A contented Middle Class

Corporate Watch
Amelia H. C. Ylagan

Posted on May 05, 2014

IN THE street lingo of socially aware teenagers, it was dyahe -- utterly shameful -- to be called burgis (bourgeoisie) then. That was in dekada setenta (the Seventies), that dark decade and a half of Martial Law in the Philippines between the 1970s and ’80s, when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos created the burgis as the favored social class -- mostly from the crony elite and his close-in military and political supporters -- who flaunted wealth and power while the suppressed other class, the struggling masa (the masses) cowered in forced obedience to the selective austerities of those times.

The burgis in Martial Law was a social peculiarity similar to the fattened and bedecked bourgeoisie of 18th century France in Louis VI and Marie Antoinette’s ostentatious rule. From the 11th century, a new middle class had emerged as the bourgs of Central and Western Europe developed into cities dedicated to commerce. The bourgeoisie, as the nouveau riche traders were called, generously contributed to the monarchies, wresting favored status and favor from the feudal lords who had before them supported the reigning kings. How eerie that the burgis of Martial Law times in the Philippines preened in the mirrors of Marie Antoinette’s bourgeoisie, reenacting the predictable tragedy of materialistic greed in collusion with unbridled power.

Burgis has become a forgotten bad name/word after the EDSA People Power Revolution threw out the Marcoses in 1986. (The French Revolution deposed Louis and Marie Antoinette in 1792 and executed them separately by guillotine after almost a year’s imprisonment.) And in a restored democracy, there are no discriminative and clashing social classes, especially in the lulling stasis of peace. Except that in a capitalistic society, economist-emeritus John Kenneth Galbraith says, the contented and selfish middle class effectively holds down the poor to maintain that status quo of peace. A new bourgeoisie?

In his iconoclastic book, The Culture of Contentment (1992), Galbraith observes that a politically powerful middle class dominates American society, worrying mostly about current conditions and their own immediate welfare, and disinterested in the future consequences of current policies. The middle class is basically opposed to change, as this disturbs the short-run equilibrium ensured by their economic and social completeness. They are the more rights conscious, and are more vocal in protests and in elections, the latter to install leaders who are supportive of their interests. Galbraith calls them the "happily privileged" who intend to remain so because they believe they have worked for what they have, within "a market system that rewarded effort in accordance with specific economic contribution and larger social merit."

Galbraith judges the middle class to be generally unfeeling for the poor, the "functional underclass" who serves a utilitarian purpose for the tasks that support the elevated lifestyle of the contented sector. The middle class will allow subsidies and dole-outs to the poor to keep them from the desperation of revolting about their situation, but let this not come from taxes, not even on the very rich, who will simply pass the rent down to the middle class and to the poor, and disrupt the "balance" of the classes. Yet Galbraith prefers the Keynesian calibration of fiscal remedies like increased taxes and less government spending in economic downturns for the more lasting reforms than the short-run monetarist stop-gaps of playing around with interest rates and money supply -- both spoiling further the already spoiled middle class in maintaining a high lifestyle scandalous in times of adversity. The poor do not borrow, and are restricted to their minimum wages. But the materialistic lifestyle of the middle class will drink up liquidity in consumerism before the benefits of money flooding can trickle to the poor.

Dr. Bernardo Villegas, in an article (Manila Bulletin, 2012) exhorted government, business and civil society to make sure that their populations avoid the excesses of consumerism of the West that have led to unsustainable development. Like Galbraith, he focused on the growing middle class, whom he exhorted to practice "the necessary human virtues of temperance and self-sacrifice" against personal temptations to their expanded wants and instead invest in true and sustainable growth for the country. After all, the middle class has traditionally been the largest socio-economic class in most countries, and the most influential in all aspects, according to Galbraith.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that 47.85 million (54.9% of total Philippine population in 2006) are "middle class," with the capacity to spend from $2 to $20 a day. (From 1988, about 21 million people were added to the middle class during the 18-year period to 2006.) But refining sub-levels within the grouping, only 3.8% are in range of $10 to $20 daily spending; 19.6% with $4 to $10 daily spending; and most, or 31.49% of total population are in the "lower middle class" as the majority has traditionally been, with a $2 to $4 (lowest) daily-spending range. It is easy for the complacent lower middle class to fall below that critical $1.50/day poverty line.

Dr. Villegas worries that non-durable consumer goods like food and beverages, fast food, personal care, cell phones, pharmaceutical products, etc. as well as small-ticket durable goods like TV sets, cellphones, motorcycles, etc., seem to obsess the middle class. Only those who are at the $4 to $20 range (estimated to be about 15% of the total population) can afford the more substantive investments: cars, low- to middle-cost housing, personal computers and other high-value electronic products, quality private education, and domestic and foreign travel.

Among the new Filipino middle class are the estimated nine to 11 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who send money home to support their families. Although India, China and Mexico receive more remittance money from overseas workers, remittances sent by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) represent the largest proportion -- almost 14% (more than $20 billion official + other unofficial transmittals) of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) -- making overseas Filipino workers one of the largest contributors to the Philippine economy.

Then there are the 600,000 employees of BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) and KPO (Knowledge Process Outsourcing) enterprises, vulnerable to hyper-consumerism, according to Dr. Villegas. Many are single persons in their early twenties, still living with their parents but earning P15,000 to P25,000 or more, making them large spenders on a host of consumer goods and services. Notice the boom in restaurants and retailing outlets around BPO and KPO buildings, says Dr. Villegas.

Uncanny for the coincidence of thoughts on Galbraith and Villegas, the latest Social Weather Station (SWS) survey reports (March 27-30) that more Filipinos (49%) believe that President Benign S.C. Aquino "serves the interest of the middle class compared to those who see him supporting the rich or poor." Translated to net satisfaction of +58, this meant that the President was OK for supporting the middle class, with a little bit more (+60) satisfied with him for being perceived to be supporting the poor (40%, second to the stronger perception of support for the middle class). But in the tangle of percentages and ratios in the SWS report, the bottom line seems to be the awareness of government for the growing power and influence of the middle class in the country.

And fears for the name/word burgis or bourgeoisie come flashing back to mind, recalling the materialism of the "contented middle class" in history who had claimed entitlements from kings and dictators, in their mutual need for continuing power and wealth. If indeed, it will be for and in behalf of the middle class that political economics will be geared, we pray that a more enlightened breed than Galbraith’s unfeeling and selfish main actors of production in times of need will rise above money and think of their less privileged fellowmen.

In The World is Flat (2005), Thomas Friedman wrote:

"The existence of large, stable middle classes around the world is crucial to geopolitical stability, but middle class is a state of mind, not a state of income... hard work and playing by the rules of your society (getting) you where you want to go" -- that is what having arrived means.

(Contact the author at ahcylagan@yahoo.com.)