A Middle Class

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In economic systems in which everyone is free to trade to the best of their ability, and where legislation protects against exploitation, one also often finds a broad middle class. This middle class includes, among others, workers, peasants, officials, academics, traders, artisans, artists, civil servants, and other public officials. This is the backbone of a democracy. It is the middle class that ensures economic stability and prosperity, and it is the middle class that has the spare time and energy to engage in politics. Members of the middle class population also share a common interest in maintaining a well-functioning society. These interests are not necessarily shared by the members of an upper class, who can afford to pay for their own benefits.

People who cannot afford daily necessities, rarely have the surplus energy to engage in thinking about long term projects or to participate in politics.

One might argue that in a welfare state (countries with public welfare) the middle class is expanded to include people who are unable to support themselves and that the welfare state is thus a guarantor of democracy: the state protects itself against having a very large poor underclass.

But one can also argue the opposite: that in the welfare state there are so many people dependent on social welfare from the state that there is no incentive to improve one's own situation, nor any freedom left to make policy.

Both arguments are valid and illustrate another of democracy's dilemmas. The reason that both arguments are valid is that people vary greatly. For some, the social welfare system provides a permanent reason not to work or contribute to society; for others, the social system provides temporary help to avoid serious financial problems.

Without the middle class

To illustrate how important a middle class is for democracy, one can, for example, take Russia. It has frequently been argued that one reason political power in Russia always ends in the hands of a small elite group is that the country has never had a middle class or "bourgeoisie". While the economic system in Western Europe, from the 1300s onwards, gradually created a greater and greater middle class of artisans and tradesmen in the towns, there were, in Russia, only peasants and landowners. When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, there were virtually only peasants, workers, soldiers, nobles and landowners. There was no large urban population of independent artisans, bankers, merchants, factory owners, traders, officials, educators and artists, as was the case in the West.

In the West there were mainly two things that led to democratic development in the 1800s. Firstly, the bourgeoisie wanted political power commensurate with their economic influence. Secondly, there were many groups with different interests in society, fighting among each other for power and influence without any one group winning an absolute victory.

In Russia, the Tsar, the landlords and the aristocracy were able to keep the workers and peasants oppressed until the Revolution because workers and peasants had no economic power.

Next chapter: Secure and Recognized Borders