Monday, September 5, 2016

Business Recorder Column Sept 6, 2016

An elite flirting with annihilation Rashed Rahman Marc-Andre Franche, the outgoing country director UNDP for Pakistan for the last four years, has delivered a damning indictment of Pakistan’s elite in a ‘parting’ interview with this paper, published on August 24. Let us first examine what he says (comments in parentheses are this writer’s): the elite needs to decide whether or not it wants a country. He makes reference to Pakistan’s history, a reading of which indicates it was not obvious the country would survive (given the mountain of troubles it faced at birth). There was a lot of criticism swirling around at the time and a great many people doubting it will. Yet it has (against the odds), come very far and achieved a lot. But it is also very frustrating to see a country and a people so capable and intelligent not making more progress in poverty reduction, inequality, modernisation of the state (and society), functioning institutions, etc. ‘Even’ in 2016, Pakistan has 38 percent poverty (scepticism about official statistics abounds, and not just among independent economists); districts that resemble nothing more than sub-Saharan Africa (the people of those regions may find the comparison odious, such is the state of deprivation of even means of survival in many of our neglected areas); no respect for the basic human rights of minorities, women, and the people of FATA, the last, because of the lack of promised reforms, institutionally trapped in the 17th century, and the absence of a (critical) census since 1998 (which reduces all planning to guesswork). The only way critical change will happen is when the elite, politicians and the wealthy sections of society sacrifice their short term, individual and family interests for the benefit of the nation. Monsieur Franche is critical of the by now powerful (but conformist) media’s role in failing to educate itself or its audience about the critical issues confronting the country. He also deplores the (by now clearly visible) dependence of the government on the military. In answer to a question about inequality being touted as the greatest challenge of the 21st century and whether in Pakistan there should be more concern about inequality of income and wealth or inequality of rights and opportunities, Franche argues that the one issue that will determine whether the global sustainable development goals can be achieved is what the world does about inequality. This, he underlines, is not only a developing world problem but a global issue. He concedes that it is much harder to tackle inequality than poverty (but we should not overlook the relationship between the two). The apartheid of opportunity in Pakistan is forcing many young people to seek their fortunes elsewhere (although the current global recession leaves them floundering abroad too). In answer to another question why the elite would want to reset the game when historically it only concerns itself with poverty and inequality reduction when threats of revolt by the poor or inter-elite rifts arise, forcing the elite to make strategic alliances with the poor, Franche was candid enough to state that he doesn’t see those circumstances emerging in Pakistan at the moment. Eventually, however, he asserted that this would happen one way or the other. You cannot have (sustain) a country where nearly 40 percent (and rising) people live in poverty (howsoever defined). The elite, he pointed out, will not be able to survive in gated communities with ghettos at one end and huge malls for the rich at the other. This delineation of the ground realities and the risks they could entail (which this writer has quoted at some length to frame the problem clearly) should, logically, ring alarm bells in the corridors of power. However, if the readers will bear with me, I will try to explain why this is unlikely. The well-intentioned hopes of Franche from the elite fly in the face of historical experience. No ruling class (or an elite composed of different classes) has pre-empted a looming revolt of the ‘shirtless unworthy’ unless forced by a rising tide of resistance and collective assertion of rights by these victims of an unjust system. Short of that, expecting the rich and powerful to appreciate the need for reform to head off a (theoretical) revolt by the wretched of the earth is to ascribe to them a farsighted vision and wisdom that has seldom been in evidence in history, and the idea would probably be viewed by most members of the elite as asking them to commit hara-kiri. Reflect on the views of PML-N Senator Sardar Mohammad Yaqoob Khan, who delivered this piece of profound wisdom the other day that some people were born to be poor and others rich, this being the God-ordained nature of things, and any attempt to disturb this ‘natural’ order would result in anarchy, chaos and the breakdown of productive society (there being no one left to play the role of the hewers of wood and drawers of water). This smug and deluded view may not reflect the ideas of the elite entire, but would, in its pro-status quo thrust, find broad acceptance amongst them. As to the question raised by Franche whether the elite wants a (sustainable) country or not, the real answer is, yes, so long as the goose continues to lay golden eggs for them. After that, lacking any form of determining affinity with the soil of the country they have squeezed the life out of, the world out there is their oyster (particularly Dubai, London, New York, et al). As to the state and functioning institutions in Pakistan, it appears a no-contest between the civilian and military setups. The latter not only has dominated the state’s internal and external policies since only a few years after independence, they today enjoy a virtual monopoly of power in the critical areas of security and defence (and by extrapolation, foreign affairs) as well as almost unchallenged dominance over the national narrative, having ‘tamed’ the mainstream media into resembling more and more an ISPR chorus. The issues of poverty and inequality Franche places centre-stage could bear with some explication. Capitalism, the dominant cold war victor system the world runs under, by its very dynamic engenders inequality (the popular notion these days of the one percent rich versus the 99 percent deprived reflects this). The best the ‘reformers’ of this system have to offer is ‘manageable’ (fending off all out revolt) inequality, given the tendency of capitalism, and especially late capitalism, to reproduce and exacerbate the concentration of wealth and poverty at opposite and irreconcilable poles because of the capital accumulation process. This inherent dynamic therefore guarantees the existence and exacerbation over time of social conflict (class struggle). This process of social conflict (class struggle) has been mediated in the developed world by the social contract, in which the state ensures or tries to ensure an acceptable level of basic needs for the people. This social contract breaks down, and is currently under great stress, because of the periodic cyclic crises of the system’s production process (the ‘boom and bust’ of modern economic theory). In Pakistan, however, the social contract enshrined in the Constitution is practiced more in the breach. The conditions for a revolt of the poor currently do not seem reflected in the ground realities. The weakening of the Left and its concomitant decline of the workers and peasants’ movements, unions, collective organisations to struggle for their rights means that one at least of the conditions for a revolt (or revolution) is absent. The traditional wisdom is that a radical overthrow of the ruling elite is not possible unless the ruling elite is brought to a point where it is unable to rule in the old way, and the people are no longer willing to be ruled in the old way. Weaknesses, faults and anomalies in the rule of the elite and the military’s dominance notwithstanding, the people have yet to find a voice and organisational strength to mount an effective challenge to the system. But this should not, in its own interest, produce complacency in the ranks of the ruling elite. Consider, and if you have the wisdom, tremble before the coming storm. Reform, before it is too late and nemesis in the form of revolts or even a revolution overtakes you.

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