IN Papua New Guinea a growing middle class of urban, salaried people refer to themselves as the ‘working class’, distinguishing themselves from subsistence ‘grassroots’ workers who do not work (if work is understood as receiving salaries or regular payments for services).
Where urban wage earners were once regarded as straightforwardly ‘elite’, increasingly, middle-class budgets are coming under strain. In the face of rising costs of living, deteriorating housing stock and faltering services, discourses of nation and citizenship that previously included the middle class are becoming embittering.
The ‘working class’ people I engage with often speak of PNG in a tone of moral outrage, disillusionment or despair.
The middle class can no longer be assumed to be among the nation’s ‘elite’. Indeed, the now characteristic ‘working class’ lament is about the cost of living and the inadequacy of ordinary wages to meet basic costs. The ‘working class’ may be better described as the ‘working poor’.
Many ‘working class’ Papua New Guineans rely on ‘loan sharks’ to live from pay to pay. Even relatively well-salaried Papua New Guineans supplement their income with subsistence contributions from their own gardens or from rural kin. Many try to set up family members in small enterprises in order to expand the sources of household income.
For the PNG working class, the lines between licit and illicit blur as low wages, pay-day loans, petty bribes, small enterprises, gambling, microfinance programs and ‘fast money schemes’ make up a world of tenuous circulations of money.
The ‘working class’ are hardly elite when compared with those who wield real influence in PNG: senior public servants and powerful political patrons or the landowner rentier millionaires who capture the benefits of resource developments. The well-known blogger and political commentator Martin Namorong uses the term ‘predatory elite’ to describe these powerful figures.
Despite a booming economy based on mineral extraction, the state, or brokerage of access to the state, is still the centre of wealth creation for local elites.
Ken Good labelled the emerging bourgeoisie of PNG ‘the parasitic group’ because they ‘act as if the control of the state for administrative purposes was an end in itself’ and monopolise access to education.
The truly elite powerbrokers of PNG monopolise the resources of the state and ensure that those outside their patronage networks are locked out of access to education, employment and other prerequisites of social advancement.
Simplistically categorising the PNG middle class as ‘elite’ fails to capture their experience of economic precariousness.
Moreover, when low-level bureaucrats, teachers and nurses are described as ‘elite’, the operations of the real powerbrokers are obscured. The middle class of PNG should not be dismissed as an elite group, somehow detached from and unrepresentative of the true grassroots.
This poses too great a gap between the ‘working class’ and the ‘grassroots’, where there are often overlapping personal networks and political concerns.
Of course the ‘working class’ enjoy privileges that set them well apart from their village relatives (and that are often envied) but maintaining the categorical opposition between ‘elites’ and ‘grassroots’ obscures the plentiful interactions between these groups within PNG.
Indeed, there is evidence that middle-class opinions as found in newspapers are important in framing village discussions of social issues. My own work has argued that many ‘working class’ Papua New Guineans have a strong moral commitment to national development and are troubled by the poverty of their rural kin.
Many working-class people still anticipate returning to ‘the village’ upon retirement and so need to maintain good relationships with their rural kin. Interconnections between the grassroots, the middle class and the ‘predatory elite’ need to be recognised and better understood, especially where they coalesce around particular political issues, economic interests, religious movements or consumer practices.