Issues of the middle class | Sunday Observer

Issues of the middle class

8 May, 2022

“The rich did not care who ruled, as long as they were allowed to be rich. The poor could not afford to care, and nobody asked their opinion in any case. Only the middle class mattered, and any half-witted ruler knows how to pamper them.
–Anand Neelakantan

Sri Lankans are at this extremely important crossroads where we have to choose whether we are going to change the way we perceive the relationship between the rulers and the ruled or fall back to what we have been conditioned to accept since 1948.

Our journey through ancient kingdoms to British aristocracy came to an end in 1948 giving birth to a plutocracy where the country was governed by wealthy elite under the covers of a democratically elected Parliament.

Rejecting elitism

Currently the process seems to be working in the reverse order where rejecting elitism is popularised and getting elected through a so-called ‘democratic process’ is the easiest way to become wealthy.

One of the main feel-good factors of democracy is that each and every voter is made to feel knowledgeable and empowered.

However, in reality they do not even realise to what extent they have been misled by the candidates until they start seeing the corruption and abuse of power by the elected officials of the Government. Political equality is at the heart of democracy.

No citizen or a group of citizens can be more powerful than another. But the moment citizens elect a group of people to rule their country it creates the two groups, rulers and the ruled.

Rulers and their confidants and sponsors become more powerful than the ruled, violating the fundamental condition of equality expected in a democracy. A critical analysis of those two factors would be a good starting point for anyone interested in understanding why democracy, as we have been practicing it since 1948, has not helped Sri Lanka much over the years.

It certainly is not enough to include the word in the name as we have done by calling our country ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’.

Money in politics

The role of money in politics has also increased to an extent where politicians pay attention to the issues or demands of people or organisations who contribute the highest amounts to their campaigns.

Government policies are then shaped by the economic elites and organised groups. The rich usually make sure that whoever wins the power will accommodate their plans of increasing wealth. The politicians, on the other hand, will make sure that the wealth accumulated by the rich is shared with them through partnerships, commissions, gifts, and bribes.

Poor usually accept that they were born to poverty and therefore they have no other option but to follow the same paths as their parents and grandparents in order to sustain life. They rarely get a chance for a good education to improve their knowledge about economic and political affairs of the country.

Therefore, not only can they not afford to voice their opinion, but they are also not able to have an opinion other than the ones drilled into them by the politicians themselves.

The middle class, the middle sixty to eighty percent in the income spectrum, is usually also segregated into lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle classes according to income levels.

Middle class is the most dynamic income class in a society where they feel lucky to be out of poverty but not so lucky since they see a long way ahead to get to the next rung in the income ladder. This is where the rat race is on.

Income ladder

When one is in this race one doesn’t have the time or the will to think about anyone or anything else other than oneself, which might include one’s family too. They can barely make ends meet but they don’t have enough to free their minds to think about others or what is happening to the country in general.

Therefore, they are eternally in the struggle to earn a better living competing fiercely against the members of their own class. They do not hesitate to step on their own kind to climb up and look down upon the ones below them for their own self-satisfaction.

The rich and the poor are usually not participants of this competition, though the two groups have completely different reasons for it.

The rulers who understand this phenomenon and who are not really interested in doing anything good for the country, usually do the bare minimum to make the middle class feel that their competition is fairly facilitated and refereed. That usually is enough to stay in power through elections.

It is important to notice that it is not enough just to get into the relevant income range in order to move from one class to another. It is a way of thinking too.

One may move up the income ladder to get out of the middle class but may not experience the satisfaction of being rich unless one changes one’s perceptions and is able to see the world through ‘rich’ lenses.

Hidden danger

This is what Robert Kiyosaki tried to explain when he said, “rich people buy luxuries last, while middle class tend to buy luxuries first”. The hidden danger in switching over to different class levels only on the technicalities of income definitions without acquiring a way of thinking associated with the new class is not being able to experience the difference.

It is dangerous, because one would never be able to get out of the competition and therefore no amount of wealth one accumulates would be enough to feel that accomplishment.

This perhaps is why we could see a difference between the countries ruled by rich and elite and those that are ruled by others who want to achieve the status of rich and elite.

There are several other countries such as Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Philippines who have experienced what Sri Lanka is experiencing today. It took a several decades for the people of such countries to get used to self-governing structures after the colonials handed the power over to the local elites.

With the expanding middle class the resentment towards colonials turned gradually towards the ruling class and majority wanted to be ruled by their own kind. Elite rulers were replaced by fiercely competitive politicians from the middle class and the rest is history.

When the treasury of a country is being drained the effect would be first felt by the people at the bottom of the income ladder and the rest would just go on with business as usual.

Feel the discomforts

The drainage would usually continue until a majority of the middle and upper-middle class people begin to feel the discomforts. That is when the majority starts to realise that it is time to think about why they are facing those difficulties and what went wrong. However, it is also the middle class that has always dug countries out of the trouble created by their own kind.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fifteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]