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Middle-class strength: Myth and reality

Shihab Sarkar | March 15, 2019 00:00:00

Among the modern social classes, the one which appears to be the most difficult to define is the 'middle class'. Since the emergence of this class in the post-WW-II era, its character and different trends have been an enigma to the social observers. Those were not as explicit among people in the then victorious powers of the war, as they were in the regions drawn involuntarily into the post-War times of various ordeals. They included neutral nations, territories far from the war theatre and the colonies of the Allied powers, especially Great Britain. The vanquished Axis powers had also a role to play in the war. It bred ambitions to conquer the world. However, they failed to succeed in seeing their evil dream materialise. With their socio-political and economic backbones broken, they were shoved into the global landscape's humiliating margins. A unique development took place. The dividing lines of social segregations became blurred in those disjointed times that befell these countries.

With the victorious countries left to bask in a triumphal glow, their colonies and dependencies were found struggling to make their ends meet. The post-war woes began to unfold in lots of countries. At the same time, many people in these territories found themselves to become rich overnight, while some were destined to experience life the other way round. It was the post-World War-II economic volatility, which created the new social segment of middle class in the South Asian sub-continent. Due to its graduation from the feudal era beginning from the 19th century, thanks to a colonial stratagem, and the emergence of an educated yet nouveau riche class, the sub-continent had already been carrying the legacy of social stratification. It was centred especially in the urban areas. These divisions could not make much inroad into the mostly poverty-stricken villages. The remodelled term 'middle class' began to be widely used to define a privileged class. In the later times, it would often be confused with the 'upper class'. In time the middle class bred a sub-group called the 'lower middle class'. The classical middle class did not have money like the neo-rich, but the class comprised educated and liberal people, with many having the penchant for social reforms. Moreover, lots of freedom fighters in the colonial India came from this class. To generalise, the 'middle class' was not a new tier of society altogether. The first-ever use of the term 'middle class' was made in the social interpretations of Max Weber (1864-1920). The class was shown as the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and the upper class.

Before leaving the sub-continent in 1947, the British colonial power left in the region an English-educated, socio-politically conscious and limited-income class in society. Eventually, it emerged as the region's first batch of middle class. It is this class which has played a decisive role in the socio-political and economic evolutions that took place in the two states carved out of the undivided India. Today's middle class in general in Bangladesh, the erstwhile East Pakistan, has its roots in these historical dynamics.

Being a victim of the despicable policy of disparity perpetrated by the West Pakistan-based rulers, an upper or upper-middle class could not grow in the eastern wing of Pakistan. In fact the subjugated land comprised farmers in its vast rural areas. It was only in the major urban pockets, especially Dhaka and Chittagong, that a few scattered segments of mid-level rich people could be found. In general the urban areas of Bangladesh prior to the 1971 independence were inhabited by non-descript office-goers, petty traders and students. Few could imagine that a socio-politically and culturally committed middle class had been in the making in Dhaka and the other cities. In spite of their first outburst in the 1952 Language Movement, and later in the student-dominant mass upsurge in 1969, they remained dominant in the following independence movement. In fact, this freedom-loving and fully committed middle-class eventually pioneered the dream of an equitable, welfare society. The independent Bangladesh had all the potential for creating such a society. Unfortunately, the dream did not materialise as had been expected.

Notwithstanding the country's politicians and the intelligentsia mostly coming from a middle-class background, ideologically and morally unfaltering, a sizeable number of them were later proved weak and had gone astray. Middle-class intellectual aberration has virtually become a dreadful scourge in this country. However, a section of the orthodox educated circles may not at all admit the existence of intellectuals in Bangladesh. Their views cannot be brushed aside outright. In the last forty-seven years, the country has seen how a section of middle-class bred intellectuals and creative people rot away. They amass everything from money to so-called fame to social status. But still they remain far from being satiated.

A section of behavioural scientists define the middle class as easily gullible and oscillating. But many others have identified enormous moral strength in them. Moreover when it comes to material life, lots of the middle-class people demonstrate humble ambitions, at least outwardly. The case of Bangladesh is different, as a strong middle class is still non-existent in the country. The social segment which is defined as middle class by the media is a deviant form of the nouveau riche. They are woefully deprived of the basic virtues of the modern-day middle class. As a corollary, the urban middle class is generally seen developing the irresistible urge to become richer and enter the club of upper class. In a country perennially afflicted by socio-economic turbulence, a firmly rooted middle class has yet to be in place. The large cities, Dhaka in particular, are seemingly dominated by what is nowadays called lower middle-class people. Their present socio-economic existence is less than one generation old; most of them became residents of cities after independence. In such a typical condition, search for the presence of an upper class is set to end up being a futile exercise. The picture is clear and above any ambiguity. There is no classical upper class in Bangladesh in the real sense.

A paradoxical question may arise here. Does a nation take any extra pride in its so-called upper class? In the poorer countries, the over-rich are subjects of disdain. The general people of the richer nations view the upper class with doses of sarcasm. In the formative stage of the now-decadent socialist societies, the upper classes were considered the enemies of people. Upon an overview of the scenario, the middle class seems to have the last laugh. But their ever-instigating ambition of going higher makes them corrupt. They discover themselves finally that they belong nowhere. In Bangladesh, the state of the middle class is deplorable. A sudden spell of affluence prompts them to feel like being in the middle-class fraternity. Theoretically speaking, mere windfall gains or earnings do not make one eligible for being a part of the middle class. In practice, they belong to the lower middle-class having occasional excursions to the precincts of the middle class.

In spite of the contribution of the middle class to the many socio-economic and cultural developments, a correct definition of it still remains fuzzy. It's mainly the economic factors which might be singled out for this obfuscation. Terms or identities ought not to be attached much importance. What's worth pondering here is the days of the once-indomitable middle class are on the wane. In Bangladesh, the 'lower middle-class' is a stopgap identity to help society evolve, and make the statisticians' job easier.


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