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Manners Make the Middle Class..

At the outset let me give due credits. This title is a copy of the title of JNU professor Dipankar Gupta’s October 11, 2010 TOI editorial. This article has set-up a chain reaction of thoughts. First it gave a general direction, as where I should look answer to a question that was stumping me for a good while now. Second, it has also set the tone for further questions – ranging from the abstract to the real.

First things first. We must have all read, heard, written, uttered the word Middle Class. Sometimes derogatorily and some other times approvingly. What is this Middle Class? – That was the question, which had always irked me. Who can be said be a part of the middle class? How can we identify the same? Is it good, or is it bad to be termed one?

It started off in the late 90’s, when I was doing entry strategy studies for different products for different Indian and overseas companies. All were going after this 300 million strong middle class – that was supposedly bigger than the big economies in other parts of the world. The Kelloggs, the Pepsis, the Reeboks, the Baskin Robbins, the GMs – all would have looked at this number. Sometimes contemptuously and other times salivatingly – and after a few years of entry many times contentiously. We all know many billion dollars have been lost [and obviously made by someone else] in the process running after this 300 million middle class. They all made mistakes not understanding what this middle class was. I certainly was baffled myself.

Later in life, when I realized the economic view of people is too simplistic and took a competency view or the potential to be competent view of people. This can be re-read as main-stream society or yet to be main-stream society – in terms of money, voice, resourcefulness. Who can make it and who cannot? Who is in the mainstream and who is not? This was another awesomely difficult question.

Both the economic indicator and social description approach of zeroing in on the middle class always led me to the same problem. Who is not a middle class? I could never eliminate anyone from the list. I guess this problem, must be around in others mind also for decades – because I remember family elders talking of how were middle class, others were higher middle class. I might have read somewhere that something called lower middle class also existed. We were always obsessed with defining and protecting classes! To me, then, they were just compartments, colony names, address, inanimate objects. Useless - because what families ate at home and how much they spent on education had no co-relation to the tags they were allotted. Other indicators, like number of dresses, number of holidays, number of dining out per month, were irrelevant as neither did I have the perception to observe the same nor did I hear others talk aloud about the same. I must have assumed that the figures were the same as ours [that is cipher or close to it] for all. Rather, most likely I wouldn’t have realized such indicators exist.

The point is simple. Despite priding on my ability to crack any problem – if I feel like cracking [that’s the self congratulatory escape route ;)]; this is one problem I was never able to crack and always let this problem linger in the sub-conscious till I crack it sometime.

I was always convinced that from the economic point of view – if one thinks that some who doesn’t need to optimize / economize spends can be called a ‘high’ or super affluent class. Or someone doesn’t have to plan an expense based on price tags. There would hardly any – considering there is no end for wants. Similarly if you want to remove anyone from the list based on consumption – it is difficult to pinpoint who. Travel to any village and any slum – one will see the Garniers, the latest Snack Food, the most convoluted design bike. So from an economic standpoint it is difficult to differentiate. So unless we draw simplistic mathematical straight lines, we cant zero-in on the middle class. People of the ilk of Ms. Rama Bijrapurkar may have an answer but I am very uncomfortable with the straight line approach. Not enough to take any business decisions.

Similarly, from the social indicator points of view. Mainstream versus not mainstream; or for that matter mainstream versus privilege stream discussion leads to clear pointers.

Mainstream versus not mainstream - the bottom of the pyramid rules. Everyone else is a puppet. Period. There are some many occasions when in a democratic set-up the supposedly weak are actually the ones which demonstrate strength in the form of an identifiable community. The more deprived a group, the more potentially potent. So one can be kept out of mainstream [unless they want] till they are ignorant that they are already mainstream. There are many ‘vested’ [actually they serve a cause they may not realize] interests to force a social equity and telling marginalized groups that they are mainstream.

Lets be clear no one is in privilege stream in today’s world merely because of social standing. All privileges are honestly more perceived by the others. The persons themselves who are considered privilege class, know pretty well that the so called privileges are ephemeral and whichever are more durable – come at a huge cost invisible to most. Symbolically speaking they have to either stand in the queue to buy rail tickets or they have to pay to a travel agent to get them one. And more importantly, no one really has the ability to make someone else knowtow to him at will [unlike during the times of kings and nobles – when the state machinery enforced the same]. Please understand any exceptions to the above prove the rule. You will not find a homogenous segment in any case.

This is what my facts, analysis were taking me to. Till I got stonewalled again and again. I never got the courage to make an inference with the above facts and analysis. Partly because of my own conditioning and partly because of the fact the boundary conditions didn’t fit the inference. It was clear that were no upper classes. There was no doubt there. But then how could all be middle class.

Isn’t the notion of middle class strong. Be in values, be it spend, be it aspirations. There had to be a middle class. Everyone in the world was using this term – even if my analysis showed otherwise. Finally Prof. Dipankar Gupta gave the answer. The co-relation lies in manners. Thats the commonality. Manners make the middle class. This cuts across economic well-being and social positions. There are no upper classes still. But what is being a vibrant and healthy middle class – the approved one - is quite clear.

He elaborates that technically [after the marginalization of the nobles] everyone is a part of the middle class. The starting point is when we understand and accept that social positions are interchangeable. How our manners are decided by how we behave with people whom we have never met in life before and whom we will never meet again. [I will add to this – who can not do you any favour or who cannot harm you in any way].

In addition he says a very very stunning thing [like all stunning things – this looks obvious when one gets to know of it] – and this is what started the slew of questioning in my mind [ref: para one] – that good manners from a welfare state. A state which gives consistent and high quality education and health to all irrespective of economic and social hierarchies. This is how different hierarchies tend to converge to each other and then [this is my addition] switch economic and social positions with regularity and without shame/arrogance – as the case maybe.

He also tells that, if we have to ape the west. We must ape their manners. Not fast cars and blue jeans. We have been doing that for decades but our social/intellectual/spiritual indicators have not changed much. He adds that the concept of a welfare state [late 1800s] got superimposed by a mass awareness [maybe craze] to be good, behave good. They together created the magic potion of good manners.

I am not suggesting, we take it up as it is and integrate into national policies. But we have a starting point, reference points and a whole new paradigm. In a sense our corruption and tardiness are disrespect for the person whom we are transacting and/or the larger society. What is invisible doesn’t exist and whoever is in front is to be bested? Better manner will solve this problem. Considering the fact that our disposable incomes and growing fast and we are moving towards a point when we will look for self actualization [that is why probably Europe did so in late 1800s], we will take a generation to correct this if we try now.

This will coincide with the 2040 Delhi Olympic Games [read the blog on CWG 2010] and we will all be swelling with pride in the run-up to the games.

I need to thank Prof. Gupta for triggering the blog. His editorial [http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/Manners-make-the-middle-class/articleshow/6724505.cms]. I felt was one of best I have read in my 20 plus years of reading TOI.

Bhubaneshwar
October 17, 2010
Ps: Long one I know…but let is go as it is..long and unedited..for now..:)

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