SMOKERS’ CORNER: MIDDLE CLASS SENSIBILITIES

Published January 14, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

If a rickshaw driver had an accident and was in trouble, some of the first people to reach out to help him would likely be other rickshaw drivers. They immediately sympathise and empathise with his plight.

In 1987, when I was still in college and often travelled on rickshaws, a rickshaw I was travelling in came across another rickshaw whose front wheel was stuck in a manhole. My driver immediately screeched to a halt and jumped out to help the four other rickshaw drivers who were all trying to pull the wheel out.

After they succeeded, the driver of the rickshaw I was travelling in returned to drive me to my destination. He seemed to know the person whose rickshaw had got stuck in the manhole because, during the rest of the journey, he continued to curse him, calling him a scoundrel.

Although he didn’t like the other driver, he couldn’t help but empathise with his predicament, because both belonged to the same social class. Both were working class folk who worked as rickshaw drivers. 

According to the 19th century German political theorist Karl Marx, exchanges between different classes create differing interests. Therefore, classes unite with their own to protect their respective economic and political interests. Marx wrote that the creation of classes leads to “class conflict.” Later, many post-Marxian theorists added various nuances to this theory. 

Occasionally the notion of ‘class solidarity’ kicks in within the middle class, despite the presence of intra-class tensions — as was seen following the outpouring of online support for the ‘middle class uprising’ on May 9 last year

For example, within a class, there can be differing political points of view that can hamper “class solidarity.”  During the 2016 US presidential election, the bulk of Michigan’s working class that, since the 1990s, was considered to be a ‘solid’ Democratic Party constituency, voted for the more conservative Republican Party. 

Even though the victory margin was just 0.23 percent, this showed that, within the state’s working classes, there was no clear consensus on protecting any mutually agreed class interest. Whereas many from this class had chosen to continue voting for the Democrats, many more flipped the equation by casting their vote for the Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump. 

Those from this class who voted for Trump in Michigan might have voted against their class interest, but they related more to the manner in which Trump evoked the nostalgia of Michigan once being a mighty industrial state that was now in decay. 

Just after the 2016 election, the Democratic Party senator Gary Peters lamented that his party ignored engaging with labour unions in Michigan. The party’s message was squarely formulated to attract urban middle class liberals and minority groups. Joe Biden won back Michigan for the Democrats in 2020, but by only a two percent margin. This suggests that the cleavages in the state’s working classes are still present. 

However, there can be a lot more cleavages in the so-called middle classes. When populists such as Imran Khan in Pakistan and Narendra Modi in India began making deeper inroads in the politics of their respective countries, it was understood by various political economists that their rise was being largely facilitated by Pakistani and Indian middle classes. This is not incorrect as such. 

But what often gets lost in this debate is that there were also many within this class who were vehemently opposed to both the leaders. In Pakistan, Khan’s middle class supporters were mostly located in Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in Sindh’s capital city, Karachi. 

In Punjab, though, tensions had been developing within this class. There was a clash between differing political and economic interests in this class, as was the case within Michigan’s working class. This intra-middle class clash in Punjab was manifested by the animosity between Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N). 

In the 1970s, the American sociologist Erik Olin Wright posited that classical Marxian class theories needed to be evolved because within middle-class groups are large segments that are neither bourgeois (capitalists having the means of production) nor the proletariat (the working classes). 

Wright called this “contradictory class location.” By this he meant that between the capitalists and the proletariat was not really a homogenous middle class, but segments within this class having contradicting characteristics of the classes above and below them. However, Wright was of the view that such groups are likely to support the political choices of the classes that control the means of production.

Therefore, in Punjab, one part of the middle class supported the PML-N (headed by an influential business family) and the other supported the PTI, a party that, rather visibly, was being financed by multi-millionaires.

But there are also occasions when the old Marxian notion of ‘class solidarity’ kicks in within the middle class, despite the presence of intra-class tensions. On May 9 last year, images of men and women destroying public and state property in Pakistan began to flood the electronic and social media. The rioters were PTI supporters and members. 

These images seemed to excite a lot of middle class men and women. Many of them were not necessarily PTI fans. In fact, a lot of them had been critical of Khan’s fallen regime. Yet, they couldn’t help but applaud (on social media) this ‘middle class uprising.’ What they saw were (albeit riotous) people who were dressed like them, spoke like them, and could have belonged to their own social circles. 

A year before, though, when hundreds of working class men from Punjab belonging to an Islamist party had gone on a rampage in Lahore, those who were applauding the May 9 ‘uprising’ were not impressed at all. Their criticism of that particular violence was scathing, whereas the violence committed by members of their own social class, on May 9 last year, triggered sympathy and even admiration in them for the rioters. 

Additionally, thousands of mostly poor women are rotting in Pakistani jails for years. Yet it was only after some middle and upper class women belonging to the PTI were put in jail that many members of the middle class became sensitive about the ‘plight of women prisoners.’ 

Quite a few middle class men and women who opposed PTI politically are now likely to sympathise with this party’s ‘besieged’ top and core leadership. Their political motivations may be still different, but there is clearly an overarching sense of class compatibility at work here.

This has recently helped PTI attract sympathy from a wider circle of middle and upper income groups. Can one frame this as ‘middle-class-consciousness?’ I think one can, and these days it is on full display in Pakistan — at least on social media.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 14th, 2024

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