The Political Role of the African Middle Class: An Over-Politicization of an Elusive Category
Summary and Keywords
The African middle class (AMC) is an elusive category with high political significance. In spite of its vagueness and its controversial nature, this so-called social category is consistently used by a number of individual actors and institutions alike, including IO, NGOs, business interests, and political leaders in Africa for political purposes. The words “African middle class” are suggestive enough to produce new images of African social structures and turn the “hopeless continent” into a “miracle,” a new “powerhouse.” They are strong enough to grant new legitimacy to failing political leaders and the well off and to let people and academics alike anticipate the rise of democratic, stable, uncorrupted institutions. However, people “of the middle of the diamond” in Africa do not exist as a social community or a class. They do not share a common political identity. They have no political role of their own. The diversity of social subgroups may occasionally mobilize together, but for a short period of time and on highly different grounds. The political role of the AMC is as elusive as their mere existence. New social groups of limited prosperity are on the rise. However, they are far from making a class and mobilizing for political purposes.
The rise of middle classes in emerging countries became a research theme at the beginning of the 2000s. The discussion took root in sub-Saharan African countries in the 2010s without any in-depth debate about its relevance. It was as if the AMC or classes already existed before the examination of a still very confused and heterogeneous set of transformations of the social structure of African societies was conducted. As a result, the AMC concept appears in almost all analyses as elastic, elusive, cobbled together, and uncertain as to its boundaries, its characteristics, its components, or its homogeneity. This confusion does not prevent authors from anticipating the meaning and effects of the AMC for political stability and democratization. Before studying how the people grouped behind this label can affect and be affected by politics and policies, it is necessary to understand how politically loaded this middle-class label is.
A Depoliticized Formulation of an Untraceable Political Category
The African middle-class category is the outcome of a dubious transformation of a plain statistical process into a social reality. It gives a sense of unity, homogeneity, and purpose to a gathering of deeply divided individuals and suggests the making of a class identity where an untraceable political category only prevails.
Setting the Unthinkable on the Agenda
During the period from 2010 to 2015, the expression “African middle class” (AMC) became widespread in everyday literature and an issue in the academic world (Ncube & Lufumpa, 2015). Despite all its imprecisions and theoretical approximations, this dubious statistical fabrication (AfDB, 2011; Rodrick, 2014; Thurlow, Resnick, & Ubogu, 2015) has established itself in public and political agendas. It has tended to preempt discussion to the point of imposing itself as a technical, apolitical reality whereas actually it is no more than a contentious interpretation of vague facts (Darbon & Toulabor, 2014, 2018; Melber, 2016; Schotte, 2017). From one analysis to the next the perception of the middle classes changes constantly, not only in terms of size but also of boundaries, not to mention their composition, subsets, and identification criteria. Clearly a huge, coherent AMC just does not exist. Recent estimations of the size of the AMC vary, depending on the thresholds used, from between 18.8 million according to Crédit Suisse (2015), 143 million according to the CFAO (with incomes between US$4 and US$20 per day) (2015), 120 million according to the analyses by Kharas (Kharas, 2010, 2017), 100 million according to IPSOS-ICT (2018), and nearly 400 million according to Shimeless and Ncube (2015). The three successive McKinsey Institute reports alone bear witness to an increasingly restrictive interpretation of a concept that is being maintained but gradually emptied of its least solvent elements (2010, 2012, 2017).
In reality, the buzz of the rise of the AMC mistakes the smoke for the fire: it confuses social transformations and an increase in capacity for consumption, on the one hand, and the formation of social classes, on the other.
