A Weakening 'Middle Class' Constitution
From a recently released report by Oxfam, the global charity organisation, we learn that eight rich people own as much wealth as half the world’s population in 2016. In 2015, when the report was issued, there was criticism of the report’s methodology. The critics argued that the report assumes wealth is assets minus debt. By this measure, a poor Indian farmer with little debt and little assets can end up “richer” than a Wall Street banker with little assets and a large student loan. These statistical issues aside, what the Oxfam report does show isn’t necessarily who is really poor in the world but that wealth is a good proxy for the ability (those with more assets than debt) to influence politics via legislation or campaign contributions. In India, as per that report, things are just as stark. The richest 1% of Indians hold as much wealth as that held by 58% of the Indian population. As provocative as these numbers are about the top 1%, the lived reality in societies is often determined by the interaction between those who earn 70-99% of income and those further below.
The idea of tiered representation
For much of human history, this kind of inequality was the norm and the real challenge was how to fashion a stable government. As usual, Aristotle had thought at length about it. In a democracy (rule by the masses), he wrote that since the poor were equal to the rich along one dimension (the freedom to vote), they would always vote to make everybody equal on all dimensions. Thus, confiscation of wealth and redistribution is the natural tendency of democracies, in response to which the rich would plunge the system into chaos. In an oligarchy (rule by the rich), meanwhile, the problem was that since the rich were unequal to the poor on one dimension (wealth), they would always vote to make everyone unequal on all dimensions. Thus, the oligarchs would vote to confiscate wealth and accumulate it, seeing which the poor would understandably revolt.
To address this problem, societies devised what scholars call ‘class warfare constitutions’. This type of constitution thinks of societies as comprising conflicting, if not warring, groups with different end goals. These constitutions devise a tiered system of representation which ensures that a majority of the population have a part (however unequal) in their daily governance. Thus, we saw guilds, communities, caste, and class-based representation in royal courts. After the rise of the republican system of government, specific Houses for specific classes came into vogue. The state could only be stable if the constitutional arrangement reflected the fragmentary nature of society itself. The historian Gordon Wood summarised it succinctly: “Unless [government and society] were reconciled no state could remain secure.” So powerful was this idea of tiered representation that even the great John Adams (the second President of the United States) argued that the U.S. needed two houses of government, one for “[the] rich, the well-born, and the able” and the other for “the common people of the country”. The Romans had this constitutive tension of classes in mind when they designed their government: a system of calibrated tensions that still impressed Niccolò Machiavelli nearly 2,000 years later so much that he called it “the perfect republic”. This perfection, the Florentine argued, was thanks to its patrician and plebeian division of government that kept different classes in check.
The ‘middle class constitution’
But all this changed in the era after the American Constitution was drafted in 1787 and the radical aspirations of the French Revolution began to permeate across the North Atlantic. Despite the heavy weight of historical evidence in favour of ‘class warfare constitution’, the American framers decided to buck this trend by designing what the constitutional scholar Ganesh Sitaraman calls a “Middle Class Constitution”. In this arrangement, there are no specific restrictions on who can belong to which part of the government. The poor could enter the Upper House, while the rich could be part of the Lower House. As Professor Sitaraman writes, the American Constitution was not “a design premised on the inevitability of class conflict”. The ‘middle class constitution’ was possible in the 1770s because America was a relatively egalitarian place (at least for the free white male population) blessed with a wide open space in its west and the absence of any feudal or aristocratic class that was historically entrenched. The entire voting population of the newly born country was the middle class. The prototypical tensions between the rich and the poor that Aristotle wrote about didn’t figure in this calculus. Since then this premise of radical equality of man across income or class levels has informed most constitutional arrangements, including India’s — even if material conditions that birthed such a framework have rarely existed since the 1770s.
A well-functioning “middle class” constitution relies on relative equality in income and accessibility to resources for self-improvement. This allows for a homogeneity in end goals and policies. Failing which, what studies like the Oxfam report tell us is not just that there is inequality of income, but that the inequality of power puts our democratic frameworks in peril. The strategically extremist positions that result in constitutional gridlocks will not just be commonplace, but also corrode the efficacy and originary promise of a ‘middle class’ constitution — the dignity of man. 
This column first appeared in The Hindu. Available at this link .