Middle Class Discontent Will Have Disruptive Consequences: An Interview with Lütfi Sunar

September 26, 2019

Slowing economic growth, cuts on living wages and narrowing opportunities for social mobility have led to a phenomenon of middle class discontent. This has manifested in a number of protest movements of which Brexit, the Yellow Vests movement in France, and Occupy Wall Street are but prime examples.
Lütfi Sunar

The growth of the global middle class in the 20th century was set to usher in an era of social and political stability. In recent times, however, slowing economic growth, cuts on living wages and narrowing opportunities for social mobility have led to a phenomenon of middle class discontent. This has manifested in a number of protest movements of which Brexit, the Yellow Vests movement in France, and Occupy Wall Street are but prime examples. Selahattin Emre Çelebi and Dr. Faruk Yasliçimen, Editor-in-Chief of Politics Today, spoke with Dr. Lütfi Sunar, Professor of Sociology at Istanbul Medeniyet University, about the underlying causes for middle class dissatisfaction and the reasons why it is manifesting in widespread social and political responses against the state. 

The rise of the Middle Class

Faruk Yaslıçimen: When, where and in which context did the concept of “middle class discontent” first appear? We would like to talk about it today. Can we start our talk with a definition of the middle class?

Emre Çelebi: Exactly, starting with a definition will be helpful. What exactly is the middle class? Does the concept correspond with the same thing in Turkey and the rest of the world?

Lütfi Sunar: Defining the middle class is the greatest challenge confronted in stratification and class studies. As Tony Atkinson puts it, the variety of definitions of the middle class is almost as many as the number of researchers and scholars studying the subject.

In the modern period, there were two main classes in the industrial world, which were relatively easier to identify. It is possible to define the bourgeoisie as a group owning capital or the means of production, whereas the working class can be said to consist of laborers earning their livelihood by performing manual labor in production processes. But the middle class fall into a space that is a bit hard to define. It appears as a category that encompasses those who are neither laborers nor capital owners in the industrial world, such as office clerks, civil servants, tradesmen and craftsmen, the petit bourgeoisie who perform their own professions freelance, and educated professional experts such as lawyers and doctors of medicine. According to this hierarchy, the working class is in the lower stratum, the capitalists constitute the upper class, while the rest remain “in the middle”.

Of course, talking about these classes does not mean talking about immobile positions. Classes are mobile structures. People can move between the classes, but the classes also have their own mobility. In particular, the systematic and structural changes in the economy can affect the composition of the classes.

With time and with the emergence of Fordism, a group who performed the office work of the working class and do jobs related to managerial works, accounting, marketing and sales started to expand gradually, along with the expansion of the working class. With the introduction of the welfare state, the scope of public services expanded, and the organization of the state was spread with dozens of workers including teachers, health officers, doctors, nurses, police officers, municipal officials etc. Consequently, a new group who do not perform manual labor appeared at that point, and thus emerged the phenomenon we call the expansion and growth of the middle class as of the mid-1950s.

Fritz Machlup found that those performing professional, managerial or administrative work outnumbered those performing manual labor in the United States for the first time in the mid-1950s. The roots of post-industrialism can be traced back to this period, proving that Machlup was a very far-sighted social scientist. His foresight has really come true, as he said that the founders of the new world would be the groups who engage in mental labor. In his study entitled White Collar, C. Wright Mills highlights a similar projection. He argues that the time of physical laborers was coming to an end, which would be replaced by a new type of laborer and professional.

Çelebi: White-collar?

Sunar: White or gray-collar. They are not exactly white-collared office workers and are not like physical laborers who used to work in factories in the past. This group of workers have grown in time. But in this case, we face a working life in which mental labor is performed in offices and employees are increasingly alienated from products, production processes, results or outcomes. We call this, as the expansion of the middle class. There are three classes in the general categorization: The working class, the bourgeoisie and the middle class. However, with the transition to the post-industrial world in the mid-1970s, we have witnessed a gradual decrease in the share of the industrial works, especially in the West. As of the 1980s, there have been waves of industrial shifts from the West to different parts of the world.

