New Delhi — The year that flees us this weekend was violent and hopeful, angry and generative. Was it a good year? It depends where you stood — among the old or young, in the sclerotic West or vital East, in a surging Arab square or gilded Arab palace.
It felt like a year unusually pregnant with consequence. From Tunisia to Egypt to Libya to Japan, from a royal wedding to child murders in the Norwegian woods to a maritime funeral for a terrorist overlord, from a reconfigured Europe to the end of the United States’ adventure in Iraq, one had the sense of events skipping from the happening straight to the history books.
Such a portentous year is inevitably full of colorful characters. But one colorless protagonist deserves special mention for making the world what it was this year: the global middle class.
Around the world, middle classes ordinarily devoted to the pursuit of washing machines and flatter screens decided this year, more forcefully than in recent memory, that the world was their problem. In Moscow, in Cairo, in New York, in this Indian capital, they set material pursuits aside for a time and embraced the sublime inconvenience of politics.
Until recently, the conventional wisdom held that the swelling global middle class, which has become a human majority by some accounts, was “willing to let the powers that be — whether authoritarian governments or elected ones — call the shots as long as they deliver the spoils of growth,” as a Newsweek editor put it in early 2010.
A long line of thinkers, going back to Aristotle, had spoken of the middle as an enforcer of democracy and the rule of law. But here was a new secessionist bourgeoisie, enthralled by globalism, freed by gadgets and gated communities to disconnect from their compatriots and live with few responsibilities to their surroundings in a flashy globoscape.
And then this year, they seemed to return to the public square.
The Tunisian street vendor who lit the spark of the Arab conflagration did not belong to this growing middle. But the T-shirt-and-BlackBerry-wielding digerati who turned his protest into a movement did, and they didn’t secede. Or rather they seceded from secession. They criticized themselves for having kept silent all those years, for taking refuge in the bounties of private life and ignoring the rotting commons. And they plunged in against interest.
“Before the revolution, it was mainly talking with my friends, saying that the current situation is not okay, that the poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. We said it aloud in local cafés but never participated in protests or did anything about it,” Ahmed Harara, a 31-year-old Egyptian dentist, recently told Time magazine. But the protests stirred him, and he wandered into Tahrir Square, where a rubber bullet stole one of his eyes in January. Undeterred, he continued to protest after the regime’s fall, now against the military rulers that supplanted it. In November, another bullet took his remaining eye.
Not dissimilar protests have swelled this year in China and Russia, where observers have noted that middle classes once contented with merely private successes have changed their tune. “Much of the middle class is still more interested in prosperity than in law or democracy,” David Remnick wrote recently in The New Yorker. But burgeoning, outraged Internet postings and conversations with Russians make clear that something really has shifted — how permanently is not yet clear, but with the germs of a middle-class civil society forming.
One of Mr. Remnick’s interlocutors compared its formation to “the moment when water, though extremely cold, is still liquid — and then, suddenly, with the addition of a single crystal, changes form, turning into ice.”
In democracies like India, dissent is far less novel. But in 2011, it was not the Indian masses who went on strike or amassed in public. It was the thriving middle class, which showed stirrings of a new political consciousness to counterbalance the narrower ambitions that have defined it for the last many years.
Their leader, the Indian anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare, has managed to do what once seemed impossible: distract the new middle class from its pursuit of phones and promotions, and refocus it on achieving effective, honest governance.
As some observers have pointed out, the rage of India’s middle class suggests that it is beginning to play the role that other middle classes have historically played: harboring a new customer-supplier expectation of government as “providing services for which they pay with their tax money,” as Vinay Sitapati put it in The Indian Express.
And so a middle class that seemed until recently to be consumed by growth alone has this year embraced the notion that India will only be as powerful and prosperous and livable as it is well-governed.
And far away in the United States, though the facts of the case are different, the middle class asserted itself with profound consequences in 2011. The story was less about a new middle class finding its voice than about an old middle class that feels itself going extinct. The Tea Party and the Occupy movements alike have strong roots in the American middle class, and though their diagnoses differ, each contends that collusion between the U.S. economic and political elites is making it ever harder to survive in the mere middle.
As the middles found their voice this year, in the United States and around the world, what lost out was the kind of comfortable complacency that the novelist Jonathan Franzen depicted in his novel “Freedom”: middle-class secessionists with “no larger consciousness, no solidarity, no political substance” — people like Mr. Franzen’s character Patty Berglund, who cared only for “her children and her house — not her neighbors, not the poor, not her country, not her parents, not even her own husband.”
Source: New York Times. A version of this article appeared in print on December 31, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune. Follow @nytimesworld for international breaking news and headlines.