Political Power and Social Theory: Volume 21

Cover of Political Power and Social Theory
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Table of contents

(21 chapters)
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This volume of PPST is the first volume under my sole editorship. The editorial transition (from Diane E. Davis, the former editor) has been challenging but surprisingly seamless thanks to Dr. Davis' helpful hand and the capable team at Emerald Publishing. I am honored by this opportunity. I am also humbled. For years PPST flourished under the formidable skills and vision of Dr. Davis. While I am doubtful that I will be able to match her deft editorial skill and leadership, I am determined to maintain the journal's integrity and innovations while honoring its traditions. The complexities of sociopolitical structures, past and present, demand critical analysis. A proper understanding of power relations requires meticulous research and bold theorizing. My goal is to ensure that PPST continues to contribute to these tasks.

Much writing on dissenting intellectuals posits a uniform relationship between autonomy from the popular element and social influence. The case of U.S. poets from 1930 to 1975 challenges this, as dissenting poets' sphere of influence grew during the hegemony of populist as well as antipopulist movements. In order to account for this, this chapter draws on the conceptualization of autonomy as a process whose parameters are mutually irreducible and potentially contradictory. Where these parameters are more or less fully synchronized, dissenting intellectuals face a united bloc of opponents that they cannot divide; therefore, they need to fight all of these opponents simultaneously. Where there is little such synchronization, in contrast, they can negotiate temporary alliances with some of their foes, use these alliances to secure gains in more important fronts, and revise their alliances as circumstances change. Twentieth-century United States, this chapter argues, was an example of the latter kind of setting. Dissenting poets were able to use universities and popular element against one another, depending on how they saw their overall situation. When autonomy from universities mattered most, they reclaimed the popular element; when autonomy from the popular element mattered most, they set aside their differences with university administrators and joined the academic ranks. This distinction between greater and less synchronization of the powers, the chapter argues, has implications for political sociology beyond the study of intellectuals.

Social scientists have increasingly turned to constructivist models to explain when, and how, international and world-level social forces constrain the policy-making autonomy of national states. While constructivists have shown that international ideational processes matter for domestic policy making, they have had a harder time explaining why some ideas gain prominence in policy discussions while others do not. This chapter develops an institutionally centered materialist model of idea selection, arguing that international relations of dependency give actors who control vital financial resources a greater capacity to shape the ideational agenda. This model is explored through a case study of the international sources of American monetary policy in the early 1960s. A detailed examination of archival materials shows that European officials at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development were able to advance their own ideas for American monetary policy because the United States was dependent on European cooperation to help resolve its mounting balance of payments problems.

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“For the first time in history,” the Economist proclaimed in 2009, “more than half the world is middle-class – thanks to rapid growth in emerging countries.” Unquestionably, a new middle class has become a visible global presence, changing the urban landscape in countries as different as China, Egypt, and India. From Beijing to Johannesburg, societies where a small elite was once surrounded by rural poverty have been transformed, as educated urban citizens walk through shopping malls holding their ubiquitous cell phones.

This chapter offers a few stylized observations about the middle class and its role in the fall of communist regimes in East Central Europe. I claim that successive East European modernization projects during the 20th century (intrawar, communist, and postcommunist) were essentially middle-class “revolutions from above.” They occurred in a backward region among late modernizers keenly aware of their peripheral position and were based on and carried out by the state. Both a product of the state and dependent on it, the middle class was the main actor and supporter of these modernization efforts. I also argue that the Solidarity movement in 1980/81 and the 1989 collapse of communism were the last successful middle-class revolutions. Hopes for another political rebellion against postcommunist authoritarianism may be misplaced, since the transformational potential of the East European middle class, produced by the peculiarities of communist rule, has been exhausted. Fast progressing modernization, segmentation, and fragmentation of identity of the postcommunist middle class brought about by the economic, cultural, and political integration with the West undercut its mobilizational potential and its role as an agent of political transformations. The East European middle-class revolution against communist rule can offer four basic lessons. First, the middle class is a cultural and historical not economic phenomenon. Second, it is extremely rare for the middle class to become a collective actor, the class for itself. Third, the main competitors of middle-class identity are nationalism, ethnicity and religion. Finally, postmodernity with its fluidity, uncertainty, fractured identities, fragmented lifestyles, consumption patterns, and status configuration does not provide facilitating conditions for middle-class solidarity and mobilization, making it politically feeble.