In the first wave, the shift was towards countries with a certain industrial background and infrastructure, such as Mexico, Brazil and Turkey. The second wave was to former Eastern Bloc countries; and in the third wave, China appeared on the scene as a giant global workshop of the world, whereas the fourth wave has been towards other Asian countries like Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Manual and factory work have been departing the West, in other words, industry has been migrating. This migration of the industry has left a giant gap behind, which has been mostly filled with professions based on the production of services that do not require physical labor since the redesign of the economy. So, sectors like transportation, marketing, advertising, finance, stocks, design and informatics are rapidly growing.

From Middle Class to Middle Classes

Yaslıçimen: This is when we start encountering people who work in plazas, these big, mall-like, and in many respects “sterile” spaces having its own culture of communication…

Sunar: The people who work in plazas or in the production of services… For example, a truck driver also works in the service sector as does as a computer designer or a professional who manages advertising projects. Therefore, from the 1970s, we started to use the expression “middle classes” instead of “middle class”. What does “middle classes” mean? At a certain point, different segments of the middle class affected in different ways by the new period started to emerge. A small group has experienced an upward mobility and become upper middle class. A smaller group who are referred to as the global managerial elite started to get key positions in global capital. Just below this group comes a new group called the “new middle class” consisting of educated professionals who work in managerial or expert positions in the sectors that flourished after the 1980s such as informatics, communication, design and finance. And below them comes the traditional middle class comprising teachers, police officers, and civil servants. The lower middle class, which is much bigger than the upper steps of the ladder, comes next. This stratum is much closer to the working class and earns less by working under harsher and more precarious conditions. We can go further and name more than a dozen other strata within the middle class. But the four or five strata I have briefly mentioned will be enough to get the gist of the notion of the middle classes.

Yaslıçimen: What are the positions of these new and larger middle classes in relation to the state? Are they always in favor of cooperation with the state? Have they constantly tended to reconcile with government-led changes?

Sunar: In the industrial period, the middle classes were identified with the state and the professions related to the state. Therefore, it was assumed that the middle class have a stance that represents public reason. According to this view, the middle class evokes moderation. It is thought that they are neither in the protest culture like the working class nor isolated from life like the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. So, they politically represent statism. They are not revolutionist or counter-revolutionist but depend on status quo. They are assumed to represent civic citizenship. For instance, the teacher who shaves and wears a necktie even on Sundays is a typical symbol of the traditional middle class, because he represents his status and vocation with his acts and sees these acts as a creation of a place for himself. Consider a military officer who sticks to the military lifestyle even on vacation, for instance. Such examples can be categorized into the traditional middle class as this class symbolizes the perpetuity of the state and institutionalism in some way. But all of these symbols dissolved in the new period.

The middle class is no longer attached to the state

Today, it is very difficult to associate the middle class with the state since civil servants constitute a maximum of one fifth of the middle class. The rest are in the private sector, and private sector jobs have been expanding much more. In addition, their lives are no longer as moderate and stable as before, and the income earned from these jobs dramatically decreased when viewing real income and their share in the national income. While only a small segment of the middle class achieves upward mobility, a large segment is moving downward in terms of social mobility within the new economic context.

Çelebi: Which period do you mean with the “new period”?

Sunar: After the 1970s for the world, and after the 1980s for Turkey.

Yaslıçimen: The period that started with Turgut Özal’s presidency of Turkey.

Sunar: This distinction is very clear in Turkey. 1980 is a clear-cut turning point in the history of Turkey because a lot changed starting from that year, including the economy, education, the political system, the constitution, daily life, media and arts. This turning point opened up a brand-new gateway to a world of neo-liberalism and globalization, where the state has a new form. But above all, the societal texture and class composition in Turkey underwent dramatic changes from this period. As new ways of enrichment entered our lives, a new group of rich people emerged along with a managerial-capitalist class who manages the work of this new group, whereas all the other social groups declined in terms of income level and prestige. This shift in prestige and wealth and the downward move in social positions, underlies the discontent we are talking about. The people who used to be in stable, prestigious and in somewhat privileged positions (they could be considered privileged since they did not perform physical labor unlike the working class) moved down to a position that is closer to the working class in which the jobs are more precarious and lower paying. This caused discontent in the middle classes.

