What Is So Middle About Middle Class?

It is interesting to note in general discourse, the two constitutive words of the phrase ‘middle class’ – middle and class –are both absent in the meaning of the eventual phrase. Middle class is now used more as a referent to ‘people like us’ in media, a hegemonic lens of ideas and discursive practices through which one ‘should’ look at the society, than as a referent to a class based grouping clawing to advance its own class aims.

Class may be dead as a publicly flaunted grouping (except the modest moral middle) but it doesn’t mean people are any less disposed to class wisdom that surreptiously privileges their class. The concept of ‘meritocracy’ as an ordering mechanism is so widely accepted today that it now carries with it the sharp edge of moral righteousness rooted in ‘fairness’. It is understandable that the meritocratic inclusive ideal has been constructed in a way to obfuscate middle class’s own culpability, but it is less clear why the ideal has been accepted by those it disprivileges. To be sure, the acceptance rates are dramatically lower among the disadvantaged, but it is likely that even they accept large portions of the basic premise in a whole range of circumstances.

It is a signal of the success of the system when people choose to believe in a system that disadvantages them. The fact of the matter is that the final aim of all stable power systems is not rule by force but co-option – if not in the fruits, then in its truths. Marx - meet Gramsci.

It is useful to note that the number of people who buy into the ‘dream’ depends on the extant (economic) counterfactuals as well as salience of alternate discourses led by other political entrepreneurs. (But politics provides at least as many counterfactuals as number of entrepreneurial politicians.)

Classifying the Middle

The rise of middle class is generally understood in terms of rise of Capitalism as a dominant economic system, the rise of cities, and the rise of bureaucracy. So it is no surprise that valorization of ‘middle class’ is universally barnacled to such societies.

‘Middle class’ has been described as a rentier class with ‘no social basis’ but one with a specific function. Benefits are distributed asymmetrically in a Capitalist (or for accuracy sake power) pyramid and the top .01% gain significantly more than the next .09% who in turn gain significantly more than the next 1%, and so on. This sharply tapering pyramid is held in place by the inclusive meritocratic rhetoric (some of it is true some of the time), and by the aspirants (middle class) in whose claws ‘success’ seems the nearest. More broadly, each economic system has a legitimizing (sense making) discourse for its winners and losers, and in Capitalism – it is the inclusive, achievable, democratic discourse about merit and hard work. Super rich probably don’t have illusions about how they got their money, but the moral middle is caught up in its need for ascribing their modest success to their own ingenuity and hard work. The moralism of middle class can be better understood if acknowledge its historical roots in Victorian England. One of the defining features of the ‘middle-class’ in Victorian era was its extreme moralism – railing against corrupt degenerate aristocracy, and the equally corrupt breeding-like-rats poor, and trying to define middle class ‘meritocracy’ as the only ethical framework. Hence meritocracy has become the defining ethos of the society–inclusive yet elusive - inclusive enough to keep the bottom salivating, and yet elusive enough to keep it nearly always out of reach of the lower classes.

Since liberalization, middle class has become a significant feature of discourse on India, and within it. While the wildly improbable figure of 300 million people is seen in a variety of communiqués today, this ‘shining’ habit of overstatement has its pedigree in Mani Shankar Aiyar’s words. Aiyar in mid 1980s as a joint secretary in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO told The Washington Post that India now had a middle class of 100 million people. Whatever the numbers, the ‘middle’ has since then gained in political and cultural significance.

Defining the middle - Middle income and middle class

Gary Burtless, economist with the Brookings Institution, chooses to define the more readily apprehensible “middle income” rather than “middle class”. He bases his definition on the median household income — which last year in US was $48,200, putting middle income range from half of that to twice that number, or $24,000 to $96,000.

MIT economist Frank Levy came up with a definition based on Census data for families in their prime earning years and pegged that range from about $30,000 to $90,000.

The World Bank defines the middle class as earners making between $10 and $20 a day — adjusted for local prices — which is roughly the range of average incomes between Brazil ($10) and Italy ($20).

In the middle of nowhere

India’s purchasing power parity adjusted GDP is $4.1 trillion (2006), giving it a per capita GDP of about $4k. Even if all of India’s GDP was assigned to 250 million, it would mean a gdp/pp of $16k. (This is opposed to $13.3 trillion for 300 million or about $44k/ capita in the US) And since it is obviously not the case, and the truth being closer to $2-3k, the group is necessarily small, and its consumption levels don’t even begin to compare to ones in OECD countries.

Middle class as is commonly understood is certainly not in the median or mean income range, and the boundaries of what it means to belong to it are perennially being pushed outwards to include more commodities that are seen as necessities to belong to this class. But there are certain minimum thresholds. For example, access to sanitation.

“One out of every two persons in the world compelled to defecate in the open is an Indian. This is one of several unsavoury facts brought out in a recent report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF. According to the report, out of the 1.2 billion people who defecate in the open worldwide because they have no access to toilets, more than half are Indian. An astounding 667 million people in this country have no option but to defecate in the open, a country that would like people to believe that it is on the cusp of becoming a global economic giant.” (India Together)

Indian Middle class

In pseudo-socialist regimes, as was in effect in the first three decades post Indian independence, ‘Class I’ government employees emerged as the embodiments of the ‘educated’ middle class. In India, the ‘babus’ living in government quarters along with the rest of their extended families, with their focus on education for their kids, conservative social attitudes, reasonably self-congratulatory, became the embodiment of the Indian – or certainly Delhi- middle-class. But before we discuss middle class, defined thus, it is useful to acknowledge that thus defined it was but a small sliver of the Indian population, though one which had an oversize impact on its politics, especially post liberalization. (Of the 16 million public sector employees in 1983, only a miniscule fraction belonged to the ‘class 1’ strata.)

