The Bourgeois Revolution

How the global middle class declared war on democracy.

Most days, the scene around Democracy Monument, a set of giant statues in the center of the old part of Bangkok, seems almost like a carnival. Pushcart vendors hawk everything from dried squid to ripe mangoes, and backpackers haggle with tuk-tuk drivers for a ride in their tiny, three-wheeled taxis.

But over the past year, as public anger over the alleged corruption of a series of Thai governments has reached a crescendo, a different, angrier sort of crowd has been gathering there. Last fall, tens of thousands of Bangkokians dressed in the yellow symbolizing Thailand's monarchy descended to call for Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's resignation and for a transformation of the country's electoral system. Now that a series of protests have forced Thaksin into exile and installed a new prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the yellow-shirts are facing protests of their own, from Thaksin's red-shirted working-class allies. But elite opinion in Thailand still views the yellow-shirted protesters, led by a group called the People's Alliance for Democracy, as reformers fighting for the rule of law, while the red shirts are seen as an unruly mob. Tactics aside, this is not a useful division: Abhisit's middle-class supporters are not reformers, but antidemocratic reactionaries. Their perceived status as progressives clouds the truth, and it also throws a veil over one of the most confusing evolutions in developing countries over the last decade: the rise of the democracy-hating middle class.

It wasn't so long ago -- just 17 years -- that many of these same activists also fought battles in the streets of the Thai capital: middle-class Bangkokians, students, and businesspeople, and other elites. Today's yellow-shirted protesters at first seem like the same crowd: shop owners and office workers, wielding expensive cellphones and the political power typically reserved for the most influential bloc of the electorate in any country.

But the difference is that the protesters in the 1990s were fighting for democracy against a coup that had toppled an elected government. Despite its name, the People's Alliance is explicitly antidemocratic. In its platform, the group seeks election reform measures that are basically meant to slash the power of the rural poor, who comprise the majority of Thais. In the minds of the Thai middle class, poor voters only vote for politicians like the populist Thaksin because they're offered incentives such as a few baht on voting day. One former U.S. ambassador to Thailand puts it bluntly: The middle class disdain[s] the rural masses and see[s] them as willing pawns to the corrupt vote buyers. Instead of fighting for democratic rights, in other words, the People's Alliance is protesting against them.

This shift from a reformist middle class to a reactionary one over a mere two decades should be surprising. But, unfortunately, Thailand is not alone. Across the developing world, from Russia to Venezuela to Mexico, as democracy faces new threats -- elected leaders who disdain its institutions, rising corruption, and nationalistic economic plans -- middle classes, once the vanguard of democracy, have increasingly turned against it. For the first time in decades, democracy activists are beginning to wonder whether building a strong middle class solidifies or threatens freedom's global spread. Yet because the middle-class-equals-democracy theory has become so entrenched, if it is proven wrong, activists, democracy-promotion groups, and world leaders will not know how to replace it. In other words, they won't have a clue about how to actually build democracy.


For years, political theorists have argued that developing a healthy middle class is the key to any country's democratization. To paraphrase the late political scientist Samuel Huntington: Economic growth and industrialization usually lead to the creation of a middle class. As its members become wealthier and more educated, the middle class turns increasingly vocal, demanding more rights to protect its economic gains.

But over the past decade, the antidemocratic behavior of the middle class in many countries has threatened to undermine this conventional wisdom. Although many developing countries have created trappings of democracy, such as regular elections, they often failed to build strong institutions, including independent courts, impartial election monitoring, and a truly free press and civil society.

The middle class's newfound disdain for democracy is counterintuitive. After all, as political and economic freedoms increase, its members often prosper because they are allowed more freedom to do business. But, paradoxically, as democracy gets stronger and the middle class grows richer, it can realize it has more to lose than gain from a real enfranchisement of society.

Soon after acquiring democracy, urban middle classes often grasp the frustrating reality that political change costs them power. Outnumbered at the ballot box, the middle class cannot stop populists such as Thaksin or Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez. Once the middle class realizes it cannot stop the elected tyrants, it also comes to another, shattering realization: If urban elites can no longer control elections, all of their privileges -- social, economic, cultural -- could be threatened.

Recent antigovernment protests in Bolivia, for example, stem directly from a fear of loss in status. The demonstrators, led by leading businessman Branko Marinkovic, hail from the country's wealthier eastern half, where many locals disdain President Evo Morales, a populist former union leader and proud member of the poorer indigenous class. They claim he will weaken their traditional power and riches by instituting land reforms and continuing to nationalize the country's petroleum resources, which mostly come from the east. We're turning into another Zimbabwe, in which economic chaos will become the norm, Marinkovic told the New York Times two years ago -- even though Morales, despite his sometimes erratic policymaking, has overseen the strongest Bolivian growth in years.

