Beyond the bubble

February 08, 2019

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

WE live in highly contradictory times. On the one hand, our heavily militarised structure of power appears to be as resilient as ever. The curtailment of press freedoms, the unending saga of enforced disappearances, the incoherence and subservience of parliament vis-à-vis the national security apparatus — all are indicators of the fact that Pakistan’s seven-decade tryst with authoritarianism continues.

On the other hand, however, contradictions are intensifying on an almost daily basis. Dissenting voices make themselves heard in myriad ways, speaking truth to power in physical or online spaces, and even from within the structure of power. The Supreme Court judgement announced Wednesday on the Khadim Rizvi-led dharna of late 2017 made clear that at least some functionaries of the state do not agree with the means and methods employed by others in the name of the proverbial ‘greater national interest’.

In many ways, the Pakistani story is a microcosm of what is happening around the world. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, establishments and their opinion-making supporters in the media and intelligentsia have become adept at employing politically correct language to cover up their increasingly brazen excesses against the poor and disenfranchised (and the natural environment). Yet at the same time, the silences of the political mainstream are continually exposed, as much by contradictions within the corridors of powers as by the untiring efforts of those organising resistance in all of the forms that it exists.

The problem for progressives, however, is that the horizon of political possibilities remains limited, at least for the time being, to calling out the ever-intensifying crises of the dominant political-economic system. We speak up about state institutions trampling over the rights of (notional) citizens, about rich and powerful interests groups not paying taxes and building economic empires while the poor are squeezed for every little drop, about the depletion of water, forest and other resources and the attendant effects of ecological degradation on ordinary people, and so on.

Progressives in Pakistan tend to veer between two extremes.

But this is where the buck stops. The tragedy that has unfolded in Venezuela in recent times confirms that even where progressives take state power, they are undone by a combination of limited vision and deliberate attempts to undermine them (home and abroad). Corbyn, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and others representing the progressive cause globally as much as their own countries will hopefully take us one step further along the difficult path of constructing a viable alternative to the dominant system.

My experience suggests that those who clearly identify themselves as political progressives in Pakistan tend to veer between two extremes in thinking through and responding to the challenge. The more typical propensity is towards inaction and nihilism. The armchair progressive laments a rapidly deteriorating situation, invoking any number of problems ranging from the impunity of a militarised state and religious militants, to the plight of women in a misogynistic order, to the population explosion. But s/he believes little can be done to sort out the mess.

Then there are those progressives (to whom I made reference here) ready and willing to fight the good fight, often at risk to themselves. This segment of progressives is small but growing, particularly in the virtual sphere, where dissent is a way of life. But this segment tends to exist in a self-enclosed bubble, often preaching to the converted, and sometimes too confident that a particular movement of resistance can challenge the established order. This otherwise active segment of progressives also tends to engage in counterproductive internal bickering about ‘correct’ political positions.

For the progressive cause to move beyond simply calling out the excesses of the system and building a viable alternative, armchair progressives need to put their hat in with those who are trying to organise resistance. Those doing the hard work of bringing progressives together then need to identify minimum common agendas that they can rally around — eg holding state institutions to account and establishing minimum safeguards for all of the country’s (notional) citizens. This critical mass outside formal stru­ctures of power could then give further imp­etus to the few dissenting judges and politicians and media anchors who are brave enough to call the system for what it is.

If and when this critical mass is built, it can at least in principle go beyond the self-enclosed progressive bubble and convince the ‘silent majority’ of the population that it speaks for all ordinary people (and their future generations). Then the possibility of a genuine political alternative is opened up in which a wide cross section of society can feel invested. Otherwise, the ‘silent majority’ will remain the captive audience that sustains status quo.

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

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2019