Besieged: The Filipino middle class

By: Richard Heydarian - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | February 23,2021 - 09:00 AM

My childhood memories tend to be a patchwork of pulsating sentiments and innocent joys. These “East of Eden” days were also punctuated by tragedies and traumas, beginning with the 1990 earthquake in my hometown of Baguio. But if there is one thing that defined my formative years the most, it was what one may call the “middle class sensibility”: I grew up in a family where privilege was earned, rights were cherished, and hard work was embraced with singular devotion.

Crucially, we were raised with a profound sense of dignity and unshakable self-worth. My parents toiled night and day to ensure that I and my sister would never be lacking in the essentials of life, especially good education. Gratefully, we were never beholden to luxury and entitlement, the cocktail of vices that has intoxicated countless children of privilege.

My parents had many wealthy colleagues who regularly invited us to their palatial homes and offered to fetch us in their luxurious cars. And yet, never did I feel insecure in the midst of their riches. If anything, I was always proud and content with our little apartment, second-hand family car, and the little luxuries of our middle-class life.

Echoing Aristotle’s political reflections in ancient times, I intuitively grasped the social importance of middle class life: We were neither too rich to be self-indulgent and greedily complacent, nor too powerless and enervated to passively accept the status quo.

I saw my middle-class experience, transcending the evils of decadence and wretchedness, as the best window into the soul of society. And thus, I became a staunch believer in the centrality of the middle classes to democratic progress.

But the political upheavals of the past decade have also schooled me on the advent of the “reactionary” middle class, especially in times of political distress and economic anxiety.

When relatively secure and quantitatively in the majority, as in mid-20th-century America or late-20th-century South Korea and Taiwan, the middle classes tend to become a fulcrum of democratization by demanding greater political accountability and representation from the ruling elite.

But contemporary history, from the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile to the fate of Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies in Thailand, also shows that the middle classes are more than willing to support authoritarian politics when they feel besieged. In fact, the rise of authoritarian populists such as Rodrigo Duterte, and his peers in Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro) and India (Narendra Modi), vividly demonstrates the paradoxical centrality of the middle classes to the erosion of liberal democratic institutions.

Authoritative studies, and scholars such as Walden Bello and Cecilia Lero, have demonstrated that contemporary right-wing populists’ staunchest supporters tend to come from the middle sections of the economic pyramid, especially the “aspirational” middle class. Mr. Duterte’s tough anti-drug agenda and anti-elite rhetoric, for instance, perfectly resonates with their daily insecurities, from the workplace to their lower middle-class neighborhoods.

In his magisterial new book “The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila,” sociologist Marco Garrido dissects the dynamics and implications of a culture of snobbery among Manila’s middle classes toward the slumdwellers, a phenomenon that was fully on display during the so-called “Edsa III” led by Joseph Estrada’s “masa” supporters.

A critical element in his book is Jacques Rancière’s concept of “dissensus” (mésentente), which denotes not only political disagreement but also the hopeless inability of two sides to comprehend each other’s worldviews.

In Mr. Duterte’s Philippines, the “dissensus” is not only between the middle classes and the poor, as Garrido analyzes, but also between passionate middle-class supporters and critics of the populist in Malacañang. The upshot is an ever more fragmented Filipino middle class, tragically divided by parallel and mutually incomprehensible political philosophies.

And this besieged middle class is now bearing the brunt of the worst economic contraction in the country’s history, potentially portending political demobilization in the future.

The rich have enough to wait the COVID-19 pandemic out, while the poor can rely on an element of government support. But what about the Filipino middle class, the truly invisible citizens who are more besieged, enervated, and fragmented than ever?

Overwhelmed by economic insecurity and frustration with incompetence, many middle-class Filipinos are tuning out of politics and seeking a new life elsewhere altogether. Who will fight for democracy then?

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