These so-called middle classes should rather be qualified as a “consuming class” (Deloitte & Touche, 2012) and what Simons identifies correctly as “All-purpose Middle-class African Consumers” (AMACs) (2013) or as MIGs (Middle Income Groups). These statistical entities do not identify groups endowed with any kind of class consciousness, social and occupational identity, and common lifestyles and are made up of (a) people who are economically secure and can satisfy all their discretionary needs, and (b) households in a state of flux that find it difficult to satisfy their essential needs or set aside any discretionary income and that have no certainty about their future. They bring together neo-middle-class households who barely scrape into the middle class and households that have inherited from previous generations; groups that are “globally insecure” ($2 to $10; i.e., 214 million–854 million individuals) and those that are “globally secure” ($10 to $50; i.e., 12 million–854 million individuals) (Edwards & Sumner, 2013); “strugglers” and “strivers” (Birdsall & Meyer, 2012); groups from the “floating class” ($2 to $4) and three levels of the middle class; people employed in both formal and informal sectors, the public and the private sector, and having a considerable variety of jobs and qualifications. In short, these are groups that are so heterogeneous, some of them so poor, vulnerable, and so fluid, that no one could possibly dare qualify them as middle class. A majority of authors, including Birdsall (2010) and Kharas (2010), clearly states today that middle-class income cannot start under US$10 per day and per capita (purchasing power parity [ppp] 2015).
From the AMC to People of the Middle in African Countries
The AMC is perceived in the early 21st century as resulting from a long-term sedimentation process (Resnick, 2015; Southall, 2004) during which layers of middle classes are superposed, differing not only in terms of revenues, as suggested by Edwards and Sumner (2013), but also in terms of historical and professional origin, depending on growth regimes and the vagaries of national political history (Noret, 2017). To the layers of bureaucrats who appeared with independence, and the planters and rare entrepreneurs, may be added the owners of informal businesses, private sector employees, particularly from service industries, and those now retired from the public service or the formal private sector, each national social group following its own historical pathway (Ferreira, Messina, Rigolini, Lopez-Calva, Lugo, & Vakis, 2013; Berou, Darbon, Bekelynck, & Bouquet, 2018). This coexistence of old and new middle classes is all the more important inasmuch as the percentage of middle-class individuals among the total number of salaried employees in Africa increased significantly in recent years (International Labor Organization [ILO], 2015). This approach has the advantage of bringing history back into the analysis of social strata in sub-Saharan Africa and thus bringing them closer to studies which, in Latin America (Castellani & Parent, 2011; Castellani, Parent, & Zentero, 2014; Torche & Lopez-Calva, 2013), India (Jaffrelot, 2008), and Europe (Rose, 1997), continue to differentiate old and new middle classes. The AMCs that have developed since independence are not those who have undergone Structural Adjustment Programs, nor those from the beginning of the digital revolution and the climb out of poverty; their attitudes, behaviors, and values are likely to be very different. The middle classes resulting from intergenerational inheritance are not those formed by aspirants who are struggling to build up the economic and social capital essential to their stabilization in this social environment. Subject to major technological and economic upheavals, the groups from the middle of the scale are constantly transforming themselves socially (Sick, 1993), as witnessed by the way their name has changed over time (e.g., petty bourgeoisie, bourgeoisie, white-collar workers, and new middle class). They are “. . . in the middle of a process by virtue of which society constantly regenerates and transforms itself” (Goux & Maurin, 2012, p. 29). What is called the middle class is traversed by upward and downward movements reflecting ongoing social innovations and struggles. It is thus just as interesting to characterize the different strata as to observe their dynamics. In the African context, this means that it is equally essential to study the movements affecting the structure of the floating class and limited prosperity (AfDB, 2011; Andrianampiarivo, 2016) and those of the “globally secure” categories (Edward & Sumner, 2013; Spronk, 2014) in order to understand the issues at stake. This fundamental heterogeneity of the middle classes makes it very difficult to validate the premise of common values, convergent modes of action, or, even more difficult, a shared social and political identity beyond a few rare and very general elements (promoting education and the sense of individual effort), whether in sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere (Heiman, Liechty, & Freeman, 2012; Cheeseman, 2015).
A Concept With a Strong Performative Content
And yet use of the AMC as a homogeneous concept continues unabated. This concept of AMC is so controversial and based on statistics that are as uncertain as they are fluctuating, that one can ask why it is used. Is there any point in using a very specific, historically established, social science category, very unstable from a theoretical viewpoint and highly controversial empirically, to make generalizations about situations in Africa whose heterogeneity is in reality constantly denounced and of whose wide variety of growth regimes we are constantly reminded?
