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July 13, 2016

Fragmented truth


July 13, 2016

There are at least three main dimensions invariably referred to as the conceptual lynchpin of the modern world of politics, economy and culture. These dimensions can loosely be categorised into three phrases – the specialisation of roles, individualisation of actions and atomisation of cultural life, including the breaking down of the institution of the family.

The concepts of universal humanism, social altruism and kinship affiliations have been replaced by clichéd notions of freedom, democracy, autonomy and choice, diversity etc.

While traditional kinship-based structures and social altruism are replaced by a complex multitude of interest-based social interactions, the relationships of individuals to the production processes of society have not changed much from the time of the Industrial Revolution. The economic mode of production in the post-industrial capitalist societies has moved from hardcore production to services but the income disparities between the rich and poor has significantly widened, even more than the era of industrialisation.

According to latest estimates, the top 20 percent of American households own more than 84 percent of the wealth, and the bottom 40 percent combine for a paltry 0.3 percent. The Walton family, for example, has more wealth than the combined wealth of 42 percent of American families.

One can, therefore, argue that the proportionate income inequalities have increased, causing social and political unrest in the Western Hemisphere. The anti-globalisation movement that started in 1999 from Seattle and Davos, the hubs of Western capitalism, saw an unprecedented reaction to their neoliberal economic policies. The leading capitalist economies saw no economic and political respite during the last 20 years. Crises surfaced in East Asian economies as early as 1997; the crisis then engulfed the Western capitals including the anti-austerity protests started from Greece and Spain and then spread across the Europe.

The Americans saw Occupy Wall Street Movement while in Canada an anti-consumerism movement took a strong hold. The crisis of global capitalism found its reverberations in the Middle East as well, though as a religio-nationalist reaction to the cronies of Western capitalism.

Despite their political rigour, these global movements lacked a coherent economic and political agenda and hence were influenced by the ideological hegemony created through corporate media. Fundamental concepts like human emancipation were submerged in an ideological debate of choice democracy – in that individuals aspiring to freedom will have to be content with an obscure notion of democracy.

Not fully conversant with the complexity of capitalist democracy, the atomised individuals lost faith in their transformative potential. The struggle for change, however, did not die out but is being carried out by a multitude of disconnected individuals and groups like civil society groups, animal rights activists, environmental groups, anarchists, gay rights activists, socialists, anti-globalisation advocates, faith groups, and feminists etc.

The daily life experiences of the urban middle and lower classes exposed to the woes of modern corporate culture, from East Asia to the Western Hemisphere, the multitude offers an obscure future and there has been great disenchantment about its transformative role.

While there is a growing sense of structural fragmentation of society into disengaged individuals who are bereft of conventional altruism, human creativity finds its own ways of expression. So the net social, political and cultural impact of a fragmented worldview is much more long lasting than our mundane imagination. The expressions, not well articulated and well organised though, strive to develop a counter-narrative to the mainstream discourse of socio-political life.

In a fragmented world, there is a supermarket of ideas that are compartmentalised to attract a predefined audience which, in turn, has replaced the classical notion of knowledge production and social cohesion.

The counter-narrative is equally fragmented with discernible domains of piety expressed through religious extremism, profanity expressed through radical nationalism and pluralism expressed through political escapism and perversion goes on. Thus the transformative potential of human agency and its forerunners, the wretched classes of radical change, the working class of modern corporates and the enlightened middle classes gravitate towards extreme ideological poles.

The common interest classes are attracted by the fanciful ideologies branded through social media and sometimes through mainstream private and state media. These classes provide the source of power for the ideologues of pervert piety and profanity to assert their presence and seek the political patronage of the ruling class. The beneficiaries of this fragmented modern capitalist society – the corporates, the pervert piety and profanity leaders and corporate-sponsored media – have been able to manage the radicalisation to work for them.

The oppressed classes seek solace in a simulated world created through the ideological hegemony of the modern corporate media. Ideas are being presented as commodities in the ideological supermarket, and those with better branding attract popular support.

Thanks to globalisation, the wretched of Pakistan face the same political dilemma as they seek to resist the anti-poor policies of the ruling elite. They are attracted to an extremist religious or nationalist political ideology when they have nothing to lose. The relatively better-off educated middle classes find expression of their political aspirations in a carefully branded anti-corruption narrative of right-wing PTI type politics. Neither of these two streams of political ideologies in practice goes beyond an action plan to impose a right-wing moral narrative within the un-restructured political and economic system of Pakistan. How do we come out of this morass then?

It is, perhaps, too early to expect transformative forces on the political horizon of Pakistan. Progressive and enlightened forces face an existential challenge in an increasingly polarised Pakistani society, coupled with the surge of religious and nationalist extremist ideologies. The only neutralising short- to medium-term policy choice for Pakistan is to focus on creating and strengthening inclusive institutions. These institutions should have the capacity to formulate a viable social policy focusing more on social security concerns, nation-building, good governance and effective participation of the poor classes.

As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show in ‘Why Nations Fail, it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or the lack of it). They argue that “Economic success thus spurred was sustained because the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people”. Otherwise how can we explain why some nations remain mired in poverty while others prosper, though they start their journey on the same trajectory under the similar external environment? Nations that developed robust institutional systems were able to prosper.

Let us take the example of Pakistan. We received more foreign aid (indeed three times) than the Marshal Plan to reconstruct the post-World War II Europe from the ashes of war. Europe was rebuilt while in our case there has been a steady regression and degeneration into chaos, lawlessness and dwindling writ of the state. The only cogent explanation for this continued plight is the failure to build inclusive, transparent, people centric and accountable institutions.

Life for the poor classes seems insufferable in an alienated society of modern capitalism – more so in the rapidly decaying society of Pakistan. It is, however, not about life rather than the system we are born into. The best way out is for human agency to play its historical role to resolve the political riddle of poverty amidst the opulence of modern capitalism.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]


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