The Long View : New middle class

The Long View : New middle class

First posted 11:36pm (Mla time) Nov 07, 2004
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Inquirer News Service

Editor’s Note: Published on page A15 of the November 8, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

IN HER article, “Let’s Lapu-Lapu together” (PDI, 11/6/04) Asuncion David Maramba pointed out something I’ve been saying all along: the crisis of the middle class. She noted: “Everybody knows that the middle class is or should be the backbone of democracy. The very poor is democracy’s burden; the unmindful super-rich, its embarrassment. But our educated middle is leaving our shores. The very poor can’t, except to DH, to OFW, to TNT. The very rich won’t, except to travel back and forth. Picture our emerging, catastrophic demography.”

As far as I know, no one has written a history of the Philippine middle class. If someone were to do it, I’d think he’d find the 1920s to the 1970s its most vibrant period-a period of two generations when much of modern Philippine progress, not just economically, but also intellectually and politically, took place.

The 1920s saw the emergence of an English-speaking middle class that became involved in business, in politics and the arts. This class 


experienced its baptism of fire in the war and rose to prominence in the 1950s. It went through its crisis of confidence in the first quarter storm and came to the beginning of its demise with its embrace of martial law. It redeemed itself with Edsa in 1986. After hopeless infightings that resulted in the Estrada presidency, it tried to redeem itself again in Edsa II. However, the vision and numbers it had in 1986 it somehow failed to get right in 2001; although it still had enough residual power to prevent the rise of Estrada Part 2 in Fernando Poe Jr.’s candidacy.

It is said that in Britain, the upper classes established schools to prepare the lower and middle classes for inclusion in the ranks of the wealthy-either as bureaucrats, managers or clerks. Thus, while economic progress saw great social transformations, the changes remained firmly tied to the principles and manners of the landed aristocracy. A similar pattern can be said to have emerged in this country in the early decades of the 20th century. The factories of middle-class culture-that is, their clubs and schools-enabled the transmission of upper-class values and culture to the middle class. And that class, aside from rubbing elbows with the wealthy, created institutions that were dedicated to the transmission of middle-class culture as well. For example, the middle class sent its sons to Ateneo and La Salle to learn the ways of the wealthy, as its daughters did in the Assumption; for the less socially mobile, there were the public schools that trained and taught those without means to adopt the values and ways of the middle class.

These were the families whose fathers lived in the cultural environment of Unilever, or Ayala y Cia, the Soriano and Elizalde companies, RFM, Philamlife and so on. These were the people who went to public school or the so-called “second tier” universities, such as the Mapua and the University of the East, or took law at Manuel L. Quezon University. They all progressed such that they were able to build their own homes, buy cars and send their children to college. It was their children in turn, caught up in the worldwide environment of questioning the social order, that whipped up the First Quarter Storm. Reacting in panic, the parents embraced martial law.

The nature of totalitarian governments is such that they exchange social change for reactionary repression, ensuring stability in the short term but, in doing so, pawning the future. The most negative achievement of martial law was to render the old middle class politically, economically and intellectually impotent. It stopped growing, and began to fade away. Many of its best and brightest emigrated; worst of all, it began to shrink. It has been shrinking for over a generation.

What is taking its place? A new middle class, deprived of the sense of cohesion and belonging instilled in the 1920s to the 1970s by the institutions of church, club and school. I am convinced pockets of this new middle class lacking in a fundamental sense of community are emerging throughout the country. Through overseas jobs, or such opportunities as can be found with the proliferation of call centers, many poor people and descendants of the old middle class are attaining middle-class economic status. They are finally able to buy their own land and car, and even put up a business.

With middle-class resources, they develop certain attitudes: an instinctive defense of the concept of private property, for example. In a sense, their new-found prosperity also means a kind of liberation-from involvement with, and the impact of, national issues. Politics and government become a hassle to avoid; established religions and schools become irrelevant; culture becomes unattractive and pales in comparison to the cultures and thoughts of other peoples. The paradox, however, is that since there is no transmission of culture from one generation to the next, there is no corresponding guarantee that the gains of an individual will be preserved for posterity. Filipinos who find opportunities for economic independence abroad face the danger of parasitic relatives dissipating hard-earned wealth; and of an increasingly suicidal political class on the right and left ruining the country.

If Maramba worries of an emerging catastrophic demography, I’d suggest that the catastrophe is already here. But as with any country, out of catastrophe comes change: and that change, so scattered as not to be noticed but present nonetheless, actually means we have a new middle class.

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Comments welcome at

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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