The concept of the AMCs is an essentially political construct. It is essentially “practical” because, thanks to its great capacity to express common sense, it implies the existence of a coherent mass representing the essence of society, as classical authors such as Weber, Simmel, and Halbwachs noted in the 19th century. It is supposed to bring together a set of people who are sufficiently rich and educated to act with reason, yet sufficiently poor to possess the virtues of frugality and hard work. Moreover, its expansion announces access to greater well-being, to power, to upward social mobility, and to promotion for all.
Talking of the AMC and their emergence is much more evocative than discussing the situation of the MIGs, the global insecure, and the dynamics of escaping poverty and accessing to limited prosperity. The first case evokes increasing wealth, Africa’s development, political change, and the inevitable democratization associated with modernization visions; the second involves discussions among specialists of uncertain and limited, if not petty yoyo movements between financial insecurity and limited prosperity while no automatic political effect is anticipated.
The notion of middle class offers opportunities for instrumentalization to anyone who can play on this capacity, despite the uncertainty of the concept. For those who advocate the ideology of progress, be they Marxists or liberals, the middle classes express the inevitable transformation process undergone by societies and political regimes. According to Marxist-oriented authors, the middle classes have no independent social basis and will disappear by merger with one or another of the rival classes after having been promoted by the state in order to maintain the capitalist model (Heiman et al., 2012, p. 16). The liberals, however, are convinced that these same middle classes are natural promoters of private enterprise and moderate democracy, offering everyone opportunities for social promotion (Fukuyama, 2014).
The emergence of the middle classes in Africa is a high-profile ideological argument for political authorities. At the national level, it provides political leaders and elites with a double resource: On the one hand, political leaders will use the concept to obtain support in electoral contests and to present themselves as serving not particular groups, but the common good and the vast majority of the population. This means achieving a consensus, speaking in everyone’s interest, and no longer for specific groups. It can also be manipulated by specific interest groups that claim to operate in the name of the middle classes in order to “de-sectorize” their demands and place themselves in a strong position in negotiations with ruling powers. The concept has the particular advantage of making it possible to refer to an undifferentiated mass within which everyone can recognize him- or herself and thus avoid the downward spiral of a civil society, which appears increasingly in the literature to have been captured by professional politicians and cause-mongers. On the other hand, it enables the rich and the elite to requalify themselves as upper middle class or global middle class (GMC), thus clearing them of terms such as big men and a power bloc, associated with accusations of embezzlement, corruption, and bad management (Darbon, 2018). Heiman et al. (2012, p. 18) thus note that “Imagined as inclusive and open to any hard-working, deserving, ‘entrepreneurial’ individual, the middle classes have become the (largely depoliticized) ideological and social construct upon which the neoliberal state rests its political legitimacy.”
This story of the AMCs suggests new narratives to describe the African population. The concept offers the opportunity to consecrate the success of the fight against poverty by associating the rise of the middle class with African societies, nevertheless strongly marked by their high level of precariousness. In debates about Africa, the emphasis is no longer on poverty but on the irresistible expansion of the middle class: uncertainty and limited prosperity are transposed, thanks to being renamed as a floating class, into a collective capacity for consumption in a consuming class and in AMACs carrying with them an undreamed-of potential for development. One can thus understand the initial enthusiasm of businesspeople polarized around this “evidence” of the emergence of solvent markets opening up considerable possibilities for investment and the new world “powerhouse” (Bright & Hruby, 2015), or that of international organizations, which see evidence of their successful drive to eradicate poverty in the world.
The performative capacity of the concept and its inclusion in all the sectoral actors dealing with the African continent (e.g., OECD, EU, World Bank, UNDP, the business community, think tanks, and Deloitte) has saturated communication to the point that it has also imposed itself in the academic world as a purely technical legitimate cognitive framework (Ferguson, 1990; Stone, 2013). Academics work on the basis of a commonsense category whose aporias and misunderstandings they highlight, but whose relevance they are indirectly obliged to validate. The AMC theme is essentially a consequence of a process of “manufactured controversy” (Ceccarelli, 2011; Darbon, 2018). The concept of the AMC is now firmly established on the political and economic agenda, and it is so difficult to find alternatives that it structures debates, even when debaters are trying to discuss its relevance, (Resnick, 2015; Kroeker, O’Kane, & Scharrer, 2018; Melber, 2016; Darbon & Toulabor, 2014). In the academic literature, it is now the dominant alternative to other concepts such as bourgeoisie, petite bourgeoisie, élites, and civil society that were extensively used before 2010 to discuss social structures in Africa.
