Aasim Sajjad Akhtar’s The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society and Culture in Pakistan is a much needed addition to the political economic literature on Pakistan. In line with most heterodox literature on Pakistan, the point of departure for The Politics of Common Sense is the late social scientist, academic and political activist Hamza Alavi’s work. But it marks a major break from Alavi’s statist approach by offering a dynamic and dialectical understanding of the post-colonial social formation of Pakistan.
The Politics of Common Sense draws from the works of Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci and conceptualises the post-colonial state and social formation of Pakistan in terms of the dialectic of coercion from above and consent from below. Coercion from above manifests itself via state functionaries; consent from below is appropriated from the participation of the working-class people in the prevailing socio-political system. In Punjab, consent has been strongest whereas, in other parts of the country, the post-colonial state has had to rely more often on coercive apparatus to maintain its hegemony.
Although the book does not specifically ask this question, my reading of it led me to ask this: why do subordinate classes continue to engage in the politics of patronage that subject them to continued dependence and subjugation?
A valuable addition to understanding the political economy of Pakistan, a new book takes a dialectical approach to social formation
Historically, modernist theorists — including orthodox Marxists — have answered this question by resorting to the following explanations: false consciousness and feudalism. In a marked departure from modernisation theories, this book offers an alternative explanation as Akhtar notes: “I believe that the lower orders of society … make informed decisions about political alignments based on the constraints and opportunities that exist at any given moment in time.”
For persons born in the lower orders of society, access to state functionaries and capital seem to be the only practical way for them to realise upward socio-economic mobility. Existing networks of patronage politics provide a potential avenue to an individual to accumulate state power and capital. It is in this backdrop that the choice made by the poor and marginalised segments of society to embed themselves in politics of patronage is envisaged as a rational choice at an individual level. This dynamic process is referred to as ‘politics of common sense’ and this process becomes the basis of generating consent from below.
Akhtar’s book does not conceptualise politics of patronage as the ultimate modus operandi in Pakistani politics. Instead, it sees politics in terms of a dialectic of resistance and common sense. There are concrete instances in Pakistan where large segments of the polity have preferred politics of resistance over common sense — for example, the popular uprising of late 1960s and early ’70s. It was the critical juncture in Pakistan’s history where the post-colonial state temporarily lost consent from below across its territory. In order to reinvigorate consent from below, the post-colonial state incorporated intermediate classes and religious-political groups in the ruling coalition — in Gramscian terms, the historical bloc has expanded with the addition of these socio-economic classes.
Karl Marx’s biggest contribution to our understanding of capitalist economy is the following: distribution of economic resources is not immune from distribution of political power in society. In other words, the relative bargaining power of different classes/groups in a society has a direct impact on their share of the economic pie. Akhtar has brilliantly captured this insight of Marx at a higher level of abstraction by delineating the rise of the intermediate classes and their political influence since 1977. The book explains the rise of the intermediate classes — traders, professionals, etc — and religious-political groups in the context of broader socio-economic and demographic changes such as urbanisation, neo-liberalisation and emigration to the Gulf countries of the working-middle classes. In other words, (post)capitalist development has deepened in the last four decades in Pakistan. One novel contribution of this book is that it envisages the religious right not as a purely cultural entity, but as an emergent political-social force that can be related to the change in social and class structures in post-1977 Pakistan.
Akhtar envisages civil-military power asymmetry in Pakistan as a major obstacle in the democratisation processes. The abstract notion of civilian supremacy will only be concretised when politics of resistance prevail over politics of common sense. Akhtar critically engages with the works of contemporary post-colonial theorist Partha Chatterjee and is cynical of his view that patronage and processes of democratisation are positively linked. However, in my opinion Chatterjee’s argument is that political (electoral) competition allows subordinate classes to get a bargain for themselves. Electoral competition is directly linked with the degree of democratisation and it is in this sense that democratisation and patronage are linked in Chatterjee’s framework.
I would like to make a critical observation about the role of patrons in transactional politics. Akhtar seems to be silent on the fact that patrons do not necessarily engage in transactional politics by desire or choice. In my understanding, patrons do not have any other option but to dispense patronage in order to remain electorally competitive. Therefore, in Pakistani politics, agency does not necessarily rest with patrons; rather it is the structural diktats of the post-colonial socio-economic order that both patron and client adhere to.
A key contribution of The Politics of Common Sense is that it delineates the logic of post-colonial capitalism in terms of the nexus between access to state power and economic resources. The following passage from the book captures it eloquently: “One of my primary arguments is that even propertied classes in Pakistan tend to map their fundamental interests in terms of access to state power and resources.”
I would like to flag a caveat here — that one can easily infer from the book that development (or lack thereof) in Pakistan is tied to the interplay between state functionaries and elites. Thus it is important to elucidate that the nexus between state power and elites was (and is) also prevalent in East Asian countries throughout their upward mobility on the ladder of economic development. Chaebols, or family-owned industrial conglomerates, in South Korea are classic examples of the nexus between access to state resources and capital accumulation. But despite this, South Korea has not only been able to positively transform itself in aggregate economic terms (development) but the average living standard of its working people has also improved substantially. Therefore, the large scale deprivation among subordinate classes in Pakistan cannot be simply explained by the hegemony of politics of patronage and/or the nexus between the elites and the post-colonial state. To address this we need to develop an analysis of the processes of social structure of accumulation, especially the role of institutions and policy regimes. This is where arguments made in this book can be extended further.
At a methodological level, a major strength of this book is its dialectical approach. The social reality is complex and overdetermined by multiple factors and cannot be reduced to the determinate. Akhtar avoids assigning the deterministic role to any single factor, whether it is economy, ideology, culture or class processes; instead, the interconnectedness among various socio-economic processes is acknowledged and appreciated throughout the book.
The reviewer is a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, researching the political economy of development processes in Pakistan
The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society
and Culture in Pakistan
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Cambridge University Press
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 22nd, 2018