Clash of Civilizations or Conflict of Interests? A few sporadic notes on the emerging Global Middle Class, among other things

A Heretic’s Log: A series of philosophical essays written between September 20, 2002 and July 15, 2004. 

The whole thesis of a clash of civilization could be approached and refuted from a variety of angles. One such important angle is that there are indeed no civilizations, but only one global civilization (western, so far) encompassing many cultures, with each culture witnessing an internal clash of values between modernity and tradition giving birth in the process to various fundamentalisms: Christian, Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, etc.

Another angle is to see the current clash as a conflict of interests between various groups who are, consciously or unconsciously, trying to justify their struggle using cultural terms and references in an attempt to enlist a wider section of the population on their side.

The haves, we can say in accordance to this view, are struggling among themselves for a larger piece of the pie, while the have-nots are simply being duped. Or, are they? And how about those “caught” in between, i.e. those who still, in fact, constitute the majority of people on earth and who are usually lumped into that extremely expansive term – the Middle Class?  What is the role of the Middle Class in all this, and where does it fit in that view that posits “haves” against “have-nots”?

It is doubtless that market economics and globalization are bound to lead, sooner or later, to the emergence of a Global Middle Class or a Global Bourgeoisie. But, one may ask, is it really time to speak with any credibility whatsoever about the existence of such a class now? Perhaps, to an extant, it actually is. Indeed, our answer to the questions above depend in no small part on how we do choose to speak of this phenomenon.

If, by the terms “haves” and “have-nots,” we actually refer to the “ruling” and “subjugated” classes respectively, democratic façades notwithstanding, then a discussion of the Global Bourgeoisie is not an issue here.[1] Because, as the situation stands today even in the most democratic and developed of societies, the Middle Class neither rules nor is subjugated in the absolute sense of these words.

The Middle Class in Developed Societies

For, in developed democratic societies, the Middle Class, with all the social substrata contained therein, only rules and is subjugated in an indirect manner. The necessary democratic façade in truth allows for a measure of participation. But the way elections are held and public opinion manipulated by professional politicians and their backers (or controllers), who constitute, in a sense, the real Ruling Class, ensures that the ability of the Middle Class to actually dictate the course of the political process, especially with regard to foreign policy, is effectively kept under check.

In a free market society, democratic façades are a must, but so is the idea of checks and balances. Control in these societies has to be diffused, not only through the system of separation of powers, but also through the unofficial system of manipulating public opinion and disseminating disinformation. But, because the Ruling Class in such a system cannot be dictatorial, at least not in the old-fashioned sense of the word, every now and then governments must and do indeed fall as knowledge of some manipulation or corruption is leaked (sometimes intentionally) to the public.

As such, the terms haves and have-nots may not be as informative as we want them to be with regard to the attitude of the Middle Class. Nor is the Middle Class ever as helpless, apathetic, or even misinformed, as we might be tempted to think at times. The various constituent elements of the Global Bourgeoisie do indeed have a say in what is going on in the world today. In fact, both globalization and the anti-globalization phenomena reflect, in part at least, the contradictory wishes, desires, needs, whims and interests of the constituent elements of the Global Bourgeoisie, especially when we think of these elements in geographical terms. That is, when we think of those segments of the Global Middle Class that reside in the developing world and compare them to their supposed counterparts in the developed world.

The Bourgeoisie of the developed countries have a clear vested interest in not responding to the protests of their counterparts in less developed countries. A more equitable distribution of the global wealth, paying higher prices for oil and other raw materials, sharing the technological know-how in certain fields, or even applying the very principles of fair competition that developed countries often speak of but seldom applies with regard to developing countries, are things that cannot in all due honesty be contemplated by the Middle Class of the more developed countries, since their living standards themselves, and perhaps their entire way of life, is at stake here.

As such, the Middle Class here is quite willing to be lied to by the Ruling Class and to be duped into adopting less friendly and understanding stance vis-à-vis their counterparts in the less developed countries.

The Middle Class in Developing Societies

But the situation in this regard is not that much different in less developed countries and societies where the Middle Class also exhibits a similar tendency to accept the lies of the indigenous Ruling Class. But the reasons and motivations in this case are somewhat different.

Here, the willingness to accept governmental lies are often associated with a desire to shift the blame for all the societal and cultural woes, from which these societies and countries are suffering, unto the more developed nations – a task made easier due to the former imperialistic and colonialist ventures of those nations in this part of the world. This comes as an attempt to escape the responsibility of carrying out the necessary deep social and cultural change required in order to facilitate the introduction of the positive sides of modernity. For this kind of drastic, if not downright revolutionary (in terms of its scope and not necessarily methods) change often involve certain admissions of failure with regard to the existing traditional systems of values that are not all too easy to make. The very sense of identity of the peoples involved is at stake here, a matter made even more sensitive on account of the political and economic pressures also involved.

The issue of reassessing one’s culture in order to see what went right or wrong, as some would put it, and to see where you are currently standing and why, is not a mere cultural or psychological issue when applied on a collective level. Political and economic factors are bound to be involved in this process, especially when one poses questions regarding issues such as the role of religion in state and society, how one can achieve a more fair distribution of wealth, what is exactly meant by human rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of the elderly, potential impact of industrialization, environmental concerns, etc.

Peoples in most developing countries, the Middle East being a case in point, find themselves having to deal with all these issues, more or less, simultaneously, and under heavy pressure, involvement and direct dabbling from the seemingly, if not truly, omnipresent “West.” While modernity was a gradual process in the “West” (though at occasions fast, perhaps even too fast), in the ME, as was the case in most developing countries, it was introduced as a whole package within a very short period of time, and via the most dangerous of all conduits: foreign military intervention in the form of colonialism. The fight against colonialism became, therefore, synonymous in many people’s minds with the fight against modernity and its values.

