Thursday September 28, 2023

Transformative realism

August 08, 2022

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK.

Coming across any good book that enlightens our understanding of the world and its current challenges compels one to share it with others. One such book that I recently read is ‘Transformative Realism’ by Marc Saxer, a German scholar of considerable repute in academic and international circles.

Saxer has been writing regularly on democratization and transformation in both advanced and developing societies. The democratization process is his area of keen interest and he makes it easier for his readers to understand the challenges various societies have been facing on their way to better democracy. In ‘Transformative Realism’ he propounds ideas that can give political activists and scholars a peg for reorienting their democratic struggle with a new hope and zeal. Keeping in view the recent crises of democracy that countries such as India and Pakistan are facing, transformative realism can serve as a good discussion point.

In a plethora of political and transformative literature already circulating, what is so new about Saxer’s book? Essentially, he suggests that the first step is to analyze and understand the crisis. Apply this to countries such as Pakistan, and you see that realization is missing. Almost everybody takes it lightly unless the water starts flowing overhead. You look at the ministries of communication, defence, education, finance, health or even human rights, there is hardly any sense of urgency visible, as if there is no crisis at all. The Ministry of Communication wakes up when the bridge collapses, not before that.

Marc Saxer suggests that transformative realism begins by doing an analysis of the crises at hand. Breaking it down into four distinct categories of societal crises, he includes cultural, economic, political, and social aspects of the status quo that need transformation by building wider alliances in society. Again, looking at Pakistan we find that perhaps the cultural aspect of resistance to change is most dominating. Be it on a personal, political, or professional level, the resistance to change is all too noticeable. Personally speaking, people are culturally laid back and take a lot of time even to move a file from one table to another, or rather now from one computer to another.

The economic crisis is the most pronounced but still the way the entire state machinery should have responded to it by cutting back on luxuries and non-productive expenses is missing. Despite an impending danger of default and economic collapse, it seems business as usual everywhere. No rationing on fuel consumption, no control on air-conditioning that in many buildings runs round the clock, and no paring back on civil and military bureaucracy. Import of luxury items is back on track and exports are as sluggish as ever. For transformative realism, a realization of the economic crisis is one of the first steps.

Politically speaking, the crises in coalition formation, constitutional matters, and democratic norms, are just three from a litany that can be fairly long. Political activists, leaders, and entire parties place their personal interests ahead of the constitutional and democratic requirements in society. Pakistan has been plodding along from one political crisis to another and the powers that be seem to be enjoying it all. The deeper the political crisis goes, the more non-political forces are at ease at the inability of the political leadership to sail through it. Those who are out of power are always keen on striking a deal with the devil, just to come back to power – no matter how limited that is.

The fourth crisis that Marc Saxer draws out attention to is the societal crisis at large. Again, looking at India, Pakistan or other developing countries through this lens, we see this social crisis deepening by the day. Extremist forces have been gaining ground in society, resulting in more fundamentalist outfits emerging; even private and public institutions appear to be at the mercy of these forces. The surging intolerance and xenophobia – coupled with a chauvinistic education – in society deepens its crisis rather than preventing it. That’s how societies across the globe are marred by a social decline.

Transformative realism keeps in view cultural, economic, political, and social dimensions of the prevalent crises and then suggests the antidote. After realizing the existence of these crises, the next step is to have a desire to overcome these crises. In many societies we see a realization but the desire in the shape of political will is missing to overcome the crisis. This is so true for countries such as India and Pakistan. Nearly all political parties in their manifestoes outline their agenda to transform society, but when they assume power, the desire evaporates and the leadership indulges in activities that it should not be doing.

Then come the scope and speed with which a society can tackle these four interconnected crises of cultural, economic, political, and social nature. In most cases it is a political deadlock of sorts that first curtails the scope of efforts and then hinders the speed of any implementation plan to counter the prevailing crises in societies. To resolve this issue of scope and speed, wider social support plays a significant role to propel disruptive reforms. In the absence of societal support even courts deliver verdicts that go against public interest and not only buttress the status quo but at times restore the status quo ante.

If in Pakistan the courts are ever ready to maintain the status quo, even in America the Supreme Court can restore the status-quo ante by overturning a 50-year-old verdict that affects more than half of the population. Transformative realism tries to explain that most of the crises are not of a technical nature that technocrats can easily sort out. That’s why a purely technocratic approach to crisis management creates more problems than solutions. How true that is in Pakistan! Time and again authoritarian governments have resorted to calling technocrats and promising a ‘cabinet of talents’ to solve people’s problems. All failed to the best of their incompetence.

Saxer clarifies that transformation is not about losing or winning; it is about identifying change-makers and establishing their coalitions against the united fronts of those who support the status quo or even the status-quo ante. For this purpose, transformative change-making calls for broad societal alliances keeping in view their interests and priorities. In this approach ,narratives take a front seat to forge alliances. For instance, provision of justice to people or a just distribution of resources can build a strong narrative for transformative change. Or provision of livelihood can serve as another base for a broad social alliance.

Capitalist economies are essentially revolving around profit-making; this profit motive has – under neoliberal domination – badly affected free education and healthcare. Even in those countries where these services are free, the question of access and quality remains as most public services become hard to access, if at all. Wherever they are accessible, the quality remains poor and below the required international standards of public services. In this new approach to transformative change in society, actors, interests and narratives become interconnected and collectively embark on a road to initiate changes.

It should go something like this: actors or change makers – simply put, all those who want a certain transformation in society – have their interests closer to their hearts but lack a certain narrative to protect their interests. That’s where discourse communities come into play. Those who manage to assemble discourse communities are likely to dominate. And in most cases status-quo supporters are far ahead in voicing their concerns through discourse communities. Marc Saxer in his book outlines the ways such communities can make use of their alliances and narratives for transforming society.


Twitter: @NaazirMahmood