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Who’s the ‘middle class’ in Pakistan? – by Umair Javed

The obsession with the modern educated professional as a prototypical middle class Pakistani tends to shift focus away from those that are rarely educated in formal institutions, yet continue to control a larger share of political and economic capital

Similar to the frenzy that results from the rumoured arrival of a prophetic saviour, our opinion nodes have by now largely taken an imagined growth in numbers of the middle class as a fact of life and have moved on to write on its growing assertiveness and its ability to find a voice of its own through the popular media. These past few weeks have all been about how civil society is able to circumvent the debilitated political party structure in order to get its voice heard and, more importantly, make its anger felt over perceived injustices.

Several points of contention are raised by this increasingly feverish obsession with our middle class. The first being the vagaries surrounding the term itself. Nobody has ventured forward with a widely acceptable definition of what the middle class is, which all things considered, is probably responsible for the superficiality, (read=incorrectness), in analysis dotting op-ed pieces in the English language press. Instead of studying an objectively defined social group, analytical pieces have tended to rely on self-determined definitions of the middle class and then used that definition to explain the role that it has played in recent events.

The middle class in any society, and at any historical contingency, is subjectively defined by the overarching economic and political system, however some characteristics are now used for a general understanding. The Western middle class man or woman is caricatured as the urban-based services sector professional who, apart from being a rabid consumerist, also ascribes to the ideational principles of meritocracy, good governance, and a general consensus on the means and ends of the political process.

The problem with extrapolating such a definition to Pakistan is that it leaves us with a very minute portion of the population. Given the fact that our most recent labour market survey revealed that only 4 percent of the adult population has obtained higher education, it just shows that a consistent focus on this particular class of people as the ‘middle class’ proxies as a severe over-estimation of its size, as exemplified quite recently by a former envoy to the UK and US who assigned the comical figure of 30 percent of the total population to this particular segment in society.

With the entire urban population currently standing at roughly 32 percent, the factual inaccuracy of the figure quoted above, (and the lack of research in writing op-ed pieces these days), is quite obvious. More importantly, the obsession with the modern educated professional as a prototypical middle class Pakistani tends to shift focus away from other members of our urban service economy, those that are rarely educated in formal institutions yet continue to control a larger share of political and economic capital. The retailers, wholesalers, transporters and contractors are neither large scale capitalists nor feudal yet are both a numerically and economically more powerful segment and have given shape to their collective claims through both lateral and democratically engaging associations such as trader and transporter groups as well as well-entrenched political parties such as the Muslim League.

Another annoying myth that needs to be debunked is this conception of how the urban professional class is being ignored at the policy-making level — a perceived ignorance that has now forced it to organise around civil society networks to raise issues of political, economic and civic concern. With roughly half of our country’s history being spent under military-bureaucratic control, it’s quite bewildering to understand the logic behind such a claim. The officer cadre of the military and the higher bureaucracy clearly fit the characterisation of the urban professional class, and policy-making in our country has rarely ever tilted away from its historical focus on state-elite preference.

The largely exogenous factor of a media boom has given this extremely small portion of the urban population a chance to make its views heard at a much wider level. The consistent focus on stability and the general disregard meted out towards our traditional and ‘feudal’ political elites is simply acting as a proxy in conserving the rather authoritarian policy-making structure of our country. This vague obsession with stability and progress through strong centralised governance ultimately feeds into the notion of giving power to a set of more organised yet unrepresentative institutions such as the bureaucratic-military nexus, or more recently, the judiciary.

The current state of affairs is unlikely to improve unless the urban professional class is willing to get off its high horse, a horse that, in its mind, is currently being ignored by our political elites. By treating mass politics as a taboo activity, they’re causing more damage than the benefit they bring about via the raising of important issues of human rights, quality of education and other related civic concerns. This class of people has been given power far beyond their numeric size through the control they exercise over higher education, informational and exclusive networks such as the print and electronic media and the non-representative part of the state structure. It makes common sense that consensus on the means and ends of the political process must not only be obtained within this 4 percent but between the 4 percent and the rest of the country, which includes the political elites and their vote-bank, of which a large portion is part of the 60 percent of the population currently subsisting under 2 dollars a day.

The words ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ might have been penned by a comic book writer for a man who could shoot spider webs from his hands yet they sort of ring true for our exclusivist urban professional class as well. The first step in coming to terms with this responsibility would be a conscious recognition of their ability to influence important affairs, and the next step would be to remove the self-imposed insulation for the much-needed purpose of engaging the democratic process in the country.

I think it’s time that this 4 percent realises they’re too small to be pandered by the political parties as far as voting is concerned. Hence they need to step up to the mark if they want to make a contribution towards strengthening institutional democracy. Otherwise further inaction and circumvention on their part just risks giving further credence to their already suspected non-democratic credentials.

The writer is an alumnus of LUMS and a current post-graduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London (umairjaved87@gmail.com)

Source: The News

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Abdul Nishapuri

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  • Like your depiction, though I think it is based on the only premise that the educated are the ones that form the middle class.

    If the definition of middle class as mentioned by some experts includes, certain range of incomes and not necessarily only higher education as a pre requisite but some educational background then the size of the middle class for us would be larger and would change the whole way you are looking at this as a problem or solution etc.