On the front page of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, two unrelated articles pointed to a greater story.
The first concerned a 15- or 16-year-old factory girl in Bangladesh. Her name was Mahinur Akhter. She survived five weeks of burial in the collapsed garment factory where she had worked. A seamstress, she had earned $90-100 a month, essential to her family. Her father died in a traffic accident last year. She now struggles with fear of returning to rickety industrial buildings versus the needs of her mother and siblings. But the tragedy of the factories is part of a greater story of hope.
“For millions” in Bangladesh, the article noted, “global demand for cheap garments provides a chance to lift their families from destitution.” It continued:
Rapid expansion of the garment business has helped drive up income in a country that ranks among the world’s poorest nations. The number of Bangladeshis living in poverty has dropped by more than 25% since 2000, according to the World Bank. Growth in per-capita GDP averaged about 2.7% a year in the 1990s, compared with about 4.4% annually in the 2000s.
The second article concerned protests in Brazil. It focused on a young man, 14 to 15 years older than Ms. Akhter:
For Alexandre Peppe, the last decade has been great. The 29-year-old from the poor outskirts of São Paulo got a good job in state government, bought a car and became the first in his family to go to college.
All the same, he took to the streets this week with a million other members of Brazil’s new middle class over a wide range of grievances, from high bus fares to corruption and crime….
Amid Brazil’s boom, Mr. Peppe was able to find work, take out loans to pay for a new car and apartment, and took a second job to pay for it. As he marched, he took photos of face-painted protesters with sleek a Sony Ericsson smartphone.
But Mr. Peppe’s prosperity was matched by the bitterness for the injustices that he says came into focus as his life expanded beyond his neighborhood.
“The inequality is very sad, even revolting,” Mr. Peppe said. “And now, the population of Brazil is waking up.”
Much of the ire is directed at a political system that critics say affords broad impunity to engage in corruption while mostly ignoring the demands of ordinary Brazilians.
My point is that these two young people are part of the greatest force of our age — the rise of a global middle class. By “middle class” I don’t mean a family with a house in the suburbs, two cars in the garage and 2.5 children. Twentieth- and 21st-century America. The global middle class’s standards are far more modest. But in shaping their countries and the world, this burgeoning population is no less powerful than the American middle class (actually North American — Canada went through the same revolution at the same time as we did) has been here and globally.
The young Tunisian street vendor who set himself afire protesting oppressive corruption in his country was an example of the new middle class in motion, as was, in many respects, the entire Arab Spring. So are the massive population movements that have sparked debates over immigration in the U.S., U.K. and throughout Europe. So are the dynamism of and widespread unrest in China.
Many decades ago, in his classic volume Political Man, political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that rapid rises of wealth tended to spawn periods of radical politics. Lipset’s observation suggests that Islamofacism, too, may be an evil cousin in this otherwise enormously constructive family.
At root, of course, the global middle class is the child of two parents: the rule of law and free markets, both of which set up house and spawned offspring in hitherto unanticipated parts of the world following the Reagan-Thatcher revolutions of the 1980s and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. And as with all conceptions, to the union of law and markets came a thing divine: the breath of life that is the human spirit.
Some time ago I wrote about the implications of these developments. Since then, age has not withered them nor custom staled their infinite variety. And their child, the global middle class, has grown into the most vital and hopeful force in our times.