The meaning of progress
PROGRESSIVES and reactionaries, by definition, agree on virtually nothing. What constitutes progress and reaction does, of course, change through time and space. Yet the two poles have, through much of the modern era, tended to remain distinct.
Through the 20th century, the very meaning of progress as liberal, capitalist development was challenged in the form of numerous experiments with socialism. These experiments are now, with a handful of exceptions, a matter of historical record.
In the contemporary period, progress and reaction are defined almost exclusively in relation to the phenomenon of ‘terrorism’.
Thus the rather odd fact that progressives and reactionaries will stand daggers drawn when it comes to ‘suicide bombers’ but will agree that foreign direct investment is necessary for this country’s development.
To be sure this is the country in which ‘terrorism’ is the cause and consequence of more polarisation than almost anywhere else in the world, but also in which progressives and reactionaries share a broad vision of ‘development’.
In particular I want to draw attention to the refrain that has become very popular in recent times: if we exploit our untapped reserves of minerals and energy resources we will succeed in redressing our apparently hopeless economic situation. In short, everyone seems to agree that we should uncover our hidden jewels and make a killing on them as soon as possible.
And indeed the (known) list of as yet unused natural resources in Pakistan is a reasonably long one. We have coal reserves stashed deep in the Thar desert; oil, gas and minerals all over Balochistan; and mountain upon mountain in the northern part of the country that can spit out timber, marble and a great deal more. All of which makes pretty reading for investors and hapless economic managers alike.
Those who argue that exploitation of these resources will herald significant improvements in the lives of a wide cross-section of society would do well to bear in mind that the Pakistani state and the multinationals to which the state has prostrated itself have been involved in the extraction of oil, gas, timber and so on from various parts of the country for decades.
These resources have, however, rarely benefited the local communities who sit atop them, and have not prevented us from falling further into the trap of dependency (not to mention ethnic conflict).
The optimists maintain that we have yet to dig as deep as we can, and that the present international environment is such that we have much greater bargaining power than ever before. But this is to ignore the fact that foreign companies have been involved in exploration for new riches for a number of years now and that our governments do anything but dictate terms in this regard.
All of these issues could, and should, be debated much further. What typically gets ignored entirely by those enamoured of the natural resource argument is the question of sustainability. This is despite the fact that the ‘sustainable development’ road show has, in Pakistan at least, been at it for about two decades.
Indeed, earlier this year the world came together two decades after the much-publicised Rio summit of 1992 to take stock of just how much progress has been made in pulling back the planet from the brink of ecological meltdown. Unsurprisingly, there was not a lot to write home about.
In Pakistan the environmental situation is arguably more desperate than in most countries. Our mountainous regions are being denuded at an alarming rate, and contributing both to the destruction of livelihoods and disasters such as the floods of summer 2010.
Our historic coastal delta regions have been disfigured beyond recognition so much so that salty seawater now predominates where sweet water was once the norm. More generally marine resources are depleting rapidly, in large part due to corporate fishing practices. And then there is the question of land and its usage in an era where multinational agribusiness is subsuming every non-corporate entity it confronts while speculative investors are changing the meaning and ‘value’ of land entirely.
All of these examples — and there could be many more — imply that it is the process of development itself, based on the intensive use of natural resources, that is the problem rather than the solution. Of course there can be ways and means for us to (equitably) benefit from the natural resource endowments we enjoy whilst ensuring the preservation of the ecosystem. But this is obviously something that 21st-century humanity has yet to figure out. And it continues to neglect this imperative at its own peril.
I want to clarify that the ecological crisis — linked as it is to the crisis of capitalism as a whole — did not see resolution under the 20th-century variant of ‘actually existing socialism’. Until the 1970s appreciation of the contradictions between uninhibited ‘development’ and the environment was limited and socialist development was, in this respect at least, not substantively better than its capitalist other.
As I have already pointed out, we are now living in an era where socialist development is considered an anachronism, let alone an ecologically mature version of socialism.
In Pakistan too many progressives appear content in the knowledge that capitalist development is one of the weapons that will ostensibly defang the religious right. They are obviously not taking note of the fact that the right — including its most militant elements — rely heavily on cutting-edge technology and have no ideological problem with capitalist development; they simply want to direct it by capturing state power.
In this ‘battle’ between progressives and reactionaries, both the means and ends of organised power — be it that of the state or otherwise — are getting lost.
We need development, of this there can be no doubt. But if progressives who claim to represent the proverbial masses start to agree with their purported nemesis on what constitutes development, or at the very least if progressives have become so obsessed with an agenda of cultural modernisation that they are assuming everything else will just work itself out, introspection becomes essential.
Or perhaps it could be the case, as I ask rhetorically almost every week, that progress is now viewed by very many enlightened Pakistanis as capitalist development? If this is so, then it is no longer so clear what it means to be a progressive.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.