The Other Middle Class

Article excerpt

Byline: Rana Foroohar and Mac Margolis

The world's burgeoning bourgeoisie may be a market for our goods--but don't expect them to buy into our values.

Middle classes have always been the bulwark of society. Aristotle believed they are democracy's secret weapon--the defenders of social values, ramparts of reason over fiat, and believers in a society run by laws instead of by strongmen. They have also been the engines of economic growth, setting the stage centuries ago for the expansion of capitalism and global trade, and continuing to snap up every new gadget or service in sight. So, it's no wonder that as Western middle classes have become indebted and insecure, economists are pinning their hopes for global prosperity on the new emerging-market middle class, a group of go-getters who, it's hoped, will make the world richer and more stable.

Those two goals, however, may be at odds. As an economic force, this new population is indeed growing even faster than expected. Every year, an astonishing 70amillion people are joining the middle class. (In emerging markets, this is defined by Goldman Sachs as people with yearly incomes between $6,000 and $30,000.) They have become "the story of the decade," says Goldman Sachs's chief economist Jim O'Neill, and will surpass their Western peers in global spending power within two decades. Morgan Stanley Asia chair Stephen Roach believes that within five to 10 years, the Asian middle class alone could make up the slack left by overspent American consumers. Chinese bought more cars than Americans did last year, and India has as many Internet users as the United States. By 2030 more than nine of every 10 mobile phones will be owned by people in the developing world, with India and China leading the way.

As these developing nations became more prosperous, they were expected to look more and more like the suburbs of Washington or London--liberal, democratic, and market-friendly bastions not only of Western-style consumerism but also political liberty. With time and wealth, "they" would become just like "us." But while the size of their wallets is becoming more American, the values of this global middle class aren't necessarily doing the same.

Even in countries that are democratic, these new bourgeoisies looks quite different from their Western peers. In Turkey, for example, much of the middle class are devout Muslims who wear headscarves. When President Obama visits Indonesia later this month, he'll find a more conservative country than the one he lived in as a child--in large part because of the rise of the newly rich there.

Many of the aspiring elite seem comfortable with the political status quo in their nations, willing to let the powers that be--whether authoritarian governments or elected ones--call the shots as long as the economy keeps growing. A 2009 Pew study on the global middle class found that most are supportive of democratic ideas like free speech and competitive elections, yet experts at Pew and elsewhere say this group is also willing to compromise on those ideals when they seem to threaten prosperity. In Brazil and Russia, the middle classes are more worried about being free from hunger than voting. And in China, rural people who still see little benefit from their nation's economic growth are more likely to support democracy than the urban middle classes, who now make up three fourths of Communist Party cadres.

This political conservatism is growing rather than shrinking. More Russians today support "a strong leader" over "democracy" than did 10 years ago--no wonder, given the corruption, inequity, and plunge in average living standards that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The members of Russia's new middle class are among the staunchest supporters of strongman Vladimir Putin for the simple reason that they have the most to lose. "Like the rest of society, the middle class has accepted the paternalism of Putin's government and remained apolitical and apathetic," says Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. …