Monday March 27, 2023

Pakistan of the poor

September 09, 2018

Democracy has become one of the most widely used and least understood notions in the modern lingua of politics. It has become a normative practice to appreciate democracy as the best form of government. Critical perspectives about our modern democracy or alternative thinking about it have either vanished or been discredited as political aberrations. At times, individualism, democracy and the free-market economy are equated as a means of leading a life of choice and freedom. The frequent and thoughtless use of terms like ‘choice democracy’ indicates how politics is seen as an adjunct to the free-market economy, as if exercising political choice was tantamount to choosing a product as a consumer.

In essence, democracy has become a political leitmotif of promoting the neoliberal global economic order as the inevitable destiny of human societies across the globe.

One of the most elaborate expositions about the interconnectedness of capitalism and democracy came from Francis Fukuyama’s book written after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Titled ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, it was a eulogy of capitalism’s triumphs over socialism and its variants, hitherto considered to be alternatives to capitalist democracy. The age of ideology has gone, it was pronounced, and “class conflicts would be resolved in the post-ideological human society of [the] capitalist liberal democracy”. The theory of the end of history was not necessarily an intellectual rationale to justify American global hegemony alone, it was also about regional integration beyond the borders of nation-states. It was about economic integration, capital accumulation, and the transnational outreach of private capital, which led to political integration in the case of the EU. The theory of the end of history gave some intellectual credence to Western capitalism as a whole and offered this as the ultimate destiny for the non-Western developing societies.

Contrary to this homogenisation, the evolution of modern democracy in the West has never been a linear process. Democracy was punctuated by social movements, resistance, revolutions and political upheavals, and continues to be a heterogeneous political phenomenon till today. Within a few years of triumphalism and the pronouncement of the end of history, the world was shaken by anti-globalisation movements. With the emergence of economic and political crises in Europe and the political inner strains of Western capitalism, the need for an alternative political order was felt.

In the non-Western world today, branding democracy as a by-product of the neoliberal economic order is one of the most visible factors that impede an inclusive democracy. Critics of neoliberalism assert that there has never been any genuine democracy under capitalism because the system is inherently designed to promote inequality between the rich and the poor.

Capitalism is about the accumulation of wealth and controlling the means of production. Those who have control over the means of production also control the state apparatus. In this highly unequal social and political relationship, voting to choose the right candidate will only be a mirage for the poor who neither have wealth nor any stake to protect capitalism. For 80 percent of the global population, this capitalistic democracy is only an illusion that is presented as the final human destiny by the privately-sponsored national and international media.

Critics believe that in the era of capitalism, nation-states and their institutions have historically evolved to protect the private capital of the rich in that political freedom is codified through legal instruments. For instance, the state provides legitimacy to own private property. Hence, there is freedom to acquire and own private property, and accumulate capital. Stealing private property is a punishable offence, and those who are dispossessed and marginalised would be left free to twiddle their thumbs in the hope of getting rich. Those who believe in the end of ideology and political grand narratives fail to appreciate the grand theories and universal political ideals of neoliberalism. Most of the proponents of postmodernism fall prey to their own meta-theories of the end of ideology. The world has yet to witness a classless global society. A future classless society will perhaps be the only place where genuine democracy will flourish and the need for ideology will cease to exist. Contrary to neoliberal globalisation, a new localism is emerging in the developing world that provides the microcosm of a just, inclusive and accountable political order. The new localism is about investing in local institutions to help unleash people’s potential to take charge of their own lives.

Let’s now turn to the political and economic ideals of Naya Pakistan in this global context of the evolution of democracy and economy. Like most postcolonial states, Pakistan has been a client state of global capitalism and tends to function within the framework of a peripheral relationship to the global core of the North. Pakistan needs to evolve its own model of participatory democracy by investing in inclusive, accountable and sustainable local institutions that are driven by the people themselves.

Grassroots democracy is the most viable political strategy to establish a ‘Naya Pakistan’ for the poor in tandem with institutional reforms. Public-service institutions cannot be effective in addressing the human development needs until there is local ownership and a capacity to deliver services at the household level. Participatory development models must be studied, replicated and scaled up to achieve optimal results in improving our abysmal record of human development. The new government’s decision to divert development funds to local bodies is a welcome step, but it must be carried out thoughtfully.

The government should engage institutions and development programmes that can help channel the resources at the village and union council levels. What entities should the government engage? The answer is simple: there is a network of rural support programmes from Gwadar to Gilgit that have played a pivotal role in empowering the rural poor across the country. The social capital created by these rural support programmes through thousands of inclusive community-driven institutions can be utilised to deliver local public services.

The government doesn’t need to create parallel structures at the local level. It should invest in these community-driven institutions, both as a cost-cutting measure and a step that ensures the sustainability of development programmes. The planning and development teams of the government and the Rural Support Programme Network (RSPN) can join hands to devise a national development agenda that can be implemented through rural support programmes, which can be monitored closely by the Planning and Development Division. There are many successful models that are already being implemented under the technical supervision of RSPN, which can be a good starting point for the government to help them scale-up. This can be a good beginning to help build a ‘Naya Pakistan’ of the poor. All it needs is to replicate the participatory development model to fulfil its promises of change.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: