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Why the middle class matters

Commentary on Victoria Lawson with Middle Class Poverty
Politics Research Groups Decentring poverty studies: middle
class alliances and the social construction of poverty
Ananya Roy
Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley, USA
Correspondence: Ananya Roy (email:

Vicky Lawsons (2012) essay Decentring poverty studies is an important contribution
to ongoing scholarship on development, global capitalism and politics. More broadly, the
work of the Middle Class Poverty Politics Research Group is both ambitious and vital.
Three contributions must be immediately highlighted. First, Lawson challenges dominant poverty knowledge and its sanctioned ignorance of the social relations of class. In
doing so, she repoliticizes the poverty question, taking us beyond the developmentalist
frameworks of poverty expertise that tend to dominate the poverty debates. Second,
Lawson presents the middle classes as aspirational, and thus as key to any understanding of postcolonial modernities. To frame middle class power thus as articulated
through aspirational projects of hegemony rather than simply exercized through crude
acts of oppression is perceptive. Finally, Lawson (2012: 10) asks a crucial question:
how, when and where [do] middle classes act in solidarity with or in opposition to the
poor? The Arab Spring, with its complex cross-class alliances, has shown the urgent
relevance of such a question in todays world. In this brief commentary, I explain how
Lawsons essay establishes a new agenda of research and why such an agenda is of
considerable significance.

The elusive middle class

In a recent essay, Diane Davis (2010: 241) presents a rather stunning trend:
Recent estimates from the World Bank indicate that the worlds middle class is expected to
grow from 430 million in 2000 to 1.15 billion in 2030; and that the greatest growth will occur
in the developing world. While in 2000, only 56% of the worlds middle classes lived in the
developing world, this figure is expected to reach 93% by the year 2030 with China and India
alone expected to account for two-thirds of all this expansion.

Davis (2010: 243) notes that with this expansion comes a new interest in the middle
classes of the global South, one that tends to view the middle classes as market
actors . . . whose newfound income lifts them out of poverty sufficiently to grease the
wheels of an interconnected global system of production and consumption that will in
turn sustain these newly emerging economies. Indeed, as Aihwa Ong and I have
argued, the bold claims of an ascendant Asian economy that are so popular in India
and China constantly implicate the middle classes in the making of Asian futures, and
especially in the construction and inhabitation of the Asian world-class city (Roy &
Ong, 2011).
Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 33 (2012) 2528
2012 The Author
Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 2012 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and
Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd


Ananya Roy

But as Davis acknowledges, the concept of the middle classes is notoriously slippery.
Are the middle classes best defined by income and wealth? By patterns of consumption?
By cultural politics? Lawson too presents the middle classes as multiple and fragmented.
As argued by Baviskar and Ray (2011) in a new book on the Indian middle classes, the
middle class must be understood not only as heterogeneous and internally differentiated
but also as a powerful unifying idea that can exert cultural dominance and drive political
change. The work of the Middle Class Poverty Politics Research Group involves what
Lawson describes as a relational methodology meant to trace the middle classes
through their relations with subordinate classes and specifically the public issue of
poverty. Lawson rightly argues that such relationality unbounds the problem of poverty
and decentres poverty expertise. But it can also be argued that such a methodology
transforms the study of the middle classes and thereby the study of development and its
attendant politics. Especially important is the question of whether or not the middle
classes, as key subjects in the aspirational project of postcolonial development, can act
in sympathy and solidarity with the poor. In many instances, the evidence points to the
contrary. For example, in the case of Indian urbanism, which I study, the making of the
world-class city has hinged on violent evictions of the urban poor of squatters,
vendors, pavement dwellers. Such forms of erasure and exclusion have been supported
by the urban middle classes as a reclaiming of the good city and as a protection of the
urban commons. This theme of spatial order, championed by the middle classes, shows
how the political activism of the middle classes often eschews class rhetoric and takes up
civil society causes (Davis, 2010: 256). In the case of the Indian city, the insurgent
middle classes have asserted their identity as consumer-citizens (Fernandes, 2004:
2427), thus orienting their politics around the themes of leisure, safety, aesthetics, and
health (Baviskar, 2003: 90; see also Ghertner, 2011). Of course the urban poor have no
place in the good city.
Middling modernism
The relational methodology advocated by Lawson (2012: 2) enables an understanding
of poverty as an ontological object, as a theoretical concept and as an object of
intervention. In other words, it can be argued that the management of poverty is a
technology of subjectivity, a phrase I borrow from Ong (2006: 6) to suggest the ways
in which poverty action serves as the grounds of subject-making. In my own work (Roy,
2010), I have been interested in tracing how the intimate mediations of poverty action
from volunteerism to philanthropy are a key dimension of millennial modernity and
its formations of (neo)liberal benevolence. Lawsons essay urges us to consider modernity as a set of relations between the middle classes, in their fragmented heterogeneity,
and the poor, constituted as the object of intervention. This, I think, is of great value and
it raises the question of the sites at which such relationality can be studied. Lawsons
essay suggests the making and unmaking of welfare policy as one such site.
Yet another site is evident in the work of Ray and Qayum on cultures of servitude.
Ray and Qayum (2009: 2) position domestic servitude as a dense site, one that makes
possible the study of the constitution of classes through the study of the emotional and
moral textures of quotidian relationships of inequality. As Ray and Qayum (2009: 18)
note, Indian middle classes distinguish themselves from classes below . . . by boundarymaintaining labor. The quotidian tasks of managing the home and servants thus
becomes an essential part of the experience of modernity (Qayum & Ray, 2003: 548).
I am interested in such social practices of modernity, in how various classes find a zone

