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April 11, 2021

Change and revolutions


April 11, 2021

Part - I

In his recent episode of call-receiving from the public, PM Imran Khan uttered a couple of unsavoury remarks. His ideas about what causes rape, and how obscenity and vulgarity are responsible for sexual crimes, were unexpected and uncalled for.

There has been plenty of condemnation and social media activity against the PM’s notions, but little has been spoken or written about his references to the French and Iranian revolutions. He informed his listeners and viewers about how during the French and Iranian revolutions thousands of people were beheaded so that some Tabdeeli could take place.

That the PTI does have some fascist tendencies is no more a secret. Other PTI ministers, such as Faisal Vawda and Murad Saeed, also not long ago talked about hanging five to ten thousand people so that the PTI could rule unhindered to materialize the promised change. A hatred for parliamentary democracy and the democratic practice of holding elections is also anathema to them. The PM has more than once expressed his dislike for holding elections every five years or so. He gives examples of China and Singapore where one leader could be at the helm of affairs for decades.

In a series of columns here, we will discuss the concepts of change and revolutions in history and see how the worthy ideals of our prime minister border on a travesty of reality. We will see how some promises of change and revolutions – so romanticized by our PM – turn out to be a blood sport and how human lives are sacrificed at the altar of lofty ideals that are seldom achieved. Those who promise a change or revolution by a bloody upheaval try to establish a ruthless regime that ends up devouring its own children.

It is not a good idea to confine political debate to academics alone. Common people should be able to understand that political ideas and ideologies reshape and remodel their own lives as they live in communities, countries, and the world itself. Politics should essentially be about change, otherwise it just becomes a power struggle. Desire and promise to change should lie at the heart of any worthwhile politics. As Karl Marx asserted in his ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845) that, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”.

The desire and promise to change also raise some challenging questions. To what extent is change desirable? Will change result in decline or growth? Will it initiate some decay or progress? Will a majority of people resist or welcome it? In many cases, people just turn their faces against change and long to return to an earlier time. Then there are questions about defining decline and growth, or decay and progress. It appears that the idea of change that Imran Khan promised was actually change into decline and decay rather than growth and progress.

Such ideas of change are fairly conservative and do not go with the modern concept of progress. It is sad and unfortunate that rulers of a country peddle such reactionary views in the 21st century. A good political activist, leader, or anyone else for that matter should realize that human history is marked by an advance in knowledge, leading to achievements of higher levels of civilization. That is where any change must lead us. In history, various promises of change have led to reforms or revolution. Reform is a gradual and incremental process of modification without fundamentally altering the nature of society.

The literal meaning of revolution is a turnaround; politically speaking, it refers to dramatic and profound upheavals that in most cases become violent, and lead to a far-reaching transformation of society. But before discussing the concept of revolution, perhaps it is better to talk about ‘reaction’ which seems more related to our rulers’ concept of change. In politics, reaction is more about a negative attitude to change; it is an essential feature of conservative thought, as reflected in many political parties and groups in Pakistan, and in the rest of the world as well.

Such conservative and reactionary thinking stands for the desire to conserve, leading to a resistance to change itself, while outwardly claiming to spearhead change. Here we must differentiate between economic growth and social progress. Some conservative and reactionary leaders and even dictators do manage to show economic growth but in political and social terms they represent decay and decline. Civilian leaders like Modi and Trump or dictators like Generals Pinochet and Zia fall in this category. But our promised change in Pakistan has not even displayed any economic growth; it is sheer decay and decline economically, politically and socially.

This type of ‘reaction’ amounts to a demand for continuity with the past such as a desire to impose a certain dress code on women, blaming them for the violence they are victims of, promoting morbid spirituality, glorifying past heroes who are mostly warriors rather than intellectuals, thinkers or writers. Indirectly, this seeks to eradicate change in the name of custom or tradition. Reaction can also involve an attempt to reclaim the past rather than a modern and progressive future. Such leaders try to turn the clock back and lead a backward-looking nation which ends up becoming even more regressive.

Such a position endorses change that is often inspired by the notion of a ‘Golden Age’. The more it talks about change, the more it refers to it as a means of preserving obsolete customs. This philosophy of change is in fact a philosophy of conservatism. This tries to present a moderate face of reactionary politics that amounts to a defence of the status quo, the existing state of affairs. This desire to resist or avoid change is rooted in human psychology because in the words of Michael Oakeshott most people ‘prefer the familiar to the unknown’.

As we have seen in Pakistan, rulers have been trying to sell a sense of reassurance and security at the cost of gross injustices in society. If you suggest any new policy – let’s say in defence or foreign affairs – it appears threatening to decision-makers, who hide behind custom, honour, nationalism, pride, religion, or tradition. That is how long-established and habitual practices form a traditional society where customs play a more important role than modern law which becomes subservient to traditions. Moral and traditional authority becomes a tool of social control.

In traditional societies, people accept something as rightful because it has always been that way; in other words: familiarity breeds legitimacy. Imran Khan’s remarks about obscenity as a cause of rape have satisfied many people’s sense of natural fairness without considering that long-established patterns of behaviour have to be disrupted for a change. If you keep appealing to custom and practice, behaviours will remain the way they have always been. No virtue of tradition can justify a legally incongruent action in this age of internationally accepted universal values of fundamental and human rights.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]