What Egypt and Tunisia and all the revolutions to come tell us about globalization’s political future is that the emerging middle class – not bad actors, will drive it. For years now we’ve been regaled with stories of how Islamic extremists and criminal networks and state capitalism would somehow keep the decaying West on its heels. The West, in turn, interpreted this dark future primarily in terms of its own threatened middle-class status, imagining no cavalry over the horizon.
Clearly, we thought too small.
Goldman Sachs estimates that 70 million souls join the global middle class annually – just a bit above al-Qaeda’s annual recruitment, you might say. The Economist says that, if we go as low as $10 per capita per day, we’re talking about roughly 60 percent of humanity. You can do the math on where this cohort must be growing fastest, because it sure ain’t in the advanced West. Instead, it grows fastest in many of those “mostly unfree” states that those in the West imagine all subscribe to some unspoken “Beijing consensus,” which, as far as we can see, consists mostly of China seeking long-term access to those states’ resources and markets – agreed?
Arguably, we’ve got our globalization narrative all backwards nowadays. The United States started this party after World War II, and has nurtured and defended it ever since. So naturally, the US must be driving this resurgent “freedom agenda,” right? And yet, because China’s stunning rise drives all this new connectivity while jacking up commodity prices worldwide, it’s actually Beijing that’s exporting revolution in ways it would never admit.
We may think China will remain forever immune to the same shock-waves it so effortlessly transmits around the planet, but history says otherwise. What saves China’s Communist Party from Mubarak’s fate right now is the sheer magnitude of its own internal income gap – those 700 million interior poor living at Guatemala’s standard of living. For now, the train’s engine (coastal middle-class China) can’t go any faster than its caboose (those unwashed masses further in).
But outside of that civilization-masquerading-as-a-nation-state, a rising middle class need not be of world-beating size to trigger society-wide demands for a better future from a more responsive government. Global connectivity, coupled with higher education, doesn’t just advantage revolutionary terrorists. These also allow for the flash-mob mobilization of non-violent democracy activists, who, in their far greater numbers, can signal their intent to paralyze entire national systems in ways terrorists can only dream of.
Simply put, Karl Marx aimed too low on class.
For what do the poor want from the government but protection from their circumstances? So they glumly suffer authoritarianism, if that’s what it takes to shield them from even worse. The rich, such as they are found in the world’s many oligarchic economies, seek only protection from the poor.
But what the middle class wants is that which is hardest for any government to deliver: protection from the future. These families have achieved a decent standard of living, or are close enough to see one emerging, and they want that nest egg protected from life’s vicissitudes, so that it may be passed along to the next generation.
You know that counterinsurgency bit about killing some villager and then having to face his entire avenging family? Well, the same is true with an emerging middle class. Deny their lead elements they seek and your government will soon enough find itself battling expectations extending far into the future. To say the least, that is one tough monster to feed.
And soon enough, governments the world over will all be serving that same ravenous beast.