Theorising Pakistan

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar’s latest book resurrects the dead tradition of using left-leaning theoretical models to Pakistan’s political analysis

Theorising Pakistan

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar begins his book with the claim that it ‘tries to cover a lot of bases in a "grand theorising" way which is increasingly uncommon’ (p. ix). This is true because, while there is a lot of empirical data in books about Pakistan, there is a paucity of theory. And, of course, almost since the time of Hamza Alavi there is almost no major breakthrough in the application of leftist, Marxist or socialist, theory to the analysis of Pakistan’s politics or history. Akhtar applies Antonio Gramsci’s theories to account for how the working classes of Pakistan (also called the subordinate groups and specifically identified as peasants, labourers, lower orders of society etc) actually adjust to the inequalities of power inherent in the system of governance and distribution of wealth.

The author introduces the term ‘the politics of common sense’ to account for the apparently contradictory ways in which these groups behave. He defines it as ‘essentially a strategy of accommodation whereby the lower orders of society accede to a patronage-dominated political field’ (p. 2). The contradiction is that they do not exhibit class-consciousness or solidarity with their class. This consciousness should have made them resist the structural oppression inherent in the capitalist system of production. If they had been conscious of this kind of identity they should have consistently stood up to all attempts by their oppressors to exploit them. But this does not happen most of the time. Instead, what we witness is that ordinary people adjust and accommodate themselves to the prevailing realities of power in such a way that they end up supporting the overall structure while extracting such temporary favours from the powers-that-be as they can.

This does not mean that they never resist at all. Indeed, the author has given several instances from Pakistan that they do (see accounts of the Okara military farms where the workers resisted eviction consequent upon their change of status; the Hashtnagar movement of peasants of KP against the big Khans in the late 1960s and 70s; the struggles of slum dwellers to avoid eviction from their homes all in Chapter 6 ‘The Subordinated Classes’). However, most of the time they find ways to get patronage from the very powers against whom they are supposed to struggle.

The introduction gives a brief introduction to the theory -- the ‘Gramscian building blocks’ as the author calls it -- clarifying how he will use theory and what exactly is the ‘politics of common sense’. A brief review of relevant literature is also provided. Then there is a section on the history of state formation in South Asia from the colonial period. The author points out that it was because of colonial rule that India was ‘inserted into the capitalist world economy’ and that the state began to penetrate society more than ever before. At this time a certain constellation of forces joined together to form what Akhtar calls the ‘historical bloc’ (p. 10). In this bloc were the civil bureaucracy, the military, the landowning class and the emerging industrialists. Later, religious leaders of various kinds also became participants of this ‘bloc’ at various levels. These forces operated at different levels and in different areas. For instance, whereas the landowners exert influence at the level of the state, they have direct power over their agricultural workers.

The military emerged in time as the most powerful influence on the most significant policies of the state. This role of the military was facilitated by the India-centrism which became a part of the worldview of the middle classes from the Punjab and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Initially the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs were also supporters of it but after the rise of their own ethnic identity (exemplified by the Mohajir Qaumi Movement), they broke ranks and started asserting their ethnic identity.

Chapter 2 narrates the story of the changes in the structure of power in Pakistan. The main insights are that this structure is dynamic. It has changed a lot since 1947 and is still changing. Yet, for all the changes, the author also points out its continuities. To begin with, the state was seen as the major dispenser of patronage. So, if one wanted to set up a factory or import goods into the country, one had to find a patron in the civil bureaucracy or the elected or unelected members of the government. This was the quintessential theory of capital formation in a post-colonial state in which almost everything was controlled by the state. However, the nature of the state itself has changed so this account of development of capital formation needs to change also. The landed notable -- or ‘big men’ as the author calls them -- were ascendant in the beginning. Slowly, the monopoly of this elite over power in the rural areas changed because of the modernisation of agriculture. Share-croppers were displaced from the land but they found alternative means of subsistence. Moreover, the ‘intermediate classes’ emerged.

Perhaps the most significant idea here is that we are witnessing the rise of ‘anti-politics’ with the PTI also claiming that it is not ‘doing politics’ but bringing about a cleansing of society. The military too has never seen itself doing politics and now the people consider the term itself so loaded that they shun it.