Policies, Politics, and the AMC
The study of the relationships between policies, politics, and the AMC is particularly complex in an African context, and even more so in sub-Saharan Africa. To the uncertainty of the so-called AMCs and their associated commonsense political correlations must be added the very small number—and the very fragmented nature—of the empirical studies that have been carried out, unlike in Asia or in Latin America.
What the Middle Classes Are Supposed to Do to Politics: Classic Assertions With a Strong Modernization Connotation
All the studies that establish links between the middle classes and politics and policies, be they positive or negative, come up against the major problems of identification, calibration, heterogeneity, and social and political identity already described. Most often the correlations established are based on one case or a few cases selected to confirm a hypothesis, or on the basis of models drawn from great sociohistorical sagas concerning a very limited number of major Western democracies. In sub-Saharan Africa, the process of development of the middle classes, growth regimes, and political development pathways seems far removed from these models. They do not hinge on the expansion of one manufacturing sector or on a model of industrialization and accumulation of capital (Resnick, 2015), are not built on a rapid intensification in agricultural productivity, and do not produce forms of mobilization and specific collective action (powerful and structuring trade union movements) capable of promoting new and emerging socioprofessional groups (Bratton & van de Walle, 1994).
In spite of this background, part of the literature, strongly marked by theses of political modernization and transition, suggests the existence of strong correlations linking membership of the middle class with political preferences for democracy, moderation, and political and institutional stability. Even when studies propose complex multivariable correlations and behavioral mutations over time and between environments, as in the classical analysis by Lipset and that of Huntington, interpretations tend to oversimplify the causes (Lipset, 1959; Huntington, 1968). Among many others (Easterly, 2001; Birdsall, 2010; Kingombe, 2014), the authors of the AfDB report support this type of perception and state that “Empirical evidence shows that growth of the middle class is associated with better governance, economic growth and poverty reduction. It appears that as people gain middle class status, they are likely to use their greater economic clout to demand more accountable governments This includes pressing for the rule of law, property rights and a higher quantity and quality of public services” (2011).
The fact that the middle classes belong to the “middle,” contributes to specific theoretical characteristics being attributed to them. “In the middle” or at the center of the social structure, they are supposed to be guarantors of moderation, disposed to favor everything that will help to establish a stable social order, so that everyone else can seize growth opportunities, as they constantly do so themselves (Wiemann, 2015). They are also supposed, due to their central position and their tendency to include a significant proportion of the population, to represent the great number, the common good, as opposed to the extreme classes who are incapable of controlling their excess of desire or greed. These middle classes are supposed to be sufficiently well-educated, free from worries about everyday life or the future, to have sufficient free time to become involved in more speculative postmaterialist activities, and to become usefully involved in the search for democracy, good governance, and freedom of expression, as well as to favor democratic regimes and reinforce their stability (Fukuyama, 2014); they are also supposed to contribute to good governance, stronger institutions, and to the fight against corruption (Ingelhart & Welzel, 2009, 2010; Huntington, 1968; Loayza, Rigolini, & Llorente, 2012). Because they include those of the middle who manage to free themselves from everyday worries, they naturally help to pacify conflicts by acting as shock absorbers and facilitating agreements between rich and poor (Wietzke & Sumner, 2014). The middle classes are thus expected to be a determining force in democratization and good governance, as certain authors assert. On the contrary, the lower social categories are supposed to have no time to spare for politics and no ability to organize political mobilization.
The middle classes may thus be seen as a catalytic group (Birdsall, 2010), a sort of budding petit bourgeoisie in the process of primitive accumulation, seeking legal security and institutional stability in order to run their businesses (Loayza et al., 2012). From this point of view, they will logically be the spearhead for all political reforms that contribute to structuring rights to property and free enterprise (Inglehart & Welzel, 2009, 2010; Banerjee & Duflo, 2008), to the rule of law and good governance (Chun, Hasan, & Ulubasoglu, 2011), while supporting institutions and public policies in the fields of health, education (Loayza et al., 2012), and infrastructure.