Middle-class conservatism may even be preventing some countries from making the leap toward democracy. In China, the biggest global exception to democratic change, the past three decades of economic reform have delivered most of the fruits to the urban east coast. There, per capita income in some provinces is now 10 times that of China's interior, and the country's income inequality rivals that of the most stratified Latin American societies. For its benefit, the Communist Party even plays upon middle-class status anxiety by tacitly stoking fears that full democracy, with real freedom of movement for all Chinese, would result in millions of rural peasants swamping the cities.

At first, middle-class status fears usually just lead to fighting within the political system: forming new political parties, launching anti-government newspapers or Web sites, or other traditional tactics. Malaysia is now in this stage, with opposition parties led by longtime activist Anwar Ibrahim just beginning to form into a cohesive bloc.

But, as urban elites realize their impotence, they are increasingly abandoning the system, as in Bolivia, the Philippines (where protesters have launched massive street rallies intended to topple the government), and many other countries. And once they turn against elected leaders, angry middle classes, convinced they are right, seem willing to use any means to topple presidents, with catastrophic results. Even if the bourgeois revolutionaries successfully carry out an armed coup, the failure rate for governing is high: Compared with the past, when militaries could just appoint a few capable technocrats to run the government, today even developing economies like Thailand or Pakistan are closely linked to global markets and require far more advanced management to maintain domestic and international investor confidence. After the Thai Army took power in 2006, for example, it bumbled from one economic mishap to the next, such as when it suggested it might instill capital controls, a move that led to a run on the Thai stock market.

If military control doesn't work, a return to soft authoritarian governance, as by a prime minister essentially chosen by elites, will frequently fail as well because the public will no longer accept this kind of oligarchic rule. In the past, the poor in many of these societies might have accepted a government ruled by elites, but not any more, now that they have tasted real voting. In Nigeria, for example, oil-rich provinces that have become accustomed to democratic rule are no longer willing to hand over nearly all petroleum revenues to the central government. Instead, they have launched massive demonstrations in the Niger Delta, sometimes holding oil workers hostage while they wait for their demands to be met.

And in Thailand, masses of working-class voters, furious that the People's Alliance pushed out the prime minister they supported and replaced him with a leader sympathetic to the old elites, have launched their own sieges of parliament. In recent weeks, the red-shirted working-class protesters, following closely Thaksin's calls for change from abroad, have stormed through Bangkok and the resort area of Pattaya, forcing the Thai government to cancel the conference of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that was meant to be held there. Clashing with Army troops in the streets, the protesters wielded sticks and Molotov cocktails, provoking the government to institute a state of emergency.

As with the Thai example, by sparking counterprotests and, in some cases, outright anarchy, the middle class is actually undermining its very claims. Taking to the streets, they argue that they are bolstering freedom of expression and thereby strengthening their countries' democratic institutions. In reality, by undermining the decisions of elected leaders and fomenting chaos, they are actually weakening these institutions.

This cycle of protest and counterprotest, then, could be the most damaging blow inflicted by the middle class. Where rich and poor once worked together in fighting for democracy, they now wind up pitted against each other, leaving a permanent rift in society and an ominous cloud over their country's democratic future -- and over the future of democracy-building efforts around the world, as we struggle to come up with a new blueprint for making democracy work.

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The Age of Disorganization

Don't assume that the rise of new powers will lead to a new world order. The era of U.S. hegemony could be followed by a period of chaotic "nonpolarity" instead.

As states large and small struggle to cope with and find a way out of the current economic crisis, it is not too early to begin thinking about how the Great Recession will alter the world's politics. Countries that have the economic fundamentals and resilience to emerge relatively early from the crisis -- China, some Gulf states, Brazil, and India -- are also likely to emerge stronger politically.

But will the rise of new power centers result in genuine multipolarity, in which a more diverse set of countries works with the United States to make decisions about the global economic and political order? Or will the decline of U.S. hegemony result in a condition of nonpolarity, in which no set of players assumes effective responsibility for the system as a whole?

This is a critical question, for the powers that we foresee coming out of the Great Recession in a stronger position are not likely, on their own, to embrace the full range of strategic responsibilities traditionally associated with superpower status. Thus, the United States and other established powers must incorporate rising states into the structures and processes of global economic governance. This way, the Great Recession will catalyze a strong and accountable international economic order, rather than a beggar thy neighbor world begetting, as in the 1930s, ever greater international disorder.

China: Of the major states likely to prove most resilient, China tops the list. Since the crisis hit, Beijing has launched massive stimulus initiatives -- and unlike many other countries, it clearly has the resources to do more. For this reason, China will recover before the United States, and certainly before Europe or Japan. Importantly, when the recession lifts, China will still have a massive supply of low-cost labor and unparalleled capacity in innovative, value-added manufacturing. Before the recession, the country started to include greater economic emphasis on domestic consumption. This will make China less vulnerable to any downturns in Western markets.