Yaslıçimen: What exactly have they lost with this move?

Sunar: A citizen may not actually lose anything directly in his life. Mostly, social positions undergo a change rather than any person losing his or her position. To exemplify this, we can think of a municipal officer, let’s say a certain Ahmet, who has been doing the same job before and after 1980. In fact, Ahmet’s life has not changed very quickly, but the position of his job among all the other jobs has changed and moved downwards, which means that his share of the national income has decreased. Think of academics and doctors in both Turkey and the world. They have never reached their former income levels after the 1980s. The labor’s share in real income has been declining all over the world, especially the share of the working class and the lower middle class performing manual labor which has been drastically falling.

Çelebi: What is the reason triggering this?

Sunar: The main reason is the transition from the industrial world to the post-industrial world.

Çelebi: Does it mean the transformation of economic tools?

Sunar: In Fordist industrialism, the factory relies on a certain space, so there has to be an integrated facility. Also, the state has to back this facility. But this factory structure has disintegrated in the new period. For example, consider today’s automobile production processes. A car’s different parts, soft and hardware come from different places. The parts of a car can be made in many different countries and built up together in another place. What we today call an automobile factory is the facility where assemblage takes place. In the Fordist era, on the other hand, all the production processes were made in integration with each other in one facility.

The disintegration [of the factory structure] also reduces capital’s dependence on space. Therefore, capital and production can easily change place or geography, which gradually weakens the position of labor as opposed to capital and decreases their bargaining power. As a result, all the jobs based on labor decreased in value, leading to a loss in social status. Back in the day, a university graduate would directly find a job that could offer a life-long career and a relatively high income once he or she received his or her degree. But this is no longer the case. Today, nine out of ten university graduates do not know what kind of a career they are going to pursue. In most cases, they have to work for years to be promoted to a prestigious position. Only a few people who are on a lucky streak can achieve a decent position and income.

Yaslıçimen: Which occupational groups have risen or declined during the post-industrial period?

Sunar: Some managerial jobs and jobs based on expertise have risen. Sector-wise, sectors like marketing, informatics, communication, finance, design, media and advertising have come to the fore. Of course, not everyone in these sectors experienced the same boost, the high professionals, experts and managers have been the main groups benefiting from this. In other words, the occupations that constitute the essence of the post-industrial period have moved up.

Today, the ratio of this group in all professionals is around 2-3 percent in Turkey, and 1.5-2 percent in the world. This group, namely the upper middle class, represents the winners of the middle class. We cannot classify them as bourgeois since they do not own capital. No matter how high they earn, they are still employed on a salary basis and earn money with their labor. Below this group is the “new” middle class. This new middle class is composed of people employed in less senior executive or expert positions in these rising professions. Although their status seems to have increased at first sight, their income level and social status have not actually changed compared to the previous period. But their work relations and connections have undergone some changes as they have shifted from more steady and routinized relations to more flexible and mobile ones. This is the reason why they are called the new middle class.

And below this group comes the traditional professional groups whose income level, prestige and authority are less than before. Routine white-collar professions are in this group, such as bank officers, teachers, police officers and military officers. The ratio of this group in employment markets is around 10 percent whereas the ratio of the lower middle class is around 40 percent. The lower middle class comprises truck drivers, bus drivers, office clerks, employees performing routine tasks in plazas, municipal officers etc.

Yaslıçimen: Are there any indicators to identify the upper middle class and the new middle class? How can we understand their social status more easily?

Sunar: Images of the new middle class do especially manifest themselves in social spaces. The new middle-class imagery could formerly be seen in satellite towns and gated communities, and in residences in the new period. The shopping malls that emerged in the mid-1990s reflect the consumption habits and lifestyle of the new middle class. It is possible to see the upper middle class in golf clubs, more elite building complexes and entertainment venues requiring membership.

Yaslıçimen: So, a hierarchy emerges as the middle class is stratified into subcategories. Those in the upper group are earning more while the lower groups are drawing closer to the working class.

