Who is afraid of the middle class?

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 29, 2010

For a sociologist terms like “middle class” are not unproblematic, on the contrary. This is also true of terms such as “upper” and “lower class” as well as all other logically possible classes of this sort, for example, “uppermost”, “lower upper”, “higher middle”, “lower middle”, “upper lower”, “lowest”. Logically – and this is one of its problems – the ranking yardstick approach can produce an infinity of gradations. Why not, for example, refine it to accommodate “higher higher middle”, “lower higher middle”, “higher lower middle” and “lower lower middle”?

Translating this into percentiles does not dissolve the problem. This would not matter greatly if it were not that the whole point of this approach is to identify behaviourally homogenous social groups ranked according to some explicit criterion. The possibility of infinite subdivision makes this an elusive goal. Like Zeno’s paradoxical arrow, the ranking approach to social class runs the risk of never reaching its goal.

Moreover, the question arises: Middle of what? According to which criterion is one higher or lower than another? Shall it be status, income, occupation, education, power or cultural taste? The variety of possible criteria presents us with the possibility of having individuals who are, say, high ranking in terms of power, middle ranking in terms of income and education and low ranking in terms of cultural taste.

Further, whereas some criteria lend themselves easily to ranking – such as the easily quantifiable criterion of “income” – some others – such as “status” and “power” – obviously do not. Take “power”. If we exclude the easily quantifiable “purchasing power”, how do we measure “political power” or the even more conceptually slippery criterion of power as the ability to activate informal networks to bend rules, jump queues and benefit from insider knowledge?

Even more problematic is the criterion of “status”. Is it status in the eyes of the beholder or in the eyes of the beholden? In other words, is “middle class” something one “is” or something one wishes to be? Indeed, it can be argued that ranking by status is meaningless separately from the socially constructed meanings and values of historically concrete societies.

But what’s new? Even our sociology undergraduates – assuming a decent course of studies, and the course has improved considerably under the present head of department – will have been confronted with these problems and with the fundamental debates they have generated throughout the history of this discipline. And, anyway, why should we bother with what could easily degenerate into a pedantic scholastic exercise?

Normally, therefore, one would not have picked on this subject for one’s opinion column. But we do not live in politically normal times. As seen from my former philosophy professor’s perspective, we are living a situation characterised by two political factors, two sides of a coin as it were. Firstly, we are witnessing the “dimming of (Lawrence Gonzi’s) charismatic image”, in Fr Peter Serracino Inglott’s words “a symptom of non-adoption of the 1989 flash of hope” and “a reluctance to re-grow things from fresh roots”.

Secondly, we have “Joseph Muscat… striving to present himself as the leader…of a movement that embodies the local equivalent of… the flash of hope that glimmered in the hearts and minds of all moderates and progressives throughout the world in that meteoric year 1989” (The Sunday Times, March 21)

I will come back to “the 1989 flash of hope”, as Prof. Serracino Inglott calls it, a subject that I have referred to in this column three times in 2009 and once this year in connection with Fukuyama’s now discredited thesis of the end of history.

What concerns me here is that, central to Dr Muscat’s project of a movement of all moderates and progressives, is his recurrent reference to the middle class. To appreciate the political thrust of his use of this notion of “middle class”, we must go beyond the narrow limits of traditional sociological discussion of social stratification.

To start with, it is important to note that Dr Muscat’s insistence on the importance of the middle class in this country’s future is not an opportunistic dernier cri. It is the result of sustained reflection within the Labour Party that goes back at least a quarter of a century.

It is pertinent to observe that a paper on the subject published in the Labour journal Society in, yes, 1989, has become a standard reference in academic discussion of class in Malta. Witness Ronald Sultana’s “Perspectives On Class In Malta” of 1994 and JosAnn Cutajar’s “Social Inequality” of 2009  in, respectively, Maltese Society: A Sociological Inquiry (R.G. Sultana and G. Baldacchino eds.) and Social Transitions In Maltese Society (J. Cutajar and G. Cassar).

As we shall see when we next meet again on this page, the political effectiveness of Dr Muscat’s “middle class” will depend on its ability to rally all those who identify with the sort of society that he claims – sincerely, I believe – to promote. Although I have suggested that traditional sociological stratification debate will not help us much to understand his project, I am not saying that sociology is useless in this case. In fact, we would do well to look at “middle class” as an “interpellation” whereby those that respond to it need not share social origins or conditions but a vision of a shared future.

This article appeared on Dr Vella column in The Times of Malta March 29, 2010.




No voice from heaven

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 17, 2010

Peruvians of all social classes and political orientations sat biting their lips and fingernails last week in front of television sets in the comfortable sitting rooms of the well-to-do or in crowded bars in shanty towns. La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow but, literally, The Frightened Teat) was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, the first Peruvian film to go that far. That director Claudia Llosa, the niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, and Magaly Solier – the quechua speaking actress and singer from provincial Huanta, Ayacucho – could well bring back an Oscar sparked an eruption of national pride not less intense than when Peruvian born-Kina Malpartida snatched the WBA super-featherweight title in Madison Square Garden in February of last year.

Magaly Solier

It is ironic that a film whose expressive power derives from its depiction of the brutal contradictions that lacerate this fascinating Latin American country – the tense cohabitation of the miserably poor with the very rich – should have united persons of diametrically opposite social and political extraction, even if only for one interminably long evening, an evening that ultimately resulted in “their” film failing to get the Oscar. La Teta Asustada is, by the way, indeed a great and haunting movie and I suggest you watch it.

Which brings me back to my previous piece in this column where, you will recall, I wrote that although in today’s Peru there “is still plenty of poverty around as well as injustice and corruption, there is an unprecedented will to move on and to overcome an almost fatalistic pessimism” and that “I had not felt this during previous visits” to this country. I took the cue from a very effective advertising clip by one of the country’s two main mobile telephony providers in which an Obama-style voice-over tells poet César Vallejo and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa – two diametrically opposed, politically speaking, world-class Peruvian literary figures united by a visceral pessimism about their “screwed” country’s chances of ever getting unscrewed – that one day Peru will move forward.

It won’t be an extraordinary day, they are told, but just any ordinary day, say, a Monday. There will be changes but it won’t be traumatic. There will be small, almost imperceptible, daily changes. These changes, however, will not benefit a few but everybody. One ordinary Monday, the voice says, everybody will be able to have a good breakfast, an important meal in Peru, a country where some eat – in a figurative but very real sense – much more than others. And then the punch-line: “connected we can do more”.

Evidently, the punch-line has at least two levels of meaning. The most obvious one is the advertisement’s commercial message: “subscribe to our network”. The underlying message – the one that launches the commercial message across the class divide and appears to have succeeded in this intent – is a political one. If we connect across social divisions then we’ll all benefit. Which is what the present Peruvian government, led by Alan Garcia of the centre left APRA party, is really trying to sell and is not doing so too badly. The mobile phone clip and Claudia Llosa’s film “work” because there is evidently a great hunger for overcoming a past of social and political conflict, often a bloody one.

Which is not to say that the country’s people are so naïve as to believe that such a past can be simply forgotten or that if the haves and the have-nots both subscribe to the same mobile phone network – contract the former and pre-paid the latter – social differences melt into air. This feeling that things can get better is accompanied by a realistic wariness based on bitter experience. In La Teta Asustada, the quechua maid is robbed of her native tune by her rich but artistically spent composer employer. She comes back for what she is owed and takes it. In the process she grows out of a past that prevented her from – literally – conceiving a future.

Processes of national reconciliation are complex affairs and require much more than tactical compromises between political parties or between individual politicians.

They are processes that go beyond political parties – at least beyond traditional political parties – and involve – if they are to succeed, large numbers of individuals who do not even dream of themselves as political animals. National reconciliation can only succeed if there is a movement in its direction, a movement that does not make political parties unnecessary but that is not limited by their short-term electoral considerations. A movement that humbles professional politicians (in and out of Parliament) with their little big hates and grudges. A movement of wary individuals who don’t expect promised lands announced by a voice from heaven but small steps forward and a few backwards along the way.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column on The Times of Malta. The original article may be accessed from  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100315/opinion/no-voice-from-heaven

Any given Monday, Mr Vallejo, any given Monday, Zavalita

Posted in 1 by Editor on March 1, 2010

Cesar Vallejo by Picasso

In Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, Conversación En La Catedral (Conversation In The Cathedral, 1969), Santiago Zavala (Zavalita to his friends) – the idealistic son of an influential Peruvian politician and now a journalist who has rejected his social origins and struggles to eke out a living with an unimportant newspaper – sets out to look for his dog in the streets of Lima. At a shelter for stray dogs, Zavalita meets his father’s aging former chauffeur. They haven’t seen each other in over 15 years and, over beers at La Catedral, a bar nearby, they exchange reminiscences of the Ochenio, as the eight years of General Manuel Odría’s regime (1948-1956) are still often referred to here.

