Middle Classes, Pragmatism, and the Social Contract in Latin America


It was the centenary of Karl Marx’s birth when the great Hungarian revolutionary leader, Bela Kun, wrote an article in Pravda (May 1918)—determined to make sure that “the revolution…will not forget the sentence (Marx) passed on the middle class”. Kun asserted that “the ‘internal enemy’ of the proletarian Russian Revolution is constituted first and foremost by the lower middle classes”, and reviving an unambiguous statement made in the Communist Manifesto, he ended: “the middle class stands half-way between the proletariat and the capitalist class… Being unfitted for an independent part in the class struggle, it considers every decisive class struggle a blow at the community.” 

Sadly for him, his statement turned out to be tragically prophetic. Having been born to a middle class family himself, from a public notary father in a small town of Austria-Hungary (currently part of Romania), Kun would be declared an enemy of the proletarian revolution, prosecuted and killed during Stalin’s great purge. So much for unintended self-criticism.

Yet, another implication of those Marxist views is the implicit support to theories suggesting that middle classes indeed play a stabilizing role in the social system. A widely-cited quote from Aristotle’s Politics refers exactly to that function, stating that the middle class stands, and mediates, between the rich and the poor, thus establishing the foundations for democratic development. Following this line of thinking, recent economic literature has bestowed upon the middle classes the title of “the backbone of democracy”.

There are different elements to the discussion that link middle classes to democratic development. The one derived from the Aristotelian view –consistent with the Marxist critique of the middle classes as the enemies of the revolution—is that they are conservative and tend to avoid abrupt change, rejecting conflict. But that is not enough to sustain that middle classes are necessarily good for democracy. A second, fundamental issue is whether “being middle class” is per se associated with the adoption of a value structure that is conducive to political development.

Bordering on the oxymoron, let us state that middle classes are supposed to bring about stable change. To support stability, stand in the way of potential conflict, but also to bring about new forces leading to better institutions. Thus, there is more specific content to the idea of stability, implicit in this discussion, than appears at first sight. The middle classes are supposed to create conditions for social change, but change that takes place through the existing institutional structure, respecting democratic rules, and refraining from violent means.  Two elements matter here: what is to be achieved and how to achieve it.

Some people have argued that the preference for the status quo, particularly for those with high expectations of mobility, actually tends to dominate political preferences. So explains the great Argentine intellectual Jose Nun, in his classic article “The Middle Class Military Coup”, when he describes the role of middle classes in the military interventions in politics during great part of the twentieth century in South America. He cites Helio Jaguaribe’s “The Dynamics of Brazilian Nationalism”, who refers precisely to the tension described above: “…the middle class found itself in the peculiar position of wishing to control the state without altering the existing social and economic structure, and of being compelled by considerations of Realpolitik to jettison its political principles with the anti-democratic coup of 1937 and the setting up of the Estado Novo…”. 

Indeed, pragmatism, rather than a specific value structure, may characterize the middle classes in their pursuit of economic security. In recent work done with my colleagues Jamele Rigolini and Florencia Torche, we have looked at the associations between middle class and values, using data from the Ecosocial survey. Aggregating values questions into categories such as “support for democracy”, “justification of violence”, “trust” and “political participation” (eleven categories in total), our results show that, while income matters, there is no strong evidence of a middle class particularism. The relationship between income and political orientations remains, for the most part, monotonic. We find little evidence of specific middle class values that mediate between the more extreme values of the lower and upper classes.

This pragmatism may lead to a trap of weak (or fragmented) social contracts. It may be the case that middle classes --in their pursuit to maintain economic security-- simply support policies that benefit them, while opting out of the social contract and demanding social services in privatized markets whenever they can afford it (some examples could be security, education, health or energy). Such dynamics could weaken the social contract even further without compensating for the lack of voice of poor segments of the population –left by themselves with low-quality public services. The forthcoming World Bank regional flagship publication on mobility and middle classes –for which the work on values was done as background research—will discuss potential implications in more detail. Certainly, the report is rigorous and careful in deriving conclusions and implications, unlike the lyrical freedom in this text.

In trying to convince the reader, let us be more specific. Camila Vallejo, the charismatic leader of the Chilean student movement, member of the Communist Youth, delivered an emotional and politically effective speech in her inauguration as President of the Chilean Federation of Students. She talked about her background, describing herself as “coming from one of those places people don’t talk about… almost forgotten”, and having studied at a “small school, whose wooden classrooms accumulate dust and see generations of non emblematic students go by…” Her profile, actually, coincides with the typical profile of a middle class student from the interior of many Latin American countries. The school she attended is a small school for upper middle class students, where surely if dust accumulates it is not due to the lack of budget for vacuum cleaners. And the fight she leads, legitimate and understandable, is a typical middle class demand, focused on free access to tertiary education (of course, in addition to her demands of democratizing the government structure of educational institutions, and abolishing the mercantilist principles that are destroying the educational system, as imposed by the neoliberal model that sees human beings as commodities). But there is no reference, not a single one, to the need of higher quality in primary and secondary education in those schools that the poor attend. All student movements in the last twenty years in Latin America have focused their attention on free access to public tertiary education. There has been no social movement supporting reforms that increase the quality of education in primary and mid-level public schools, not to mention rural ones. A potential explanation is that the middle classes do not demand those services; they are paying for higher quality private schools and, by acquiring higher quality education than the poor, they are accessing preferentially the best public universities.

Social scientists, and certainly economists, know very little about the dynamics of complex social processes. One of the widely accepted views, that the middle classes are good for democracy, may require much more analysis before being established as a fact. Certainly, the difference between positions per se and the sign of the slope in the mobility ladder may matter to establish differences in this respect. One possibility, however, is that middle classes are rather pragmatic and do not necessarily abide by specific values, uniformly. Paraphrasing Marx, but now Groucho, “these are their principles and, if you don’t like them…they have others.”  

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