The system wins

November 04, 2016

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NOW that we finally have some respite from the made-for-TV-drama that was Imran Khan’s most recent threat to paralyse Islamabad, our attention can turn to the biggest made-for-TV-drama of them all, the US presidential election.

On the surface there would appear to be few parallels between the power struggle currently ongoing in this country, and the soon-to-culminate battle for the world’s most powerful political office. In fact, both offer an indication of just how hegemonic the dominant political-economic order has become.

He can call it what he wants, but the PTI chief’s decision to call off his party’s planned siege of the federal capital at the last minute confirmed just how little autonomy he actually exercises vis-à-vis the real arbiters of Pakistani politics. The latest episode only reinforces the perception that Mr Khan is but a puppet in the hands of the establishment, the modus operandi of which is to use political actors against one another so as to ensure that it retains ultimate authority over the decisions that matter.


Imran appears a puppet in the hands of the establishment.


The leader of the opposition took it a bit too far when he said that Mr Khan’s shenanigans actually empower Nawaz Sharif; in fact the manner in which the PML-N and the PTI have gone at it over the past few years has empowered the men in khaki no end. That Imran Khan has not yet achieved his goal — to evict Nawaz Sharif from the PM house and occupy it himself — is a reflection only of the fact that our uniformed guardians have till now had no reason to upend the apple cart. In short, the system, as dysfunctional and conflict-ridden as it appears, is ultimately unaffected by the PML (N)-PTI sparring.

Make no mistake: the system is not immune to shocks, and serious ones at that. But it survives regardless. Indeed, it might even be argued that the manner in which the TV media in particular amplifies relatively meaningless political bickering serves the system – and its primary beneficiaries – quite well. The combination of a dominant security establishment, more-loyal-than-the-king political actors, a state ideology that is generally considered a sacred cow, the religious right, foreign powers playing out the Great Game, and various smaller players in the realm of everyday state and market surely makes for a lot of contingency. But this contingency aside, real structural questions are always swept under the carpet, and so the ebbs and flows never translate into systemic shifts.

The US presidential poll is perhaps the most obvious example of how silences punctuate contemporary political ‘debate’, notwithstanding the noise spewed out by all. The ongoing campaign has been widely described as an ‘unpopularity’ contest — yet the vitriolic nature of the barbs between the Clinton and Trump camps would sometimes suggest that there is genuine difference in the political options on view.

I do not want to understate the flagrant misogyny of Donald Trump, or the fact that he openly peddles what would be a racist policy vis-à-vis people of colour, Muslims and immigrants more generally. Yet there is a reason why Hillary Clinton is, in relative terms, thought of as the ‘establishment’ candidate — as secretary of state she was fully committed to sustaining Washington’s global hegemony, and her record in mainstream politics over three decades confirms that she is a believer in the same liberal capitalist principles that drive Trump. He is just further to the right than she is and it his unpredictability rather than his fundamental ideological commitments that make him a potential liability to the establishment.

There was a time that the Democratic Party stood for a welfare capitalism that could be distinguished from the rabid, free-market variety. But such differences were effectively put to bed during Bill Clinton’s presidency in the 1990s, around the time when his kindred spirit Tony Blair remodelled the British parliamentary left into ‘New Labour’.

Which is to say that there is increasingly little to choose between the Republicans and Democrats — and in this case the two individuals representing those two parties. Of course, it makes perfect sense that one would want to vote for Hillary just so that Trump doesn’t come to power but that only clarifies just how superficial American democracy has become.

In Pakistan, just the fact of formal democracy existing counts as an achievement for those with a progressive bent of mind. This is why there is concern that Imran Khan’s tomfoolery could endanger the democratic ‘system’. Certainly we should all close ranks to ensure that our democratic process — however flawed — splutters on.

But the real ‘system’ in place in Pakistan, and indeed the world, is anything but democratic. While we focus our gazes on the individual politicos that battle one another shamelessly for power, much more powerful — and opaque — establishments continue to do their bidding. In the end, it is they who win.

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

Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2016