Sunday, July 24, 2011

The middle class in different countries

This is a fascinating series of three articles from the World Policy Journal, looking at middle-class life in Liberia, Indonesia, and the Netherlands. The dynamic economic and social changes going on in the developing world really interest me, especially since my wife and I now form part of the broadly-defined group of middle-class people in developing countries, muddling forward between bourgeois consumption patterns and a humble, subsistence lifestyle, between prestigious international jobs and self-started cottage industries. That said, it distresses me that the conception of the middle class found in these articles, and in the general perception of the public writ large, has an exclusively urban, professional slant. Obviously a good deal of the growth in the middle class can and will come from urban professionals, but there's more to the story than that.

I have met rural farmers and entrepreneurs in places like Colombia, Benin, and Haiti who are employing successful strategies to improve their family's economic security and comfort, which in turn allows them to send their children to school, buy more consumer goods, employ more people, etc. As is the case in the World Policy Journal's Liberia profile, these farmers in mud houses without electricity may not hew to our conception of the middle class. But it is precisely such farmers that have been the vanguard in the increased prosperity of every nation that we consider developed today. In the US, France, Japan, and now China, the rural majority begins to innovate and generally increase productivity, and it is this that allows for a diversification of the economy into industry and services, as well as providing a raised rural standard of living that conforms to our Western conceptions of middle classdom. In the majority-rural countries that still comprise most of our world's population, we ignore this ascendant rural bourgeoisie at our own peril, as it is upon them that the general development of these countries will depend. Furthermore, in a future of widespread resource scarcity, we will no longer have the abundant petroleum that enables the current extent of megacities and huge professional service sectors. Even more than is already the case, the world's collective economic fate will hinge on the state of agriculture and our rural masses.

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