The rise of the middle class

Behind the mask of the middle class in Central Europe

Wojciech Przybylski
29 September 2013

Masks and marches in NYC and Madrid that have captured our attention since 2011 were formed by those ambitious, hopeful and good people who demonstrated their protest against a fateful future.

The welfare-state is in decline and the free market economy is ruthless to societies in times of crisis.

Those protests had their counterparts in V4 countries. Here posters have called for free, equal, and universal access to global information in Warsaw, for moral standards in politics in Slovakia and in Prague, or for the welfare state in Budapest, outmoded in a time of austerity. They mirrored middle-class protests worldwide. This class, however defined, always refers to social status and lifestyle. Therefore, average income, educational aspirations, sensitive morality, and stability are its distinctive features. But what else do we know about them? Who is behind the mask of middle class in Central Europe?

Normality has been a twin brother of the middle class during the democratic transformation in Central Europe. It was a common belief that capitalism, democracy, and the spontaneous social order of ordinary people are essential to peace and prosperity, which everyone considered to be a normal state. We have inherited this belief and we have chased it like a dream in the region. Alas, the dream has been fulfilled by emerging markets, the rule of law, and social standards that have leveled since 1989, at the same time the source of the fundamental conviction has been fading away.

Sociologists and public intellectuals have recently presented sets of alarming data about rising inequalities in democracies and fear that disparity will change democracies for the worse. Notably, this refers only to the North, the rich part of the world. Wherever else, be it Brazil or China, but also from Warsaw to Budapest, there is a rise of the middle class, just not quite that similar to the image of western countries.

In their 2009 special report Burgeoning Bourgeoisie, the editors from The Economist wrote about two middle classes that populate the world. The first would be the one that is the global middle class whose standards of living fall not far from the statistical median of countries like Italy. But it also draws attention to a rising number of the developing middle class that is relatively in the middle, but yet far from the standards of the richest countries. Quoted research findings show how the middle class in China and India has recently grew immensely in number. Moreover, the proportion of middle class versus the two other ends of the societal status spectrum in the developing world has become higher than in the developed world.

The same year a report prepared by the Social Situation Observatory a European Commission research unit, published interesting data worth juxtaposing against The Economist’s findings. It is rather obvious that what the weekly calls the global middle class remains unevenly distributed between old and new member states of the EU. However, the developing middle class is proportionally the biggest in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Both studies show that emerging markets can be far better of in terms of relative equality. Should we stay happy with those results? After all, it is not the economy that defines the middle class, or at least it does not define it to such a degree as The Economist would prefer it.

Let’s start with a simple question put forward by a renowned Hungarian writer in respect to his society. Is the middle class equivalent to democrats, people of democratic convictions and standards? No – answers Péter Nádas. A transformative process begun 20 years ago and apparently exhausted has yet another challenge ahead.

It is overall good that people come to the streets and demand better standards in Central Europe just like in the rest of the world. Here no one has removed them by force, unlike in case of Occupy Wall Street, and their democratic chatter is spreading. They represent a potential for a further democratization and perhaps taking the quality of decision-making to yet a higher level. After all, this region has just began experimenting with democracy and it is open to further innovations. But contrary to such hopes stands a long credit of betrayals committed by center-right and center-left parties on the middle class over the last two decades. One can hardly imagine that existing political forces will in fact become its political representation again. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the number of new political parties blossoming and so far with quite some electoral success. But after all, it is still a question how well do we understand the issue at stake, and if the middle class actually has any relevance for the class of politicians.