While poverty is measurable, the word “middle-class” is subjective. The kind of people who call themselves middle-class in Brazil, for example, tend to be at the top of the scale: prosperous professionals with several servants, children at private schools and holidays in Europe or Miami. From the 1940s to the 1970s, state-led industrialization and the growth of public employment saw the rise in some Latin American countries of a middle class of managers, bureaucrats and a labor aristocracy of skilled workers. But the policies that pushed them up proved unsustainable; they were abandoned after the 1982 debt crisis, which triggered a decade of mediocre growth and high inflation. Since then, partly because protected industries were subjected to privatization and import competition, this group has struggled. The middle class that is emerging now in Brazil is very different. It is more accurately described as a lower-middle class which consumes more like an American middle-class.

Simultaneously, there has been a drop in the income-defined “middle class” category in Brazil, and there have been increases in the sale of new cars, computers, Coca Cola, wine, American clothing, i Pods, and other consumer electronics. This should be counter-intuitive to anyone familiar with rational choice theory. There are other ways of explaining the situation, however. Pictures on Flickr and elsewhere attest that uppity Brazilians see themselves as members of a rising global middle class, even if their incomes don’t agree. The picture on the right depicts a young couple in which the man is wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch shirt, and the woman is wearing busty white and red clothing. If we weren’t paying attention, we might have assumed these consumers were American. However, they are Brazilians. The deception lies in the fact that the image is an imitation of an American high school jock and his girlfriend. The reality is that the image is a symbol of class oppression, an image which represents the American-style bondage to consumerist fashion sensibilities.