Wednesday June 12, 2024

Developing with a cultural lag

By Hussain H Zaidi
October 02, 2023

Cultural lag is a condition in a society where one aspect of culture is out of kilter with another to which it is related. As a result, society falls between two stools and often falls well short of achieving its political or economic goals.

A nation, for example, may aspire for economic development but at the same time is adamant to keep half of its population and potential workforce – women – in a perpetual sense of insecurity. By the same token, democracy cannot take root in a polity which looks down upon debate and dissent or which confers upon its political leadership a god-like status.

In the West, before the advent of representative democracy in the 19th century, the political process was dominated by narrowly based cliques and factions grouped around powerful princes, dukes and barons. When political parties appeared on the horizon, the same factions took control of those new organizations.

With the growth of business and industry, the nobility made way for the bourgeoisie – bankers, merchants and industrialists. But politics retained its elitist character. It was only gradually that political parties assumed a democratic character, reflecting the changing national ethos.

In less developed countries like Pakistan, which are infused with a strong feudal or tribal tradition putting a high premium on personal loyalty, though they borrowed the Westminster or American constitutional model, politics have largely been elitist, presided over by ‘charismatic’ personalities. Though feudalism as a mode of production is dead in Pakistan, the feudal psyche remains a powerful element in the national political culture.

Central to feudalism is the notion of the fief – a parcel of land held by a lord or overlord. In his fiefdom, the lord reigns supreme, having his own laws, courts, and police.

The status of a feudal or a tenant is ascribed rather than acquired. Logically, in a feudal society, leaders are born not made, and leadership is regarded as a gift of nature, not an outcome of nurture. Leaders are considered to have some congenital qualities of head and heart, which set them miles apart from the ordinary mortals.

So potent is the imprint of feudal culture that even in a party like the PTI, which in theory is against dynastic politics, the man at the top wields total power comparable with that exercised by the head of a family-based party.

Leadership is one side of the equation – the other side is followers. If in a society leadership is regarded as a right by birth, subservience is also considered a congenital duty. If a handful of families are destined to rule, the rest of society is condemned to be their followers. This, again, is comparable to the feudal system, where the scions of lords are lords and the children of tenants are tenants – both by birth.

Not only that, in mature democracies, leaders have a shelf life. They may shine on the political horizon for five or 10 years before finally fading, making way for a new breed. But in an immature democracy, like Pakistan, leaders are considered immortal both by themselves and their followers.

Immortals are always right. The sense of immortality also brings in its train the sense of being bigger than the party, even the polity and at times the nation. It is then that a particular leader’s well-being becomes the red line, which in the eyes of the followers can be crossed only at the expense of tearing the entire system to shreds. Democracies seldom flourish in the presence of such a cult following.

Like democracy, development has a cultural context. Capital accumulation is a necessary ingredient of development. Yet, no society has made significant economic progress by simply building factories or upgrading infrastructure. In the course of development, the biggest challenge a society faces is to evolve the values that support, rather than hinder, the efforts for an economic turnaround. The objective of economic development must become part of society’s value structure. A society aspiring for economic development must not only put a high premium on material things but must be willing to render the necessary sacrifices as well – in terms of savings and work ethics, for example. The predominant way of thinking in such a society should be rational and empirical. A set of beliefs should not be treated as binding merely because it is rooted in traditions or customs regarded as sacrosanct.

Likewise, science is not only a body of knowledge but a critical attitude as well. A scientist is always prepared to have his/her theories tested. In case fresh evidence that cannot be accounted for by the theory of the day crops up, it is the theory not the evidence that is dumped. Such has been the prevailing attitude in developed societies. By contrast, in backward societies, it is belief, not evidence, that prevails in case of a conflict.

Scientific attitude gives rise to individualism. If long-held traditions can be questioned, the claim of the group – clan, tribe, society – as their repository to be invariably right can also be questioned. Individualism, contrary to what is popularly believed in our part of the world, does not mean letting everyone do what they want – that would be simply catastrophic. Instead, it means giving individuals the right to think and decide for themselves.

In modern states, the individual’s freedom of conscience, expression, association, movement and profession is regarded as fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution vis-a-vis both society and the government.

The right of the individual to economic initiative and private property played an important role in the growth of the market economy and the accompanying technological and economic development. As one economist puts it, ‘high need-achievement, high need-autonomy, and high need- dominance’ are the essential features of a competitive society.

The value of individuals is determined by the status they acquire by dint of their hard work rather than by the status ascribed at birth. Venues of social mobility, both upward and downward, are wide open resulting in the circulation of the elite.

By contrast, societies which look upon individualism as dangerous and seek to suppress it either through the state machinery or through collective action, or, as in our case, through religious edicts, find it tough to graduate from underdevelopment.

Development necessitates changes in the family structure as well. Since the joint family system stifles individual initiative, the nucleus family becomes the dominant form of family organization. With women increasingly joining the workforce, decision-making in the family gets more democratic even if it may make marriage susceptible to dissolution. Divorce no longer has a stigma attached to it. Family planning gains wide acceptance and the birth rate comes down. Family organization assumes a variety of forms, such as a reconstituted family, a single-parent household, a single-person household, pre-family (young children leaving their parents to try their luck), etc.

In many underdeveloped societies, social norms do not approve of changes in the traditional family organization, which runs counter to development efforts.

Development is not without its costs. But a society which regards economic progress as a goal worth pursuing must be willing to pay the necessary costs whether they are in the form of changes in family organization, or attitude towards life and work.

The problem with developing countries like Pakistan is that they are keen to emulate the attractive lifestyle of developed nations – driving in luxury autos, flying in privately owned jets, and living in centrally heated houses – but at the same time are not willing to open up their culture to the changes which underpin that lifestyle.

One outcome of this cultural lag is that such societies consume far more than they produce, thus running high trade deficits. Time and again, they have to borrow from developed nations – whose values they otherwise assail as being vulgar – to sustain the pricey lifestyle of their upper echelons.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist. He tweets/posts @hussainhzaidi and can be reached at: