What the left lacks

23 Sep 2019


The writer is a member of the Women Democratic Front and visiting faculty at Quaid-i-Azam University.
The writer is a member of the Women Democratic Front and visiting faculty at Quaid-i-Azam University.

IN recent years, political organising has increased manifold in Pakistan, with progressive groups actively moving towards organising from activism and resistance politics. Despite this work being done by progressives, many lament that there is still not a strong left political force in the country.

Part of the reason for this is that much of the focus has been on responses to everyday atrocities rather than concerted efforts towards movement building. But one-off protest demonstrations — though at times crucial — do not provide opportunities for nuanced discussions and meaningful engagements. And, increasingly, protest demonstrations have become merely a stage on which to be verbose and visible rather than provide resistance.

The act of protest does hold symbolic value, but is largely reactionary unless coupled with a movement to realise its political potential. While it is important to react and respond to individual injustices, more focus is needed on campaigning and long-term organising strategies. What the left lacks most is critical mass, which can only materialise through constant on-ground work, with a conscious effort to recruit more people in its ranks.

Sustained efforts towards movement-building not only help in increasing numbers but are also critical for the left’s long-term sustainability. In order to organise effectively, protests should be planned as part of long-term campaigns that effectively focus on mobilisation and awareness-raising to bring more people in their fold.

One-off protests are not a substitute for political organising.

This leads to the issue of infrastructure. Protests provide a liminal space for dissent, but not the space in which to come together to organise, to debate and discuss issues. The right, for example, has an extremely organised mass because it focuses on ideological debates and issues within its inner circles, which has helped strengthened its ranks. It has also successfully created alternative infrastructures with and without state patronage, something that the left greatly lacks.

The increasing use of social media in Pakistan for political dissent by a number of young people reflects, to some degree, this lack of space. While online activism is a major and influential component of modern political organising, it is not a replacement for it. If the left fails to create alternative spaces for alternative narratives, it may lose many people who might have otherwise transitioned beyond online activism to on-ground organising.

For mass mobilising, creating nurturing and enabling spaces — spaces that are not provided and built by the state and those in power — is crucial. Creating the infrastructure necessary for holding critical dialogue and forming discourse is an integral part of every political struggle, especially of the kind that is taking place in Pakistan’s cities. Our cities are planned for traffic, not public congregations, but what is needed is collective political space in the city rather than designated spaces for dissent that are only occupied for a few hours. Urban political organising needs to move away from traditional sites of protest such as press clubs and ‘designated’ city squares. The National Press Club, for example, is located in the centre of Islamabad yet invisible to the public eye.

Lastly, generating a mass political force needs long-term alliance-building by understanding the ‘other’ rather than ‘joining’ the protest of the other. Such long-term, long-standing solidarities cannot be formed unless we create a political culture of collective debate. The coming together of bodies needs the coming together of thoughts, which is only possible by listening and talking to each other. Press clubs are not those spaces; we are there to speak truth to power and not to listen to one another.

The lack of such discussions has a tendency to lead to one-dimensional political work and the formation of groups on the basis of identity rather than coming together on the basis of difference. In the absence of such spaces and dialogues, politics is reduced to moral positions and political purity, which inhibits the ‘queering’ of politics. Such masculinist ways of organising that only demands speaking up to be heard often leads to a fixation on the projection of one’s politics as ‘real’ resistance politics versus the politics of the other.

But reducing collective politics to either class, gender or ethnicity is not going to get the left out of this ideological chaos. It is the dialogue, for example, between a young feminist, a nationalist and a leftist political worker that can form the basis of the left’s political growth, not just in terms of numbers but also creating real solidarities. Doing away with masculinist forms of dissent, by moving from protest movements to collective transformative politics, is what the left now needs to evolve into a strong political force.

The writer is a member of the Women Democratic Front and visiting faculty at Quaid-i-Azam University.

Twitter: @Tooba_Sd

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2019