IT has been barely two months since the ghastly deaths of some 300 workers in factory fires. All too predictably, what took place that day is over and done with for many of us who watched the horror unfold on TV screens.
It goes without saying that families and friends of the dead have not forgotten. Neither have other workers who were there but survived (even if permanently maimed).
That TV anchors, columnists, ‘civil society’ types and politicians have moved on so quickly is a blot on our collective conscience. For all the talk of change that does the rounds these days, very little has actually changed for the tens of millions of working people who toil in pitiful conditions on a daily basis.
This was why the gruesome events in Karachi and Lahore represented, in an almost perverse way, an opportunity for us to take stock and actually do something to redress a very bad situation.
In all honesty, the sheer lack of action has not been surprising. It has been at least three decades since the working class and its interests informed government policy in any meaningful way. Intellectual and political trends in this same period have also veered steadily to the right. Those who make policy and public opinion were hardly about to become committed working-class ideologues in the wake of the fires.
They should, however, pay more attention to the nature and variety of social classes that exist in Pakistani society. Class divisions and their articulation have significant political, social and economic implications regardless of the tone and tenor of overall political discourse.
The sad reality is that industrial workers in big cities are probably less worse off than the mass of working people, especially the relatively new class of rural proletarians.
Over the past few decades, mechanisation, subdivision of agricultural land and a host of other objective factors have contributed to transformation of tenure relations in the agrarian economy; a growing number of erstwhile sharecropping tenants are now agricultural wage labourers.
In other words, the landless peasantry which had long-term links to land and those who own it have become alienated from their historical occupation and subject to employment much like any wage worker in an urban setting.
There is very little scholarship on this class, let alone political mobilisation in its favour. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this ‘underclass’ is the foot soldier of criminal gangs that litter our rural landscape.
Class oppression is also becoming more rather than less acute in urban settings outside the prototypical factory (which is itself a relic of 20th-century capitalism).
Home-based labour is increasingly common, with women workers in particular vulnerable to super-exploitation at the hands of subcontractors and firms at the top of the value chain.
Those who do work outside the home are also subject to the whims of employers, or, if self-employed, involved in a daily struggle to secure enough to survive on when the working day ends.
Of course, capitalism is seductive for a reason. The steady increase in class inequality in the neo-liberal epoch has translated into significant mobility for millions who have graduated into the ‘middle class’.
Once-upon-a-time workers have become — to use the Urdu term — ‘sahib-i-malkiat’. The allure of a bourgeois lifestyle is more compelling than ever what with cable TV, the cellphone and the overall mobility of capital. It is thus that the appalling suffering that capitalism leaves in its wake can be so conveniently confined to our peripheral vision.
In a related vein, and ultimately the most important reason for the particular way in which capitalist modernity has unfolded in this country, is the weakness of the working class movement.
At all levels of society, both in the realms of ideas and political practice, working people remain in collective retreat (having been in retreat since the late 1970s).
If the media, politicians, etc. are impervious to the plight of the labouring classes it is because there has been no organised force on the left over the past two decades that has galvanised working people and imposed itself on the political mainstream.
It is in this rather depressing context that I wish to draw attention to an imminent political coming together of three existing organisations of the left that will merge to form a new political party which seeks to revive old traditions of working class politics and at the same time work towards the building of a viable socialist project in the here and now.
Such mergers have taken place in the past, and will probably continue to take place in the future. In part this is so because of the extreme fragmentation of leftist organisations in the aftermath of the Cold War. It is only natural, then, that a revival of the left will at least partially revolve around a reunification of these fragments.
However, one gets the feeling that the long-suffering and maligned Pakistani left might be on the cusp of something qualitatively new. For it to re-emerge as a meaningful alternative to the status quo, the left must be able to attract young people to its ranks and there are signs that this is starting to happen.
Almost two-thirds of Pakistan’s population is under 23 years of age. Besides, any organic political organisation worth its name must constantly regenerate itself. New recruits bring new ideas as well as energy that activists of a bygone era can simply no longer summon.
The challenge for both young and old leftists is to come to terms with the dramatically altered objective realities of a post-Soviet world, spend more time learning about and engaging with the contradictions of Pakistani society (rather than eulogising the Bolsheviks or Mao’s companions), and then forge a mode of politics that both reinforces the democratic process and also takes to task its increasingly hollow slogans.
I also believe that it is only the left that can bridge the growing ethnic divides that threaten to erode the very fabric of society.
Mainstream politicians are still unwilling to acknowledge the country’s multinational character and abandon the so-called ‘ideology of Pakistan’ which has been the bane of our existence.
Marx wrote over 150 years ago about the spectre of communism. There is some way to go yet before the left in Pakistan and the rest of the world becomes a threat of that magnitude to state and capital again. Will such mergers mark a small step in that direction?
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad