SWITZERLAND, AUGUST 26 – All over the world, the middle-class has one thing in common: heightened identity consciousness. They are usually educated, upwardly mobile, urbane, and extremely sensitive to negative perceptions. As such, they see themselves and assess their self-worth and actions through their collective identity; and they do everything possible to hang on to this slippery class category. After all, it is all about class struggle in the classical sense of it – especially between the upper class and the working class.
Trapped in-between the working class and the upper echelon of society, it becomes necessary for the middle-class, as the name truly signifies, to remain visibly and ostentatiously aloof to the struggles between the bottom and the top of society. They obviously need to be different to sustain their identity.
In Nigeria, for example, they like to impress and be impressed. They profess global tastes and keep up with trends. For the extreme version of this class, prosperity is their new religion. No one cares, as long as it translates to money. Money speaks; money works. They drive good cars; have good jobs and houses; and their children go to very good schools. Some people in this class think that living the Nigerian dream is to build personal kingdoms (e.g. people overleveraging themselves to belong), living in houses and driving luxury cars they cannot afford, putting their kids in schools where they chase them to pay fees after they have gone on summer holidays on borrowed money! They find a way to isolate themselves from the wretchedness around them. They shield themselves from the masses. They create islands in ghettos.
The moderate ones are savvier than this. They appear to display a high level of social consciousness and try as much as possible to appear to live above board. They seem concerned about societal challenges and do their best to recognise the plight of the poor and downtrodden in society. Charity, for them, is now a badge of honour and classy one too. In its classiness, charity becomes a true arena for power relations between the donor and the recipient. Through this, both are symbolically locked-in as long as the donor requires the recipient to validate his or her gifting identity and brand – an essential hallmark of the commoditisation and consumption of charity in the true sense.
However, sometimes, the middle-class appear to out-do each other in their newfound hobby of social outreach. This inclination to competition is not strange. It is part of what it takes to be upwardly mobile and core to the market society.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian institutional context is rather weak and inefficient, which makes the situation precarious. Notwithstanding, the middle-class prefers addressing the outcomes of poor and weak institutions to rethinking and strengthening the institutions, in the first place. This makes sense because addressing the institutional gaps automatically blocks their source of competitiveness and undermines the significance of their acts of charity. Thinking about it, the neglect of institution building is a rational behaviour to deal with clear conflicts of self-promotion through charitable giving.
This preference for informal solutions to societal challenges makes the benign Nigerian middle-class agnostic. In their agnosticism, they find refuge in some degree of moral purity and high horses to sustain their reach and identity. They like to act well from their own perspective and feel good about that. Of course, they are not your average Nigerian in love with ethnic and religious bigotry. They appear to live above board and the rancour of ethnic and religious bickering in the country. Even if they engage in these acts in their secret places, they would rather let what happens in Las Vegas stay in Las Vegas. After all, it is uncivilised, inurbane, and shameful to be caught up in those shenanigans.
In their wisdom and moral high horses, such crude behaviours are for the political elites and the working class, who are perpetually and publicly set against each other in a class struggle. In other words, it is the hobby of the political elites to feed the working class with all sorts of ethnic and religious bigotry to remain in power and further impoverish the latter. An act the former has almost raised to the level of perfection.
Despite the good works done by the middle-class in Nigeria, their subtle and disguised claim to moral purity and social neutrality is both interesting and worth exploring. Studies on White middle-class, for instance, suggest that these claims of living above board are often expressions of denials. It is a way of deflecting instead of confronting the ills of society head-on. Through this means, members of the middle-class distance themselves from the ills of society and pretend they are outside of the sources or causes of such societal ills.
Presented as such, this obvious denial becomes a coping mechanism to deal with the contradictions between their perceived privilege and the social inequalities around them. Through this denial, they exonerate themselves and inadvertently blame the other classes – the elite for their highhandedness, greed, and insensitivity; and the working class for their perceived lack of opportunities. In this case, the problem is the other and “the other is hell” is realised. Therein lies the arrogance of the middle-class portrayed as benign benevolence.
This “othering” invariably creates a false sense of moral goodness amongst the middle-class, which often goes unchallenged. At the heart of this “othering” is also a threatened self, masquerading as moral purity. Thus, they are shielded away from societal resentment like the proverbial ostrich.
The act of living above board and simultaneously in denial is a paradox, which is often taken for granted. However, the paradox offers an opportunity to understand and appreciate human nature trapped in dynamic contradictions. It provides a space to make sense of the co-existence of stupendous wealth and abject poverty and how this odd co-existence is peppered through irrational justifications and rationalisations.
Trapped in contradictions, the perfection of human nature becomes an exercise in futility and imbalance becomes the only constant. In that regard, the middle-class will always be in the business of pretending to live above board and eventually in denial. Denial, therefore, simultaneously becomes a way of making sense of and coping with the exigencies of existence.
In other words, is living a lie the elixir of the middle-class?
Kenneth Amaeshi is a policy analyst and professor of business and sustainable development at the University of Edinburgh. Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org (email) and @kenamaeshi (twitter)