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"In democracies middle class is nation proper. The typical member of a national community is a member of middle class. When democratic governments need a social group they can address, a universal class that carries overarching, common interest of country, they appeal to middle class. This appeal, while it calls on a common interest, also acknowledges that there are conflicting interests within society. The middle class is not everyone, but it is majority and it represents what everyone else can become."
Russia has a long way to go to achieve this ubiquity. Its middle class, far from representing consensus, reifies growing abyss between haves and haves not. Its members' conspicuous consumption, mostly of imports, does little to support local economy. Its political might is self-serving. It has no ethos, or distinct morality, no narrative, or ideology. The Russian middle class is at a Hobbesian and primordial stage.
Whether it emerges from its narcissistic cocoon to become a leading and guiding social force, is doubtful. The middle class' youth, urbaneness, cosmopolitanism, polyglotism, mobility, avarice and drive are viewed with suspicion and envy by great unwashed - overwhelming majority of Russia's destitute population. Empowered by their wealth, new bourgeoisie, in turn, regards "people" with naive admiration, patronizing condescension, or horror.
Granted, this muted, subterranean, interaction is not entirely deleterious. It is social role of rich to generate demand by provoking in poor jealousy and attempts at emulation. The wealthy are trendsetters, early adopters, pioneers, buzz leaders. They are engine that engenders social and economic mobility.
A similar dynamic is admittedly evident in Russia - but, again, it is tampered by a curious local phenomenon.
Writing for Globalist, two Brookings Institution scholars, Carol Graham, a Senior Fellow of Economic Studies and Clifford Gaddy, a Fellow of Foreign Policy and Governance Studies described it thus:
"The eyes of Russia's middle class, on other hand, are figuratively directed downward, towards poor. In fact, as poverty in Russia increased dramatically in 1990s, middle class's reference norms shifted downward as well. As a result, Russia may be only country in world where 'subjective poverty line' is falling. That is, amount of money that Russians say that they need in order to stay out of poverty has been steadily falling over past five years. It is even below objective poverty line. For time being, at least, these curious Russian attitudes, along with existence of non-monetary virtual economy, have insulated country against political upheaval."
The list of anomalies is not exhausted.
The new middle class comprises embryonic legitimate business elite - entrepreneurs, professionals and managers - but not remnants of financially strapped intelligentsia. It is brawn with little brains. In dissonance with western Europe, according to a survey published in last two years by Expert magazine, majority of its members are nationalistic, authoritarian and xenophobic. Their self-interested economic liberalism is coupled with social and political intolerance. But two thirds of them support some kind of welfare state.
Thus, there are major differences between middle class in West and its ostensible counterpart in Russia.
The Russian parvenus - many of them women - do not believe their state, their banks, or their compatriots. They fear a precarious future and its inevitable calamities though they are not risk averse and are rather optimistic in short run. They keep their money under proverbial mattress, invest it surreptitiously in their ventures, or smuggle it abroad. They are not - yet - stakeholders in their country's stability and prosperity.
Often bamboozled by other businessmen and fleeced by a rapacious bureaucracy, they are paranoid. Tax evasion is still rampant, though abating. They trust in equity and avoid debt. Some of them have criminal roots or a criminal mindset - or are former members of Russia's shady security services.
Three fifths, according to Expert-Komkon survey, find it "hard to survive" when "observing all laws". "Strong leaders are better than all sorts of laws" is their motto, quoted by Izvestia. Generally, they are closer to being robbers than barons.
Early capitalism is always unruly. It is transformed into a highly structured edifice by ownership of land and realty (the prime collateral), protection of private property, a functioning financial system comprised of both banks and capital markets and just and expedient application of rule of law.
Russia has none of these. According to Business Week, bank deposits amount to 4 percent of country's mid-size GDP - compared to half of GDP in other industrialized countries. Mortgages are unheard of, deposits are not insured and land ownership is a novel proposition. The judiciary is venal and incompetent. Might is still right in vast swathes of land.
The state and oligarchs continue to represent a rent-seeking opportunity. Businessmen spend time seeking concessions, permits, exemptions and licenses rather than conducting business. The "civic institutions" they form - chambers of commerce, clubs - are often mere glorified lobbying outfits of special and vested interests. Informal networks of contacts count more than any statute or regulation. In such a mock "modern state" no wonder Russia ended up with a Potemkin "middle class".
Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, and eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He is the the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.