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SMOKERS’ CORNER: THE CHAOTIC STATE

Updated June 09, 2019

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Last year, while going through copies of numerous Pakistani Urdu dailies archived in Washington DC’s massive Library of Congress for research purposes, I came across a rather amusing news report on page 2 of an Urdu daily. I believe daily Sarhad was the name of the newspaper, but I can’t quite remember for sure. 

Nevertheless, what I do remember is that it was from the October 1972 issue of the daily, which was being published from the former NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). The report was about a mill owners’ delegation in Punjab’s Mianwali area, who were planning to meet the then President Z.A. Bhutto and launch a complaint against mill workers. Apparently, ever since Bhutto had come to power on a populist socialist platform in December 1971, the mentioned mill workers had tried to take over the mills. 

According to the owners, the workers had also begun to desecrate the owners’ ancestral graveyard by urinating on the graves. I couldn’t find the follow-up to this story so I don’t know whether the regime took any action against the workers. 

Flaws in the state need to be addressed and challenged from within the limits of an informed and rational framework, and not through reactionary forces

Labour unions had been robust supporters of Bhutto’s PPP during the early days of the party and then regime. That is, till a violent labour movement was crushed by the government in 1972, especially in Karachi. 

Pakistan suffered severe cultural, economic and political ruptures between the late 1960s and late 1970s. The old order, assembled by the country’s early political and economic elite and the state, was apparently doing rather well on the economic front, but this was being achieved by either repressing or outrightly ignoring the many ethnic fissures and economic discrepancies underneath its veneer. 

The repressed rumblings in this context finally erupted to the surface with growth in population and greater social mobility, mainly triggered by the aggressive industrialisation policies of the 1960s and a ‘green revolution’ in the agricultural sector. 

The state was jolted by disorder, and by the initial emergence of the loud and iconoclastic strand of populist politics which followed the commotion. A now disoriented state hastily tried to restore order through a new political system (parliamentary democracy) but the damage had been done. 

The old order and its engineers were swiftly sidelined, especially after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle. The commotion and its immediate results were understood as a revolution of sorts. But to many it signalled an era of anarchy, which unleashed distinct political forces and impulses. 

Friction between them did not formulate a new thriving synthesis, as German theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Hegel had insisted such conflicts did. Instead, it created a slow-burning chaos. But a new creative order didn’t emerge from this chaos either as the controversial German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed.   

Pakistani society remained in flux as the old order continued to erode but was not necessarily replaced by one that was any better. Eminent sociologist Riaz Hassan, in his excellent 1985 essay for Middle Eastern Studies, writes that large segments of the country’s urban population rose against the Bhutto regime in 1977 because the social, political and economic impacts of the violent movement against the Ayub regime in 1968, the 1971 East Pakistan debacle and Bhutto’s populist policies, left a majority of Pakistanis believing that the traditional basis of authority relationships — such as those between teacher and student, tenant and landlord, worker and capitalist, women and men — had eroded. 

The erosion of the traditional authority structures regulating these relationships left a social vacuum. No new basis of authority succeeded in completely replacing the old. 

It were the Islamic parties, and then Zia, who succeeded in offering Islam as the new —and only — basis to replace the vacuum created by the attrition of traditional authority and power in society. But this came at the cost of a reactionary dictatorship. 

American historian Richard Wolin, in his complex tome The Seduction of Unreason, tries to demonstrate how, ever since the early 20th century, the impulse to overthrow an established order — especially an order constructed on the principals of economic and social modernity — has ended up romanticising ‘unreason’ and chaos. This has often led to the emergence of reactionary ideas, which have, ironically, devoured their own romancers. 

The state detests chaos. If it has flaws, then these need to be addressed and challenged from within the limits of an informed and rational framework. But as we have seen over and over again, and are once again witnessing today in Pakistan, the perception that the state is weakening or is behind all ills, attracts excitable and reactive forces which, in their irreverent drive to attack the state, become reactionary and irrational. 

This is when chaos sets in and the perception that all which is holding the centre is eroding. But a new order does not emerge from this romanticised chaos. Instead, it comes from a rebounding state which strikes back hard, but this time without any remorse. 

The excitables should thus be wary of the fact that they are basically romancing chaos that would ultimately invite a rebounding wrath of the state and not some brilliant new order. An exhausted society will fall in line. In their excitability, arrogance, irreverence and a somewhat delusional misreading of the state, they are digging a hole for themselves and those they claim to be agitating for.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 9th, 2019