Chaos junkies

Updated September 21, 2018


This past Wednesday, millions of Pakistani viewers tuned in to the umpteenth episode of the longest running drama on television; the Sharif family’s trials and tribulations. The Islamabad High Court’s decision to suspend their jail sentences has since been the talk of the town. Commentaries of all types are doing the rounds in both corporate and social media circles about what this means for the PTI government, whether Maryam’s political career will take off, and, indeed, the very real possibility that the Sharifs could end up back in jail.

I am inclined to think that it all doesn’t really matter.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t mean that this latest development and what will follow it will have no bearing on our polity in the days, weeks and months to come. Of course it matters that the courts are seen as politicised and the establishment’s antics continue to over-determine the country’s political life. But these stories have played out before, and those who are serious enough to contemplate what will happen further down the line know that our exclusionary, unsustainable and authoritarian political order is becoming more rather than less entrenched.

This is not just about the extent to which the PTI government has the ability or the will to deliver ‘tabdeeli’ — a promise that is already floundering. Nor is it only about the fact that Pakistan continues to be a staging ground for a never-ending cold war in which our rulers make commitments to the Saudis, Chinese and American establishments to secure mutual interests. It is about the imaginary of politics itself, and the fact that this imaginary has become almost completely static.

One is inclined to think that it all doesn’t really matter.

By political imaginary I mean the entire gamut of ideas that inform not only political action, but our commentary about the actually existing political world. So, for instance, we know that the civil-military dialectic is foundational to our political order. Even in denying that there is a civil-military divide — as the prime minister recently did — we are confirming that our political imaginary is heavily shaped by it.

For the most part, we have gotten used to thinking that our political world will always be somewhat chaotic and conflict-ridden, that politics is a ruthless zero-sum game, and indeed that even us ordinary people can succeed/ survive in society only by competing against one another for the scarce resources that we all need/ want.

Certainly, this is not only the dominant imaginary in Pakistan, but in many other countries there are significant counter-currents that are forcing questions into the mainstream that go beyond immediate questions of who is in government and who is on the outside seeking to take power from the incumbents.

Perhaps most notable is the future of the world itself. Notwithstanding those who reject the very notion that there is something call climate change and an ecological crisis more generally, the world is not in good shape. Environmental changes have become so rapid and significant that if fundamental shifts in basic patterns of life do not take place over the next couple of decades, the very existence of life will itself be subject to risk. Pakistan is one of the countries in the world most subject to ecological fallouts, yet such matters have no space in our political and intellectual life. The highly impoverished ‘dam debate’ that was triggered by the chief justice’s insistence on initiating a fund for new mega water projects made this sufficiently clear.

People around the world are talking about the digital ‘revolution’, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and the way in which machines are taking over our lives. Opinions are diverse and complex, but there is widespread recognition of the urgency of the questions. Such developments in society are, in fact, generating anxieties about modernity itself and how we have evolved as a species that has prided itself on being able to transform the conditions of its existence but that now stands on the verge of consciously undermining the very eco-system that has produced it.

In short, we can continue to be chaos junkies that focus only on the drama and intrigue that constitutes our actually existing political life, or we can recognise the imperative of thinking more seriously about our collective future. The quandary is that ours is an increasingly dehumanised society where terror, repression and alienation are so widespread that it is not so easy to generate the impetus for a change in our political imaginary.

Yes there is resistance to the everyday travails faced by the poor and disenfranchised and it is this resistance that can inform a new political imaginary that goes beyond the here and now. But to build such an imaginary we — all of us, even those organising resistance — need to take a step back and accept the challenge ahead. It sounds clichéd, but the lives of our future generations depend on it.

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

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018