In the socialist economy of Nehru era, with its emphasis on building large-scale industrial projects (the modern ‘temples’), perhaps the determining ethos weren’t from the mid-ranking babu, who though I am sure heavily approved of industrialization, but from the West or Soviet looking educated technocrats dominant in the upper echelons of the civil service. Given the relatively weak political systems in which institutions to help wield political power were still being developed, it is likely that the administrative cadre was left to govern not only vast policy areas, but even where the politicians had control.

India’s trajectory – Politics

“Rajiv was the first middle class Prime Minister of India — and was proud of it. He was the first Prime Minister to have ever held a job, to have paid income tax, to have watched with alarm as his provident fund deduction went up and to have struggled to make ends meet.” Vir Sanghvi, Editorial Director to Hindustan Times

Rajiv Gandhi, who became a Prime Minister at the age of 40, was bullish in his ideas about introducing technology. Relatively free from pressures to tend to any particular political constituency, because of the sycophantic culture within Congress, a huge electoral lead, and a name like Gandhi, he, along with his select coterie of foreign and Indian bureaucrats and businessmen, worked to bring about a technology revolution in India.

The rise of BJP had something to do as well with the picture. The ‘only’ way a phantom ‘middle class’ can be a political constituency in an entrepreneurial ‘democracy’ like India’s is if significant people who ‘vote’ (this being key) buy into the rhetoric, or are encumbered with other dimensions like religion, etc. or both. Identity based politics meets class. So while BJP may talk swades, its liberalization policies were no different from Congress’s. So the middle gets to eat the cake and have it too.

Policies and politics can be orthogonal, and they often are – in India like in the US - but they are not charted by prevalent discourse but in fact discourse is created to sustain policies that benefit a few. It is unclear whether the construction of discourse around ‘middle class’ was done by ‘strategic political actors’ (in thrall of massive profits coming from corruption if nothing else), and the supporters from the upper crust (with massive incomes to flaunt of their own), or just a mundane control of discourse effected by new capitalism, or perhaps more likely the prior facilitated by the latter.

India’s trajectory – Economic Liberalization

While Rajiv Gandhi was an important precursor to the ‘middle class’, it wasn’t until the launch of economic liberalization in 1991, that the class gained in currency. It is important to note however that the 1991 economic reforms were launched under the gun of defaulting on debt, which would certainly have had catastrophic implications for the already battered Indian economy. Additionally, Soviet Union, the not-insignificant benefactor of India, collapsed in 1991 (and was on the death bed for some time before that) so there was nowhere else to turn to for help.

India’s trajectory - Media and Globalization

The timing of India’s liberalization was fortuitous in a way - especially as we trace the story of the ascent of the middle class in the past decade - as it coincided with the advent of transnational satellite broadcasting in Asia. In 1991, Hong Kong based (Murdoch owned) Star TV started broadcasting to several Asian countries from a clutch of transponders aboard Asiasat 1. Its mainstay was recycled American programming. Star TV found instant reception due to Gulf War which had revolutionized cable. The satellite dishes/and cable/ operators showed images from gulf war and then showed Hindi movies at the end of the war. Overnight, video parlor owners changed to cable operators offering Star TV’s five channels – including BBC and MTV. BBC was later dropped.

The government took a lax view of the mushrooming illegal cable industry, and didn’t take steps to regularize it until 1995, and even then enforcement was lax, if not non-existent. The rise of cable was significant in shaping the middle class, and how it chose to see itself - at once liberal, and aware of global trends in fashion and entertainment. And still aware of how to yell an order chai to the housemaid.

Not media, but the people in media

But if it were not for further liberalization of media, and new generation that took reigns of that media - the story may still have been different.

The narrative around media’s role in the construction of the new middle class is more completely understood if we move beyond analyzing the product or the stated strategic intensions of the actors, and instead look at the people running media today.

Till early nineties, the only game town used to be the state media. Even the newspapers treaded lightly, if progressively, under threat of government boycott of ads. The dominant ethos in reporting and programming on the state media were the liberalist bureaucratic ethos and on radio dominated by people likely to be friends with university professors. Doordarshan ran public service ads, and social cohesion promoting dramas.

This all changed, first with the introduction of cable, which initially featured ‘foreign channels’ carrying a sprinkling of preppy foreign bred hyphenated Indians, and then with the rise of ‘native’ media led by clawing young brigade. The new recruits to the media industry - young, turgid with ambition, aiming to please, and imbibed in business ethos- were key in hastening the spread of ‘middle class’ discourse. A similar process is underway in American journalism with shift in technology necessitating a significant generational shift. It is patently clear reading ‘Times of India’ with its ‘Leisure’ sections (something which was started by Washington Post – ‘Style Section’ in the 1980s) that newspaper today looks like a vastly different animal than a decade and a half ago. One can argue that some of the change in media was a result of the change in economy, and not a ‘cause’ of some of the changes but the alacrity with which media changed, the speed with which it contorted, and the multiple places in which it behaved as the vanguard speaks of fundamental change in ethos that could only have happened with the active participation of the eager to be indoctrinated/ or already indoctrinated.

Caste and class and class as caste

In India, class and caste have long intersected. Brahmins have long been over-represented in government jobs, especially in the officer cadre, and intelligentsia. Since economic liberalization benefits the well-prepared the most, on average, the disproportionate beneficiaries of the new regime have also been the upper castes. As upper caste elite of the new economic regime shed their caste pretension, and take on class pretensions - not that they are particularly distinguishable - the intolerance of one has been painted over with rectitude of another.


This article is in response to (and at times directly rests upon) the book, India’s New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, by Dr. Leela Fernandes.

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