Friday, August 21, 2020

Göran Therborn,  Dreams and Nightmares of the World’s Middle Classes, NLR,
first, and last two paragraphs.

I could quibble and say that Asia's not the South, and that the rest is fucking obvious, but the fucking obvious is hard to come by these days. Like Streeck and Blyth.

The middle class is exploding, capitalism is expanding; the question is the model.

I've inserted a pic that encapsulates one sort of American technocrat/reactionary/libertarian confusion. Immigrants are complex, self-interested and loyal, closed and open, cosmopolitan in a ways Americans will never understand. I've said it dozens of times: when I tell immigrants their children will become American idiots, they laugh. And they agree. Khachiyan is a reactionary decadent, but as an American she doesn't even know it, at least not consciously. She's a moralist, like Bannon, and she was stupid enough to take him seriously as an intellectual.
The world has been getting contradictory messages about its class structure. According to one authoritative account, it has reached a ‘global tipping point’—‘half the world is now middle class or wealthier’. This was based on figures marshalled by Homi Kharas, a former World Bank chief economist now at Brookings. More excitably, the Economist has hailed the ‘relentless rise’ of a ‘burgeoning bourgeoisie’ and trumpeted the arrival of a middle-class world. Yet serious scholarship also assures us of the opposite: according to Peter Temin, emeritus professor of economics at MIT, we should be concerned about ‘the vanishing middle class’. Readers could be forgiven for feeling bewildered. What is going on in economics—and in the economic sociology of the real world? This contribution will examine the varying definitions of ‘middle class’ in play and the contrasting trajectories analysed by development economists, sociologists and financial journalists across the different sectors of the world economy. It will go on to outline a rather different future for the world’s middle classes than either of the extremes suggested here. But first, a few historical and conceptual considerations may be in order, for the concept of the ‘middle class’ has long given rise to debate.

...The 2020 pandemic has therefore divided the middle class, while the gap between its upper ranks and the real bourgeoisie is widening further, due to the billions of dollars of pandemic ‘stimulus’ snaffled by the latter. Middle-class aspirations are being thwarted by a surge in youth unemployment, in both North and South. The ‘forward march’ of the Southern middle class, by whatever definition, has halted. Northern nightmares, on the other hand, are likely to continue. The frenetic preoccupation with consumption in mainstream middle-class discourse might appear frivolous in the shadow of the Coronavirus, and under the darkening clouds of climate change.

Further important questions—the processes of contemporary middle-class formation, social development and political potential—lie beyond the scope of this paper. For now, what conclusions may be drawn? First, the world can only be understood through its differences and inequalities, taking a 360-degree perspective. Failing that, the world looks very different depending on one’s vantage point; a vista from the North may look upside down from the South, and vice versa. Second, the middle class has a discursive centrality in the early twenty-first century, corresponding to that of the working class a century before. It should be read symptomatically, as an indicator of profound social change, as well as critically, as an ideology of consumer capitalism. Third, prevailing middle-class discourse is deeply—if not always deliberately—ideological, inflating out of all proportion a nebulous entity with strong political connotations—the middle class—and portraying a world of consumers without producers. Fourth, this discourse is also deceptive in absolutizing both the middle class and poverty. Poverty is always relative, the losing end of the prevailing level of unequal resource distribution; and the middle has to be in the middle of something. Finally, the emergent middle classes of the South are heading into the maelstrom of capitalist inequality, where they look set to converge with the hard-hit middle classes of the North. The covid-19 pandemic is currently shattering the middle-class dream in the South and accelerating the inegalitarian tendencies analysed above. Where this will lead is still an open question.

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