Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Protecting the Middle Class | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The focus of our discussion shall be on the middle class in the Arab world. Notwithstanding what some have referred to as the impact of capital markets, the stock market has played a role in making a minority wealthier while impoverishing many others in what was a frantic race towards the dream of fast riches. But soon the dream transformed into a nightmare and the stock market pushed many closer to abject poverty.

These issues are best left to the specialists and experts, but what is worthy of examination is the impact that such financial collapses and economic fluctuations has on the middle class – specifically in the Arab world, an example of which is Saudi Arabia where the impact of such fluctuations in social stability also affect political stability.

The use of the term ‘middle class’ does not signify a completely homogenous segment of society inasmuch as it refers to various social strata that fall under the rubric of the middle class. The common denominator shared by these strata is that they do not belong to the upper class, but equally so cannot be considered as part of the lower class. This classification does not comply with that of Marx, Weber or anyone else, but is rather a preliminary categorization that aims to identify the distinguishing boundaries between the three components of the social pyramid.

Viewed through this lens, it may be said that the middle class is regarded as the safety valve for all societies. It is the class through which the cohesion of the social pyramid depends and which establishes the link between the upper and lower classes. When this class expands and its status stabilizes and when it is no longer threatened by the future’s ambiguity, this situation would ultimately signify a social and political stability that is sustainable.

But the opposite is also true. Societies that have a long history of political and social stability are the ones in which the middle class, or rather classes, comprise the largest segment in society. The real danger lies in the situation where the middle classes join the lower base of the pyramid to become the largest stratum in a given society. In this scenario, the top of the pyramid is represented by a minority oligarchy (a financial elite more precisely) that is isolated and distant from the rest of society. This is when the warning signs start to manifest, if indeed the future of the society is to be taken under consideration. When the size of the middle class begins to decrease, then the entire society is confronted by a future threat, one in which the effects take time to become evident.

Poverty in and of itself and the poverty stricken are not the problem, only if that was the status upon which the society had been established on from the outset. Many nations are impoverished, their poor beget more poverty and yet they suffer no problems related to political or social stability. The problem lies in the change of conditions. Consider an affluent society wherein the middle class, with all its various levels, constitutes the largest segment within it. Imagine there was an unexpected and sudden reversal and the middle class started to merge with the lower class. This would mean that the society would become more vulnerable to social distortions and what that could create of potential political upheavals.

People born into poverty do not have a problem with it in the same way a person born blind deals with his/her blindness if he/she were born with it – upon the consideration that you haven’t lost anything that you once had. The problem emerges when the poor move to a higher social class then revert back to the lowest social strata. But what is even worse is when a members of the middle class who have always been part of that social strata fall into the base of the pyramid to become part of the lower class. This causes a real imbalance in society, one that must be fixed if long-term stability is the objective.

The shift from wealth to poverty and the descent of individuals from a particular social rank to a lower one spreads feelings of frustration, anger, hatred, tension and a sense of loss. These feelings make up a social time bomb that could detonate at any given moment. This is accentuated by finding expression in the various radical ideologies; rightist and leftist alike, or an idiosyncratic ideology that is born of the circumstances and is inevitably extremist in its approach. Economic prosperity that is followed by a sharp decline forms the ground on which the spark of instability is triggered, whether it signifies the society, or the state, or both.

Here, one can say that the heads of states, who set the long-term stability of their society and their state as their main objective, should closely follow the fluctuations of the society, especially when it comes to the status of the middle class. Both the security of the state and society cannot be achieved through strict security control, nor through disciplining the society on the security level, but these elements are all required and necessary. However, most importantly, discipline should be associated with an attempt to restore social balance whenever this balance starts faltering, especially after certain periods of prosperity. For a society to shift into a monopolizing ‘oligarchic’ class where more and more are in search of daily sustenance, including the few who belong to the fragile middle class, then this should be regarded as a threat to social security in the long term, even if it might seem to be very effective in the short term. Security and social stability, and what they entail of other types of security and stability are a mechanism that contains various complementary parts. However, it remains that social balance and the middle class base are a priority over all these elements for without them all else crumbles in the infrastructure.