Wall Street Journal on June 28, 2013, published an article by Francis Fukuyama on the ongoing middle-class revolution in some of the emerging countries. Over the past decade, Turkey and Brazil have been widely celebrated as star economic performers—emerging markets with increasing influence on the international stage. Yet, over the past three months, both countries have been paralyzed by massive demonstrations expressing deep discontent with their governments’ performance. What is going on here, and will more countries experience similar upheavals? Excerpts below:
The theme that connects recent events in Turkey and Brazil to each other, as well as to the 2011 Arab Spring and continuing protests in China, is the rise of a new global middle class. Everywhere it has emerged, a modern middle class causes political ferment, but only rarely has it been able, on its own, to bring about lasting political change.
In Turkey and Brazil, as in Tunisia and Egypt before them, political protest has been led not by the poor but by young people with higher-than-average levels of education and income. They are technology-savvy and use social media like Facebook and Twitter to broadcast information and organize demonstrations. Even when they live in countries that hold regular democratic elections, they feel alienated from the ruling political elite.
In the case of Turkey, they object to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s development-at-all-cost policies and authoritarian manner. In Brazil, they object to an entrenched and highly corrupt political elite that has showcased glamour projects like the World Cup and Rio Olympics while failing to provide basic services like health and education to the general public.
The business world has been buzzing about the rising “global middle class” for at least a decade. A 2008 Goldman Sachs GS -1.47% report defined this group as those with incomes between $6,000 and $30,000 a year and predicted that it would grow by some two billion people by 2030.
Corporations are salivating at the prospect of this emerging middle class because it represents a vast pool of new consumers. Economists and business analysts tend to define middle-class status simply in monetary terms, labeling people as middle class if they fall within the middle of the income distribution for their countries, or else surpass some absolute level of consumption that raises a family above the subsistence level of the poor.
But middle-class status is better defined by education, occupation and the ownership of assets, which are far more consequential in predicting political behavior. Any number of cross-national studies, including recent Pew surveys and data from the World Values Survey at the University of Michigan, show that higher education levels correlate with people’s assigning a higher value to democracy, individual freedom and tolerance for alternative lifestyles. Middle-class people want not just security for their families but choices and opportunities for themselves.
Families who have durable assets like a house or apartment have a much greater stake in politics, since these are things that the government could take away from them. Since the middle classes tend to be the ones who pay taxes, they have a direct interest in making government accountable. Most importantly, newly arrived members of the middle class are more likely to be spurred to action by what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called “the gap”: that is, the failure of society to meet their rapidly rising expectations for economic and social advancement. While the poor struggle to survive from day to day, disappointed middle-class people are much more likely to engage in political activism to get their way.
This dynamic was evident in the Arab Spring, where regime-changing uprisings were led by tens of thousands of relatively well-educated young people. Both Tunisia and Egypt had produced large numbers of college graduates over the past generation.
While protests, uprisings and occasionally revolutions are typically led by newly arrived members of the middle class, the latter rarely succeed on their own in bringing about long-term political change. This is because the middle class seldom represents more than a minority of the society in developing countries and is itself internally divided. Unless they can form a coalition with other parts of society, their movements seldom produce enduring political change.
Thus the young protesters in Tunis or in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, having brought about the fall of their respective dictators, failed to follow up by organizing political parties that were capable of contesting nationwide elections.
A similar fate potentially awaits the protesters in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan remains popular outside of the country’s urban areas and has not hesitated to mobilize members of his own Justice and Development Party (AKP) to confront his opponents. Turkey’s middle class, moreover, is itself divided. That country’s remarkable economic growth over the past decade has been fueled in large measure by a new, pious and highly entrepreneurial middle class that has strongly supported Erdoğan’s AKP.
This social group works hard and saves its money. It exhibits many of the same virtues that the sociologist Max Weber associated with Puritan Christianity in early modern Europe, which he claimed was the basis for capitalist development there. The urban protesters in Turkey, by contrast, remain more secular and connected to the modernist values of their peers in Europe and America. Not only does this group face tough repression from a prime minister with authoritarian instincts, it faces the same difficulties in forging linkages with other social classes that have bedeviled similar movements in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere.
The situation in Brazil is rather different. The protesters there will not face tough repression from President Rousseff’s administration. Rather, the challenge will be avoiding co-optation over the long term by the system’s entrenched and corrupt incumbents.
Brazil’s recent economic growth has produced a different and more entrepreneurial middle class rooted in the private sector. But this group could follow its economic self-interest in either of two directions. On the one hand, the entrepreneurial minority could serve as the basis of a middle-class coalition that seeks to reform the Brazilian political system as a whole, pushing to hold corrupt politicians accountable and to change the rules that make client-based politics possible. This is what happened in the U.S. during the Progressive Era, when a broad middle-class mobilization succeeded in rallying support for civil-service reform and an end to the 19th-century patronage system. Alternatively, members of the urban middle class could dissipate their energies in distractions like identity politics or get bought off individually by a system that offers great rewards to people who learn to play the insiders’ game.
There is no guarantee that Brazil will follow the reformist path in the wake of the protests. Much will depend on leadership. President Rousseff has a tremendous opportunity to use the uprisings as an occasion to launch a much more ambitious systemic reform. Up to now she has been very cautious in how far she was willing to push against the old system, constrained by the limitations of her own party and political coalition.
The global economic growth that has taken place since the 1970s—with a quadrupling of global economic output—has reshuffled the social deck around the world. The middle classes in the so-called “emerging market” countries are larger, richer, better educated and more technologically connected than ever before.
This has huge implications for China, whose middle-class population now numbers in the hundreds of millions and constitutes perhaps a third of the total. These are the people who communicate by Sina Weibo—the Chinese Twitter—and have grown accustomed to exposing and complaining about the arrogance and duplicity of the government and Party elite. They want a freer society…
This group will come under particular stress in the coming decade as China struggles to move from middle- to high-income status. Economic growth rates have already started to slow over the past two years and will inevitably revert to a more modest level as the country’s economy matures. The industrial job machine that the regime has created since 1978 will no longer serve the aspirations of this population.
There, as in other parts of the developing world, the rise of a new middle class underlies the phenomenon described by Moises Naím of the Carnegie Endowment as the “end of power.” The middle classes have been on the front lines of opposition to abuses of power, whether by authoritarian or democratic regimes. The challenge for them is to turn their protest movements into durable political change, expressed in the form of new institutions and policies.
The new middle class is not just a challenge for authoritarian regimes or new democracies. No established democracy should believe it can rest on its laurels, simply because it holds elections and has leaders who do well in opinion polls. The technologically empowered middle class will be highly demanding of their politicians across the board.
The U.S. and Europe are experiencing sluggish growth and persistently high unemployment, which for young people in countries like Spain reaches 50%. In the rich world, the older generation also has failed the young by bequeathing them crushing debts. No politician in the U.S. or Europe should look down complacently on the events unfolding in the streets of Istanbul and São Paulo. It would be a grave mistake to think, “It can’t happen here.”
Mr. Fukuyama is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the author of “The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution.”