Pakistan's Missing Middle Class

In most countries, it is the middle class – the bourgeoisie – who form the bulwark against radicalism because of their vested interest in property, business and the country’s institutions. In Pakistan, what middle class there is, and there isn’t much, is fragmented and almost irrelevant, which spells danger.

Only 17.33 percent of the population have incomes of US$4 a day or more according to the World Bank, meaning that only 17 percent fall into the category of middle class, as 3 percent are in the upper class, far below totals for other societies. Even this 17 percent figure is tricky because it doesn’t consider the fact that a reasonable portion of this economic subset lives in rural areas where it is ‘middle’ only because of its financial position, otherwise it is illiterate, politically disinterested and socially immobilized.

There are no examples in the country’s recent history in which the middle class played a constructive role in building the political discourse despite the fact that the steadying influence of a bourgeoisie is badly needed to counter both Pakistan’s violent fringes and the influence of the military. Behind the political lethargy is that the middle class is very much business-oriented and prefers to stay away from active politics. Restoration of democracy was not and still is not because of popular pressure as represented by the educated middle class, but was mainly a result of political compromise among political stake-holders—hence, the phenomena of Misak-e-Jamhuriyat (Pact of Democracy), and “friendly opposition.”

It is an income group that, like much of the country, is divided along ethnic, sectarian, linguistic, caste and “baradiri,” or “brotherhood,” and tribal lines. In fact, the entire political culture of Pakistan is based upon this particular sort of division in which political alliances are established, in the majority of cases, on cast and baradiri in which votes are cast on the same basis; in which election candidates contest election on this basis.

A look at the kind and range of occupations in which this class operates explains this deficiency more clearly. It becomes difficult to distinguish the middle class, especially its urban segment, in terms of occupation because the nature and kind of occupations it operates are much different from that of the upper classes. It can be said that Pakistan’s middle class can be found traveling in cars and spending money at places like McDonalds and KFC. Recently, in 2013, Procter & Gamble (P&G), one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies, declared Pakistan to be one of the top 10 emerging markets, thereby indirectly anticipating a reasonable increase in the so-called middle class.

For example, the middle classes can be found in all such professions which are usually associated with elite professions such as the armed forces, legislators, senior government officials and bureaucrats, technicians, and associate professionals. Although the middle class’s share of these elite professions is comparatively smaller than that of the upper class [ranging from 1 to 2 percent as against 3 to 4 percent of the upper class, as shown in a report of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, it does show some blurring of lines between the middle, upper middle and upper classes of Pakistan, leading further to convergence of business interests and similar disposition towards political and economic issues. In recent elections for example, the bulk of middle class in Pakistan from all provinces, especially Punjab, voted for the Pakistan Muslim League (N), which is known as a very business-oriented party.

Although it is divided, Pakistan’s middle class holds itself together along certain 'ideals' –religion being one of the most dominant, which does have the potential to cut across these multiple identities. But ironically, although the middle class in Pakistan does hold religion to be a very significant factor, the basis of the sectarian divide is this very religion. The middle class’s increasing propensity towards modernization, as is evident from the increasing number Western food and fashion outlets, stands in complete contrast to this religious strife. It is significant that this particular tendency is an attempt on the part of the middle class to defy the conservative stereotype of a traditional Muslim society and class plagued by violence, and to present a moderate and modern image to the outside world.

According to a State Bank of Pakistan report, the net profit of fast moving consumer goods companies increased by almost 20 percent in fiscal year 2011-12. Consumer spending in Pakistan has increased by an average of 26 percent annually over the past three years, according to a November, 2012 Bloomberg report – a strong sign that people are consuming more goods than ever before, thereby indicating a rapid increase in urbanization. It has been followed by the growth of supermarkets across major urban centers, which include, but are no longer limited to Karachi, Hyderabad, Multan, Lahore, Faisalabad and Islamabad.

Paradoxically, these figures are increasing despite the fact that Pakistan’s economic progress is in serious decline. The United Nations Human Development Report estimated poverty in 2011 at almost 50 percent of the population, with inflation soaring to almost 12 percent for 2011 before declining to a still disastrous 10 percent in 2012. Foreign remittances from overseas workers, which average about US$1 billion a month, are one of the very few bright spots in the economy.

One of the major problems is that the middle class is largely an urban phenomenon although 60-70 percent of Pakistan’s total population lives in rural areas, where literacy rates in rural areas are low and large numbers of people are associated with manual jobs that generate revenue sufficient to meet only the basic needs of life and that too barely in most cases.

The middle class is also very unevenly dispersed across four provinces as well as within these provinces. The provinces of Punjab and Sindh, having over 36 percent of the country’s middle class households, fare better than the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, which lag marginally at 32 and 28 percent, respectively.

Similarly, national patterns have much similarity with the provincial level. If we look at the inter-provincial differences, we find the size of the middle class to be positively associated with the proportion of the urban population in that province. The province of Sindh has the highest level urban population and that of the middle class (56 percent) in the urban areas.

The provinces of Punjab, Balochistan and KPK have progressively smaller shares of the population living in the urban areas, therefore, size of the middle class there stands at 55 percent, 50 percent and 49 percent respectively. Although increasing urban concentration apparently seems to increase the size of the middle class, however, on the contrary, the size of the middle class in the rural areas in all four provinces is, in fact, much smaller than their urban counterparts.

The middle class in Pakistan thus exists only in economic terms and operates in a non-political sphere. Therefore, it has become a trend to associate the presence of the middle class merely with rising consumerism. It should be noted that the concept of middle class is multidimensional and cannot be categorized in economic terms only. It is especially so in case of Pakistan, where the aspect of multiple identities warrant a broad perspective to analyze the middle class dynamism, its nature, its limitations and deficiencies.