Why are we not idealists?

Pakistan faces harrowing problems but not all is lost

A Pakistani tri-pos student of History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge put me through the wringer by putting vexed questions. Most of the young students face a dilemma with respect to their identity. Therefore, identity is the moot issue on most of the occasions. They generally float midair because in the Western milieu they are accepted but with visible reluctance and in Pakistan they find it hard to fit in socially and also economic opportunities are few and far between.

But now they have this keenness to come back to Pakistan and try their luck here, however daunting the situation is. Thus, our protagonist, after completing her studies, intends to come back to Pakistan and work here in the realm of policy and development. Thus, Pakistan and its citizenry are the usual focus of our conversation.

While identifying the most glaring problem besetting the people of Pakistan, justice figures as the most crucial. From here, our conversation becomes somewhat dense. Any group of people succumbed by the material, individual and commodified interests find it hard to grasp importance of justice as a modus vivendi for ensuring social equilibrium.

Removing class barriers, bridging the gap between the rich and the poor and providing safety to the marginalised against the powerful is fructified only through an impartial system of justice. Justice as a concept is amorphous and to grasp it conceptually the beholders of justice must have some idealism in them. Justice, like love, beauty and compassion cannot be reduced to any measured definition. Thus, judges and jury ought to be idealists.

Justice, if commodified, becomes a social bane because it is compromised and selective. After listening to her analysis, I was reminded of Arnold Toynbee’s theory of ‘withdrawal and return’. To undertake an incisive look at the society, an individual with a creative impulse has to withdraw, introspect and come back with some insightful solution.

As creative minds had been retreating to the wilderness (or to the alien terrains) and staged a comeback with a fresh and revitalised system of thought. A holistic view of the society can only be captured from a distance. Many sensitive young souls feel the need to explore their own cultural traditions and customs when they go abroad for education. It is then that the questions about their identity, religion and language are put to them. Such a situation affords them an opportunity to reinvent themselves as cultural/nationalist beings.

Pakistani youngsters getting education in the topmost universities of the world can indeed infuse some sense of commonality among the polarised people of Pakistan. I immersed in a deep thought when she emphatically stated that the importance of material considerations cannot be denied but for material well-being for collectivity, some idealism is a must.

Mere materialism breeds avarice that impedes any collective good to transpire. The maturity of any nation or social groups can be measured through their engagement with such notions like justice, love, aesthetics, sacrifice, ideas about good and evil and most of all — trust. These categories can be referred to as abstract notions lacking any tangible configuration but the creative process is unleashed only through the constructive engagement with these categories.

That is the recourse to social progress. A culture of inquiry and quest for better social dispensation gets sapped when instrumentalism or functionalism is accepted as a norm and embraced as a practice without any qualms. Drawing on Pakistani socio-political situation, she pointed to the absence of idealism among our ruling elite in general. Every leader must be asked about his or her vision of the state that they want Pakistan to be. More than 90 percent will have no plausible answer to this query. The top echelon of Pakistani leadership is completely overtaken by functionalist/instrumentalist impulse. Therefore, it is blatantly self-serving and steeped in utter materiality. Public good and welfare does not exist in their political vocabulary. Rather politics, for most of the politicians, is a business if not ‘a blood sport’ as Natwar Singh puts it in his autobiography.

I drew her attention to the ring of elitism in her whole argument, emphasising that such idealism that she has been professing unequivocally, does not cater to the needs and aspirations of the poor and the dispossessed. I thought my query will put a stop to her train of thoughts that smacked of Hegelian philosophy. Many a Marxist say the same. But neo-Marxism that evolved in the European continent through the Frankfurt school, did not discount idealism at all.

Even Marxist literary theorists like Fredric Jameson and Aijaz Ahmad have reimagined the classical understanding of Marxism. Same is the case with Slavoj Zizek. At least that’s how she reads these thinkers and theorists. According to her, idealism is not the luxury meant only for the privileged. It brings down the class girdles that inhibit the poor and underprivileged to climb up the social ladder. Even the materialist theory is predicated on a sort of idealism.

A stateless society is a dream which gets configured in the idea before taking a concrete shape. Pursuits of ideals that are larger than life make life meaningful. The execution of these ideals is as important as the ideals themselves. The failure in the execution of the ideals culminates in the issues of governance. That is exactly what plagues the current government of Imran Khan.

This much she conceded that Khan has a vision although she does not agree with his vision. When I asked whom do you think young leaders of Pakistan should emulate? Three names that she came up with instantaneously were: Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew, and Mahathir Muhammad. Their lives and struggles have a great deal for our leaders to learn from. But they must read the history of the colonial world and various nationalist struggles which is vital for the inculcation of historical insight and a broader worldview. They must have profound understanding of the outstanding issues confronting the world, including Kashmir, Palestine, and the future of Afghanistan. That would enable them to guide the Pakistani masses, which are culpable to any incitement which is perilous for the country.

All said and done, the conversation with the Cambridge undergraduate left me thinking that although Pakistan is confronted with harrowing issues and problems, yet all is not lost.


The writer of this column is a professional historian and author. He can be reached at [email protected]

Why are we not idealists?