Sunar: Drawing closer to the working class is the key point here. They are not workers in the conventional sense, but they still work in positions similar to workers. It can even be said that the conventional factory workers used to have more advantages, their jobs were guaranteed, they had trade unions and more social rights, but today’s white-collars do not have any guarantee or union, plus they work precariously. This situation creates two kinds of discontent. Those moving downward are discontented due to the decline in their status, and those moving upward are discontented since they could not achieve the higher position. Meanwhile, the new middle class is discontented since they could not increase their income level as they thought. Consequently, all segments of the middle class are dissatisfied and complaining, which lead them to revolt and protest, eventually causing a political and economic instability.

There is no such thing as “conservative bourgeoisie”

Yaslıçimen: Does this discontent have different reflections in conservative and secular groups in Turkey?

Sunar: No. It is only a myth that the conservative and secular segments in Turkey are in different positions in business and market relations. The expression “conservative bourgeoisie” is commonly used, but there is no such thing as conservative bourgeoisie. Bourgeoisie is bourgeoisie. If we want to employ such terms, then we need to look at the position of the bourgeoisie in capital and production relations. In this context, secular or conservative tendencies of people do not matter much. It only makes sense to say if an employer is secular or conservative. If we want to describe the bourgeoisie, then we should define the bourgeoisie according to its position in capital and business relations. So it is not relevant whether they have conservative or secular tendencies. This situation is unfortunately the result of the fact that cultural concepts in Turkey interfere with every realm and leave everything undefined.

Yaslıçimen: So, can we talk about the conservative bourgeoisie or conservative employers in Turkey’s case?

Sunar: If we want to make a mention of the conservative character, then we should say conservative employers.

Yaslıçimen: Then such a class does not exist.

Sunar: Exactly! As I said, once we utter the word bourgeoisie, we have to build our definitions according to certain determinants. The bourgeoisie is defined according to the position in capital and business relations. I think the main question we need to ask at this point is why the definition of conservative bourgeoisie attracts so much attention in our day, or why studying the conservative bourgeoisie or the conservative middle class has become a trend recently.

Çelebi: They have started spending more and become more visible and effective in society.

Sunar: Yes, all of these could happen. But they are only inferences that are on the surface and pertinent to the results. But we are mainly interested in processes and underlying causes. I think insisting on adding the adjective “conservative” to a phenomenon that should be defined within business and capital relations is caused by the presupposition that the people moving up to certain positions should not or cannot have a perspective or a lifestyle that cares for and prioritizes certain values and moral codes. According to the general opinion, the bourgeoisie should be secular (as is the case in the West). Similarly, the people achieving upward mobility are expected to have less interest in religious principles. Due to such presuppositions, it draws attention when an executive in a global company fasts. However, business relations must be the focal point while talking about the middle class. There is a conceptual confusion here, two different concepts and theories are combined in a wrong way. These notions do not complement each other when juxtaposed. After this characterization, it is often discovered that the conservative bourgeoisie does not act different from the secular in business relations, which is presented within a discourse of degeneration as if it was a big discovery. And this enjoys considerable interest.

Yaslıçimen: What are the results of this polarizing discourse?

Sunar: There is a discursive fiction. In fact, we can mention the inability to understand a social reality since the determining roles of class structures are obscured by cultural concepts.

If there is an established bourgeoisie, what is worth examining is the inequalities arising in the formation process of this class. The main focus should be on how these inequalities could be compensated. If the inequalities are created by public or supported with government policies, it is crucial to approach the subject independent from the political identity of the bourgeoisie.

Yaslıçimen: Then, should these concepts be analyzed separately?

Sunar: Yes, exactly. They are essentially separate notions. The manifestations and meanings of conservatism and the positions of conservatism in business economy and market relations should be analyzed separately. It should be noted that these two cannot be put in the same equation. I think this situation is peculiar to Turkey. Social scientists are always trying to make sense of Turkey with cultural and political concepts. However, as in all societies, Turkey has certain economic relations and behavioral patterns that go beyond political stances. In today’s Turkey, business relations are capitalistic relations in legal, economic and social terms. The universe that determines business relations in Turkey and the global world is capitalistic. The dynamics of this capitalistic universe must be considered while analyzing people’s behaviors in professional or economic life. So, if you expect a citizen to behave in a completely religious manner in the network of capitalistic relations, you will unavoidably be disappointed. Also, finding out that all the relations are shaped in a capitalistic framework would not add a new perspective to the analysis. This is obvious. If you pour a bottle of water into an already contaminated pool, what can you expect? The water you pour will also be contaminated inevitably. We can analyze the business, market and capitalist relations in Turkey only with a class-based examination. Employing any other method will yield no results.

