How the middle class is responsible for perpetuating poverty

I am no fan of communist regimes and their totalitarian ways. In Bengal where soaring unemployment was blamed on the disastrous Left trade unionism, I grew up reading sordid tales of repression and watching forlorn black-and-white pictures of ill-clothed people waiting in long food queues on the streets of the so-called Eastern Bloc.

By the time I left school, it was time for perestroika and glasnost. Once the euphoria settled down, streamed in a set of very different stories. No, nobody missed the iron curtain but, suddenly, most people in erstwhile Communist states were finding themselves much worse off in the new democracies. The western pundits hastily told us that those were merely teething troubles of free market economy, unemployment was actually a precursor to entrepreneurship, and things would soon look up.

The rich get richer and the poor, poorer. AFP.

The rich get richer and the poor, poorer. AFP.

But many years later, East Europeans continue to flock to the big West European cities (and elsewhere) for menial jobs. When my wife spent a few months in a London apartment in 2011, all members of the cleaning staff, except for a lone Pakistani, were expats from East Europe. Most of them were too young to remember life during the Communist era.  But the broken English of the elderly ones did not belie their agreement with the sentiments of a Hungarian writer none of them ever read.

Three years ago, I read Zsuzsanna Clark’s candid piece -- Oppressive and grey? No, growing up under communism was the happiest time of my life – in the Daily Mail where she recalled watching BBC shows on TV and reading PG Woodhouse among other western writers in Communist Hungary. My first impression of her sugary nostalgia was sceptical. But travelling through parts of central and east Europe this month, I met many who echoed her views.

Contexts permitting, the officials and even tourist guides in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland were always emphatic in their criticism of Communism. Even those I met informally still resented the restrictions on travelling outside the Eastern Bloc countries, and the overwhelming control of the bureaucracy (and the party) on even petty administrative matters. One’s loyalty was too frequently on demand.

Yet, nobody complained that they had a bad life. Not only in Hungary where Stalinism was replaced with a particularly liberal and altruistic Kadarism after the failed rebellion in 1956 but also in the former Czechoslovakia. A young professor I met in Prague dismissed with a hearty laugh my query if he had grown up on a modest diet: “There was always enough to eat, unless you insisted on bananas which were considered exotic and one required to queue up for such stuff. Milk, meat and bread were plentiful; and, frankly, do you fancy bananas?”

The broad consensus among those I spoke to was that no other government made the working class feel more secure: “Everyone would get a job after completing education, which was free. So were health services. The state spent generously on arts, literature and sports. Books and operas were affordable to all and not only the elites.” So why did they topple the Communist governments?

Some blamed it partially on political repression. Others claimed that the majority, particularly the working lower-middle class, was never against the Communist rule. Of course, corruption was, as always, a major issue. Yet, almost everyone agreed that the gloomy economic picture of the Communist rule was predominantly Western propaganda.

“In a way, the counter-propaganda (of the Communists) made sense.  The state tried not to expose us to the Western world. If our people started aspiring for those needless excesses of life, the basics such as job or healthcare could not be secured for all. Anyway, the middleclass was always unhappy. They wanted their consumer brands and they have it all today. But the poor has lost his job guarantee,” summed up a 40-something government employee in a Budapest pub.

Nothing can be more apt in our Indian or the global context of poverty. Few people can afford the wasteful American middle class life that consumes three times the food and 250 times the water required for subsistence. Now add to that the other energy requirements of such a lifestyle and we would need at least four times the earth’s resources to support such a living standard for the global population.

In India, the promise of a socialist state was merely rhetorical. Our feudal socio-economic and political system did not allow equity and fuelled poverty over decades. Then, two decades of economic reform has made the fast-swelling middle class aspire for the so-called good life. The many advocates of reforms have been promising that the benefits of growth will eventually trickle down to the poor. They also cite examples of underprivileged youths making it big, thanks to the opportunities spawned by the new economy.

Unfortunately, no economy can create wealth out of thin air. Depending on its prudence, all it can is to better manage and maximise the gains from utilisation of finite resources and distribute those dividends equitably to ensure that even the socio-economically weakest have enough to get by. But, forget the increasingly wasteful Indian middle class, if even those on the margins of poverty aspire to meet impossible benchmarks of good life, the poor will keep getting poorer.

Updated Date: May 20, 2013 10:10 AM

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