Elite vs people

January 25, 2019

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

THERE was a time that the refrain of ‘elite vs people’ was the preserve of the political left, when mainstream discourse was rife with mention of class conflict and struggle, and systemic critiques and challenges to capitalism and imperialism were not purely academic exercises. That feels like a long time ago.

This week, the world’s rich and powerful gathered for their annual back-slapping excursion in Davos, Switzerland, with much emphasis on the responsibility of financial and political elites towards a more egalitarian, sustainable world. ‘Egalitarian’ and ‘sustainable’ are two more words that are now used by the very people and institutions that have contributed to the world becoming increasingly inegalitarian and unsustainable.

A few days prior to the convening of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the UK-based charity Oxfam released its annual report on the state of the world with jarring effect: 26 billionaires are as wealthy as 50 per cent of the global population, to the tune of $1.3 trillion!

It confirmed that girls and women are falling further behind than their male counterparts with regard to income, consumption, education and health indicators. The threat to the world itself was also highlighted.

The voice of the system’s real losers has been muted.

Make no mistake: we live in an increasingly precarious world, at least for the lower orders of society whose daily lives feature undernourishment, illiteracy, political unfreedom, and in worst-case scenarios, political violence and/ or environmental catastrophes. Meanwhile, in this very same world, the rich and powerful, represented by those spewing out fancy words in settings like Davos, plunder resources, exploit labour and run authoritarian political systems.

Of course, there is a sub-text here, often under-emphasised, but particularly important if we are to understand the increasingly vacuous nature of contemporary politics. I am referring to the growing so-called ‘middle’ strata of society, which is not rich and super powerful, but is also not wallowing in economic and political strife like the poor and disenfranchised.

It is this ‘middle class’ that is said to be spearheading the ‘revolutionary’ transformations in emerging superpower countries like India and China. The growing political and economic footprint — and aspirations — of the Pakistani middle class have also come to the fore, most vicariously though the person of Imran Khan and his PTI.

More generally, the majority of people in the so-called ‘advanced’ countries of Western Europe, North America and Australia-New Zealand can be categorised as belonging to this middle strata of human society. The rise of the populist right wing in many of these richer regions of the world is attributable to a feeling of deprivation amongst this median segment of the population.

Deprivation? Really? Why would a relatively educated, healthy and happily consuming ‘middle class’ be so convinced that it is under the cosh? Precisely because Western societies are becoming more unequal, which means that the super-rich and super powerful are accruing more economic and political resources relative not only to the poor but also to the middle strata. And so the slogan of ‘elite vs people’ has been co-opted by hate-mongering right-wingers who make no mention of the foundational logic of capitalism, imperialist power relations on a world scale, the system of male domination, etc, instead appealing to the basest emotions of an increasingly atomised population to demonise the mythical ‘other’.

In ‘emerging markets’ of the erstwhile Third World, the middle-class story is different; here, the steady penetration of (multinational and local) companies and complicit state elites into previously underexploited areas of the economy give rise to opportunities for upward mobility for some on the lower ends of the social ladder. A growing middle class craves more opportunities for self-enrichment, thus supporting empty rhetoric against status quo featuring slogans such as ‘corruption’ and ‘rule of law’, even while it is itself benefiting from this anti-poor status quo.

It is thus that the voice of the system’s real losers has been virtually muted out as superficial ‘solutions’ to increasingly middle-class demands have come to dominate politics. The idea of ‘the people’ when it is presented in the context of a genuine structural critique of the system is powerful and potentially emancipatory. When elites and middle classes wanting to climb further up the social ladder, or arrest their decline, exhort ‘the people’, the implications are more draconian.

Davos is happening in the same week that our political mainstream is dominated by discussion of what happened in Sahiwal. In that case too unaccountable state elites gunned down innocents in the name of ‘the people’. Madness all around, with precious little time for sanity to prevail.

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

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2019