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July 24, 2019

End of democracy?


July 24, 2019

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

We live in an exceptional environment where dissent is no longer viewed as a routine element of democratic politics. Instead, it tends to be seen as part of a deeper conspiracy to undermine the country’s foundation, a suspicion that equates criticism with treason.

With two former prime ministers and one former president behind bars, we are turning into a ‘carceral democracy’ where jailing political opponents seems to have become part of political calculations. All this is combined powerfully with a voyeuristic support

base that seeks pleasure in spectacles of punishment.

A key element of authoritarianism’s history in Pakistan has been the spectre of geopolitical instability. The Afghan Jihad of the 1980s and the anti-jihad of 2000s, the “game changer” CPEC or the “inevitable” IMF programme, all these have been couched in the moral language of patriotic duty, with those disagreeing painted as threats; few countries can match our ability to align patriotism with the interests of foreign powers. An extraordinary combination of rentier politics with national sovereignty claims gives further impetus to authoritarianism, threatening the dissolution of democratic norms into a permanent state of emergency.

We must, however, link our descent into authoritarianism with the broader crisis of democracy that defines our era. Indeed, we live at a time when the emblem of liberal democracy, the US, is ruled by a clownish figure whose hate-filled views would have found little audience beyond the fringe right only a couple of decades ago. And then our eastern neighbour, long viewed as an example of democracy in the third world, has witnessed the rise of a fascist government that has perfected the link between corporate greed, violent riots and electoral victory, a model whose remarkable success is an ominous sign for the future trajectory of ‘democratic politics’.

The difficult question for theorists is to identify the global context in which the popular impulse is geared towards fear and resentment rather than acceptance and solidarity. US political scientist, Wendy Brown, argues that we live at a time when a financialized form of capitalism has reduced politics to a technique of management. Key decisions are today made by opaque and undemocratic institutions such as the IMF, WTO and the World Bank. Governments are expected to merely implement policies made elsewhere, rendering the idea of popular sovereignty impotent.

We are seeing a similar process here in Pakistan as an erstwhile anti-IMF party seems powerless in front of the might of global finance, and that now equates an aggressive implementation of the latter’s agenda with patriotism. The overwhelming power of finance over industry globally means that we are witnessing an era of ‘jobless growth’, a phenomenon in which the gap between profits and job creation is on the rise. Today, profits are not centred on industrial sectors but in speculative ventures in the real estate and stock markets, sectors that create wealth without providing adequate jobs or an industrial base.

We are then confronted with a global crisis of ‘surplus populations’ comprising individuals who are no longer an essential part of the contemporary socio-economic order. These are populations mostly made of young people who do not find an adequate place of belonging in the contemporary world. The creative impulse of such a large and crucial segment of society is structurally inhibited, which then poses one of the greatest threats to political stability, as various studies on the relation between the Arab Spring and the ‘youth bulge’ testify.

This crisis is compounded by the looming climate catastrophe that threatens any remnants of stability we know. Research shows that changing weather patterns played a key role in inducing a food crisis in the Middle East that fuelled uprisings from which the region has not yet recovered. The rising sea levels have already begun having severe consequences on farming communities, as witnessed in the recently concluded Long March of farmers from Thatta whose lands are being submerged into the ocean, highlighting the impending food crisis for our country.

We then are confronted with an unprecedented level of displacement of communities in modern history. Historically, such ‘surplus populations’ in Europe found a place in the ‘New World’ of North America and Australia, while the developed West has been the destination of choice for those belonging to the colonized world. Yet, anti-refugee/immigrant sentiment has become an intensely political issue in the West, propelling Far-Right movements that pit precarious workers in Europe/US against those who are seeking refuge from societies that have collapsed into a whirlwind of violence and bankruptcy.

The global capitalist order now finds itself in a paradox. It is causing a perpetual displacement and destabilization of entire societies, turning us into a planet of nomads. On the other hand, it is excessively anxious about controlling the effects of these movements, and institutes a strict regime of internal surveillance and border controls. It means a large part of the population is caught in an iron cage of modernity that even Weber could not imagine, with no past or future to look forward to, a condition that melts time as we understand it. The intensification of struggles around seas and airports is an indication of the sites of future struggles in an increasingly fragmented world.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben refers to our contemporary crisis as a “permanent state of emergency” where governments are using extra-legal measures due to a fear of nomadic populations. That includes giving exceptional powers to the police and the military, tampering with court procedures for “speedy decisions” and imprisoning large sections of society. The desperate attempts to reproduce a disorderly status quo creates a hyper-paranoid state that views dissent as a foreign conspiracy because it exceeds the logic of an insular present, fuelling a militarized response against opponents.

The emergence of coercion as the overarching tendency of our era poses difficult questions as the lines between democracy and dictatorships blur. If the key task for states today is to manage surplus populations, does this mean that democracy is now hopelessly tied to an authoritarianism that must privilege policing over debate? If life itself is inscribed in an endless state of economic, social and political emergency, then how does one imagine a future beyond a permanent management of disorder?

In his famous essay titled ‘On the Jewish Question’, Marx warned of precisely how this glaring gap between the political rhetoric of rights and the economic realm of profits will lead to the former’s assimilation into the latter. He predicted that an increasing fragmentation of society between the propertied and the property-less would create conditions in which the right to security (for the rich) would trump other values such as protection of citizen’s rights. According to Marx, policing and militarization remains an integral tendency in capitalism, and any political transformation without a social revolution would be unable to break from the logic of a stifling present.

Political parties, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere, would have to confront the context in which authoritarianism appears as the only plausible future. Political change without rethinking our notions of growth, work and our relationship to nature will be hopelessly inadequate to confront our drift towards authoritarianism. If democracy is to challenge the permanent state of emergency that haunts it, then it must become the bearer of a future deemed impossible. As they say, when all “possible” paths lead towards annihilation, one must be realistic and “demand the impossible.”

Email: [email protected]