COLUMN: Passion and precarity

September 29, 2014

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Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at University of Texas, Austin
Kamran Asdar Ali teaches anthropology at University of Texas, Austin

IN the autumn of 1992, while conducting field research in Egypt, I attended a talk at the American University in Cairo by the literature professor, Barbara Harlow. Professor Harlow was by then an established name in the field of comparative literature and her talk was on her new book, Barred: Women, Writing and Political Detention, in which she locates the struggle of female political prisoners in different parts of the world while utilising memoirs, novels, poetry and documentaries.

In her talk Harlow placed her book as an experiment that brought together history, criticism and journalism. She argued that we should pay critical attention to journalistic writings and subject it to close readings like a literary text. Similarly, fiction should be read, she stated, to raise historical, sociological and political questions.

Harlow’s writings on political prisoners and her later work on biographies of literary figures who were also political activists in South Africa, Palestine and El-Salvador (After Lives: Legacies of Revolutionary Writings), has guided me in my own work about the possibility of contesting the boundaries of the political and the aesthetic. Taking these insights from Harlow’s earlier work (I am fortunate to have her now as my senior colleague at UT, Austin) I started to think about the current news cycle about the dharnas in Islamabad and how I could import the political into the realm of our discussions in these pages that are normally used to discuss literature and other creative works.

I follow Harlow’s lead here to share some ideas about the ongoing demonstrations in Islamabad that have opened up a range of speculations about Pakistan’s future political landscape. Again the spectre of military takeover and the pressures on the democratic experiment (that have never gone away) continue to haunt Pakistan’s future. A sense of chaos reigns — with the army action in the northwest of the country, the insurgency in Balochistan, the floods in the plains of Punjab and the leaders of the ‘Go Nawaz Go’ movement entrenched in their trailers in the capital — and the country seems to be heading toward a process that may again call for the invocation of the law of necessity (the ghost of Justice Munir’s decision hovers, despite the denials by the ISPR).

This law of course echoes the German philosopher Carl Schmitt’s writings on the subject. Schmitt in his essay, ‘The Concept of the Political,’ in 1932 (and in earlier works) made the case for a strong state that would limit the space for the perpetuation of the Weimar Republic’s liberal experiment. An experiment that allowed for all parties, even anti-republican, to participate in the political arena if they proceeded legally. Schmitt argued that this would mean that a totalitarian movement could legally capture the legislature and have the power to change the constitution to reflect its own political ideology.

Of course, Schmitt was trying to warn against the extremism of the Right and Left that was destabilising the Weimar state in the early 1930s. His predictions at the eve of the Nazi takeover were perceptive and accurate. To avert the impending crisis and the political chaos, he argued for a presidential system that subverted the constitution in order to strengthen the existing state structure. This meant sidestepping the legalist argument and creating a parliament that was subordinate to the president. He hence advocated the necessity of distinguishing between a friend from an enemy to maintain the stability of the state, which was to be headed by a strong president, who was also the commander in chief of the army, aided by the bureaucracy and the other state functionaries.

However, there is much debate on whether Schmitt’s writings on the benefits of a strong state and on legal exception checked the National Socialists or rather gave intellectual fodder to Hitler and his group to legitimise its rule. This discussion cannot be settled here, but as the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (State of Exception) reminds us in his reading of Schmitt’s work, his suggested scenarios may lead to a legal civil war that eliminates not only political adversaries but entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be incorporated into the political system; “extremists” and those spreading chaos.

Agamben argues that there can be two models in such cases: a state of siege in which the military suspends all civil law in time of war, or suspension of individual liberties and constitutional guarantees by civilian decree. Both tendencies have come together in terms of Pakistani politics. The gradual erosion of the power of the legislature, rather the abolition of distinction between legislative, judicial and executive powers, and the usurpation of those various functions in one person, has been witnessed during Pakistan’s periodic military regimes. In such cases, the idea that there can be a constitutional dictatorship in which the constitution is suspended for it to return later is always a slippage that leads to a commissarial dictatorship. Hence, when we hear the slogan that no sacrifice is too great for our democracy, least of all the temporary sacrifice of our democracy, we need to obviously pay particular attention as it starts the state of exception that our dictators and civilian heads of governments start their careers with.

To be sure, the creation of this state of exception has become the essential practice of contemporary states, even democratic ones. The US Patriot Act is a good example of this process, but closer to home the recent ratification of the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance is not dissimilar in its approach. Surely, deep thought should be given to whether the ritual of voting was performed in a transparent manner in the previous elections, but the state sponsored exceptionalism that continues uninterrupted in Pakistan’s political life also needs attention if democratic options are to be re-thought in the coming years.

We should remain assured that those who are leaders of Islamabad’s sit-in are as capable of following the same course of necessity and exception when given the chance. Leaving the allama aside for the moment, the ex-captain, during his earlier speeches, used to praise Malaysia, Turkey and Singapore for their economic “miracles”. These pronouncements, of course, should give us some pause. While reinforcing the myth of gauging a country’s progress and distribution of wealth through per capita income figures, these claims ignore that Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, irrespective of their efforts to make their countries “economic power houses,” have been authoritarian rulers with strong undemocratic tendencies. Similarly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appeal to an emerging Turkish moneyed class notwithstanding, the jury is still out on his party’s handling of the Kurdish question and the curtailing of civil and political rights. If these are the cricket captain’s heroes then his coming to power will be as problematic as those he will replace.

