Empire of chaos
FOR someone intellectually predisposed to viewing just about everything through the lens of class, learning how to navigate the choppy waters of Pakistan’s political economy is nothing less than an epic challenge.
How, for example, does one make sense of the fact that the MQM is best friends with the PPP one day, and threatens to join the Tahirul Qadri bandwagon the next? Indeed, just figuring out an answer to the first half of the question is hard enough. Most informed observers agree that the MQM’s support base is urban and broadly ‘middle-class’.
On the other hand, the PPP caters to a much wider cross-section of society; for instance, it includes in its fold both big landed scions as well as the rural poor.
Here one is forced to digress further: the PPP itself appears to represent quite contradictory class interests. How is it that both the rural poor and the rural elite have an affinity for the same party?
The typical answer to this question — or rather the caveat that accompanies it — is that the poor masses that constitute the support base of mainstream parties are actually irrelevant in the overall scheme of things.
In other words, in talking of the ‘class interests’ of these parties one is referring only to the interests of their leaderships.
I find this troubling on more than one account. Among other things, the implication is that ordinary people exercise no agency at all; in Marxist terms this would be called ‘false consciousness’. The reality is that people do exercise political choice, albeit under formidable constraints.
The other implication is that the Pakistani power game is little more than a circulation of elites, and that there are no substantive differences between the various political parties that litter the landscape.
While it is true that our political parties all reinforce the stale, patronage-based order that prevails in this country, it is simply preposterous to argue that there are no ideological differences between them, or that they do not come into contradiction with one another on a regular basis.
In a nutshell, the composition of political parties and their overt alignments belie simple class binaries, or notions of the illiterate masses dancing to choreographed tunes.
What can be said without qualification is that class cuts across almost all other social fault lines in this country. It is necessary therefore to understand how and why class and other identities — such as gender, religion and ethnicity — come together in definitive ways to produce the seemingly chaotic everyday experiences with which we are all too familiar.
But even this is not enough. The intricate mosaic is incomplete without mention of the state. And it is important to bear in mind that the state too cannot be reduced simply to a conglomeration of ‘elite’ interests.
The state in our context is a creature unto itself, not necessarily subject to the whims of landlords, industrialists, or even the new entrepreneurial contractor in the so-called informal sector.
I have argued before on these pages that the state is no longer as coherent an entity as in an erstwhile period, both in terms of its institutional hierarchies and its ability to mould outcomes according to the stipulated policy logic.
But this does not mean that those who control the levers of state institutions are any less powerful than they have ever been. Neither have their loyal ideologues, spread out across the length and breadth of society, stopped performing their duties.
Putting all these pieces together facilitates a reasoned and critical analysis of what is currently unfolding in this land that never ceases to surprise. The narrative inevitably can be traced back to an (unelected) state apparatus that refuses to accept the unpredictability of freely functioning electoral democracy.
This ‘establishment’ wheels and deals with opportunist politicians of various stripes who in turn employ populist slogans that appeal to one or a combination of class, ethnic and sectarian frustrations.
These various opportunist politicians, if and when they come to power, are simply unable to deliver anything other than targeted patronage to selected constituents, which is their only strategy to remain in government for the subsequent iteration.
Whether or not they are successful depends on the nature of the next electoral exercise, which is of course manipulated in some measure by the (unelected) state apparatus.
The political parties which maintain a commitment to some ideology — progressive or otherwise — are eventually stripped to their bare bones, and over time, become agglomerations of opportunist politicians with a commitment only to retaining access to state power.
Those parties who refuse to accede to this logic are surrounded on all sides, suffocated, and eventually eliminated (read: the left).
Class and ethnic frustrations — women are largely excluded from any meaningful political participation — are exacerbated over time by this cynical political order.
The fact that these frustrations can no longer be expressed in any peaceful, democratic manner precipitates the emergence of various forms of militancy. Some militants are (knowingly or otherwise) on the payroll of the (unelected) state apparatus, and thereby reinforce parochial divisions in society.
Others are branded traitors and subjected to extreme state repression, which compels many to look for patronage to neighbouring or even superpower states.
In the midst of all of this (planned) chaos, everyday political economy becomes increasingly informalised, and class mobility results for those who learn the rules of the game.
The crisis of capitalism paradoxically produces opportunities for the offspring of peasants and workers to become property dealers, suppliers of smuggled goods, and new-age innovators providing leisure services for the super-rich.
This same crisis of capitalism pushes the majority of these sons and daughters of peasants and workers into the hell hole of 21st-century pauperisation. To the extent that democracy does exist in such a context then, it is subject to a crisis of representation inasmuch as there is no respite from the tyranny of capital.
This is the proverbial empire of chaos, at one and the same time collapsing around us and proving its eminent durability. Those who are at its helm will continue to try and make the system work in spite of itself, just as the rest of us must continue to try and foment a reordering.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.