In fact, this perspective should be employed while approaching any other social phenomenon. Bryan S. Turner says that if you add the class aspect to any phenomenon, it turns into a sociological phenomenon. I am really fond of this argument. The primary element that shapes today’s modern society is capitalism. Therefore, all social spheres are affected by class relations. For example, people’s voting behaviors in Turkey are always analyzed with a focus on the conservatism-secularism dichotomy, worldview, and moral values. But the relations make more sense when we analyze the subject in the framework of class positions. But unfortunately, hardly any study in Turkey has the components required for such an analysis because questions that would analyze socio-economic status are not asked in studies. We have asked such questions in the research we have conducted within the past five years, and obtained very interesting results. A substantial part of those describing themselves as conservatives belong to the lower middle class or the working class, which is conceivable. A large part of those calling themselves liberals are from the new middle class. And those who see themselves as social democrats do generally belong to the upper middle class rather than being in the working class, which is interesting. Considering all these components, we see that class positions are more effective than worldview in determining political stances.

Çelebi: So middle class discontent is not a new phenomenon.

Sunar: The answer changes depending on what we mean by “new”. They used to be content with their lives during the Fordist era since there was a working class below them, who worked systematically in their guaranteed jobs and had a certain level of income. Compared to the working class, the middle class was more educated, enjoying a better status, doing more respected jobs and earning more. So, they were happier back then as both the system and the state respected them.

Çelebi: But this situation started to change as of the 1980s, leading up to the middle class’ discontent. How has the trajectory of this change been as of the 2000s and 2010s?

Sunar: Actually, there is no distinct and visible line between the classes. We invent certain limits to understand the society in a better way. Class status is a nominal term in this sense. We come up with some definitions and categorizations that encompass phenomena. Consequently, we need to know that these categories are open to change. So, the current connotations of the middle class concept are very different from that of 50-70 years ago. Analyzing the two in the same way will be misleading. And it would be wrong to say that today’s middle class is not content whereas the middle class of 50 years ago was because what we are referring to are two different phenomena although both are called the middle class.

There is actually a better way to analyze social status than categorization. We can explain the phenomenon more effectively if we distribute the socio-economic positions in society on a scale of 1 to 100. The left side of the scale (those closer to 1) shows the people who earn less, get less respect and have less guarantees, while the right side (those closer to 100) earn more, get more respect and have more guarantees. There is a broad in-between space, in which a small part is closer to the top and a large part is closer to the bottom. If we can figure out the lines of this division, we can specify the main dynamics of the discontent. It is seen that fewer people are moving upward while the number of people moving downward is growing. This trend is obvious in income and wealth distribution. Annually published global wealth/income reports for countries indicate that both income and wealth are increasingly accumulating at the hands of the top while the share of those below is decreasing. To give an example, in the United States, the bottom 70 percent owns only 8 percent of the overall wealth, whereas the top 1 percent has 47 percent of the national income. This is a dramatic divide. The share of the top 1 percent is equal to that of the remaining 99 percent. And the same tendency of accumulation in the top is also observed within the top 1 percent. According to TURKSTAT data, the share of the top quintile group in total revenue increased by 0.2 points to 47.6 percent in 2018. The share of the bottom quintile group with the lowest income fell by 0.2 percentage points to 6.1 percent. So, we can argue that the main reason for discontent is this yawning gap in the distribution of wealth and income.

But this divide does not cause a total welfare loss. The number of goods and services is increasing while their prices are decreasing with the improvement of production techniques and the formation of new energy and raw material resources. Easier access to goods and services reduces costs. Therefore, a welfare loss at the rate of revenue loss has not occurred so far. It can even be said that a welfare growth has been observed in some areas. For example, air travel is no longer a luxury. And various technological products can be purchased at cheaper prices. Increasing global production and cheapening goods subsidize the welfare loss to some extent. But we also know that 99 percent of every added value is owned by the top 1 out of the 100.000. So, the accumulation of wealth and possessions is growing more and more disproportionate, which inevitably causes discontent.

