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Tuesday January 18, 2022

Supply and demand failure

November 30, 2021
Mohammad Ziauddin. File photo
 Mohammad Ziauddin. File photo

It is not overly dramatic to juxtapose the passing away of Mohammad Ziauddin to the state of the news business in Pakistan. He possessed an impeccable and widely celebrated integrity, underscored primarily by the professionalism he brought to his work. Ziauddin, the editor, the unparalleled newsman, and the mentor to thousands is no more. What we lament in his passing is more profound as we survey what he leaves behind.

In the race against time, we are all losers. And so as both Ziauddin, and earlier this year, Rahimullah Yousafzai, returned to our Maker, there is little to lament in their lives other than the profound sense of grief and loss. Both men have left behind a lifetime of work for younger reporters, editors, anchor persons, producers, and columnists to learn from.

Then there is Faheem Mughal. Mughal worked in news television and lost his job a few months ago. Last week, he reportedly committed suicide. He left behind no grand legacy, and not much for his wife and five young children, save the Rs60,000 in debt that he had racked up since losing his job.

The same weekend that Ziauddin and Mughal died in Pakistan, Virgil Abloh passed away at age 41 in Chicago. Abloh lost a protracted and private battle with cancer after a trailblazing career in reshaping high culture. He was both the Jay Z and the Jackie Robinson of fashion and design, becoming, as artistic director for Louis Vuitton, the first African-American man to lead design for a major luxury fashion brand. Abloh was prolific, working with brands like Ikea and Nike, and with artists like Kanye West (now known as Ye).

Jay Z, or Shawn Carter himself was back in the news this past week too. After nearly three decades of slaying dragons of all sizes, Carter became the first living rapper to ever be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jay Z evolved far beyond the lyrics and rhythms that he has blended into the subconsciousness of Western culture throughout his career – helping establish not just his own art, but also developing a business empire that has identified and cultivated hundreds of new artists, as well as taking stakes in numerous iconic businesses. Almost all of these have a salience that extends far beyond the limitations that others may have imposed on a black kid from a rough neighbourhood in Brooklyn.

As we mourn Ziauddin and Faheem Mughal, Abloh and Carter, in death and in life, are instructive for what they represent: the actualization of individual and cultural potential. Pakistani media isn’t destined to die with the likes of Ziauddin. And young men struggling to make ends meet are not destined to have their lives shortened by helplessness. For most of us, this conversation necessarily hinges on the supply side of opportunity and hope. Reform the government. End corruption. Increase exports. Reduce extremism.

Sometimes it is important to challenge ourselves to do better. Out of anger and despondence for the fate of the Faheem Mughals out there. Out of respect and reverence for the Ziauddins and Yousafzais. Out of admiration and awe for the Ablohs and Jay Zs. It doesn’t matter what road we take to the realisation that the plethora of platitudes we have developed and honed for years are as useless as they are true. It matters that we realise this.

The supply side of opportunity and hope assumes that the capacity to imagine and dream is constrained by factors extraneous to the individual that needs opportunity and needs to believe in a better day. As a die-hard supply-sider, with all the new evidence that Mariana Mazzucato has made available through her seminal work on the importance and centrality of the state, I will likely never concede to neoconservative tripe and tropes about the importance of low tax rates and people needing to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’. But we should all pay more attention to the demand side of opportunity and hope.

In the Facebook and smartphone age, there is a generic despondency and absence of hope that has overtaken the human condition. This is global, universal and inescapable. People born on the wrong side of the opportunity curve everywhere are choosing resignation and submission more and more readily. To me, this is the most profound explanation for why populism, extremism and conspiracy theories have become so overpowering and irresistible as we fast approach the quarter mark of the 21st century.

Big picture analyses and analysts keep talking about the digital age and the 21st century as if it is some grand new idea that is out there in the undefined and unknowable future. Public intellectuals keep harping on about reform. About the system-wide need for cleaner, and leaner government. About the need to save the state from itself and its foibles. In Pakistan, we have had three generations worth of conversations about documenting the economy. Conversations in which the same people that write about the need for this vital economic reform are the ones that are in government ostensibly enacting such reform, and then the same ones that criticise the governments that they have served for having failed to enact the reform that they originally drafted and worked to enact. This is ready material for mockery, but something more disturbing is afoot.

Thanks to the digital age, governments everywhere are more and more aware of the problems that society faces. Every society claims that it is trying to give its children the opportunity to live lives of integrity and honour, a life like Ziauddin’s, if you will. The more ambitious among us want a society in which the next Jay Z, or the next Virgil Abloh is a sure thing. But no society wants Faheem Mughal to be a real character, with the same ending as the real Faheem Mughal.

The ambition to prevent the next Faheem Mughal is as universal as the ambition to manufacture the next Ziauddin, and to sprinkle in a few Jay Zs and Virgil Ablohs among us. In some societies, all of these possibilities exist in robust measure. In truth, America may still be the only society in which they exist in a measure that lives up in storytelling, to the scale that exists in reality.

The worry in Pakistan is that with the Ziauddins dying off, and God knows how many more Faheem Mughals out there, the despondency and hopelessness is going to continue growing. The supply side of optimism and hope – so much of which was embodied for so many Pakistanis by Prime Minister Imran Khan – is fast running out of the same press releases and talking points.

How many more times can PM Khan, for example, continue to claim (with a straight face) that he is establishing a state modelled on Madina? And how many times can even his most ardent supporters and well-wishers continue to give him the benefit of the doubt with a straight face?

In the larger scheme of things, PM Khan’s failure will not be the PTI’s or the hybrid regime’s or the security establishment’s. It will be society at large that will have failed. And the nature of the failure will not have been that PM Khan failed to reduce corruption or failed to bring about reform. He was always, almost assuredly, going to fail at both those tasks. The failure will be the extinguishing of the demand side of optimism and hopefulness. The extinguishing of the twinkle in the eye of the young PTI supporter is not a PTI failure or an Imran Khan failure. It is a whole-of-society failure.

That we cannot imagine where the next Ziauddin will come from, and that we are absolutely certain that there are more Faheem Mughals out there, and that we wonder how Jay Z and Virgil Abloh could ever make their way into this article. That is a failure most profound. Our rage – partisan, technocratic, righteous, or moral – won’t assuage the stink from it.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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