A Growing Understanding of Vulnerability, Instability, and Heterogeneity Encourages More Circumspect Analyses
However inspiring the interpretations and claims for the AMC may be, they are highly controversial. The former correlations are often qualified as no more than hypotheses by the authors. Their fragility is recognized by certain critical authors as well as by those who support them. Like Shimeless and Ncube (2015), they can only note that hypotheses reciprocally linking, for example, good governance and the classes are not robust. Those correlations, sometimes incorrectly transformed into causalities, are often based on unproven preconceptions of homogeneity and strong political identity for the whole of the group, which are clearly lacking in Africa. A statistical group, however accurate it may be, is not tantamount to a social or a political community. As a result, in Africa, where the so-called middle class are so limited, diversified, and heterogeneous, it is highly risky to suggest the existence of common values and political behavior. Authors are compelled to unbundle the AMC category to improve the relevance of the correlations they identify. Thus, Birdsall and Meyer (2012) maintain that middle-class groups have no affinity with those in power while demonstrating that one specific subgroup they call “strivers” needs government to work for them. For his part, Cheeseman underlines the fact that in the case of Kenya, everything depends on the characteristics of each subgroup and that “middle class political consciousness can wax and wane. . . . It also suggests that the ‘class effect’ does not kick in at lower income levels but rather takes hold when individuals have a degree of financial breathing space. The lesson for how we define the middle class appears to be that the adoption of a $2-a-day lower threshold class may be setting the bar too low” (Cheeseman, 2015, p. 11).
African middle classes suffer from a blatant heterogeneity and lack any common political identity. The lack of any sense of commonness in the so-called AMC leads authors to distinguish major differences between subgroups they call either the strugglers and strivers (Birdsall & Meyer, 2012), the strugglers, the anxious, and the climbers (Schotte, 2017), those with limited prosperity, the lower middle class, the upper middle class (Darbon & Toulabor, 2014), or the vulnerable, comfortable, and accomplished (IPSOS Unilever, 2018). Those perceptions of the middle classes as being made up of numerous heterogeneous, changing, and unstable social groups marked by very strong social, economic, and professional mobility affect the understanding of their preferences and their political behavior (Neubert, 2016). This behavior will be differentiated according to their particular national history and their economic environment, but also, within each country, according to the origin and level of their resources (salary, private income, business profits, payments from corruption), the nature of their occupation (public, private, formal, informal, service, industry, dayworker, salaried employee, entrepreneur), and the type of middle class they are (new, old, marginal) (Schotte, 2017; Handley, 2015; Wiemann, 2015). In Nairobi, Spronk’s yuppies (2014), Cheeseman’s middle classes (2015), and Neubert’s unconscious middle classes (2016) will have little in common in terms of values, behavior, lifestyles, and political preferences. This approach cannot view the AMC as factors contributing to political stability. They are too heterogeneous and they are more often than not involved in a rapid flux between poverty, uncertainty, and prosperity, permanently worried about a decline in their fortunes or their hope of improvement for themselves or the following generations, and thus always motivated by a feeling of vulnerability and the need to adjust to protect their own specific interests. All the analyses show groups whose positions within the middle class are continually reevaluated by economic and technological transformations and yet they keep on being presented in the common sense as the stable core of society, preventing excesses.
