The middle-class in poor countries

Last week I blogged the first part of an interview with Phillip Brown, and his work with Lauder and Ashton on the ‘global auction’ for middle-class jobs. In this final post, I asked him whether offshoring middle-class jobs is actually a bad thing, and consider the future path of inequality in low-income countries.

Q: The book argues that there is a growing middle-class in low-income countries, but a deteriorating position for the middle-class in high-income countries.  From a global perspective, is this actually a problem?

A: I struggle with exactly the same issue.  I’m very passionate about social justice in the UK, and I see a series of trends that makes justice increasingly difficult to achieve.  At the same time you see the expansion of the middle-class in China and the pace of change is quite extraordinary.  Of course, the economic recession has reinforced these issues; we keep talking about the ‘global recession’, but there isn’t a global recession, there’s a Western recession!   A lot of the Asian economies are actually blooming; China’s biggest problem is inflation.  What we’re seeing is a two-gear global process and we are almost in reverse gear.

At one level we’re all part of a global family, so to see some redressing of the massive global inequalities has got to be a good thing.  People in China and India have the same aspirations and rising expectations as we do.  Indeed, in some ways talking to people in China and India is like talking to people in the US/UK in the 1940s and 1950s – they say that ‘things are better for me, I’m having to work very hard, but I know that what I do now will have a very positive impact on my kids in the future’.  I think that’s been lost in the UK; instead we’re now just concerned about defending what we’ve got.

The important thing to remember is that we can’t talk about ‘winners in Asia and losers in the West’, because the whole thing is terribly fragmented.  There are major losers in Asia, and people in China and India whose work is untouched by these global processes.  At the same time, there are some people in the West that have never had it so good.  It’s precisely those inequalities that cross borders that we have to focus on.

BB: Finally, there are two possible futures for inequalities in countries like China and India.  The rising middle-classes are creating social dislocation – and this might lead to sufficient social unrest that something will be done about it.  But there’s another account where we end up in a fractured world: all these countries have a very wealthy elite insulated from all the people around them that are not benefitting from the global auction (‘Brazilification’).  Which way do you see it going?

Both of those accounts are true.  What you’re already seeing is considerable concern among the governments of China and India about inequality, they both fear unrest from a dislocated working and agrarian-class.  So they are both trying to develop policies that enable more people to benefit from economic growth, and that will continue.  Having said that, the inequalities that we’ve witnessed over the past couple of decades in virtually all the emerging economies (e.g. Singapore) are unlikely to narrow very much – it’s difficult to see how they’re going to impose controls over their elites.  If things get progressively worse then you will start to see a backlash, in many countries including China.  But I think we’re some way off that for the moment.

Enormous thanks again to Philip Brown for giving up his time to respond to my questions, and again, I really recommend buying/reading the Brown/Lauder/Ashton book – it’s an easy read with a challenging message.

About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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