WE live in an age where the market is considered the ultimate provider and the pursuit of individual interest is almost unquestioned.
The notion that the state should guarantee basic entitlements and accordingly take responsibility for the provision of those goods and services essential to meet the needs of ordinary people is more or less considered anachronistic.
It is, therefore, nothing short of an epic struggle to maintain even the flimsy institutional arrangements for public welfare that have been constituted in countries such as ours over a number of decades.
In the event public-sector organisations have acquired such a poor reputation amongst the educated (chattering) classes that there are increasingly fewer progressives who argue in favour of saving them. Ideology aside, virtually all Pakistanis with adequate resources at their disposal simply prefer to bypass the state — or engage it ‘informally’ — and secure goods and services by paying for them in the market.
Notwithstanding the significant shift in public opinion in the western countries following the spectacular implosion of the ‘market’ in 2008, it is more likely than not that the welfare state continues to die a slow death in those countries. In part this is because a large middle class is still able and willing to pay for goods and services in the market, even if this middle class may feel quite besieged in the wake of austerity measures.
To be sure, the electoral jolts recently felt in Greece, and to a lesser extent in France, do suggest that middle-class voters are not quite convinced of the omnipotence of the market just yet. Even so, cold war binaries of state and market are unlikely to be resurrected in the immediate future.
The situation in much of the rest of the world is decidedly different. Not because there is any greater challenge to neo-liberal ideology and politics than in the western countries but in fact because of the serious potential threat to social order in the long run if the state continues to unravel at breakneck speed.
The post-colonial state has never done much to meet the needs of the majority of its citizens (read: subjects). It has instead been the repository of power in society and maintained social control accordingly. Till approximately four decades ago, this colonial-style logic of government was, to an extent, successful (inasmuch as success is to be measured in terms of the maintenance of order and if one conveniently ignores the complete failure of the state in erstwhile East Pakistan).
This statist project was premised on the fact that society continued to resemble that which the British ruled over. Most Pakistanis lived in rural areas, were bound to the agrarian economy, and remained co-opted (or coerced) into a structure of power which revolved around the administrative apparatus inherited from the Raj.
With the onset of quite dramatic socioeconomic changes in the 1960s, however, the old structure of power was forever doomed. Among other things, the administrative apparatus was not designed to adapt to the imperatives of urban capitalism and all that the latter brought with it. Then there was the small matter of exponential increases in the population and so on and so forth.
Yet 40 years on, the old administrative apparatus remains more or less intact (even accounting for the local government antics of various military rulers). Needless to say, this apparatus is, formally at least, totally out of sync with society at large. However, state functionaries remain incredibly powerful, still able and willing to ease or exacerbate the trials and tribulations of ordinary people.
Across vast stretches of this land of the pure, hidden from the eye of the urban intelligentsia and media, ordinary people continue to be subject to the whims of state functionaries, as they always have been.
Meanwhile, when the chattering classes lament the ‘inefficiency’ of state institutions what they mean to say is that the state has, over the years, lost the coherence that it exhibited in a bygone era. In other words, state functionaries tend to operate not in accordance with ‘policy’ formulated at the highest administrative level but as competitors who are always willing to sell their respective goods and services to the highest individual bidder.
In such a situation, it is not only the state’s welfare functions that fragment, but also its monopoly over the instruments of coercion. When state functionaries prefer to ‘loan’ out their coercive capacities to rival gangs rather than close ranks and protect the public from all such gangs, all hell breaks loose whenever one gang encroaches on the turf of any other. Karachi is a case in point.
On this front we should also thank our holy guardians who have made the subcontracting of violence an official state policy. To an extent the Zia regime also made the subcontracting of state services and patronage government policy, so much of what we see around us today in terms of how state functionaries use their official positions for private gain can be traced back to the 1980s.
The chattering classes might well remind themselves that many within their ranks tolerated that military regime and its retrogressive policies so as to be rid of the class politics that was considered such a threat to high culture at the time. They were not to know then that the seeds were being sown for a much longer-term project that we still have not lived down.
To return to the present, it is possible that the steady unravelling of the state does not continue unabated and the mini bouts of anarchy that break out all over the country — either because of renegade violence or because formal public service providers simply renege on their stated commitments — are somehow contained. I am not sure that anyone knows exactly how this might happen, although continuity in the political process is the absolute minimum requirement.
Indeed, if we do see continuity, alongside new political forces espousing genuine and workable alternatives may emerge journalists, teachers and planners who recognise the need to take up seriously policy and political concerns such as these. It is no longer sufficient, if it ever were, to simply accede to the dominant neo-liberal logic that the interventionist state is dead and all solutions exist in the market.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.