I finally got around to listening to a couple of podcasts from the BBC's In Business show on Radio 4 recently. One was on Russia, the other on China. What was fascinating was the emphasis in both stories on the middle class in both countries. Indeed, the feature on Russia included a clip of Vladimir Putin advocating a target for 70% of all Russians to be middle class by 2020. China similarly is anxious to increase its middle class to absorb the millions migrating from the countryside to the cities.
I found both stories remarkable as they were coming from two previously communist societies. (Yes, nominally China is still communist, but you know what I mean). It also struck me how much we take for granted the middle class in Ireland, overlooking the key role they have played in our recent economic and social transformation. Most people in Ireland consider themselves to be middle class (as reported in a study my company did a few years back). But unlike the Russians and Chinese, many of our own intellectuals (themselves mostly middle class), tend to disparage and even despise the 'petty bourgeois'.
Why is this? The middle classes throughout history have championed freedom of conscience, human rights, privacy, property rights, reason and science (not all of them: but enough to make a real difference). And they have usually done so in the face of opposition from the aristocracy and ruling classes, and sometimes with (and occasionally against) the working classes. So why this pervasive intellectual disdain for the middle class in 21st century Western societies?
I can only guess it has something to do with what Friedrich Hayek called 'The Fatal Conceit', or the notion common among intellectuals (especially those in academia) that because they are smarter than most people (as they are) they therefore know more than most people (which they don't). So ultimately what riles a lot of intellectuals (on the left in the main) is that they think society would be much better off being run by clever people (like them, coincidently): rather than leaving it to all those dull-witted shop keepers and merchants to get things done. There's a great interview with Thomas Sowell over at EconTalk on this very issue, by the way.
So give me traders to intellectuals any time. I'm with Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao: the future belongs to the middle class.