Class and state

Published December 6, 2013

HAMZA Alavi passed away 10 years ago this week. I was privileged to be involved in a gathering held in his memory some days ago at the university where I teach, even though it was troubling that a large number of young people in the audience clearly had only limited exposure to much of the great man’s work.

I know of no other initiative taken to discuss Alavi’s writings on his 10th death anniversary, which is truly unfortunate especially when one considers the immense contributions that he made to understanding Pakistani politics and culture, not to mention radical theory more generally. The title of this column recalls Alavi’s chapter in an edited volume published in 1983 that brought together a large number of (mostly diasporic) progressive Pakistani intellectuals seeking to explain the country’s structural dynamics. The essay was entitled ‘Class and State’ and built on his earlier work on the post-colonial state.

Alavi’s theoretical work was very influential for many years. Times have since changed and relegated much such neo-Marxist scholarship to the peripheries of intellectual life. Yet the need to consult Alavi (among others) is as urgent as ever, so as to understand how Pakistani society and the state have changed in the three decades since ‘Class and State’ was written.

In brief, Alavi argued that the post-colonial system of power was not founded upon a single dominant class in society and instead featured the ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’, or in other words the permanent state apparatus.

Class forces such as rural landowners, urban business and imperialist capital were major players, but none of these could be classified as the ‘ruling class’. The civil bureaucracy and the military were in fact the most powerful force in the country by virtue of their ability to mediate between all the above-mentioned classes.

Alavi also underscored how the balance of power within the ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’ shifted in favour of the military from the middle of the 1960s onwards.

He — along with other radical scholars such as Aijaz Ahmad and Eqbal Ahmad — pointed out how the civil and military services were being transformed as Westernised elites were steadily replaced by much more conservative lower-middle class recruits.

Over time it has become obvious that Alavi’s contributions were necessary but not sufficient to understand the complexities of the post-colonial system of power.

For example, the question of how this system of power was legitimised was not addressed in any meaningful way. Alavi corrected this lack by developing a materialist analysis of the Pakistan Movement and of the religious right later on in his life, but these insights were not integrated into the original theory.

Alavi also underspecified the role of the so-called ‘middle classes’ that have become increasingly prominent on Pakistan’s social and political landscape. A particularly significant omission in his theory was what in a recent column I termed the ‘bazaar bourgeoisie’.

Yet grand social theories such as Alavi’s should never be considered eternal truths. They offer us a window into the world, and it is up to new generations of scholars to build upon earlier insights so as to improve our understanding of the contemporary situation.

Alavi’s basic contention about the role of the ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’ remains difficult to deny today. While there is no question that this role has changed and that the relationship of the state apparatus to society is much more complex than what Alavi suggested, the oligarchy — and its military segment more specifically — remains the arbiter of power in Pakistan.

There are those who would suggest that the Alavian nexus now faces a challenge in the shape of the superior judiciary, which, on the basis of public support, has become an autonomous centre of power that regularly adopts a confrontational posture vis-à-vis the ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’.

An appraisal of the superior judiciary’s contemporary role is necessary in any case given that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is hanging up his robes this coming week.

I think that many Pakistanis — especially those who think that ‘rule of law’ is the answer to many of our problems — have misunderstood the judicial activism of the past six or so years. Quite aside from the larger-than-life figure of the chief justice, there is an urgent need to dispassionately analyse the judiciary’s institutional role and the extent to which it is shaking up the corridors of power.

First of all I think it is important to recognise that the superior judiciary shares the basic precepts of state ideology with the ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’. It is seen as actively resisting secularism, working class interests and the challenge of ethno-nationalism. As I suggested last week, we should not confuse populism with meaningful commitments to undoing the status quo.

Second, as Alavi suggested so many years ago, we should not be misled by the fact that state institutions are comprised largely of middle-class individuals. Like the military and civil services, the superior judiciary too is not peopled by landlords or capitalists per se. But this does not tell us anything about the political posture of these institutions.

Third, the superior judiciary’s well-publicised confrontations with politicians, and other state institutions to a lesser extent, belie the fact that the lower judiciary remains hand-in-glove with landlords, capitalists and the local bureaucratic apparatus. Put differently, the thana-katcheri culture remains as entrenched as ever.

In short Alavi’s ‘military-bureaucratic oligarchy’ was, as such, always a ‘military-bureaucratic-judicial’ oligarchy. That the latter third of this oligarchy has risen to prominence in recent times reflects a particular phase of the factional struggles that have always characterised the post-colonial system of power.

These struggles have intensified in recent times as contradictions within the country and regionally have become acute. Additionally, the powers-that-be have been forced to conform to political correctness in the shape of rhetoric about the ‘rule of law’ and the immutability of ‘democracy’.

That is to say that the brute material facts of class and state have yet to be refuted, as Hamza Alavi asserted all those decades ago.

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

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