Gen. Odría was fiercely opposed to the social democratic APRA, then led by its founder Víctor Haya de la Torre and today by Peru’s President Alan García. Gen. Odría entered politics in 1945 as Police Minister when the then President José Bustamante – who had attained office with the support of APRA – dismissed his Aprista Cabinet and replaced it with a military one including Gen. Odría. When President Bustamante refused to bow to military pressure to ban APRA altogether, Gen. Odría resigned but in 1948 he led a successful coup and became President.

While Gen. Odría was certainly close to Peru’s economic elites – he has been called “the instrument of the export aristocracy” – who trampled on civil rights and repressed the left, like Perón he was a populist who successfully buttressed the power of his utterly corrupt government by wooing the poor with expensive social policies. Gen. Odría, soon accepted by the US as a precious Cold War ally, was typical of a period that saw the left in Latin America defeated everywhere.

A leading Aprista lamented that “the year 1948 was terrible for everyone. Some sinister hand had decided to crush our hearts, not only mine, not only those of the Apristas, but the hearts of all Latin Americans”.

This did not stop APRA from allying itself with Gen. Odria’s Unión Nacional Odriista (UNO) to oppose the 1963-68 Belaúnde government.

This cynical pragmatism on the part of both the left and the right, this readiness to consort with the devil – for both sides had demonised each other in a previous political season – led to a bitter disenchantment with politics on the part of romantic idealists such as Mr Vargas Llosa’s Zavalita. Although his novel refers to the period 1948-1956, it was published in 1969, one year after leftist general Juan Velasco Alvarado deposed Fernando Belaúnde’s elected government.

It is also relevant that it hit the shelves one year after Cuban poet Heberto Padilla published his anthology Fuera Del Juego (Out Of The Game), an expression of profound dissatisfaction with the path taken by Fidel Castro’s revolution. Note that Vargas Llosa broke with Cuba precisely because of Mr Padilla’s imprisonment. From then on the Peruvian writer moved ever further to the right.

Many more Peruvians today will have heard and uttered Zavalita’s question: “En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?” (At what point did Peru get screwed?), than will have read through the book’s more than 600 pages. The Conversation leads nowhere and Zavalita does not provide a reply to his own question.

Not only does this otherwise great novel not inspire the reader to action but it discourages you from hoping ever to find an answer. You are led to despair that there is a way, left or right, to straighten out a crooked country.

The resolutely leftist César Vallejo (1892 – 1938) could not be a more different than Mr Vargas Llosa, although both contributed to elevating Peruvian literature to world stature and both are included in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon among those authors that have produced the most enduring works of world literature. His poem La Cena Miserable (The Wretched Dinner), published in his 1918 anthology Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds), is known to every educated Peruvian, especially the refrain “Hasta cuándo” and “y cuándo” (How long… when?)”. He asks: “How long shall we be waiting for what/is not due to us?” and “And when shall we see ourselves with the rest, at the edge/of an eternal morning, all of us breakfasted?”

Although a declared Marxist militant, Mr Vallejo, like Mr Vargas Llosa, is ultimately sceptical about the possibility of his country’s redemption.

I have just watched Movistar Peru’s clip Un Lunes Cualquiera (Any Given Monday) – you can do so too on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-mXiTFzhEs – and I can’t help marvelling at how well this brilliantly conceived advert (because, after all, that’s all it is) captures Peru’s present mood.

There is still plenty of poverty around, no doubt, as well as injustice and corruption, but there is an unprecedented will to move on and to overcome an almost fatalistic pessimism. I had not felt this during previous visits.

The ad quotes Mr Vallejo: “And when shall we see ourselves with the rest, at the edge/of an eternal morning, all of us breakfasted?” and then replies “Any Monday, Mr Vallejo, any given Monday.” Echoing Mr Vargas Llosa’s Zavalita, it asks: “And, hey, when will Peru get straightened out?” and then replies: “Any Monday, Zavalita, any given Monday.” I can’t help thinking that there is a lesson for us too in this. I’ll try to explain why next time on this page, on Monday after the next.

Mario Vella

February 25, 2010, Arequipa, Peru

This article appeared on Mario Vella regular Times of Malta column today March 1, 2010, and may be accessed in the original at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100301/opinion/any-given-monday