There is another significant difference between the middle class and the working class: A worker wakes up early in the morning, goes to work, performs physical labor and returns home in the evening. He is happier even though he earns less, because he does not even think about the other lifestyles in the world. But a well-educated person in the middle class working at a mid-level job bears witness to the lives of others who are above him in terms of social status. He sees the wealth, spending and lifestyle of the people in his job environment and faces the fact that they are not very different from him. So, he is overwhelmed when he compares what he has achieved to what he might have achieved, which leads to discontent and unhappiness.

Yaslıçimen: Can the discontent of growing masses pave the way for street protests or any other kind of political activism that can be taken to the margins?

Sunar: We have already witnessed such situations. The Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S. was a middle class thing. The yellow vests protests in France and the Gezi Park protests in Turkey were also reflections of middle class discontent. Although having different motives, all these movements had similar backgrounds. Moreover, this discontent creates political instability. For instance, Tsipras in Greece and Macron in France were elected although they had limited public recognition. In Britain, people voted to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum. All of this happened due to the political mobility and the unrest of the middle class.

Yaslıçimen: How far could this go? And what might be the ultimate consequences?

Sunar: If this unrest continues, it will increase populism in democratic systems, trigger xenophobia and strengthen right-wing liberal political movements. And if it gradually increases its influence on nation states through democratic means, nation states might evolve into protectionist and introverted economies. The discrepancy at this point is between the middle class and the upper class. In other words, there is a discrepancy between the capitalists who want to steer capital on a global level as they wish without it being contingent on a certain space or country and the groups who can manifest themselves with their democratic right to vote and can create mass mobility and influence with street protests. This seems to be the case. But this discrepancy turns into a political one since governments and traditional parties are today controlled by big capital almost everywhere in the world. For this reason, new actors with limited public recognition can appear and might cause sudden changes in the political scene.

Yaslıçimen: Can we argue that the trust in international institutions and organizations is gradually declining?

Sunar: Of course. Having right-wing or left-wing allegiances does not matter in the stances adopted against international institutions and organizations. We are facing a more fluid situation here. For example, the Gezi Park protests were valorized as if they were a leftist-socialist movement. When Loic Wacquant said in a speech he gave at the Boğaziçi University that Gezi was a middle class movement, people resented him. But he had a point. This contradictory position is really curious. Complaining about the global capitalist system while working for capitalism in plazas and banks represents a destructive objection rather than being constructive. The trade union movement of the working class, on the other hand, was constructive. The worker does not wish for the shutdown of the factory but rather wishes the continuity of its productivity as he makes bargains on the basis of wages. But the discontent, reaction and protests of the new middle class have a disruptive character since the ongoing processes and desired results contradict. And this contradiction creates a disruptive tension.

Çelebi: So can we say that middle class discontent is completely economic? Or are there any other reasons?

Sunar: This generally reverberates as a lifestyle issue in Turkey. But this perspective stalemates the debates on the subject. It is argued that Turkey confronts a political polarization, but what we really confront is an economic polarization. The parties assumed to be comprising the poles feed on the discourse of political polarization, so they like this discourse. They consolidate masses with this discourse, their followers are whetted against the opposite side and do not question them. So, economic polarization is the real issue Turkey faces. The divide in income distribution has been sharpening in the country, forming a greater polarization.

Yaslıçimen: But everyone in the same category does not give the same reaction. Aren’t they motivated to make different choices due to their ideological allegiances? A conservative and a secular of the same economic status might display very different voting behaviors.