YET what of those experiencing rain, the blazing sun and the discomfort of living on the streets at the call of their leaders? How does one understand the dedication and sacrifice that is emanating from these collectivities? We cannot merely dismiss them as being irrational, misguided, manipulated or immature. All sides are asking them to follow the rule of law, juridical reason and to control their passions so that the state functions remain secure, otherwise the threat of exception in its constitutional or commissarial variety is always there (Schmitt’s insights are never far from the surface). As Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou (Dispossession: The Performative in the Political) remind us in a series of exchanges on political performances, bodies involved in mass demonstrations experience fatigue, exhaustion and weariness while exposing themselves to police brutality (including exposure to tear gas and bullets) and repression. (All of this has been experienced by the people.) Surely through these negative experiences certain solidarities are also being formed by the act of sharing, empathy, resilience, kindness and alliance. Along with the hardships there is the element of shared space, the breaking of the public and private arenas (the tents do provide a refuge from the total annihilation of privacy) and there is an aspect of, as Judith Butler puts it, conviviality, cohabitation and action.
I am not going to speculate on the ideological correctness of their cause, as totalitarian movements also have popular support, but thought needs to be given to why people at this juncture are willing to come out and risk their lives and livelihood. Is it only because of some abstract right to vote that these individuals have become collectivities or is there more to be said about these assembled bodies and their relationship to a larger malaise that pervades society?

These questions need aesthetic and creative responses from writers, artists, film-makers and political analysts. In searching for an answer to analyse this political moment (which is also a performative one — without the media, would there be this spectacle?), I am reminded of recent writings by Lauren Berlant, the cultural theorist and English professor who teaches at the University of Chicago. Berlant’s book, Cruel Optimism, helps me navigate the terrain of trying to understand this assemblage of bodies that we find today in Pakistan’s capital. The gap between the desire of the people themselves, their suffering and their hardship and the elitist nature of the leadership (on either side of the barricades) is clear to most. What we do not always consider is the contradiction between the optimism that makes the people come out every day, engrossed as it is in the fantasy that their presence will change the world, and the cruelty of the situation that possibly will never lead to a fundamental transformation. Further, it is disturbing when people find themselves getting psychological comfort from a situation that is also profoundly saturated with threat and risk.

Let me explain: in her book Berlant argues that, at least in the West, a sense of economic precarity (precariousness) has penetrated the lives of those who previously had aspirations of upward mobility. The neo-liberal turn has now made people, what some call the new planetary petite bourgeoisie (the small property owners, the ex-union worker, the professional managerial class), vulnerable to the vagaries of the current capitalistic system; there are no guarantees that the life one desires or imagines will ever come to fruition. This contemporary global moment has intensified long-term patterns of economic disenfranchisement, Laurent suggests, by the shrinkage of the welfare state, the privatisation of publicly held utilities, the increase in pension insecurities and the flexible regimes of capital that are based on contractual relationships between owners and workers rather than long-term job security. It has further led to the erosion of unions, which gave hope to the working class for upward mobility.

In Pakistan, the current economic model, and its reliance on foreign capital and loans from international financial institutions and the privatisation of large, state-owned industries has also meant a lack of job security, an increase in contract labour, high rates of unemployment in the formal sector, flexible manufacturing regimes and the dominance of informal / service-sector work, creating new challenges for those involved in organising industrial workers.

In the rural areas, unfavourable and changing land tenancy laws, the failure to distribute agricultural land and the impact of climate change have led to continuous migration patterns to the cities, or, for those who are lucky, to the Gulf Arab states. Further, inflationary pressures such as high food prices, lack of growth in the industrial sector and an anaemic private investment rate are bound to create further social conflict. In this scenario, some economists argue that higher wages for workers would lead to further inflation, yet there is seldom a discussion of how the state needs to address the urgent social concerns of generating employment, providing a living wage, attending to housing requirements and refocusing on health and education systems that create opportunities for a better future for all citizens (when I was in medical college in the 1980s a large percentage of my classfellows did their matriculation from government schools. Where are those schools now? The hospital we trained at provided a modicum of health services at very little costs; even government hospitals are out of reach of the poor now.) That said, the incessant ethnic violence that keeps the working poor constantly divided calls for a serious rethinking of political strategies for the future.

Further, as contemporary capitalism manifests itself in contradictory forces of hope and despair, constitutionalism (democracy) and deregulation, hyper-rationalisation and avant-garde experimentation, controlled markets and speculative exuberance, anti-modern nostalgia and progressive narratives — all very much part of contemporary Pakistani society — risk, uncertainty and precarity are also becoming its constitutive social experience and perhaps cultural icons. It is within this rubric of precariousness in people’s life that we may want to see them participating in social movements, such as the one in Islamabad, and risking their comfort to anticipate a future, whether linked to a call for freedom or “revolution”.

People anticipating a better future may show their passion by participating in a range of political and social activities. A sense of pervasive precarity in the lives of even the middle class (its own sense of uncertainty about its future) perhaps guides them in their decision to join in. Yet they remain involved in a kind of “cruel optimism” seeking upward mobility, while the decks are continuously stacked against them. The dharnas may be a particular manifestation of such a passion.

Passions, however, need to be managed and at the precise moment of their entanglement there is a call for restraint from both sides (from the trailers and from those holding majority in the parliament). As one group paints them as following blindly their egoistical leaders, the leaders themselves seek to harness the more violent tendencies among the crowd to remain within the “legal” parameters. Hence the people are forced to suffer hardships and yet remain optimistic. This management of emotion and passion remains crucial as the commitment to legal norms and middle-class manners become more important than the inevitable sharpening of the contradictions that may lie underneath the dissatisfaction that has led people to initially participate. Of course, the elite also have the option of the law of necessity and the exception to the rule if and when these passions are totally unleashed.