FOR its June cover story, The Atlantic carried a long piece by Matthew Stewart on the changing nature of social and economic inequality in contemporary America. At the risk of butchering a sophisticated piece of writing, my main takeaway from it was that a new ‘meritocratic’ elite has consolidated its position at the top of the social pyramid since the late 20th century, just below the more obvious ‘fat cats’ from big manufacturing and services corporations, investment banks and tech companies. This elite is defined by its access to good social networks, good education, good jobs, good health, and good neighbourhoods, and is reproduced by its ability to pass all this (exclusive) goodness on to its next generation.
For the US, a four-decade long hoarding of wealth and opportunity by small segments of the population — the top 10 per cent of the income distribution — signals the consolidation of a new gilded age of inequality. The only difference with the original Gatsby-inspiring period from the 1920s is that its ranks include both the modern Rockefellers and Mellons as well as a new class of highly successful, highly credentialed professionals.
In terms of origins, Karachi is where the story of a new professional elite begins in earnest.
At this point, one might question the relevance and applicability of a piece on inequality and immobility in America to a fundamentally different socioeconomic environment like Pakistan. After all, the latter’s experience with anything resembling economic modernisation is only in its seventh decade.
On the advent of statehood, Pakistan inherited an ascriptive elite that commandeered social influence due to its often simultaneous control of land, spirituality and tribal allegiance. Alongside this narrow gentry was a migratory state elite consisting of high-ranking civil and military officers. These two were joined by a nascent industrial upper class, which emerged from the confines of coastal trading communities, under the generous patronage of the state. By the tail-end of Ayub Khan’s elongated honeymoon, Pakistan had a state elite and both an industrial and a landed elite, which, respectively, controlled vast amounts of power, and urban and rural capital, in a thoroughly unequal country.
Over the years, the green revolution-led rise of ‘capitalist farmers’, Bhutto’s nationalisation, and the consequent emergence of a fragmented and rent-seeking commercial class of traders and small industrialists in the 1980s, signalled some mobility and slowly enlarged (if not wholly transformed) the composition of who possesses wealth, status and power in Pakistan. The most recent addition at the top has been over the last two decades, through the rise of a new professional upper class of corporate executives, lawyers, doctors, bankers and other knowledge-based workers.
There is no empirical assessment of this new professional upper class that can tell us its origins, trajectory or even size in concrete terms. But we can make some reasonable guesses.
In terms of origins, Karachi is where the story of a new professional elite begins in earnest. As home to the headquarters of big local and international corporations, it was here where a managerial class was most needed. The expansion in the formal economy also fuelled concurrent growth of a complementary services sector — lawyers, accountants, finance professionals — who slowly developed their own internal hierarchies. Finally, the city’s proximity to the Gulf, and the oil boom-led demand for highly skilled professionals created another route to substantive wealth, upward mobility and a comfortable retirement back home.
Prior to the expansion of the private-sector route (domestically and abroad), the state remained the only stable way for middle-class professionals to rise up the wealth and status ladder. And that, to a large extent, was also the story of Lahore’s white-collar segment till very recently.
Anecdotally speaking, while growing up in an upper-middle class milieu in Lahore, most of my hometown peers at private school and private university came from business, landed or state-employed households. At times it was a mix of all three, which made it starkly clear that these were the only founts of a privileged upbringing. But this is likely not going to remain the case going forward.
The people I went to university with, now almost a decade ago, are all doing very well socially and professionally. Many have moved abroad, but those in Pakistan are at the frontier of their age cohort in terms of remuneration and prestige. And almost none of them are anywhere close to state employment. It’s safe for me to assume that these individuals constitute the next generation of highly paid professionals, with extensive social networks, and prime assets and investment. Just like Karachi saw the expansion of a professional elite in the 1990s and 2000s, the current generation of mid-career professionals will usher in the same for Lahore and other major cities.
The rise of a white-collar upper class in metropolitan Pakistan is a story of contradictory trends. It signals diversion from the narrow state-led model of mobility into the elite — as people use their education credentials to move up from their middle-class origins to rubbing shoulders with the traditional business or landed gentry within their lifetimes, without overt reliance on the state. But it also signals increasing insulation and inequality.
The absence of mobility data makes any assertion complicated, but it’s not that difficult to see who, in our present moment, ends up with the best jobs, gains access to the most prestigious networks, and is able to leverage their skills most successfully. With the rapid decline of public-sector universities and schools, increasingly only those who can afford to pay for high-value credentials from expensive schools and colleges are able to reap advantages in the private sector. This is a fundamentally unequal game right from the outset since if you’re born without some affluence, chances are you’ll remain locked out of it for pretty much the rest of your life. Pakistan isn’t America in many ways, but the trajectory of how influence and privilege is consolidated and reproduced might provide stark similarities in the future.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2018