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The will and the intellect

Opinion

June 8, 2019

The visible contrast between Imran Khan’s iconoclastic stance on the economy and governance before the 2018 elections and his run-of-the-mill policies since being sworn in prime minister is all the rage in social media discourse. Did the cricketer-turned-politician get the wrong end of the stick for years?

The primacy of will or intellect has been a perennial question in philosophy and other social sciences. For rationalists, the world exhibits a logical structure, whose intricacies can only be discerned by rigorous analysis or cogent reasoning. In resolving a dispute, reason as embodied in self-consistent rules or self-evident principles should be the ultimate court of appeal. Likewise, an action ought to be judged good or bad, right on wrong, if it’s actuated by rational considerations. The pursuit of rational self-interest is the only reliable guide to action.

Voluntarism – which, with some minor modifications, is also known as irrationalism, vitalism and intuitionism – pulls down reason from its goddess-like status and instead ennobles will, sentiments, intuition or faith as the key to unraveling the mysteries of the universe and resolving the riddles of life as well as as the reliable guide to action. In place of the critical, rational and systematic, it posits the creative, the intuitive and the visionary. In one sweep, the will can accomplish what intellect fails to do despite years of sweat and labour. By the same token, whereas in a crucial situation thought obsessed with concepts and hemmed in by abstract principles loses itself in the labyrinth of analysis and scepticism – paralysis by analysis as it’s sardonically called – intuition or faith with one stroke grasps the underlying significance of things.

The conflicting philosophies of rationalism and voluntarism are not without significant socio-political implications. In politics, whereas rationalism appeals to common principles and programmes, voluntarism makes great play with shared sentiments, such as hatred and fear.

Rationalism puts its trust in commonsense, natural or fundamental rights, incremental change, peaceful conflict resolution, abhorrence of war, rule of law, and institution-building – in a word, in liberalism. Democracy is the preferred form of government, because these ideas form its warp and woof. It’s not exceptional individuals but strong institutions and efficient mechanisms – market, checks and balances – that usher in social and economic progress. The best polity is one where the law – not persons, even if they were to be an epitome of virtue and intelligence – reigns supreme.

Voluntarism upends this world of harmony and freedom. Democracy is regarded as a sign of decay and decadence, of senility and stupor, while the very notions of fundamental rights and equality are considered to be essentially destructive. The prime political virtue for the people is not freedom but loyalty; the principal qualification for the leader is not commonsense but charisma. Rules and regulations, procedures and precedents put a spoke in the leader’s wheel and therefore should be set aside when needed. Debates and arguments are only wit and gossip. It’s the iron will that matters.

Whereas rationalism puts its trust in reforms as the necessary and desirable form of change, voluntarism is hooked on nothing short of a complete overhaul of the system. Thus rationalism produces reformers, while voluntarism throws up revolutionaries, who with their hawk-like approach have an inherent dislike of constitutional and legal means, which work at a snail's pace. For rationalists, the capital instrument of change is political parties and their ideologies and narratives; leaders came and go. Voluntarism looks to men and women of destiny, who may set up political parties if need be, to steer the ship of society.

Where do Pakistan's politics and society stand in this clash of will and intellect? With all its shenanigans and shortcomings, Pakistan is a parliamentary democracy. At the same time, it’s a society whose infatuation with revolution refuses to die down and where the cult of personality remains the hallmark of politics. There has been no dearth of leaders who claimed to – and their followers believed they did – possess the proverbial magic wand, which can turn things around in a jiffy.

Pakistan was the result of a peaceful constitutional struggle. Muslims’ distrust of the majority Hindus at first made them seek constitutional safeguards, such as separate electorates, within British India. Subsequently, their discontent evolved into the demand for a separate homeland. At the time of the country’s birth, the common people saw in it a land for the fulfilment of their dreams. But due to the frequent changes in the government, the country found it difficult to put in place the institutions to satisfy those aspirations. Then in 1958 General Ayub Khan staged a coup d'état, which was described by its author and apologists as a revolution. That by all means it was not.

Meanwhile, the leftists entered the political arena. Living in the heyday of communism, they claimed that only a Marxist revolution modeled on those which had occurred in Russia and China could bring about a real change. In their eyes, it was not the political but the capitalist economic system that had to be overthrown. The problem with the leftists was that they didn’t have, and don’t have to date, a popular support, which was essential for pulling down the status quo. So the ‘red’ challenge fizzled out. However, for the dreamers that wasn’t the end of the world.

In ZA Bhutto, the zeitgeist threw up a leader who had both revolutionary ideals and popular credentials. Bhutto sought to strike a compromise between revolutionary socialism – to which he added the prefix ‘Islamic’ – and parliamentary democracy. The former found its expression in his flagship nationalization programme; while the latter was embodied in the 1973 constitution. In a way, Bhutto represented a synthesis – albeit a jerry-built – of will and intellect. He had the heart of a revolutionary but the head of a constitutionalist. Like the protagonist of a Christopher Marlowe play, he was larger than life, with grand ambitions and a raging appetite for power. But he endeavoured to realize his ambitions within the system. Alas, he shared the tragic fate of a Marlowian hero!

The death of Bhutto coincided with the advent of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The images of Ayatollah Khomeini triumphantly returning to his country having thrown overboard a mighty monarchy gave fresh impetus to the hope for a comparable revolutionary change in Pakistan. That said, none of Bhutto’s contemporaries or successors, including his illustrious daughter, was cast in a revolutionary mold. They might have coveted to rule with an untrammeled authority, and, as in case of Nawaz Sharif, might have gone over the line once or twice, but they didn’t have the making of a titanic figure. They remained primarily concerned with saving their necks.

The rise of Imran Khan created the impression that at long last the much-awaited saviour had arrived. Here was a leader who promised and seemed capable of uprooting the old, creaky, rotten-to-the core system, casting aside the politics of the opportunists and the electables, redistributing the wealth from the ultra-rich to those lying at the bottom of the economic heap, bringing great gobs of foreign investment, breaking the begging bowl, and making the nation stand on its feet – all by his indomitable willpower.

But so far the impression has turned out to be a pie in the sky. Whether it’s embracing the electables and the tried and tested, announcing a tax amnesty, reliance on indirect taxes, or making a deal with the IMF, Imran Khan has come a cropper in leading politics or governance off the beaten track. Maybe the system is so thoroughly out of whack as to whup even an otherwise indefatigable will. One wagers that in a nation where pygmies are cast as giants, intellect is a safer bet than will.

The writer is an Islamabad-based columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @hussainhzaidi

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