionately, totals tens of millions of people because of our large size. This and the lack of concrete data make sweeping generalisations hazardous. But though my daily interactions do not yield a random sample, I come across some conservative traits so frequently that I feel they afflict large sections of middle-class people because of the structural factors that have been mentioned.
The first trait is skewed knowledge of economic and political development issues among many. This has two sides. Firstly, many largely define development in narrow physical terms such as big malls, sleek motorways etc. or narrow economic measures like GDP growth rather than egalitarian, propoor and sustainable development.
Secondly, they view the drivers of development simplistically in terms of single causes like the presence of an honest leader, especially a military one. There is often insufficient appreciation of the multiple, complex causes of development encompassing historical and current, national and global, social, economic and political factors.
Obviously, people from other fields cannot have such deep knowledge. However, even when such information is presented in simple terms, many show little interest in absorbing it, subconsciously knowing it runs counter to their class economic interests. The second issue related to their analytical skills. Social science analysis on complex phenomena like national development involves painstakingly identifying multiple causes and their interrelationships, collecting data about how they have co-evolved in the past in similar contexts and then making tentative predictions and recommendations for effecting gradual future change.
But a large section of the middle class seemingly believes that huge changes can happen instantaneously and the future has little to do with the past. Within such a historical views, there is a firm belief that immediate glory is waiting just around the corner for Pakistan if we could do some simple tasks like electoral reforms or punishing Panama leaks villains under a non-elected regime.
The third trait is illiberal values. Many educated people claim Pakistan`s problems can only be solved by the danda and killing thou-sands of people.
There is widespread support for crude tools like the death penalty, public hangings and military courts. Anyone challenging them on human rights basis is dismissed as impractical.
The final issue isattitudes that can be seen as arrogant, passive and elitist. Despite incomplete knowledge on development and governance issues, there are many among the middle classes that are loath to admit that they could be wrong, and resent being asked for logic and proof. This reveals a faulty view that every-day analysis need not be based on evidence but unsupported opinions.
Even though the corruption scandals of upper-class politicians are a source of great outrage for them, this will still not drive the majority to join social movements. They expect generals and judges will deliver them a clean system in the comfort of their homes.
Finally, they look down upon the masses as lazy, untrustworthy and part of the problem.
Fortunately, some change is evident and one at least sees some desire among a growing number of middle-class people to support progressive causes benefiting the masses.
But even so, those interested in progressive change can only expect at best partial support from the middle class immediately.
Turning them into steadfast allies will require a huge awareness-raising exercise to neutralise the impact of structural causes making them conservative.
The writer heads INSPIRING Pakistan, an economic and political change initiative. [email protected]
This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan