Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Fri Mar 4th 2011 at 7:30am UTC

The Revolt of the Creative Class

Some have already taken to calling the events in the Middle East “the Arab 1848.” Future generations, perhaps, will talk about the “spirit of 2011” when the ground begins to crumble beneath their own autocracies.

But are the same factors at work today as they were in past revolutionary surges? Some are undoubtedly similar – throngs of disgruntled people have taken to the streets, questing for freedom and economic opportunity.  Others, like the use of social media from YouTube to Facebook and Twitter, are undoubtedly new and different.  Do the unfolding events of 2011 fit with our existing understanding of revolution or might they warrant updating?

By far the most influential and infamous account of revolution comes from Karl Marx. In The Communist Manifesto, authored with his benefactor and collaborator Frederich Engels and published in the real 1848, Marx argued that that revolutions are an inevitable and necessary outgrowth of economic development.  The rise of industry and of an emergent capitalist class upended the old feudal order while ushering in a new more dynamic but inherently unstable capitalist system. As the capitalist class rises to new heights, Marx wrote, the working class is simultaneously expanded and immiserated, sowing the seeds of the next revolutionary impulse and its own demise.

Revolution = size of working class, exploitation of working class, working class consciousness and organization  (working class papers, trade unions, labor parties).

Many alternative accounts of revolution have been proposed since Marx’s day. In nations where capitalism emerged early, the rising bourgeoisie was able to secure a power base independent of the aristocracy and usher in a process of gradual democratization, according to Barrington Moore classic, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Countries whose economies developed later were more likely to undergo abrupt transformations. Students played a key role in the revolutionary uprisings of 1968; the same era saw the rise of the civil rights movement in the United States and of the women’s and gay liberation, environmental, and anti-war movements in the advanced nations.  These “new social movements” came to be seen a new driving force behind political activism.

The uprisings of 2011 however owe much of their impetus to the working class and labor movements as well as young people and students, according to the Middle East expert Juan Cole. Rising unemployment rates, stagnant wages and falling living standards prompted blue-collar workers to return to the barricades.

But a new generation of techies, social media types, and digitally savvy professionals have also played a visibly important role. Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who became the public face of Egypt’s uprising, is the veritable archetype of this Creative Class, spanning science, technology and engineering professionals, management and business executives, doctors, health care professionals and lawyers, as well as arts, culture and media workers.  In an emotional interview recorded immediately after his release from detention, Ghonim pointed explicitly to the role that Facebook and YouTube music videos played in Mubarak’s ouster. “We’re the youth who loves Egypt,” he declared, “And we did this because we love Egypt.” Intellectuals and artists as well as students have long participated in revolutionary movements, but usually in subsidiary roles. This time creative class members are part of the vanguard.

In identifying the creative class role, I do not intend to diminish the role of unions and various other political, religious and social movements that have driven this and other seasons of revolution. I simply aim to call attention to this key factor that has become increasingly salient to the surge of revolutionary activity occurring today.

Using data from the International Labor Organization, the map below charts the percentage of the workforce in the creative class in the Middle East and around the world.

The highest percentages of the creative class –in the range of 40 to 45 percent – are found in wealthy, advanced nations like the Netherlands, Singapore, Australia, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada.  Egypt’s creative class comprises roughly a third (33.1%) of its workforce, on par with the United States (34.8%). Only Israel – where the creative class makes up 40 percent of the workforce – has a higher creative class share in the Middle East.  The creative class looms larger than one might expect, numbering one in five workers in Saudi Arabia (23.2%), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (22%), Qatar (21.8%), Syria (21.8%) and Algeria (21.4%). These levels are higher than in the rapidly growing nation of Brazil (18.4%) and roughly triple that of China (7.4%), the world’s second largest economy.

Not all countries collect and report data on their creative class and other workforce categories. These figures are lacking for Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya, and Kuwait in the Middle East, as well as several dozen other countries in the rest of the world.  So I also use another closely related measure that is more systematically available for a larger group of nations – the level of human capital – the percentage of the young adults engaged in post-secondary or “tertiary” education. This measure is closely related to creative class workforce (with a substantial statistical correlation of .75).

The map above shows the human capital levels for the Middle East and the world. The top ranked nations on this measure – Korea, Finland, the US, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, and, perhaps surprisingly, Greece – have more than 75 percent of their young adults enrolled in tertiary education. For advanced nations like the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Japan the figure is 55 to 60 percent. Israel is the highest ranked Middle Eastern nation on this measure (57%).  But several other Middle Eastern nations are also quite high, notably Libya (53%) and Lebanon (49%). Tertiary enrollment levels are higher in the West Bank (38%) and Jordan (35%) than they are in Hong Kong (34%). And tertiary enrollment levels are above 25% in Bahrain (31%), Egypt (29%), Tunisia (28%), and Saudi Arabia (27%).  Tertiary enrollment in Iran (24%) and the UAE (23%) are roughly the same as Brazil (23%).

Typically, creative class and human capital levels are very closely associated with economic development. Nations with substantial creative class shares and levels of high human capital tend to be among the richest in the world. But for many Middle East nations, the standard of living is lower than their creative class and human capital levels would seem to warrant. This gap is a signal of unrealized economic potential. It can help account for the pent-up social stresses that stem from a country’s inability to translate the talent, creativity, and ambition of its smartest citizens into greater levels of economic development and well-being for its citizens. This frustration is pronounced not just among those who are unemployed or locked in dead-end jobs, but also among those who do have flourishing careers with leading global organizations— Ghonim being a clear case in point.

With the help of my colleague Charlotta Mellander, I developed a simple metric to gauge this.  We created simple ratios, dividing the creative class percentage of the workforce on the one hand, and human capital levels on the other, by the level of economic output (GDP) per capita.

Revolution = size of creative class, the unrealized potential of creative class (ratio of creative class to GDP), creative class consciousness and organization (internet and social media access).

These measures are not perfect. Still, the results are intriguing and shed light on an important, heretofore neglected factor in revolutionary movements.

The map above shows the first of these ratios – the creative class to GDP ratio – for the Middle East and the world. Egypt ranks 7th overall on this measure, with 33 percent of its workforce in the creative class and a GDP of just $1,620 dollars per person.  The West Bank-Gaza Strip ranks 6th – with 24 percent of its workforce in the creative class and just $1,056 in GDP per capita.  Compare that to, say, Hong Kong, where the creative class numbers 34% and per capita GDP is $32,250, or Austria with its 35& creative class share and its per capita GDP of $25,940. The ratio is also considerable in Syria (22%, $1271), Algeria (21%, $2134), and Iran (16%, $2023).  But the worst ratios of all are found in nations outside the Middle East:  Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine, Mongolia, and Pakistan. China’s ratio is about the same as Croatia’s, Slovakia’s and Jamaica’s.  This measure does not capture everything.  The UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, which has been the scene of significant unrest, all register relatively small ratios.

The map below charts the second of the measures, the ratio of human capital to GDP, for the Middle East and the world.  Several Middle Eastern nations post high ratios – West Bank-Gaza Strip (39% human capital, $1,096 per capita GDP), Egypt (29%, $1,617), Jordan (35%, $2249), Tunisia (28%, $2526), and Iran (24%, $2,023).  While Iraq has a much lower level of human capital, its ratio is also quite high (15%, $681).  Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco post moderate but still considerable ratios. As with creative class share, the worst ratios are found outside the Middle East, in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Moldova, Mongolia and the Ukraine.

China ranks 53th about the same as Uganda, Colombia and Tunisia.  As with the creative class ratio, this measure has its limits.  Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE and Bahrain all register relatively low ratios.

I don’t pretend that these measures offer a comprehensive theory of revolution. Revolutions are infrequent and relatively unique events, each of them the products of many interacting social, political, economic, and cultural forces, as sizeable literatures in history, comparative sociology, and political science have documented  (Daniel Little summarizes some of this literature, notably the seminal Dynamics of Contention by Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow and Charles Tilly, over at his blog Understanding Society). And then there are nations like Bahrain, where revolutionary uprisings occur alongside relatively high levels of wealth: Money, after all, does not necessarily buy happiness, contentment, or freedom.

Americans may have an allergic revolution to the notion of class, but it’s time to put it back at the center of the conversation about revolution.  The working class has certainly played a much larger role in the Middle East uprisings than is commonly credited, but so too has the digital savvy, social media skills, and activism of the creative class.

Alongside the creative class and human capital, there is one more factor that plays a key role both in revolutionary unrest as well as economic development.   In my next post, I take a close look at the role played by cities, urbanisation and geographic proximity.

3 Responses to “The Revolt of the Creative Class”

  1. Nick Says:

    The yearnings for freedom are universal, and when given the choice, the masses always choose liberty over tyranny. I think it may be too soon to judge what is happening in the Middle East, as the ultimate yardstick which to measure the success or failure of a revolution is what happens after it occurs.

    Do the people choose a liberal democracy that respects the rights of others and encourages freedom of expression, the press, religion, etc ? The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was indeed a revolution, but did it result in greater freedom for its people? Hitler was freely elected, and look how that ended up.

    The creative class, I believe, is the result of freedom. The seeds are indeed there in these places, but is there enough water for them to take root and grow? Time will tell.

  2. David Says:

    There is a little naivete working here. There is no guarantee that autocrats will be replaced with democratically elected leaders who will champion human rights and freedon. Islamic fundamentalism is alive and well in that part of the world. It may be quiet right now, but don’t think for a second that the threat is gone. In fact, reticence is probably part of the their plan. (See the peice in the Outlook section of this past Sunday’s Washington Post).

  3. Deep Says:

    While there is a legitimate fear in possibility of a Islamic fundementalist could take over, it does not justify not supporting the democratic overthrow of these regimes. The evidence shows what went on in Egypt and Tunisia are not like what happened in Iran 1979. First off, the iranian Revolution was spearheaded by the Shi’a clergy. The Ayatollah Khomenei was the leader in the revolution. If you see the footage of the overthrow from back then, the protesters were dressed in traditional Islamic garb.

    Egypt and Tunisia were different, first these are Sunni Muslim nations where there is no central clergy that would take over. Like what happened in Iran.

    Second, these revolutions were not spearheaded by one group. The appeal of these protests was that it was composed by a whole spectrum of Arab society. In Egypt you had Christians, secular and conservative Muslims. Both wealthy, middle class, and poor were in Tahir Square. The Tunisian revolution began on grounds of economic and civil freedoms, and had no political relgious movtives. Islamic groups don’t have the kind of leverage that Americans think they have. As one protester in Egypt said, “we know our way back to Tahir Square”. Any group that emerges as a political victor knows they can’t become a new dictator, because the people will turn on them just like they did on Mubarak.

    Americans need to know the Muslim Brotherhood is not like Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban. Specifically, they don’t have their own army, which means they can’t launch their own coup. Experts on the Brotherhood have stated the group has toned down and became more pragmatic in their practice over the past 30 years. Especially among the younger generation. The Brotherhood was not as inclined to join the protests as the more secular segments of Egyptian society were. They may not have the appeal they had during the Mubarak regime. Under the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only real opposition. Now in a more democratic Egypt (and Tunisia) there are more parties for the people to choose from.

    Foreign Policy magazine noted that one of the biggest losers in these revolutions is al-Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations. For decades these groups were telling frustrated young Arabs that the way to fight the autocrats is to attack America and Israel. Their message of jihad is not as appealing now, that young Arabs have a new avenue of addressing their frustrations.

    There is more positives coming out these revolutions than negatives. If America is sincere in its support for a democratic Middle East, then we have much to gain. The fears of a Islamic revolution reminds me of the fear we had when Eastern Europe gained freedom from communism. Many fear that a united Germany would’ve launched another civil war.