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Morality of the absurd


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MIXING morality and power politics is risky business. It is true that political philosophers through the ages have made the case that matters of government and state should be informed by broad ethical principles.

The radicals — as diverse as Marx and Gandhi — have gone so far as to argue that society needs to rid itself of the modern state as we know it for the creative potential and basic freedoms of all to be realised. Yet I suspect that a majority of people in the world who take an interest in current affairs are convinced that, of all the thinkers and practitioners that constitute the pantheon of modern politics, Machiavelli got it more right than anyone else.

The Prince did not dabble in epic banter about right and wrong, good and evil. He quietly — and occasionally violently — went about the business of staying in power, keeping all other potential competitors at bay and the common hordes at a comfortable distance. This no-frills approach, for Machiavelli, was both the art and science of government.

I do not believe that the promise of modernity necessarily culminates in Machiavellian cynicism. Both capitalism and the nation-state form that it has spawned can, and hopefully will, be transcended by humanity at some point in the future.

But I nevertheless tend to agree with those who argue that exclusively moral claims — in particular those which smack of self-righteousness — cannot be the basis of sustainable political settlements that guarantee the welfare of all. Throughout history, the collective good has only been posed as a struggle of good against evil by those who are later remembered as the most reactionary elements of their era. It is thus that the morality of the absurd that has afflicted the media, intelligentsia, opposition parties, legal fraternity and our state (military and judicial) elites for the best part of five years now appears to be reaching its logical, and rather ugly, conclusion.

By conclusion I do not mean that the purported objectives of those who have spearheaded the incessant campaign to eliminate ‘corruption’ and bring all designated offenders to justice have been achieved.

Indeed, there were many summons yet to be issued, many more feathers still to be ruffled. What has happened over the past couple of weeks was most definitely not in the script. It now appears as if the grand crusade may swallow whole the crusaders themselves.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about who is behind what in some quarters is being called a ‘conspiracy’ to defame the chief justice of the Supreme Court, nor do I have any love lost for the shady cast of characters which includes Malik Riaz and the son of the aforementioned chief justice.

Neither have I been moved, in the way that so many of our media anchors, professional armchair critics and writers have, by the various moralistic campaigns for ‘justice’ that have preceded the latest bombshell, whether they have sought to uncover the anti-state designs of ambassadors or establish the contemptuous defiance of chief executives.

In the final analysis none of these sensational court cases and the media circus that has surrounded them have provided relief to the wretched of this land, who continue to experience the trials and tribulations of courts, police stations and capitalist markets on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, all the exhortations of national pride cannot hide the reality that the Pakistani state — sovereign in name alone — is still subject to Washington’s political and military man-management, Riyadh’s cultural hegemony and China’s ever-expanding economic empire.

The brutal truth is that the public discourse in (urban) Pakistan has been reduced to a series of circular debates about the need to rally behind the Supreme Court in its attempts to bring the politicos to justice.

The ranting and raving has become so impassioned that much of the educated middle class has actually become convinced that all of Pakistan’s problems do indeed boil down to banishing ‘corruption’ from our midst.

I cannot help but wonder what proportion of this middle class either owns, or harbours hopes of owning, a home in Bahria Town or Defence Housing Authority.

Given what the world now knows about how these and other similar pristine housing societies come into being, who benefits from them and the wider social and environmental costs they cause, would the claim that the middle classes who live in these suburban colonies are directly or indirectly involved in corruption be so outrageous?

What of the middle-class practice of sending a munshi, driver or domestic servant to pay off the fixer at the katcheri when the car licence needs to be renewed? Or the muk-mukau with the local assistant sub-inspector when the kids are caught indulging in decidedly ‘un-Islamic’ acts on a Saturday night out?

None of Pakistan’s property tycoons and the state functionaries on their payroll will soon be expelled from high society, no matter what happens over the next few weeks. Neither will Pakistan’s opaque structure of power — which includes generals, bureaucrats, politicians, mullahs, merchants, landlords, media moguls and judges — be decisively exposed, let alone overhauled. But the moralising, on all sides of the many divides that are being erected, can be expected to continue.

This is a society characterised by a democratic deficit and deeply embedded structures of exploitation, yet in which the makers of public opinion and judicial functionaries prefer to give sermons rather than identify the real causes of societal ills.

As much as anyone else I am inclined to argue that the dark legacy of Islamisation explains everything, but this would be to ignore the fact that a good two and a half decades have passed since the dictator’s demise.

It is high time we all wake up to the banal fact that the failings of easy-to-hate politicians are society’s failings, and that a holier-than-thou attitude compounds rather than alleviates these failings.

The absurd needs to give way to a more sober and honest appraisal of the morass in which we are floundering and our own roles in reproducing it. Only then can we start the long and hard task of envisioning and constructing a politics which is not of The Prince, by The Prince and for The Prince.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (6) Closed

Tehsin Jun 15, 2012 02:28pm
By laying down at the outset that “Machiavelli got it more right than anyone else” and not giving any credence to the other side you Sir are doing a great disservice to both society and morality. Machiavelli continues to be relevant in telling us how things really are i.e. “power rules” but that is essentially the beginning point of man’s struggle. Yes things are this way but that is not how they ought to be. Nearly two thousand before Machiavelli, the luminary, the founding philosopher of our modern state laid out clearly a moral and ethical basis for what an ideal state ought to be. His conception and the principles that he laid out are as relevant today as they were in his time. The triumph of his conception is complete. The principles he laid out are the foundation of the UN charter and every state today, however flawed continues to aspire to his ideal of creating a republic, the way he laid it out in the Republic. xt right here!
BRR Jun 15, 2012 04:46am
A straight forward acknowledgement of problems, and a honest appraisal of society's ills / drawbacks.
Amir Jun 15, 2012 09:18pm
Good to hear from you Aasim Sajjad Akhtar.
Aragorn Jun 15, 2012 04:45pm
I regret to tell you that your assertions are mostly misplaced. certainly, Plato wasnt the first to claim that politics and morality are coextensive. Had you read any of the Pre-Socratics, you would have realized that. Furthermore, UN charter is founded upon a little piece by called 'Perpetual Peace' by Immanuel Kant insofar the UN has strived to come up with a vision of global citizenry. Furthermore, it is widely held that Machiavelli was the founder of Political Realism as we know it today, which stands in stark contrast to Platonism ie Idealism, or dogmatism as some would argue. For plato, whatever state of affairs that exist are, accidents, perishing, supposedly counter posed to the ideal, the true. It was Machiavelli, who contended that we give up the pursuit of a universal, transcendental, everlasting truth, a view later upheld by Marx, Heidegger, Freud, among others. Like the author suggested, one cannot hope to come up with a critique of the state of politics in a society, without taking into account the power relations that operate in that society, let alone, coming up with a solution.
Agha Ata Jun 15, 2012 01:01pm
But in a country where almost everyone thinks he is a prince, should be treated as a prince and the world owes him prosperity and wealth and respect .. ......
Umer Jun 15, 2012 06:54am
Brilliant. A pleasure to read despite the grim but real prespective the article delivers