So, and while most intellectuals, even those of Islamist backgrounds, saw with their own eyes the advantages offered by modernity, on a popular level, modernity and “foreignness” seemed intimately intertwined. This situation created a climate where it was much more easy, on a popular level at least, not only to reject modernity (or at least certain aspects of it), but also to blame others, rather than yourself, for the ills of your society, your culture and your country.

The ideologies that were adopted by the intellectuals involved in their attempts to tackle the various problems of their societies made matters even worse. Each intellectual, or group of intellectuals, presented modernity as an ideological package meant to replace in toto the existing traditional values. Paradoxically enough, Islamists did very much the same thing: they repackaged the existing traditional values into various isms which then needed to be reintroduced to, or re-imposed on, their societies. An open dialogue on the various issues involved was not a possibility in this feverish climate where everybody was retrenched behind a particular ism.

The situation did not improve even after most developing countries became independent and European colonialism came to an end. The hegemony of the West[2] continued to be blamed and used as a scapegoat by various governments to justify their crackdown on internal freedoms and to deviate attention from their failure in effectively rebuilding their countries. The people, including the Middle Class, were all too happy to play along, especially when they realized, in the last couple of decades, that internal reforms are not simply an economic and political issue but are bound to involve, sooner or later, a review of some of the most cherished traditional values, not to mention the “Sacred History” associated with these values, leading most likely to a rejection of them, in part or in toto, by some segments.

The fact that this has already taken place and that there are already many individuals and groups from different social backgrounds, who do not subscribe wholeheartedly, if at all, to traditional values, is not enough to pronounce a certain society as having reached a certain critical stage in its development where it can accommodate difference in a more accepting manner. What is required in this regard is an “official” popular acceptance somehow, a collective reconciliation to what the current situation really entails, namely that tradition is not sacred, at least not wholly sacred, and that difference, especially internal difference, is legitimate.

This psychological breakthrough still eludes people in many developing countries it seems, especially its Muslim parts, where many still dream of the coming of a time where the Sacred, in its traditional form(s), will once more reassert itself and, hence justify their deeply perturbed, though equally deeply entrenched, faith (s).

The Problem of Globalization 

Still, modernity did penetrate into and did impose itself upon the peoples of the developing world, and the processes thereof continue unfettered and almost unhampered by all opposition as more and more people end up embracing, quietly and unconsciously, what they are simultaneously rejecting vociferously and consciously. This is particularly true with regard to the consumerist elements involved in modernity, pop culture included.

The most important element that comes out of all this, is that globalization has somehow managed to homogenize the expectations of the world middle classes, but it has so far failed to homogenize their living standards. As such, polls conducted in places like Syria, Peru, Rwanda, Japan, Denmark and the US are likely to produce the same results with regard to the basic expectations that people have with regard to their standards of living. The difference is that the citizens of Japan, Denmark and the US are more likely to actually achieve these standards than those of Syria, Peru and Rwanda. The problem is that the people in all of these countries are aware of this difference[3], and this awareness is the main cause of the frustration, anger, fear and suspicion involved on both sides. This is indeed the fodder that the ruling classes use to wage and justify their wars.

Conclusion 

The fast pace of globalization has led to the homogenization of expectations, but not yet to that of the living standards among the world’s middle classes. As such, the emerging Global Middle Class, or Global Bourgeoisie, already exhibits this one common characteristic: all its members more or less want or crave the same things.

The other major characteristic is that most members of this Class are unwilling to delve into an inward analysis of their cultures, societies and histories in an attempt to figure out how they came to be where they are today and assume responsibility for that.

As for the ruling and subjugated classes, the standards for their living are the same everywhere. As such, they have already reached unity and are more than simply emerging: they are already here. We can indeed speak of a Global Ruling Class and a Global Subjugated Class. This does not mean, of course, that the members of the Ruling Class are sitting down together in some room or conference hall hatching plots against the still fledgling Global Middle Class, or that haphazard entity that is the Subjugated Class. For the Ruling Class is indeed made up of different segments whose interests are not necessarily easily harmonized. Hence the wars and the need to trudge and marshal in cultural references to justify them, as the situation in Iraq and this whole phenomenon of war Against terrorism amply illustrate. What we have here is simply a conflict of interests. The Iraq regime was a friend of the West until their interests diverged.

The same goes to an extant for that infamous CIA creation that is Al-Qaeda. Though the issue involved here is a bit more complex, since Al-Qaeda in effect represents a nihilistic expression of the frustration of certain segments of the Middle Class in certain part of the Arab World (for more on this, see my intervention titled: On the Psychological Underpinnings of Modern Terrorism).

Such nihilistic expressions could only emerge out of the Middle Class. The Subjugated Class steals, goes on riots, and rapes, but it does not plot acts of terror or revolution. Terrorism, and Revolution, as most social historians would assert, are indeed the prerogative of the Middle Class. US potential military intervention in Iraq and talk of possible such near future interventions in other countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, might indeed be meant, in part at least, to stifle the possibility of moving beyond plotting acts of terror into planning full-scale revolutions, for the region is, once again, simmering. But more on this later.

Notes

[1] Frankly, even  in the most advanced and developed of societies, we can still speak of a “subjugated class,” which is often composed of ghetto dwellers, certain segments of the unemployed, the homeless, and certain segments of the immigrant communities, both legal and illegal.
[2] And in the ME, its continued support for the state of Israel.
[3] It is often claimed that the people in developed societies are not aware of the conditions of living in lesser developed places, but this is only true with regard to the specifics. In general, the people in developed countries are quite aware of the major differences in living standards that separate them from the rest of world. The tremendous development in mass media in the last decade, especially the introduction of satellite TV, makes it virtually impossible for anyone to claim ignorance in this regard.