Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The battle for the middle class is a battle for democracy

Philippos Savvides

During the last five years, countries of the “South” have introduced severe austerity measures in order to avoid the collapse of their economies. All of these measures, however, have come with a high social cost. Progressives in Europe warned early on that austerity alone is not the solution. They argued, since 2009, for an immediate and comprehensive response not only to the Greek problem but to the European crisis as a whole. Unfortunately, the European response came too late and it was too little. The conservative majority in Europe proved incompetent in dealing with these major challenges. Its lack of vision and effective response brought the countries in crisis and the European structure to the brink of catastrophe.

It is not a surprise, therefore, that we are now witnessing a major social uncertainty and a real danger of collapse of the middle class, especially in the countries of the South. Political scientists have long demonstrated that the middle class is the back-bone of western democracy. A strong middle class is a prerequisite for strong democracy. Hence, the potential break-up of the middle class will endanger democracy itself. It will undermine the democratization institutions and processes and it will intensify the problem of legitimacy of the political systems.

The potential of middle-class collapse and the legitimacy deficit are problems exacerbated by the high levels of unemployment which lead to losing hope that there is a way out of the labyrinth. This, in turn, intensifies the fear and the disappointment. As the middle-class is falling apart and poverty levels rise, a new “class” is emerging; namely, the class of the “new poor”. This fact must ring the danger bell. If the “new poor” class is left to grow, the social cohesion will be threatened even more and the prospects of social upheaval cannot be ruled out.

This is precisely the environment within which the forces of populism and of right wing extremism grow and thrive. Social discontent, social degradation, disappointment and lack of hope allow populist forces, of all stripes, to “colonize” the political system and undermine democracy.

Evidently, the battle that we are in the midst of is not only about economic stabilization. It is mainly a battle to save the middle class and, hence, to save democracy. Not only in the South, but in Europe as a whole. To that end, progressive forces have a major responsibility to be alert and to take action. At the same time, Europe has to get its act together now. It must provide, today, the necessary long-term solutions that will allow the countries in crisis to recover and reboot. This is a sine qua non in order to secure not only economic recovery, but also a strong democracy.


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