The differences in political behavior between the lower and upper middle classes have been the subject of the great majority of these studies. The lower middle class are endowed with the virtues of being hard-working and having the will to reform. On the basis of their own experience, these groups of strugglers (Birdsall, Lustig, & Meyer, 2015) consider the future only in terms of changes and profound reforms that will enable them to seize all possible opportunities without hindrance, particularly from the state or from social groups that have already become rich (Wietzke & Sumner, 2014). On the contrary, as might be expected, households belonging to the upper middle class favor a greater degree of conformity, support the regimes in power, and are against political change. Under these conditions, the African middle classes include groups on low incomes that would be ready to associate with the poor in protest movements and groups from the upper middle class that would join forces with the ruling power (Wiemann, 2015, p. 208). Although this situation may be found in certain political configurations in Africa, it can in no way be generalized. In the Philippines, Masataka (2003) “states that under Marcos, a few intellectuals from the middle class took the lead of left-wing political organisations while the deep core of middle class people was included in client-patron relationships and had no distinct political demand or types of mobilization of their own [p. 277]. Middle class people simply ‘acquiesced’ to Marcos’ stand to strengthen his power and re-establish order and prosperity.” Here, as in Egypt, Morocco, or Tunisia during the Arab Spring, the interests of individuals who mobilize are so variable that all possible configurations of their involvement may be found (Beinin & Vairel, 2011). Middle-class groups who have been established for several generations are generally unfavorable toward change, just as those with little money but who are in the process of improving their situation (strugglers and strivers), whereas those who are not managing to improve their lot, and those on the way down, become radicalized. Well-established middle-class people may contest the power not so much for themselves, but for their heirs whose financial and job prospects are worsening, and not for economic or political reasons but for social and ideological reasons based on, for example, religion or community identities (Beinin & Vairel, 2011; Kienle, 2012; ESCWA, 2014.). Beyond the place occupied within the middle class, the determining factor is whether people are moving up or down the social mobility scale. Individuals define their strategies depending on the direction in which they are moving.
It may be seen that the configurations are so varied within middle classes that are heavily splintered into numerous segments and interest groups that it is very difficult to anticipate widespread collective reactions. Existing empirical and historical studies show that analyses based on similar variables produce different results in different environments (Kurlantzick, 2013). Analysis of the comparative literature covering the middle classes and their socioeconomic effects over a long period of time leads to one unmistakable conclusion: The contexts, structures, and historical dynamics of what are called the middle classes are so varied that they can only “lead to very diverging outcomes” (Rose, 1997, p. 475).
A Common Quest for a Better Life
The middle classes comprise a heterogeneous set of households that seek above all to preserve their specific interests. In particular, they pursue their own interests, as noted by Rocca (2017), Chen (2013), and Chen and Lu (2011) for China, and are satisfied, whatever the regime and its methods of governance, as long as their material interests are guaranteed and their potential for social improvement is maintained. It is not about being happy with democracy or the state of law, good governance, and civic freedom, nor the contrary. It is about being happy with one’s own upward social and professional mobility and economic improvement. The poorest and most vulnerable groups, those who are at the bottom of the middle-income groups, those who are qualified as globally insecure by Edwards and Sumner (2013), and who are essentially in an unstable flux between uncertainty and limited prosperity, will tend to protect their interests either through “crony” networks, through which those in power control them, or by erupting into demonstrations in the streets; the better off will use their networks of influence, or more simply, the strength of their numbers and the threat they represent for any regime. To simplify matters, it is not the regime, its proximity to democracy and the rule of law, its management methods, or its defence of good governance or of the Rights of Man that count. It is that regime’s ability to provide an environment enabling “middle-class” households to continue accumulating wealth and improving their well-being. This situation has several consequences:
The relationship of the middle class to the state is thus always ambivalent. It consists essentially of mistrust and nonrelationship when middle-class groups begin to emerge and demand nothing, if not that they be left to get on with their own affairs, most often outside state control and its pressures. This “exit” situation also concerns government officials engaged in complementary private activities and shows how these budding middle classes are not engaged in a parallel movement of strengthening the state, particularly by way of taxes. However, as soon as they move up the social ladder and develop closer relations with institutions, they tend to move closer to the authorities in order to benefit from the protection of the markets, or protection against multinationals or the poor.
Middle-class groups will support a regime once it offers protection for their interests either by stabilizing their business environment or by supporting it through specific policies. Rocca (2017, p. 7) has written the following about China: “For the ruling classes, the middle class is a quiet class: demanding in terms of living standards but reasonable in terms of political change.” This sentence applies perfectly to sub-Saharan Africa, particularly since the middle class there is incomparably weaker, both numerically and organizationally speaking, and since they take charge of some of their new needs (e.g., education, health, and transport ) themselves.
The Lack of Effective Middle-Class Political Mobilization in Africa?
Those who wrote about transition and consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s, and particularly those who performed research on African countries, generally did not identify the middle classes as important contributors to these transformations, preferring to focus on the elites, the bourgeoisie, and civil society. The literature emphasized the role of civil society and certain of its organizations, as well as the elites and the bourgeoisie who took control of NGOs, churches, trade unions, and the like to improve their economic and political capital. Most often the literature paid little or no attention to the middle classes, which only appeared in African literature in the 2010s. A rare exception in the literature is provided by Bratton and van de Walle (1994, p. 454), who note that “middle classes are likely to be protagonists of civil society.” In this literature, the urban protest groups, impoverished and marked, thanks to effects of the Structural Adjustment Program, by relative frustration, are called youth rather than middle class. The “color revolutions” and the Arab Spring of the 2000s need to happen to see the term “middle class” develop. This results more from an “opportunity effect” produced by the buzz of the middle classes in the 2000s than from a profound analysis of the situation. Thus, the “middle class revolution,” analyzed by Fukuyama (2014), is based on a confusion of numbers and incompatible middle-class categories (e.g., the GMC (Global Middle Class) and lower middle class in Africa) as well as an underestimation of the complete breakup of the different constitutive groups.
Once the ideological excitement passed that identified, in any movement of revolt against authoritarianism and obscurantism in an urban environment, an expression of the middle classes, the empirical analyses of the movements were confronted with facts. In the Arab Spring and in the African urban revolts (Y-en-à Marre [“Fed Up”] in Senegal in 2011; The Balai Citoyen [“The Citizens’ Broom”]; and the departure of Compaoré from Burkina Faso in 2014), the extreme diversity and the high degree of volatility of the individuals and groups involved (Abbink, De Bruijn, & Walraven, 2003; Branch & Mampilly, 2015), as well as the central role of social cadets (youths and women) made it impossible to support a middle-class revolution storyline. There was no middle-class movement behind these episodes of mobilization, but rather a set of leftists, Muslim brothers, fundamentalists, democrats, mainly urban social cadet interest groups ranging from strugglers and the quasi-poor to the globally secure, feeling that their advantages were fading, through the anxious and the parents of generations who were not managing to obtain access to the resources they hoped for. At a critical juncture, these social sets came together occasionally to challenge the established order or its policies. With major differences in social traits, they associated proximities of a certain level of education, an economic downgrading, activities bordering on the illegal, challenges to the social inferiority of certain categories (the young, women, the religious, and ethnic minorities), lifestyles marked by westernization, the implications of failing systems of cronyism, limited living standards, and the high aspirations of an urban lifestyle. This extreme diversity reveals a lot about the middle class in the majority of African countries: a very diverse mosaic of groups and interests, strongly marked by situations of economic uncertainty and positioning on the margin of the official world (e.g., informal activities and expressions of popular counterculture), not constituted as a unique entity around a strong, durable identity, acting in outbursts, expressing a simple, occasional convergence of individual interests, and possibly announcing new forms of political mobilization to come (Branch & Mampilly, 2015). Most often, these groups distrust political commitment whose cost they fear. Politika Alflligem (“I don’t need politics”), as middle-class Ethiopians interviewed by Clélie Nallet put it (Bach & Nallet, 2018). This mosaic is fairly strongly differentiated from the rich, but also from the poor who can get involved on the margins of their movements, but more as rioters who are, at a given moment of the mobilization, left to their fate to enable the reestablishment of order necessary for the protection of the interests of the upper categories of the so-called middle classes. The AMCs are still to ascertain themselves before they become actual social groups able of effect political mobilizations.
