Middle-class rule

August 14, 2018


IMRAN Khan is possibly the first middle-class person since Mr Jinnah to reach the topmost post via the political process. The comparison is not perfect. De jure, Mr Jinnah was a ceremonial governor general. But his stature made him the de facto top person. He was not elected, but clearly had the popular mandate. Imran is elected but there have been serious pre-poll and poll-day rigging charges.

Middle-class voters alone didn’t ensure the PTI’s win. The party co-opted many traditional electables. Many PTI lieutenants and MPs come from the upper class. But our politics is centralised and his hold over the party high. Despite the (upper) middle class being a small fraction of PTI votes, its noisy and naive aspirations reflected via the electronic and social media carry weight in Banigala huddles. The PTI’s dominant narrative reflects upper-middle-class concerns, eg ending sleaze and misrule, much more than in the PPP and PML-N, or even the MQM which represents the lower middle class.

Academicians usually view middle-class rule positively. This view though is more accurate for developed states where middle classes are in a majority. In developing states, upper-middle-class priorities often conflict with those of the majority masses. Upper middle-class minds usually see the morality package (merit, hard work, honesty, sincerity and unity) as the key to individual and national progress. They often ignore societal structures, ie the dominant social, political and economic patterns which bind people into given roles and returns as per not only their individual merit but also their class, ethnicity, faith and clan.

In traditional societies, the middle class thrives mainly on merit and relies on what it knows. The lower class rarely attains merit and relies on whom it knows. The upper classes don’t need merit. Societal change comes from unsatisfied groups destroying existing structures and creating new ones that suit them.

The middle tier thinks the morality package alone will ensure their win.

In old Europe, middle classes became change agents. But their success was due to huge scientific and external changes that allowed middle classes, armed with only the morality package, to defeat powerful old elites. Stagnant developing states rarely see such huge changes. In Pakistan, middle classes usually believe naively that the morality package alone will ensure their win too.

They belong mainly to families whose working members occupy senior techno-managerial posts in the state or corporate entities where output is high. Such posts deal with management and technical issues and not class, ethnic, clan, inequality and other complex social issues. Managerial orders and the morality package rule supreme and cause rapid change in such arenas. But the messy world of the masses involves low output, expediency, patronage and corruption.

Techno-managerial minds often cannot grasp that such complex problems are structural societal constraints which only reduce gradually with economic evolution. No nation has ended them rapidly via managerial orders alone. But viewing them from moral lenses alone, they expect moral sermons and managerial orders to end them quickly. When that doesn’t happen, they become frustrated and apply more administrative fiat, causing discord in society.

Large sections of the middle class think the masses can’t vote rationally. They advocate for their voting rights to be taken away via degree and matriculation requirements for MPs and voters, which would turn middle-class voters into a majority. This power grab is justified in the name of merit.

The middle class led the freedom drive but lost in politics soon to traditional upper-class politicians. Sections of the middle class then contrived to win via hard and soft coups. Thus, middle-class generals and bureaucrats have ruled us most since 1947, producing superficial progress but great mayhem.

In 2018, many see a soft coup led by middle-class heads of strong unelected institutions to ensure the win of their political middle-class cousins. Middle-class impatience has been the root cause of our enduring political instability and the 20 years cycles of roughly 10 years each of military and elected rule.

This middle class (mostly from conservative Punjab) now heads almost all powerful elected and non-elected state institutions. But the political wisdom to fashion a slow change from the non-merit to merit economy is absent, such is the impatience.

Sans major external economic opportunities, the result may be disruption of even the existing economy rather than the emergence of a larger merit-based one. Instead of accepting slow change via traditional politics, some impatient elements may then prefer the overt rule of the institution known for its strong administrative fiat. But that will only create more mayhem.

The writer is a Senior Fellow with UC Berkeley and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.



Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2018