Commentary Why the middle class matters


of comfort in capitalism (Chakrabarty, 1999: 144). Ray and Qayum remind us that such
forms of dwelling in modernity are inevitably fraught with anxiety. In cultures of
servitude, for example, the servant is never invisible (Ray & Qayum, 2009: 62).
These formations of modernity are of course not new. Lawson signals the colonial
histories that have shaped the making of the middle classes as actors of postcolonial
modernity and the emergence of poverty as the persistent dilemma of postcolonial
development. It is with such colonial genealogies in mind that I have titled this section
middling modernism, as a reference to Paul Rabinows seminal analysis of colonial
modernity. Rabinow (1989: 13) argues that as a field of interventions, colonialism
sought to act not only on high culture and practices of everyday life but on a middle
ground, which constituted efficiency, production and welfare as sociotechnical objects.
Social technicians deploying technical procedures were the practitioners of middling
modernism. Perhaps such too is the case with todays poverty question. Poverty management, as the work of social technicians, is yet another site at which the middle classes
come to dwell in modernity.

Arab springs?
How the middle classes maintain boundaries with the subordinate classes is the work
of much scholarship from that on gated communities to the study of cultures of
servitude to the analysis of technocracies of poverty management. The revolutionary
aspect of Lawsons (2012: 13) essay, I believe, is her exploration of social alliances
between middle and poorer strata for example how middle class groups have in
certain places and times, exercised substantial agency in support of widespread social
protections in global North democratic states. In other words, Lawson (2012: 8)
investigates how shared spaces or zones of encounter are also where moments of
social alliance are activated. I see this as revolutionary because it leaves open the
question of middle class politics. In particular, it shows how the various crises of
neoliberalism from the debt crisis of Argentina to the crisis of authoritarian austerity
in Egypt have impoverished the middle classes. Can this new poverty serve as the
basis for cross-class alliances? Lawson suggests that at certain historical conjunctures
this can indeed be the case. As the Arab Spring continues to stir our imagination,
such sutures of social solidarity demand attention. Their possibility and their
fragility are intriguing. Why is it that in some cases such social alliances seem out
of reach?
After all, I write this commentary from Berkeley, California. One of the worlds
wealthiest economies, California is home to a middle class increasingly ravaged by
unemployment, foreclosures, and cuts to social spending and basic infrastructure. Can
this generalized condition of precarity shake up the myths of socioeconomic mobility
that until now have been at the heart of the California dream? Can a politics of solidarity
be forged between old and new forms of exclusion, between the historically precarious
subject marked by race and ethnicity and the emergent precarity of hitherto unmarked
middle class whiteness? Vicky Lawsons essay reminds us not to turn away from these
questions, for they are fundamental to our collective futures.
Baviskar A (2003) Between violence and desire: space, power, and identity in the making of
metropolitan Delhi. International Social Science Journal 55 (175), 8998.


Ananya Roy

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