Harry Pettit, London School of Economics
The rise of a Global Middle Class has been lauded by development institutions, the media, and academia as a signpost that development and inclusive growth are taking hold across the Global South. This research interrogates that notion by delving into the lives of Egypt’s ‘middle class poor’ which, according to Asef Bayat, consist of educated, aspirational youth who must reside on the margins of Egypt’s neoliberal economy in low-paid, low-skilled, low-status employment. It explores the daily lives of unemployed young male graduates in Cairo as they attempt to access the middle class life – and city – of their dreams. It asks how youth negotiate their exclusion from aspirational modes of middle-class urban living – defined in recent years through access to professional private sector employment, modern consumption, and global connection.
The research therefore examines the politics of hope. In order to deal with a disconnect between aspiration and present reality, young men endeavour to enact hope for future mobility. Enacting a hopeful present rests in part on inciting their own autonomy, on the meritocratic belief that success is dependent upon attitude rather than privilege. Through sites such as employment training programs, self-help books, even religious teachings the city offers up this enticing possibility. I argue that this produces symbolic domination by keeping youth tied to a cruel form of optimism in which they maintain focus on themselves as determining of life chances. The project therefore seeks to expose how contemporary arrangements of inequality productive of immense material violence are being legitimated on a symbolic level.