Before exploring the political implications of the emerging middle class, best to begin by defining the term. The economists who herald the growth of the middle class in the developing world today largely construe the term solely as an income category. This is in stark contrast to Marx, who defined class in terms of a social group's relation to the means of production, and it is in stark contrast to Weber, who defined class in terms of a group's pattern of consumption. But even if economists agree to conceive of the middle class as an income category, they differ on how to define this category – whether in relative or absolute terms.3 Some, like Lester Thurow, define middle class relationally. People are middle class if their income falls between 75% and 125% of the median income in a given society. Others define middle class in absolute terms. In the case of Milanovic and Yitzhaki, the boundaries of the contemporary global middle class are set between the average income levels that currently prevail in Brazil and Italy (threshold and ceiling, respectively).4 Still others like Diana Farrell define middle class in terms of relative access to discretionary spending. For Farrell, the middle class is distinguished from the poor in that it does not live “hand to mouth.” Members of the middle class are defined as those who have roughly a third of their income left over for discretionary spending after covering the basic cost of food and shelter.

In the past three decades India has been one of the fastest growing countries in the world. Per capita income has increased fourfold, from $229 in 1980 to $318 in 1990 to nearly $900 in 2010 (constant 2000 dollars). Although there is growing evidence of increases in income inequality, standard measures of inequality such as the Gini coefficient are still considerably less in India than in other Brazil, Russia, India, Chinas (BRICs) (or the United States). Consequently this rapid growth has led to a substantial expansion of India's middle class (and a concomitant decline in poverty).

In this chapter we argue that South Africa's premier city, Johannesburg, has undergone a massive reconfiguration of its social geography since the demise of formal apartheid. Using census data and geographic information systems (GIS), we present evidence that this spatial transformation has been driven by a process of residential deracialization but one that has taken place within narrow class bands. Indeed, we show that change has been marked by a new process of middle-class formation that has specifically taken the form of what we call middle-class enclavization. We show moreover that this process of enclavization is marked by internal fragmentation with the increasing spatial compartmentalization of different fractions of the middle class. These findings in turn support broader arguments in the literature that emphasize the strategic practices, including the centrality of residential location, through which upper middle-class privilege is preserved.

Recent discussions of how members of the middle classes define themselves have focused on cultural patterns, following Bourdieu's (1984) influential work on how occupational, educational, and cultural fields combine to configure classes. Researchers have extended this approach to studies of the emerging middle classes in the global South, adapting these concepts to the specific circumstances of postcolonial settings in a globalizing world. This chapter explores these processes among urban middle-class Chileans. I show how members of the middle classes seek meaningful identities while engaging in symbolic combat with other groups in a society historically marked by an aristocratic elite, a recent military dictatorship, and free market policies that have reconfigured the possibilities for upward and downward mobility while integrating Chile more firmly within global commodity and image circuits. The principal foci of conflict are cultural consumption, childrearing and education, as well as electronic media use. Members of Chile's middle classes are locked in an unresolved conflict over who they are, who they should be, and where they fit in the global cultural economy.

The growth of the middle class has become a subject of growing fascination for scholars as of late, not just because the numbers are so astonishing but also because the patterns suggest a shift in both global demographics and the regional geographies of development. Recent estimates from the World Bank indicate that the world's middle class is expected “to grow from 430 million in 2000 to 1.15 billion in 2030”;1 and that the greatest growth will occur in the developing world. While in 2000, only 56% of the world's middle classes lived in the developing world, this figure is expected to reach 93% by the year 2030 – with China and India alone expected to account for two-thirds of all this expansion.2 What may be most striking about the middle classes are not merely their mind-boggling numbers, or their location in the developing world, or the fact that these particular class actors have been ignored for years in studies of late industrializers, or even the fact that the newfound interest in the middle classes comes on the heels of a controversy about the relevance of class in the contemporary era more generally (see Portes, 2000). Indeed, what may be most noteworthy is the set of adjectives that come attached to the study of middle classes, as well as the fact that these qualifiers are different than those employed in prior periods.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that half of Bangkok's landed families became real estate developers and the other half became real estate investors and speculators. (Sheng and Kirinpanu (2000), writing in reference to the massive real estate bubble that built up in the years leading up to the 1997–1998 Asian financial crisis)

