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June 17, 2014

The limits of protest

Opinion

June 17, 2014

The spectacular protests around the current World Cup in Rio offer an important lesson for the IOC, Fifa and the organisers of the Miss Worlds and Universes. They should only allow such mega events to be hosted by countries that comprise effectively oppressed, apolitical and/or passive societies, such as in China, Japan and England or, advanced capitalist-controlled countries, such as the USA and several European ones.
When supporters of neoliberal economic regimes celebrate how the world is ‘shrinking’ under globalisation, they forget to mention that rapid urbanisation is resulting in mega-cities that are expanding in height and spread, and yet collapsing, by way of essential services. They also presume everyone will benefit uniformly and equally rather than suffer splits and conflict, as they compete for thinning resources. Often these divisions come undone along ethnic, communal and class seams. Rio was always an example of this long before the current World Cup.
Many experts on urban issues in Pakistan have attempted to draw attention to these urgent concerns even when funded seminars and conferences were not fashionable. More recently, Karachi has hosted such discussions and presented studies on such critical issues. These have revealed a generational split by way of analysis.
An older generation of urban experts is still concerned with empirical data, technical services and resource management and, critical social scientists focus on the human cost of such uneven policy. However, a younger generation seems more comfortable with anthropological inquiry and journalistic accounts that describe in a Rumsfeldian sense, ‘It is what it is’.
This explains the inclusion of artists and novelists into such laboratories of development and as part of the community of experts because they can artfully (and often, comically) describe the ‘condition’ of the people. The argument is that art and anthropology have an important contribution to make by

describing local stories and re-presenting the voice of the citizen-subject.
When the art works admittedly such efforts have their entertainment value, but when they don’t they are often just irritatingly pompous attempts at turning metaphors and demonstrative of a clever use of a language of irony with references to Foucault and Harvey even, but almost always void of critical politics. Even if generosity demands that all voices be included in the community of the concerned, almost none are helpful over the question: why is the bad mood that is burning up Rio missing in the Pakistani metropolis?
The effect of broad inclusivity of celebrity activists into what used to be ideology-based political analysis is that, while descriptive, it dilutes political purpose. Also challenging is the way state rhetoric can deflect resistance by way of dismissing sceptics as pessimists, critics as traitors and protesters as anti-nationalists. Additionally, the well-meaning new-age citizen is easily hurt. Whether it is a conference, a book, an idea or a policy – to protest, object or challenge is to betray, disrupt and the most vital cut, likely to lead to social exclusion or, worse, being unfriended on social media!
When Simon Jenkins argues that the Olympic Games have not delivered their intended peace between nations, rather they have gained construction companies increased wealth or that the World Cup will simply transfer wealth from Brazil as a whole to various interest groups, we share this principled disapproval of elite development.
Yet, when Pakistani commentators object to the limitations of protest politics in Pakistan and are critical of the deadbeat and insipid peace and cultural conferences disguised as anti-Talibanisation or point out that there has been no effective protest against the military adventures in Fata or Balochistan, there is despair and cynicism as to why critics are so hard on activists and do-gooders.
Worse, when the fractures within the analysis of a new generation of self-claimed activists are pointed out, whether they are by way of class identities, geographical location, or just poor tools of assessment, there is defensiveness and cries that they are being personally ‘attacked’ or are victims of ‘ad hominem’ assault. But not once are they willing to receive or address criticism for the content of their analysis or work-product. Yet, they expect US imperialism will vanish by their social media remarks and that working class movements will benefit if they become subjects of PhDs theses.
That’s the limit of protest amongst a younger generation of Pakistanis. This is the success of the increasing absorption of potential intelligentsia into western academia even when it insists it is independent of thought and purpose.
If the military state used to be the crux of all analysis by an older generation of social scientists and activists in Pakistan, including impediments to social development, this has been subsumed as secondary to the cliché of US imperialism by the next generation. Younger op-ed contributors and journalists now have sources within the military on their speed-dials and cosy, mutually beneficial relations with the ISPR. ‘Radical’ researchers find no irony in seeking NoCs for their ‘subversive’ works.
No specific policy nor effect of economic endeavour by way of US-sponsored mega development projects or rehabilitation of jihadists or UK funded social development projects including, education and empowerment for girls are interrogated with any seriousness. Most importantly, the nexus of the military and jihadist organisations is considered irrelevant even as the Jamaatud Dawa executes well-planned pro-ISI demonstrations guarded by state security.
Similarly, when finally the state comes out of the closet and admits that it is currently supporting drone warfare in Fata there is no reflection over how this affects protest politics. Does this mean that the anti-imperialists and Imran Khan will finally turn their energies from long-distance protests and turn now to Rawalpindi and hold anti-drone protests, dharnas and do their ‘radical’ politics there? Unlikely.
If anything, the state has killed the romance of imperial drones by indigenising the issue. Honour killings are marketed as the vengeance for the cultural dishonour of men but in reality this is a covering excuse for the routine patriarchal codes that demand that women must be prevented from exercising their free will or for punishing them as examples of the consequences of being free agents. So, too, the military hides behind its own role in using jihadists as proxies for national honour but then exacts revenge when proxies attempt to become free agents pursuing independent agendas.
Instead of obsessing with the US client-patron relationship, it would do analysts who are invested in protest politics some good to exercise more rigour and protest the mutually beneficial relations between the military and these proxies. The challenge is that the deniers who argue that religion is not the issue will have to admit first that the very glue in this relationship is, in fact, religion and its defining influence on what is considered nationalism.
To reconnect to the central question here of why protest is stumped in Pakistan, despite its critical economic and developmental challenges, it may be appropriate to end with the observation that it is this role of religion that used to be a subject of interest for an older generation that has now been sidelined and considered irrelevant by many post 9/11 scholar-activists.
It is no wonder we cannot converge the kind of protest we see in Rio – it is because we can’t even agree on who or what we should be protesting against.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]