China's political machine reinforces its economic resilience. Three decades of double-digit growth have earned the Communist Party leadership considerable stores of domestic political capital. To be sure, severe chronic problems persist: the social turmoil provoked by growing gaps between rich and poor, severe environmental damage, and endemic local-level corruption, just to name a few. Yet millions more Chinese citizens are freer and wealthier today than ever. Thus, the party has fostered, and been a major beneficiary of, a tidal wave of national pride.

Gulf states: The next set of early reemerging markets is likely to be found in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (thanks to Abu Dhabi, not Dubai), and Qatar are managing today's economic challenges -- including the sharp drop in energy prices -- well. For the most part, Gulf banks avoided the structured financial products that so badly damaged their American and European counterparts, leaving the region's financial sector in relatively good shape. And, in contrast with previous oil booms, fiscal planners in Gulf Arab governments had made fairly conservative assumptions about oil and gas prices.

As rising energy prices transferred unprecedented wealth from the West to the Gulf, these countries built up ample foreign exchange reserves to cushion any short-term decline in government revenue. Therefore, these states, particularly Saudi Arabia, see the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate their standing as vital creditor nations. When global demand returns and energy prices start to rise again, the influence these governments wield in financial and monetary matters will grow still further, boosting in turn their geopolitical standing.

Brazil: Brazil entered the financial crisis with emerging-market dynamism, and will emerge with that dynamism intact. The country's increasingly world-class agricultural, manufacturing, and service sectors make a difference. Its recent offshore oil discovery has made its abundant natural resource base even more impressive. Most importantly, President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva has helped implement responsible macroeconomic policies. His enviable approval ratings suggest that his government will ride out the crisis with its market-friendly reputation intact.

India: India has also proven a resilient engine of growth, notwithstanding the effects of the slowdown on its domestic economy and the horse-trading nature of its election-year political dynamics. The decentralization of power in the world's largest democracy ensures that, though reform often proves a (very) slow process, New Delhi's enormous state bureaucracy can no longer easily obstruct the entrepreneurial talents and energies that have transformed India over the past two decades.

What will these countries' economic ascension mean for global politics?

In recent years, senior Chinese officials have regularly described China as a peacefully rising power. In the past year, references to China's shared responsibility for international leadership have become more frequent. The practical effect of this shift became evident in the run-up to the recent G-20 summit, when China made clear that its willingness to help expand the International Monetary Fund's capitalization was contingent on its ultimately receiving greater voting power within the fund.

Beijing's growing prominence in global economic management will lead to competition, and perhaps conflict, with Washington; the already established trend toward greater Chinese assertiveness will accelerate. Beijing is unlikely to challenge U.S. primacy directly, but it will be more willing to resist when Washington proposes economic and foreign policies it doesn't like. To the extent it seeks to exercise broader political influence, China will seek to reduce focus on democratization as a corollary to economic liberalization and increase focus on national sovereignty, narrowly defined, and on multilateral decision-making as a necessary constraint on U.S. unilateralism.

At the same time, China's gravitational pull on other countries -- both in its regional orbit and beyond -- will grow. Gulf states, already building ties to Beijing as a hedge against a perceived decline in Washington's competence, will embrace China as an economic and financial ballast against the United States. Together, China and the Gulf energy-producers will gain influence as dollar hegemony slowly but inexorably erodes. Brazil and India -- both robust democracies, but also strong defenders of developing countries' sovereign prerogatives -- are likely to join China in seeking a bigger share of global political power for emerging economies.

At this point, the old G-7 countries, the political power centers, will face a choice. They could embrace rising powers, making international economic and political institutions more reflective of the true global balance of power. The expansion of the G-7 into the G-20 is an important first step in this direction. Rising states must embrace higher standards regarding the rule of law, corporate governance, domestic regulation, and -- in China's case, especially -- currency openness. Then, the global economy would survive a historic shift in the global balance of power, a truly epochal achievement.

But the old G-7 countries might decide their relative standing is more valuable than effective global economic governance, shutting out smaller countries and cementing their power. Such an approach would prove shortsighted come the next systemic economic emergency -- whether it is an emerging-markets financial crisis or a currency crisis due to the strained dollar-based monetary regime. Likewise, rising powers might fail to create open, legal markets; without broadened international oversight organizations, individual states may start manipulating international markets.

Such a chaotic world would be one seriously deleterious effect of the Great Recession. It is up to international bodies like the G-20 and wealthy countries such as the United States to ensure a multipolar and accountable future for all.

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