x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Governments can’t keep up with middle-class demands

The rising middle class are an anguished lot, fearful of losing their precarious hold on the ladder of upward mobility.

Can there be a more ungrateful generation than those Brazilians who have taken to the streets to protest against a rise in bus fares?

The generation now in power – including President Dilma Rousseff, who was jailed and tortured in the 1970s for opposing the military junta – is wreathed in success. They forced the generals from power in the 1980s, tamed hyperinflation in the 1990s, and have presided over a 10-year economic boom that has lifted 40 million people out of abject poverty in a country of almost 200 million. Brazil is now the world’s seventh-largest economy, and the most likely of the South American countries to reach developed nation status.

What more can the Brazilians ask for? Actually, quite a lot.

The protests there are the latest to erupt in countries that, unlike the states of southern Europe’s mass unemployment zone, appear to the outsider to be on the way towards a brighter future.

We are seeing a similar outburst in Turkey, where the seemingly local issue of a construction project at Istanbul’s Gezi Park has led to three weeks of violent protest. Chile, where prosperity is rising, and Argentina, enjoying an agricultural boom, have also witnessed uprisings by disaffected middle class people.

This is a paradox of modernisation: the growth of an educated urban middle class empowered by social media leads not to gratitude but to rising expectations – of better public services, schools and universities, more equal distribution of wealth, and more responsive government.

If governments expect a pat on the back, they are wrong. The rising middle class are an anguished lot, fearful of losing their precarious hold on the ladder of upwards mobility. And they have the means to make their voices heard.

The comparisons between Brazil and Turkey should not be exaggerated. President Rousseff, as befits a relative newcomer in power whose youth was spent as a Marxist urban guerrilla, cuts a kinder, gentler figure than the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Ms Rousseff has praised the demonstrators for showing “the energy of our democracy”. Belatedly, she has admitted that “the demands of the people change”. With such words she hopes to deflect their anger onto governors of Brazil’s 26 states, and onto mayors.

In contrast, Mr Ergodan, who after 10 years in office is seen by his supporters as the father of a reborn Turkish nation, has blamed foreign plots for protests and called social media “the worst menace to society”.

The Brazilian protests began in response to a rise in bus fares in Sao Paulo, the commercial capital, but widened to include a range of angry but unfocused complaints about poor public services and an arrogant political class. They can be understood only in the context of Brazil’s extravagant decision to host the football World Cup next year and the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

The country is spending $13 billion (Dh47.7bn) on the World Cup, including construction of stadiums. Some, such as the 43,000-seater in the jungle city of Manaus, are destined to be white elephants; regular attendance at matches in Manaus is closer to 600.

Anger has been rising ever since the contract with Fifa, international football’s governing body, was published, showing that all the expenses rest on Brazilian taxpayers and all the profits go to Fifa. While Fifa’s nabobs will travel in air-conditioned comfort to the games on special lanes, the promised rail or metro links to many venues will not be built on time, leaving only the decrepit and crime-ridden buses. A football-mad country now has an online campaign calling on people to stay away.

So when the Fifa president Sepp Blatter spoke at the opening match of the Confederations Cup – a dry run for next year’s World Cup – in the new $600 million stadium in Brasilia, the crowd booed him. And it kept on booing when Ms Rousseff spoke.

This was partly a response to the government’s history of boasting of Brazil’s new position in the world, of which the sporting extravaganzas are a part. Bread and circuses – or rather, a credit-fuelled boom and a festival of football – are not, it turns out, enough to distract people from poor schools, lack of investment in infrastructure and a political elite they feel ignores them. A placard at one match read “We want schools built to Fifa standards”.

A more serious issue is that Brazil’s golden decade is coming to an end. Growth is slowing, and people are asking what the government has done with the proceeds of the commodity boom to change the country for the better. The new Brazil trumpeted by the government looks somewhat like the old Brazil of entrenched economic interests and an indifferent political class.

Of course it is not exactly the same: in the past there were only two classes in Brazil, very rich and very poor. But the lesson from Brazil is one that governments around the world will have to listen to. An expanding and educated urban middle class is a sign of success, but it presents problems for the government, which must keep up with ever-rising expectations.

In a more deferential age, the public might have swallowed grandiose public works schemes without a murmur. In an age of social media, the new middle classes will expect governments to be responsive, and certainly make a show of being responsive, to their concerns, whether it is over a seven per cent rise in bus fares or the destruction of a park to make way for a barracks reconstruction and a mall.

The global middle class is estimated to rise from around 1.8 billion now to almost 5 billion in 2030. Governments with rising middle classes may come to see creation of the wealth that makes this class as the easy part. The harder part is to manage the expectations of all these people who so desperately want to keep climbing the ladder to affluence.


OnTwitter: @aphilps