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Middle class: the new punching bag

Mr Zaigham Khan’s column titled ‘A family of thieves’ (published on these pages on August 7, 2017) discusses the issue of ‘middle-class politics’ and its clash with traditional political parties like the PML-N and the PPP. While it correctly identifies several contradictions of our middle class, it also makes many sweeping generalisations. It also uses the term ‘middle class’ rather loosely, but for the sake of not opening a can of worms, I will stick to the rough notion used in the original piece.

There is an unfortunate trend among critics of anti-corruption drives to attack the middle class instead of offering relevant arguments on the issue of accountability. Their basic thrust is that since the middle class suffers from contradictions, it’s just a bunch of hypocrites, and its entire stance on corruption is only worthy of scorn and ridicule. While we will get to some of the nuances of our middle class politics shortly, it’s worth noting that by such binary logic, almost no movement in history would pass the ‘hypocrisy’ test that is being employed against the middle class.

Ironically, the world view of the critics of the middle class wouldn’t fare any better either. And that’s not because they are necessarily hypocrites as their ‘contradiction equals hypocrisy’ binary would suggest, but because we live in a complex world where we all have some contradictions. While it’s good to be aware of one’s contradictions and address them as much as one can, it is not realistically possible to completely resolve all of them. And sometimes, inconsistencies also arise from the compulsion of having to make difficult trade-offs when our options are limited.

While blaming the middle class may be cathartic, the fact remains that despite its privileges relative to the poor, ultimately, it is not the ruling class. Barring generals and top bureaucrats, who are clearly part of the ruling elite, the rest of the middle class has little influence on public policy. In contrast, politicians are ruling the country and have full control of policy, except on national security and international relations. And these politicians also typically have a lot more wealth than the usual middle class person, which also has something to do with how being wealthy helps them perpetuate their politics, and how politics enables them to get richer.

All this in turn, also has something to do with the fact that this political elite has always avoided putting in place any genuine local governments, which could open the doors for middle class people or the poor to enter the political arena too. In the bigger picture, the middle class, with all its real and imagined faults, is itself a victim of our extractive political system, rather than its perpetrator.

To describe the conflict between the ‘PTI supporting burger’ and traditional political parties merely as a pampered upper class hating on the poor, is therefore, disingenuous. Of course, the middle class displays class snobbery when it talks about the ‘illiterate public electing crooks’ instead of developing a nuanced understanding of why the poor voter votes for the same political lot. But then, how is indiscriminate middle-class bashing intellectually any different from the standard stereotyping of the poor voter by the middle class?

Just like an ordinary voter makes a ‘rational choice’ while voting for the local politician who provides ‘better’ patronage, even at the cost of perpetuating the status-quo, the ‘middle-class burger’ segment, which feels disempowered in a totally elite captured political system, seeks to upset the status-quo in pursuit of its aspirations. Yes, it should do this within the democratic and constitutional framework instead of supporting military rule as it has often done in the past, but that does not mean its discontent with the system is not legitimate and stems just out of hypocrisy and an anti-poor bias.

The article mentioned earlier brings in the tax evasion by middle class professionals like doctors and talks about ‘burgers’ hating the Nihari loving PM for an added punch. But the real beef with the middle class is why it complains about the corruption of the political elite when it also has its own vices. Unfortunately, while the what-aboutery in this logic is evident, its practical relevance from a reform point of view is not. While corruption indeed pervades our whole society, with the middle class being no exception, how would the silencing of an important voice against the political status-quo help?

Whatever its ills, this hated segment of the middle class is the only relevant voice that is speaking against corruption and rent seeking in our political system, and articulating the desire for reforms like freeing the police from political interference, placing public institutions under professional management instead of political cronies, creating a fully empowered accountability commission, promoting a non-dynastic political culture, and so forth. The only party which has installed meaningful local government in the province under its rule and given it decent funding (30 percent of the development budget) is that of the PTI’s in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with the others putting in place only totally toothless local bodies. Of course, the jury is still out on the police reforms, local governments and Ehtesab Commission in KP, and their future evolution. But the important thing is that any successes on these fronts will also be crucial for creating a more pro-poor state, and not just good for the middle class.

Even on taxation, if there is going to be a solution, it will come from various steps like more effective tax collecting authorities and a more accountable political leadership that has the will to carry out the needed reforms. And chances are that the salaried ‘middle classiyas’ will want that lawyers, doctors and traders, as well as politicians, also pay their fair share.

On corruption, there can be legitimate disagreement on whether the middle class’ accountability drive is the best way to push for a more accountable system. But instead of giving logical and constructive arguments, many critics are resorting to what-aboutery. This is typically coming in two forms: (1) vitriolic attacks on the middle class’ and (2) the practically preposterous demand that if the accountability effort is genuine, then it must target everyone. Obviously, in a society where almost everyone is tainted, the latter only means complicating the process so much that no accountability can ever start.

When one asks for a practically viable alternative other than totally shunning accountability, one gets none, except some more vitriol and inchoate rhetoric on ‘credible, across-the-board’ accountability. Perhaps the ‘anti middle-class hypocrisy’ crusaders should consider the thought that maybe the anti-corruption middle-class segment doesn’t support selective accountability drives because they are all hypocrites, but because this is the only form of accountability they see as realistically possible in the immediate term.

Aqil Sajjad, "Middle class: the new punching bag," The news. 2017-08-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political parties , Opposition party , Middle class , Political crises , Social impact , Political systems , Democratic system , Military rule , Political interference , Professional management , Accountability commission , Political culture , PPP , PML-N