Two, Three, Many Middle Classes: Theorizing Middle Class Power From a Global Perspective

Thursday, July 17, 2014: 6:15 PM
Room: 301
Oral Presentation
Kevan HARRIS , Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
Analyses of the post-2008 global wave of social protest have generally celebrated the rise of educated middle classes as a driver of historical change as eagerly as Marxists once hailed the destiny of the industrial proletariat.  In the global South, middle classes are analyzed as both object and subject: the goal of economic growth is a middle-class society and the middle class is assumed to be the most suitable base for political development.  Yet public discussion about the middle class occurs with a set of implicit assumptions which underpin this sort of teleological talk, many of which derive from the application of late 19th-early 20th century sociological theory to the 21st century world economy.  As an intervention in contemporary debates over class and protest, in this paper I reconstruct the concept of the middle class for the purpose of analyzing the current political economy of middle-income countries.  To do so, I historicize middle class formation by separating out secular and cyclical characteristics of class formation on a world-historical scale over the past several centuries.  I argue that a key secular process of of the history of capitalism is the production of "middling" classes, yet these classes themselves are transformed along with the capitalist world economy.  Social theory has tended to reify a particular instance of this process, the rise of the 19th century European bourgeoisie to state power, as a general theory of class formation.  This Whiggish story is arguably the main cause of confusion within the debate over the post-2008 global protest wave.  To analyze what is actually new about the “new middle class” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for the global South, I create a typology of four ideal-type middle classes and identify their social position and structural power vis-à-vis the state and economy.