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November 1, 2018

The PTI’s encounter with reality


November 1, 2018

Francis Fukuyama, the Asian-American philosopher known for formulating the ‘End of History’ thesis, was recently in the headlines for proposing a different prescription for the ills of contemporary society.

While Fukuyama had earlier argued that the basic ideological conflict of modernity had been definitively resolved in favour of capitalism, he now advocates a return to socialism as a corrective against growing social imbalances in society. It seems that the current global economic and political crisis has melted away many certainties, including the belief that alternatives to the current system are no longer possible.

While Fukuyama might have reconsidered his position, we have witnessed the strange emergence of the End of History thesis in Pakistan’s political settings. Its proponents are the most ardent supporters of the Tabdeeli brigade, who previously believed in the miraculous power of human will to overcome socio-economic adversities. This band of believers now presents a sorry sight as they try to justify each and every capitulation by the PTI-led government. The reason often given is that the government simply has no choice when confronted with the magnitude of the crisis caused by the previous government, a discourse that mimics all incoming governments that pit blame on their predecessors.

For his supporters, Khan represented unflinching determination, with stories from his cricketing days to the creation of the Shaukat Khanum Hospital to his ascent to the prime minister’s office cementing his legacy as someone capable of making possible what seemed impossible to others.

While this mythology around Khan generated the emotive impulse that has sustained his support base, it also marks the absolute limits of a politics based on the strength of an ethical and determined individual. My point is not to comment on whether or not Khan was truly an individual of high ethical standards. My assertion is that this very fixation on the character of an individual prevents us from discussing structural processes that are determining our lives, an omission that has contributed to the poverty of our political discourse.

For example, PTI supporters (much like partisans of other parties) have a good grasp of the immediate political questions of the day; the latest breaking news, a new scandal, the twists in the NAB trials etc. But being caught in the spiral of immediacy is also a limitation: it prevents any serious understanding of the social, economic or institutional imbalances in the country’s political economy beyond the simplistic Khan vs Sharif binary.

The second important consequence is that there is precious little memory of the country’s political history. Very few would know that ‘fighting corruption’ has been a red herring for anti-democratic forces to intervene in the political domain and indulge in the worst form of political engineering, one that has in fact propelled the culture of corruption and sycophancy in the country’s political landscape.

The result is an eviction of historical memory – not only of the brutality of dictatorships in our country, but also of the remarkable history of resistance by ordinary people against state repression. They have very little time for the stories of Osman Ghani and Idris Toti, activists who remained defiant as they were mercilessly hanged by the Zia dictatorship. Or women like Shahida Jabeen and Farkhanda Bukhari, who braved the Red Fort under the same monstrous regime because they believed in the rule of the people.

For Kaptaan’s followers, the history of mass politics began only with the rally at Minar-e-Pakistan on October 30, 2011. For them, activists began facing suppression only when tear gas was used against the participants of the dharna in 2014. Before these heroic events, it seems that Pakistan was simply a pre-political society, where the only events worth remembering were the 1992 World Cup victory and the Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital.

The refusal to acknowledge the existing structural constraints, coupled with the erasure of historical memory, produces a profound sense of cognitive disorientation that is compensated for with rhetoric and bravado. The comi-tragic statements of figures such as Murad Saeed, who seemed to suggest that Khan’s force of personality could bring 200 billion dollars overnight, are indicative of how all laws of economics (or even commonsense) were bracketed in anticipation of the PTI’s ascent to power.

Such bravado, disconnected from the constraints of the real world, is what Sigmund Freud famously called the “pleasure principle”. It refers to a state of mind in which people pursue their fantasies oblivious of the social conditions. But as the world imposes its laws on an individual, this pleasure principle has to meet what Freud calls the “reality principle”, forcing one to acknowledge and reconcile with the existing constraints.

The infamous ‘U-turns’ we are witnessing today are precisely this reality principle slowly imposing itself on the PTI after it assumed power. The belief in the finality of Khan’s words is melting away as the government desperately searches for loans to stay afloat, an act that was previously termed beggary by the PTI leader. The repeated news of abuse of power by PTI ministers, the latest case being Azam Swati’s targeting of his vulnerable neighbours, demonstrates that the institutional forms of power cannot simply be wished away by an individual. And the increasing price hike that has placed unnecessary burden on ordinary people without a concomitant plan to force the wealthy to pay their share of the taxes has further eroded any dreams of a quick fix for the economy.

The reality principle has punctured much of the mythology around Khan, who now seems a prisoner of the structures of power. He appears unable to defy the conditions of foreign powers, to have any say in the country’s security policy, or to even hold his own party members accountable. Today, one must admit that the Khan we see is a diminished figure, with his legendary ‘will’ finally appearing impotent in front of the accumulated power of the system.

Two responses have been typical of the PTI’s encounter with reality. There are those who are still in denial and feel that spectacular claims like the dam fund (which has also lost steam in the past few weeks) or suppression of the opposition can compensate for the lost prestige of their leader. And then there are those who have turned Fukuyamists, claiming that the government simply has no choice but to kneel in front of reality. It is ironic that Fukuyama’s idea on the impossibility of change has entered our political lexicon within months of the ascent to power of a party whose only consistent position was that it stood for change.

The reason for this oscillation between impossible desires and sheepish capitulation is that very little attention is paid to understanding the system that governs our lives, a system that is infinitely more powerful than the whims of an individual. It is important to move beyond the search of an ethical messiah and start developing what Fredric Jameson has called a “cognitive map” of our current situation. Without mapping our current social, economic and political situation, we will not be able to delineate where we need to be – and so we will remain trapped in a disoriented present.

The worst outcome of the current unravelling of the Khan mythology will be the cementing of neo-Fukuyamist cynicism that stops believing in change, a position from which the whole world (including Fukuyama himself) is moving away. Change is not only possible but necessary – only if we can combine the intensity of our rage with a diligent examination of our history, economy and political landscape. Only then will we be able to avoid the twin seductions of wishful thinking and excessive cynicism, and address the urgent task of carving out a path for a more prosperous, just and egalitarian future.

The writer is an historian and a member of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement.

Email: [email protected]