Many years ago, in a seminar on the transition to democracy in Portugal, all the presentations were about how the middle-class played the key role in participating in protests against the old regime and demanding democratic rights. I suggested, instead, that workers had been the catalyst of the protests and their demands for new forms of democracy, not the ready-to-compromise middle-class, represented the real challenge to the existing political and social order.
While I cited numerous other examples of the role of the working-class in demanding and expanding democracy—from the British Chartists through working-class organizations’ challenging race- and gender-based exclusions in the United States to unions in the struggle for democracy in South Korea—the modernization thinkers in the seminar scoffed at the idea and went back to talking about the middle-class as the real basis of democracy.
What about now, in the protests we’ve been seeing in recent months in Turkey and Brazil? While the news reports and political commentary I’ve been seeing (like this special Reuters report on “Why Brazil’s new middle class is seething”) emphasize, like the Portugal seminar participants, the role of the middle-class, my own view is they’re overlooking the resentments and desires expressed by members of the working-class (alongside poor people and students).*
As it turns out, even Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (whose work I have criticized repeatedly, such as here and here, in the past) find it necessary to contest the middle-class modernization story:
not only in recent examples, but throughout history, democracy emerges and takes firmer root because of protests and demands from the previously disenfranchised or excluded —-or at least so we argued in our first book, The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.
Though the middle class does play a role in the democratization process, it is often not the driver of the protests or even their main catalyst. Democracy arrived in high-growth authoritarian regimes such as South Korea and Taiwan not because of the wishes or the actions of the middle class, but because of the effective protests, in the face of repression and sometimes violence, organized by students and workers. In Britain, even the landmark First Reform Act of 1832, extending voting rights to the middle class, resulted not because of middle-class protests but because of the Captain Swing Riots organized all over the country by agricultural workers as we suggested in The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, and a recent paper by Toke Aidt and Peter Jensen documents.
It’s time we move beyond the fixation on the middle-class and give workers their due in creating and then expanding democratic rule in the modern world.
*To be clear, I’m not saying middle-class people aren’t involved in these protests, just that they don’t play the key role modernization thinkers ascribe to them. Also, part of the discrepancy may be a matter of misrecognizing the class positions occupied by the protestors. In my view, the “middle-class” couple that is the center of the Reuters story—a healthworker and a sales clerk who together earn three times the minimum wage in Brazil—are clearly members of the working-class.