MUCH has been written and said in recent times about the middle class and its purported role in extricating Pakistan from the traps of underdevelopment, nepotism and political violence.
Many of the hypotheses in vogue are little more than tautologies: the middle class will be the saviour because that is what the middle class does. The argument has merit only if history simply reproduces itself, or more specifically if the story of western modernity is merely waiting to be played out again in the non-western world.
The fact is that the role of the middle class in other contexts cannot be neatly mapped onto ours. The middle class is not necessarily any more or less democratic or tolerant than any other class. It can be just as committed to exclusive, even fascistic, ideologies as to inclusive and progressive ones. That the middle class is identified with modernity does not mean that all of its inheritances and proclivities are good for society as a whole.
To begin with, the concept of the middle class is extremely nebulous. Is it to be defined in terms of income, ownership of the means of production, or simply self-perception?
In practice there are many ostensibly middle-class segments that share very little both in terms of their social locations and their politics; consider, for example, the almost diametrically opposed sensibilities of the English-speaking employee of a multinational company who has spent all of his/her life in one of the country’s big metropolitan centres with those of the Seraiki-speaking aarthi doing business in the grain market of D.G. Khan and maintaining a home in a nearby village.
There is arguably one conviction that most urban middle-class Pakistanis share (particularly those in the Punjabi heartland and big urban centres): that they have consistently suffered at the hands of a shameless ‘ruling elite’ that pillages the resources of the country mercilessly.
This elite is typically depicted as ‘feudal’, and lords over the tens of millions of hapless ‘poor people’ in the vast countryside. In contrast, the middle class is small and ever-shrinking, in large part because of the unending plunder of the ‘elite’.
Some of our best-intentioned liberal middle-class folk don’t like the comparison but this narrative is championed most vociferously by none other than Altaf Hussain.
Ever since the Mohajir Qaumi Movement gave way to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, its leadership has regularly invoked the imperative of ending the rule of the ‘feudals’ and graciously bestowing upon the long-suffering Sindhi masses all the benefits of modern statehood. Lest one forget, the MQM never ceases to remind us of its middle-class character.
The MQM’s politics over the years provides even more insight into the historic posture of the romanticised middle class. A product of the Zia dictatorship, the MQM has hardly been out of power for the best part of three decades. It has championed local government at the cost of power-sharing among all ethnic nationalities at the provincial level. It has redefined the meaning of both patronage and political violence. Last, but definitely not least, the MQM was, along with the PML-Q, the bastion of the Musharraf dictatorship.
Cue a brief note on Pakistan’s major political force, the military. It too perceives itself as a representative of a long-suffering middle class which seeks to make Pakistan into a meritocracy. Its wheeling and dealing with ‘feudals’ betrays great contempt for the latter.
Historically, the men in khaki evinced similar condescension for the religio-political forces with whom they arranged numerous marriages of convenience. The only change that has taken place on this front is that a healthy number of middle-class officers in today’s military espouse a distinctly non-secular worldview and look at religious militancy not only as a functional requirement but an end unto itself.
The rest of us middle-class folk have imbibed the anti-politics attitudes that our holy guardians and their loyalists have worked so hard to cultivate.
Notwithstanding exhortations to the contrary, we are all content to dismiss politicians as the very root of the problem, and are always on the lookout for a (middle-class) saviour who will somehow unearth a shortcut to ‘good governance’ and a robust state that cannot be dictated to by (anti-Muslim) foreign powers.
It matters little whether the saviour is in uniform, judicial robes, or, most absurdly, is himself a politician-bashing politician.
This (admittedly simplistic) analysis is not complete without mention of the middle classes on the peripheries who tend to be at the forefront of ethno-nationalist resistance.
Since soon after the inception of the state when it became clear that the two dominant institutions of the state — the civil bureaucracy and the military — were dominated by two ethnic groups, the educated middle classes from relatively underrepresented regions have been the face of an ethno-nationalist politics that has, depending on time, space and the history of the state’s relationship with the particular ethnic group, been conciliatory or confrontational and often a mixture of both.
Language has been the major symbol around which these middle classes have mobilised. They have also emphasised other aspects of culture. As a result, they have been pitted against the dominant middle-class narrative in the heartland that posits Urdu and Islam as the only legitimate symbols of Pakistani nationhood.
In recent years, the conflicts between and across middle-class fractions in Pakistan have grown increasingly acute, and not just along ethnic lines. The so-called ‘war on terror’ has confirmed the deep divisions that exist within the middle classes on matters of religion and state.
It is, therefore, simply untrue to argue that there is a monolithic middle class that exists in opposition to a predatory, omnipotent elite. In fact, competing middle-class segments have been regular occupants of the highest echelons of power, and even those that have not directly experienced state power remain highly influential shapers both of public opinion and state policy. This is not to suggest that there may not be middle-class elements that are committed to a genuine project of democratisation of state and society, across ethnic lines.
Indeed middle-class radicals (of the leftist variety) have played important roles at crucial junctures of Pakistani history. This is the tradition of ‘middle-class’ politics that might still get us to where we want to go. If we can all agree, that is.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.