The political and social behavior of the middle class is determined by its class position and interests and the political-economic context, which it confronts.
In the context of a right-wing regime, an expanding economy, cheap credits and imports of low-priced consumer goods, the middle class is attracted to the right. In the context of a right-wing regime in deep economic crisis, the middle class can be part of a broad popular front, seeking to recover its loss of property, savings and employment. When there is a popular anti-dictatorial, anti-imperialist populist government, the middle class supports democratic reforms but opposes any radicalization that equalized conditions with the working class.
Three examples in Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia illustrate the shifting orientation as well as the internal divisions of the middle class. In Brazil, upwardly mobile middle class functionaries, professionals, labor lawyers and trade union bureaucrats took over the Workers Party (PT) led by Lula da Silva. With 75% of the delegates, they supported an electoral alliance with the big business Liberal Party, and the financial sector. Once in power, they moved from social democratic to neo-liberal politicians. The social movements, including the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) and the Urban Homeless Peoples Movement (MSC) supported Lula’s election on the basis of pre-election promises, failing to apply a class analysis to the changes in policy, leadership and program.
As a result, the social movements spent 5 wasted years arguing that the Lula regime was ‘contested terrain’ that could be pushed to the left. As a consequence the MST lost political ground, was organizationally isolated and its membership disoriented for nearly 5 years. In the meantime, Lula cut the pensions of the public sector workers unions (teachers, post-office employees, health workers, functionaries etc) by 30%, increased the age of retirement and privatized public pension funds. As a result, the public employees unions broke with the government and the pro-government labor confederation (CUT) and joined with other independent unions to form a new confederation, CONLUTA, which includes student, ecologists and other groups. By 2007 CONLUTA was joined in a national assembly by the MST, sectors of the CUT in organizing a general strike at the end of May … The social movements’ links to the electoral politics of social democratic parties, which are moving toward neo-liberal policies, is a political disaster. The social movements’ lack of an independent class-based political program and leadership oriented toward state power forced them to subordinate to the former social democratic Workers Party, which was tied to imperialism, finance and agro-mineral capital. On the other hand, the public employees trade union and the public sector of the middle class were forced to break with Lula and to seek allies in the radical left, including social movements, and reject ties with the private big and petite bourgeoisie.
In Argentina, the middle class, especially the private petite bourgeoisie, supported the neo-liberal Menem regime in the 1990’s. Their support was based on cheap credit (low interest rates), cheap imports of consumer goods, a dollarized economy and an expanding economy based on overseas borrowing. With the economic crises (1999-2002) and collapse of the economy (December 2001-December 2002), the middle class saw their bank accounts frozen, lost their jobs, businesses went bankrupt and poverty affected over 50% of the population. As a result, the middle class ‘radicalized’: they took to the streets in a mass rebellion protesting in front of banks, the Congress and the Presidential palace. Throughout the major cities, middle class neighborhoods formed popular assemblies and fraternized with the unemployed workers organizations (piqueteros) in blocking all the major highways and streets. This spontaneous middle class rebellion adopted the apolitical slogan Que se vayan todos! – All Politicians Out! – reflecting a rejection of the neo-liberal status quo but also of any radical solution. The left public employees trade union (CTA) and the right-wing private sector union (CGT) provided little in the way of leadership – at best individual members played a role in the new social movements based in the villa de miseria – the vast urban slums. The left and Marxist parties intervened to fragment the mass unemployed workers movement while over-ideologizing and dissolving the middle class neighborhood assemblies. By the middle of 2003, the middle class shifted to electoral politics and voted for Kirchner who campaigned as a ‘center-left’ social democrat. Beginning in 2003, world commodity prices rose significantly, Argentina postponed and later lowered its debt payments and Kirchner stabilized the economy, unfroze the bank accounts of the middle class who then shifted toward the center.
Meanwhile Kirchner took advantage of the fragmented unemployed workers movement and co-opted many leaders, provided $50 monthly subsidies to each family and began a process of selective negotiations and exclusion followed by repression, isolating the radical from the reformist left. By 2007, the major class struggles involve the public sector employees or the middle class and the Kirchner regime over wages and salaries. The occupied factory movement has been co-opted into the state. The unemployed workers movement still exists but with much reduced strength. The private middle class, having recovered and enjoying high growth, is moving from the center-left to the center-right.
Argentina illustrates how middle class politics can shift dramatically from conformity to rebellion but lacking any political direction moves back to the right. With stabilization, the private middle class splits from the public employees, with the former backing neo-liberals and the latter social democracy.
The MAS (Movement toward Socialism) government in Bolivia has a mass electoral base of urban and rural urban poor but its cabinet ministers are all bourgeois professionals, technocrats and lawyers with a few co-opted movement leaders. Evo Morales combines political demagogy for the masses, like ‘nationalization of petrol and gas’ and ‘agrarian reform’ with liberal practices, such as signing joint ventures with all the major international oil and gas companies and excluding ‘productive’ large plantations owned by the oligarchy from expropriation for land reform. In the meantime, the private petit bourgeois, who initially supported Evo Morales to pacify the rebellion of the Indians and workers, subsequently turned to the right. In addition, as Morales supports IMF-type austerity macro-economic stabilization policies, he has provoked the major public employee unions (notably teachers and health workers) to go on strike.
The consequences for the movements, as in Brazil and Argentina, includes the fragmentation, divisions and the return of the private middle class to the center-right. The social movements are de-mobilized and there is increasing discontent among the public sector middle class over pay increases that barely exceed the rise in the cost of living, despite the vast increase in government revenue due to the high price of mineral exports.
The new center-left (CL) programs of Lula,Kirchner, and Morales are in reality the new face of the neo-liberal right: The CL regimes have followed the same macro-economic policies, refused to reverse the illegal privatizations from previous regimes , have maintained the gross inequalities of classes and weakened the social movements. The CL regimes have been stabilized by the boom in commodity prices, budget and trade surpluses, allowing them to provide minimal poverty alleviation programs. Their main success has been to demobilize the left, restore capitalist hegemony and a relative degree of autonomy from the US by diversifying markets to Asia ..
The main problem of the social movements was the failure to develop a political leadership and program for state power and therefore to depend on the electoral politicians of the upwardly mobile professional middle class. As soon as the movements subordinated extra-parliamentary politics to the electoral parties, they became enmeshed in electoral alliances between the middle class leaders and big capitalists.
The center-left, taking advantage of favorable international economic conditions (high commodity prices, high liquidity), can stabilize the economy, lower unemployment and reduce poverty, but it can not solve the basic problems of uneven development, under-employment, concentration of wealth and power and exploitation and inequalities.
The relation of the Left to the middle class has a right and left wing approach. The right-wing approach involves dropping the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist demands in order to gain the support of the private sector of the middle class. This means sacrificing structural changes, favored by the working class, peasants and unemployed, in favor of vague promises of employment, stability, protection of local business and growth. The left-wing approach is directed at supporting the public sector of the middle class by opposing neo-liberal measures like privatization, and supporting the re-nationalization of basic industries, wage and salary increases, pensions and social security guarantees and public health and higher education. The key challenge for the Left is to combine the public sector middle class”s opposition to neo-liberalism with the anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, backed by the militant sectors of the workers and peasants.
James Petras is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York. He is the author of 64 books published in 29 languages, and over 560 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, Journal of Contemporary Asia, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles.