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Moisés Naím

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The Clash of the Middle Classes

Posted: 08/05/11 01:23 PM ET

The main cause of coming conflicts will not be clashes between civilizations, but the anger generated by the unfulfilled expectations of a middle class, which is declining in rich countries and booming in poor countries.

"The clash of civilizations," the theory popularized by Samuel Huntington in the early 1990s, maintains that once the ideological confrontation between communism and capitalism is over, international conflicts will arise between countries with different cultural and religious identities. "The clash of civilizations" will dominate global politics. "The fault lines dividing civilizations will define the frontlines of the future," he wrote in 1993. For many, the attacks by al Qaeda and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq confirm this view. As we now know, however, what has happened is that conflicts have been more within civilizations than between them. Pious Islamic terrorists have killed far more innocent Muslims than anyone else. And the battles between Shiites and Sunnis continue to cause the majority of Muslim casualties.

In my opinion, a far more important source of friction than clashes between cultures or religions will be the changes in living standards of the middle classes in both rich and poor countries. In the former the middle class is shrinking, while in the latter it is swelling. These changes lead to thwarted and unfulfilled expectations -- both feed social and political instability.

Poor countries experiencing rapid economic growth now have the largest middle class in history. This is true for Brazil and Botswana, China and Chile, India and Indonesia, and many other nations. According to the World Bank, between 2006 and today, 28 formerly "low-income countries" joined the ranks of what it calls "middle-income" ones. Their new middle classes may not be as prosperous as their counterparts in developed countries, but their members now enjoy an unprecedented standard of living.

Meanwhile, in countries like Spain, France, or the United States the status of the middle class is going from bad to worse. In more than 1.3 million Spanish households, all the members of working age are unemployed. Only 8 percent of French believe that their children will have a better life than them. In 2007, 43 percent of Americans claimed that their salaries were only enough to make ends meet. Today, 61 percent admit this.

On the other hand, the frustrations due to the unsatisfied aspirations of the middle class in China and Brazil are as politically explosive as the anger over the new economic insecurity of the middle class in Italy, Spain, or Greece.

Governments in the poorer countries are under enormous pressure to meet the booming demands of the new middle class while those of the richer nations are struggling to contain the fall in living standards of the existing bourgeoisie.

Inevitably, some politicians in developed countries are blaming the economic decline on the rise of other nations. The assertion that job losses or stagnant wages in the United States or Europe are due to the expansion of China, India, or Brazil are common. These claims will continue and even intensify as the crises deepen even if the best available research concludes that these are unfounded accusations. The data show that lower wages or job losses in developed countries are not due to the rapid growth of emerging economies, but mostly to technological change, anemic productivity, or tax policy and other domestic factors.

On the other hand, in poor countries, the new middle class which has increased its consumption of food, clothing, medicine, and housing, now demands better schools, cleaner water, better hospitals, more convenient transportation and all kinds of public services. Chile, for example, is one of the most economically successful and politically stable countries in the world and its middle class has been growing consistently. Yet, street protests demanding improvements in public education are regular occurrences. Chileans do not want more schools, they want better schools. And for all governments it is far easier to build a school than to improve the quality of teaching.

In China, there are thousands of demonstrations every year to demand more or better public services. In Tunisia, recent riots expressed the impatience of the people who overthrew the regime of Ben Ali, despite the fact that the country boasted the best economic performance in North Africa. No government can adequately meet the new demands of a booming middle class at the same speed at which they occur. And no government can survive the fury of a once prosperous middle class that sees its situation worsening daily.

The political instability caused by these frustrations is already visible in many countries. Its international implications are not yet so obvious. But they will be.

Moisés Naím is a senior associate in the International Economics Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He tweets at @moisesnaim.