It all depends on the middle class

The middle class has traditionally been seen as the source of most of the good things in modern society –its commerce, science, art, politics. In a famous analysis, the political scientist Seymour Lipset argued that the chances for democracy improve when the social system shifts from an elongated pyramid with a large lower class base to a diamond shape with a growing middle-class. ‘A large middle class’, he wrote ‘plays a mitigating role in moderating conflict since it is able to reward moderate and democratic parties and penalize extremist groups’. Thus the degree of ‘embourgeoisement’ of Russian society is the best indicator of its possibilities.

How large is the ‘middle class’ in Russia today? ‘Real Russia: Trends and Prospects’, a recent report of the Institute for Public Projects, estimates it at about 36 per cent of the population. However, 19 per cent of this group are ‘blue-collar workers’ who are middle class by income, rather than status. If we exclude this group, and include just the managerial and professional class, the middle-class percentage drops to 17 per cent. If we add to this the top two tiers of the ‘blue collar’ class –highly skilled and workers – the number goes up to 25 per cent.

This means that the Russian social system is still far from diamond shaped. It broadens out from a tiny class of top managers and highly qualified specialists (1.8 per cent of the population) to 60 per cent classified as living ‘in poverty or destitution’. Although changing, the social structure is still more Latin American than western European, with a small favoured elite and a large impoverished mass, classic conditions for oligarchy ( rule of the small upper stratum) or populist dictatorship. However, a high proportion of the poor and destitute (31 per cent) are pensioners whose incomes and attitudes remain stuck in Soviet times. This stagnant mass of poverty will disappear naturally over time.

Middle-class Russian incomes are still very low by middle class standards in ‘old’ Europe and the USA. The average middle class household income is about $55,000 a year in the UK compared to $6000 in Russia. It is true that it is relative income which defines the economic hierarchy within a single country, but the absolute amount of income is still important for shaping social attitudes. The higher the income, the more international travel and access to information. Less than 5 per cent of Russians take holidays abroad compared to 35 per cent of Britons. The proportion of the Russian middle class which has had higher education, and owns motor cars and personal computer is much lower than these indicators in the developed countries.

None of this is to deny that the pyramid is broadening out. Prosperity is expanding, poverty is shrinking. As the report above documents, most people were NOT ‘better off’ in the Soviet Union. The favourable change is due to the expansion of Russian capitalism. The more people work in the capitalist sector of an economy, the greater a country’s prosperity and the larger its middle-class.

‘Real Russia: Trends and Prospects’ divides ideologies into libertarian, liberal conservative, social conservative, social populist. As one would expect there is a high correlation between class and ideology, with the better off financially and socially being markedly more libertarian and liberal conservative than those below them. It would be far too early to say that the social prerequisites for democracy exist in Russia, or indeed that there may not be other factors like religion, territorial scale, history, and international tensions which will abort a western-style c development. The projection is that if economic growth continues Russia will be more democratic at the end of Medvedev’s presidency than it was at the end of Putin’s. It will be interesting to see whether this turns out to be true.