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Old Monday, October 16, 2017
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Default Middle class myth

“A strong middle class, as thinkers from Aristotle to James Madison to modern political scientists have noted, fosters better governance by helping ensure government is well-run, increasing citizen participation, minimising factional fighting, and promoting policies for the benefit of all of society rather than special interests. In contrast, economic inequality and a weak middle class make the political system imbalanced and depress the political participation of the non-wealthy, reducing voting, discussion, and interest in public policy” — Economist David Madland.

MOST times it is best not to reinvent the wheel; so thank you David.

From my experience, I am not really in a position to challenge this primary myth that the middle class is the catalyst for transition to democratic rule; if at all democracy is what all it claims to be. But that particular discussion is left for another day when the champions of democracy are less cantankerous to enter into a debate which can potentially shake the very foundation of their beliefs.

“A government which is composed of the middle class more nearly approximates to democracy than to oligarchy, and is the safest of the imperfect forms of government” — Aristotle. So for the moment, let’s humour Aristotle and Mr Madland, and go with the myth that when there is no middle class there is no democracy. Unfortunately, even then the evidence in Pakistan is contrary to what is postulated above.

Our middle class, in the true sense of the word, is not more than 15pc.

While I am sure that all supporters of democracy readily agree with Mr Madland that the middle class can do all these good things for their ‘Precious’, at the same time I am equally sure they will agree with me when I assert my scepticism that there is increasing participation of common citizens in anything, that factional fighting is not at uncontrollable levels already and worsening, that the only policies that get promoted are those which don’t benefit strong lobbies, and that income inequality, contrary to global situation, is not on the rise in Pakistan too.

So either the middle class has nothing to do with the rise and fall of democracy, or the size of our middle class is not 38 per cent of the population as is broadly estimated. Considering we live in a country where statistics aren’t a priority, the dogged conviction in a sizeable, and increasing middle class can only be termed as confirmation of in-group bias.

While “dil ke khush rakhne ko ‘Ghalib’ ye khayal achchha hai”, I do not agree with the view that simply owning a motor cycle and a washing machine is sufficient qualification for a membership of the middle class. Admittedly, owning capital should be one of the conditions precedents to be deemed middle class, but getting vehicles on hire purchase is also not owning capital. Nonetheless, ignoring acquisitions on debt, according to Gallup, the total number of motor cars, jeeps and station wagons registered in Pakistan in 2015 was around 2.5 million. Add another half a million for the next two years and multiply with average size of the family, the size of the middle class is probably less than 18m.

However, I feel that education, rather than owning cars or televisions, is necessary for discussing and taking interest, and arguably swaying, public policy in the right direction. All those who believe that Pakistan’s literacy rate in substance is 60pc, kindly raise their hands; what?? Is there no one? If literacy standard is the ability to read the daily newspaper and recite the math tables one to 10, our literacy rate is perhaps not very high. By the way, listening to prime time news and being brainwashed into prejudiced views of celebrity anchors does not equate with discussing and taking interest in public policy.

For those still sitting on the fence, the total number of active taxpayers, filers, in Pakistan is 1.2m which includes all employees paid salary by the corporate and public sector; so do the math. Finally, Pakistan’s urban population is reported at 38pc approximately, and assuming a high 50pc in the middle class, and linking with the earlier discussion, I for one, rather confidently, conclude that the country’s middle class, in the true sense of the word, is not more than 15pc of the population.

No wonder we struggle with democracy; whatever that is in the first place. I keep telling my friends that even if all of them have a 100 votes each, they would still not be able to make a difference. Between the 1pc and the 84pc, the middle class is getting a trashing, and frankly, it is not even in the ruling elite’s interest to pander to the minority, the middle class. To the question what comes first, middle class or real democracy, I for one will side with the poor middle class.
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