Sunar: Their discontent is the same although their voting behaviors are different. Today, a person in the upper class who votes for the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) can also be dissatisfied, indisposed, and complaining about things, and we see that a Republican People’s Party (CHP) supporter in the same class also complains about the same things. These groups generally complain about the absence of institutionalization, the inability to establish a legal order, that human rights are not safeguarded to a sufficient degree, urban spaces are not well organized, and environmental concerns are not respected. All these complaints actually reflect the values peculiar to their class. Viewing both sides (the AK Party and the CHP electorate), we see that they have the same class-based values. On the other hand, voting behaviors have started to change according to class. For example, only a small minority in the global managerial class is voting for the AK Party, this can easily be observed with a spatial analysis. Similarly, only a small group in the lower class is voting for the CHP. This is mainly because of the fact that the AK Party favored and protected the lower classes with its social policies and dissemination of public services. But the middle class has declined in the meantime, so the middle class support to the AK Party has also declined.

Çelebi: Why have we started talking about this discontent only recently?

Sunar: The discontent in Turkey started with the privatizations of the late 1980s. Turkey joined the global economy during the 1990s, and this participation became more open in the 2000s. The traditional middle class (with small and fixed income) declined in terms of income level and status in this period. The AK Party became the ruling power due to this discontent. The party was expected to implement more integrated, democratic and liberal policies that would be in line with the global economy. The party achieved this during its first eight years in power despite some ups and downs. But the dynamics of the global economy and finance hampered the realization of some expectations. At first, the welfare level of the middle classes increased at a quick pace with cheap dollar inflow, but long-term loan repayments caused this artificial welfare to recoil once the collection of revenues began.

Çelebi: Do you think liberals in the West and in Turkey supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan between 2002 and 2010 due to this factor? Can we argue that there has been some ups and downs as to the level of discontent?

Sunar: Yes, this factor can be said to be effective. The country’s economy has grown in that period, some facets of the economy expanded, especially the areas favoring the new middle class widened, middle class consumption was subsidized with cheap credit policies. There has been ups and downs in the level of discontent, but the discontent sharply increased and reached a point of no return after 2010. It started to grow especially when the middle class’ share in the national income decreased and real wages fell.

Yaslıçimen: Does the wish to compensate these losses with the benefits of government have a role in the dissatisfied middle classes’ desire to have ruling power?

Sunar: The middle class does not have anything else. They do not have capital, or a consolidated movement as in the working class. Plus, they are educated and have high expectations, so the government and its means are important to them. Also, the middle class wants to use its influencing potential, since it is an educated group competent to form public opinion. For example, they want to use the influence and power of social media since they have access to information and are competent to use and manipulate it. So the middle class wish to influence the state by using this potential. They want to influence the state and public policies, therefore they tend to support autocratic governments or populist political movements.

Where will middle class discontent lead?

Çelebi: Do you think middle class discontent or the mobilizations in the middle class will continue in the following period? Can you make any future projections?

Sunar: A sociologist’s task also involves predicting the future. According to general expectations, the global economy will continue the trend of accumulating capital in certain hands. It seems like the taxation, production and incentive policies will continue to be shaped in a way to support big capital all across the world. So, we can foresee that the loss of the middle classes will increase. And this indicates that some mass movements triggered by unrest and inclined to authoritarianism might emerge and cause instability in politics. This prediction foresees a structure that destabilizes countries to a serious extent not only in a certain region but worldwide.

Today, big capital cannot be excised in almost every country, we are observing this all over the world, not only in Turkey. Capital has obtained such an autonomy that it can easily change places, shift from one country to another with only one click. There are trillions of dollars on tax free islands we have never even heard of. This capital acquires a nature that destabilizes the entire world. Currently, the daily capital mobility is three times more than the daily transfer of goods in the world. So, we can talk about a huge non-tradable money circulation, which shows that there are speculative movements of money. Global capital and commodity markets are detached today, just like the detachment of mortgage loans from real estate values. Consequently, a very small minority who increasingly hold speculative capital power has authority over political mechanisms, dragging the world into instability.

Yaslıçimen: Thank you for this very pleasant and seminal talk.

Sunar: It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.

Faruk Yaslıçimen received his BA from Istanbul Bilgi University, MA from Bilkent University, and PhD from Ludwig Maximillians University of Munich. Yaslıçimen is the Editor-In-Chief of Politics Today and Assist. Professor at Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul.

Selahattin Emre Çelebi studied political science at Bilkent Univetsity. He holds an M.A. from the Department of Arabic and Islamic Civilizations at the American University in Cairo.