The Third Culture Denis Dutton

The Gradual The Growth of a Prosperous Middle Class in China and in India

Few large-scale, gradual demographic changes can be expected to generate headlines. The exceptions are those which point toward catastrophe, such as the widespread belief a generation ago that the population bomb would doom millions in the third world.

In fact, the most significant unreported story of our time does deal with the so called third world, and it is the obverse of the panic about overpopulation. It is the story of the gradual growth of a prosperous middle class in China and in India.

The story is truly dull: yes, millions of Indians can now shop in malls, talk to each other on cell phones, and eat mutton burgers and vegetarian fare at Mcdonald's. Such news goes against the main reason for wanting to cover Indian cultural stories in the first place, which has traditionally been to stress cultural differences from the West. That millions of people increasingly have a level of wealth that is approaching the middle classes of the West (in buying power, if not in exact cash equivalence) is not really newsworthy.

Nevertheless, this development is of staggering importance. Middle class peoples worldwide, particularly in a world dependent on global trade, have important values in common. They share the values they place on material comfort. They borrow in living styles from one another. They appreciate to an increasing extent each others' cultures and entertainments. And they place an important value on social stability. Countries with prosperous middle classes are less likely to declare war on one another: they have too much to lose. In the modern world, war is a pastime for losers and ideologues; the middle classes tend to be neither.

When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in India in the 1960s, I accepted the conventional belief that south Asia would experience widespread famine by the 1980s. My first surprise was returning to India in 1988 and finding that far from moving closer to famine, India was richer than ever.

Now in the computer age, and having abandoned the Fabianism of Nehru, India is showing its extraordinary capacity to engage productively with the knowledge economies of the world. China too is will contribute enormously to the world economy of the 21st century.

The story does not square with many old prejudices about the backward Orient, nor does it appeal to our sense of exoticism. But the emerging middle class of Asia will change the human face of the world.

DENIS DUTTON teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He writes widely on aesthetics and is editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. He is also editor of the Web page, Arts & Letters Daily. Prof. Dutton is a director of Radio New Zealand, Inc.