The detailed treatment of these ‘new contenders for power’ is in Chapter 3 but a brief summary is in order here. These were people who helped sell agricultural produce, provide seed and other necessities of farming. They were also the face of the state in daily life. In time, they became the most familiar face of the politics of common sense for many people. Among the forces which were familiar to the ordinary people were the lower functionaries of the state: the petty officials of the revenue department, policemen, middlemen (arhti), contractors (thekedar), transporters, clerks and tax collectors who came in contact with ordinary people on a daily basis. It is their manipulation of power with which the people have to accommodate themselves in their own daily version of the politics of common sense rather than the play of power at the upper levels where the top military, bureaucracy and others exercise power. So, while people pay the dues, legal and illegal, which the petty wielder of state power imposes upon them, the highest levels of the state talk of myths like the ‘rule of law’ as if the whole bureaucracy was built upon Weberian assumptions.

At the highest levels those who aspire for state power use their version of the politics of common sense by appeasing the military. After the Zia interlude religion has also been politicised thus, along with the rise of the military, there is also a corresponding rise in the power of the religious groups. The way Islam is used is such that it is not in the interest of the many contenders for power in Pakistan to analyse it thoroughly and clearly. However, the religious organisations ‘provide a means of social mobility for a wide cross-section of "non-elite" groups because they are closely linked to the state and/ or international networks, and therefore to their resources’ (p. 106). These organisations also function as the intermediaries mentioned above. Thus, Zia ul Haq’s politics brought about a fundamental change in the political structure of power in Pakistan bringing in the religious elements in the historical bloc of power mentioned above. Hence, it is part of the politics of common sense to defer to this new reality now.

Akhtar writes about the force of ethnicity in Pakistan’s politics. He does not present a chronological account of all ethnic movements -- something which has been done by many authors -- but an abstraction with insights into his theory of the politics of common sense. His main point is that this kind of counter-hegemonic politics is not explained ‘by the persistence of an age-old "false consciousness"’ (p. 129). This theory was often trotted out by Marxist theoreticians to explain everything in the conduct of the working classes which their theories did not predict. Thus, if the working classes did not show solidarity for each other but, instead, divided themselves on an ethnic basis the usual explanation was that they were not conscious  of their working class identity and, instead manifested a ‘false consciousness’. Akhtar refutes this simplistic explanation pointing out that:

It [ethnic nationalist politics] is in some sense an ideal to which the subordinate classes hailing from relatively excluded and exploited communities aspire, but the existence of this ideal, and occasional expressions of it, do not preclude the existence or even irrefutability of everyday patronage and the compulsions of the politics of common sense (p. 129).

This is borne out by several observations. For instance the present reviewer found that while ethnic activists support their languages passionately making efforts to have them recognised as the languages of education and governance, they actually teach their children the languages of power (English and Urdu) thus conforming to the imperatives of the politics of common sense.

In the ‘epilogue’ the author sums up his ideas so as to present his view of what shape the current political trends in Pakistan may take. Perhaps the most significant idea here is that we are witnessing the rise of ‘anti-politics’ with the PTI also claiming that it is not ‘doing politics’ but bringing about a cleansing of society. The military too has never seen itself doing politics and now the people consider the term itself so loaded that they shun it. He also points out that the military’s increasing capital accumulation may bring about conflicts within the traditional historical power bloc but goes on to say that neither the military nor the political parties will disrupt the system to the extent of creating a revolutionary rearrangement of power. In short, the politics of patronage will persist in the near future especially as most of us aspire to middle class status with eyes on the good things of life.

However, Akhtar gives a ray of hope to the subordinate classes by ending his book with the assertion that common sense will evolve ‘perhaps even in ways that form the basis of a free and egalitarian social order’ (p. 172). That, indeed, is my only criticism of the book. The author has described only a few cases of resistance which, in any case, did not meet with total success. He has not described other ‘evolutionary’ (in the sense of not being ‘revolutionary’) imaginaries of social change of the kind which created the welfare state in parts of Europe, so apparently the last line is simply a fantasy.

The book is a milestone in the politics of writing on the politics of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the author uses academic meta-language which can make this book difficult for those who are not used to such kind of writing. Otherwise, it is a brilliantly argued book and the reason I point out that its academic jargon makes it less accessible to ordinary students and non-academics is precisely because it is an original and intelligent work which should be read by as many people as possible.

It is certainly a path breaker because, as the author points out, most writings on Pakistan are rich on empirical data and chronological historical narrative but poor on analysis with reference to theory. In a sense, this book resurrects the dead tradition of using left-leaning theoretical models to Pakistan’s political analysis. It is a book I recommend to political scientists, historians and to the general reader.

The Politics of Common Sense
Publisher: New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2018
Author: Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Pages: 200
Price: not indicated

Theorising Pakistan