Mobilizations and actions depend on the forms of alliance that some AMC groups manage to establish with other social groups. If such alliances are made with other moderate groups who are ready to negotiate power, there is a strong likelihood that they will encourage the creation of democratic political parties if alliances are made with the elite groups in power, who essentially seek to conserve their power against others, the opposite is very likely to occur, as shown by Villegas (2012) in Latin America, Beinin and Vairel (2011) in Egypt and Morocco, or Goodfellow (2017) in Uganda. Given their heterogeneity, the great fragility of these middle classes in Africa, highly fluctuating and essentially concentrated in the part of the population on the edge of poverty, and of the absence of a common identity, the link with politics is essentially preempted by the capacity of the groups in power to deploy cronyist policies for each social and professional subcategory, thus ending any hope of alliance for those excluded from power. Middle classes in Africa are a collection of households asserting their interests and tipping the balance one way or the other depending on those interests and by sheer weight of numbers. The subgroups are thus likely to form shifting alliances with other social groups by cross-fertilizing their economic interests, but also their community, religious, or political interests, making the concepts of alternation and counterpower potentially operational, as highlighted by Lipset (1959) in his theory of “cross cutting cleavages.” However, for this to occur, the subgroups must be sufficiently structured, which is rarely the case, and they must escape the methods of recruitment by cronyism implemented by those in power in order to control any vague hopes of constantly swapping political allegiance. There is no revolution among the AMC, but there is differentiated mobilization of different subgroups (according to a logic that may be corporatist, socioprofessional, identity-based, generational, gender-based, or geographical). Such subgroups may occasionally take part in collective mobilizations, There is thus no general mobilization of the middle class, but there is a succession of coalitions of causes that do not aggregate, but form alliances with other types of social interests of whatever nature (opposition parties, community-based and religious organizations, etc.). As Masataka (2003) states: “The pattern is characterized by single-issue-oriented, ad hoc coalitions, made up of different political organizations and many voluntary groups led by businessmen and the MC . . . such voluntary groups are formed ad hoc around specific issues . . . and structures as cause orientated movement”(p. 282). Once demands have been met and the regime overthrown, these middle-class groups do not have any organizational capacity, withdraw from the public arena, and leave the new regime to organize itself according to its principles (Egypt).
What Policies Do to the Middle Classes
The analysis of public policies implemented by African states shows that very few policies are really devoted to the middle classes, with rare exceptions, the most notable of which was that of South Africa under the presidencies of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki.
The relationships between the public authorities and the middle classes are often ambiguous due to the specific characteristics of the latter’s structure. Some of the households are directly linked to the state on which they depend for their salaries, their contracts, the cronyist networks in which they are inevitably involved, and whose sanctions they fear (e.g., fines and decisions to actually apply the law). Another significant group, which develops the majority of its activities in the informal sector, is “outside” the state and is very averse to state intervention in which they perceive only the abuse and risks that would occur if it decided to stop being inactive. Under these conditions, state interventions in relation to the middle classes are very difficult to identify. Of course, there are overall policies whose effects are radically different from one African state to another. Edwards and Sumner (2013) thus show that the policies implemented by states differ according to the historical pathways peculiar to each country. In favor of growth for the poor, including the floating class (Ethiopia), in favor of growth for the middle classes (Brazil), against growth for the poor (Nigeria), and against growth for the middle classes (Zambia) are some of the variations. This diversity underlines the ambiguity of the relationships between those who hold power and the many subcategories of the middle classes.
For the most part, policies consist of encouraging large segments of these middle classes by laying the foundations of services and leaving the different groups to invest in them and possibly to opt individually for their improvement. Thus, the state implements specific policies that will particularly benefit the middle classes, particularly in the fields of education, social and health care, and transport. Everyone can benefit from them, but more so the middle classes by grabbing the best part and strengthening their effects through privatization (private schools partly run by state-employed teachers, supplementary social security contributions, best location of districts in relation to collective services, etc.). Control of middle-class households also involves specific policies not aimed at the middle class(es) as a whole but at certain segments. These policies aim to organize the maintenance and the extension of cronyist networks. Barya (2010) and Goodfellow (2017) thus show in Uganda how haulage associations and trade unions have been made “loyal to the state.”
For the most part, however, those who hold power favor maintaining relationships with professional, social, or local subgroups, which enable them to strengthen their electoral base, to talk about the middle classes, and to rally everyone’s interest to their cause, without the risk of spawning a possible coalition between subgroups. This fear of a possible convergence of subcategories is the reason for the relative coolness of the public authorities toward groups that are supposed to boost the economy. No regime wants to find itself confronted with a coherent mass of urban, educated households that possess the legitimacy to represent not individual interests but those of the “(wo)man in the street.”
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