Davis's tentative postulation about the subjecthood of the new middle class is appropriate, as there is a wide variety of definitions given to this group across different national and local contexts. She underlines the importance of rejecting “essentialist arguments about so-called middle class culture and its role in economic development, seeking instead to identify differences among the middle classes (emphasis in original),” further asserting that there is not “some essential cultural or political disposition about class politics or class discourses associated with middle ‘classness.’” But beyond attempting to enumerate exactly who counts as middle class in each setting, and determining whether they are best described as “old” or “new” in their character as political subjects, we must recognize that there are indeed social and cultural attributes ascribed to the middle class that are also a matter of contention, and that there is no single proprietor of these features. In other words, middleclassness is a contested ensemble of characteristics, endowed with variable political valences, that different groups seek to own, manipulate, and deploy to a range of ends.

Diane Davis has written a fine piece that seeks to reorient our scholarly gaze onto the dynamics of middle-class formation in the developing world. She writes, “…our research objective is not merely to study the appearance of an emergent or new middle class in the developing world, but to understand the implications of an increasingly heterogenous middle class” with more acute occupational and spatial cleavages (p. 14). Building political coalitions between the two main groupings of the middle class – public sector employees and small- and medium-sized industrial producers – which in the past had produced “socially inclusive development policy” faces new complications as the global economy could pit old middle-class corporatist populism and new middle-class neoliberalism against each other (pp. 16–17). Davis argues this intraclass cleavage is further intensified as the state in many developing world countries opts for decentralization and I would add as party politics becomes significantly less representative (see, e.g., Mainwaring, Maria Bejerano, & Pizzaro, 2006). New middle-class politics becomes less and less about “class” and more about civil society, both in organizational and discursive terms (pp. 24–25, 29–30). With political discourse shifting away from national politics per se toward local, more NIMBYist proclivities (p. 18), activism becomes more intense though dispersed, focusing on “issues of urban sustainability and livability” and through distinct modes of political engagement (p. 30). What Davis concludes therefore is that “middle class heterogeneity, as reinforced by the unequal distribution of new and old middle classes in urban built environmental, politico-institutional, and consumption spaces, manifests itself in new forms of inequality, democratic politics, and the decline of class activism” (p. 33). Future research would certainly benefit from a close inspection of urban issues as the crux of middle-class politics in the contemporary developing world.

Questions about the role and composition of the middle class have been examined and debated in the academy and in the political sphere for more than 100 years. In analyses of the Indian middle class specifically, two questions, both addressed by Diane Davis, seem to excite the most attention. The first has to do with the definition of a middle class, a term that has its origins in a very different social formation as well as its potentially mediating function in democracy. The second and more recent question has to do with what is variously called the “new” or “emerging” middle classes – in short, the middle classes of a liberalizing India.

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In addition to their desire to address the gaps in my own essay, one possible explanation rests in a deeper and more nuanced appreciation of the role of ideology in middle-class identity formation, an issue that I ignored almost completely. The importance of understanding the ideological underpinnings of “middle-classness” is a point directly taken up by several of the commentators, but it is best articulated and most convincingly argued by Raka Ray in her nuanced historical examination of the national political projects that sustained the idea of a middle class as moral vanguard and repository of universal values and aspirations. She shows how the “ideological work that middle-class identity performs” sustains unity among disparate middle-class forces, at times achieving such cultural resonance that it will engage even non-middle classes in a common political project. That is, Ray argues that the idea of the middle class as a social category has become so culturally appealing and ideologically hegemonic in modern India that it has even enabled political unity behind the class projects of the elite.

Cover of Political Power and Social Theory
DOI
10.1108/S0198-8719(2010)21
Publication date
2010-12-23
Book series
Political Power and Social Theory
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-0-85724-326-3
eISBN
978-0-85724-326-3
Book series ISSN
0198-8719