‘Let them eat cake’

November 15, 2019

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

THE hybrid regime may be breathing a sigh of relief that the Azadi March has ended in a damp squib, but the economic, political and cultural crises that afflict the land of the pure are as pressing as ever. Indeed, not only in Pakistan are narcissistic strongmen like Imran Khan breathing fire against paper tigers to distract from the growing cracks. Modi, Erdogan, Trump and others also sustain their rule by playing to hawkish domestic galleries even while objective indicators suggest they are polarising the lukewarm silent majority that otherwise sits on the fence.

Many commentaries make fun of the sycophants surrounding the prime minister and his uniformed patrons for their regular gaffes, but it is worth bearing in mind that seemingly absurd political conjunctures such as our present one have a long history. Recall the French queen who is supposed to have nonchalantly rebuked the masses speaking out against her because they had no bread, infamously saying: ‘Let them eat cake.’

To be sure, for all its growing crisis of legitimacy, the hybrid regime does not appear to be in imminent danger.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman included, none of our mainstream political leaders speak for Pakistan’s poor and oppressed, despite their efforts to present their particularistic constituencies as universally representative. The most obvious inference from the abortive Azadi March is that there is no single claimant to the mantle of genuine alternative to the strongman-populism of the current regime, or the long-entrenched militarised structure of power generally.

What explains our debilitating impasse?

That Pakistani society is divided along so many fault lines is old news, as is the fact that the polity is divided and mainstream political forces (read: individual politicians often willing to jump ship to the winning party) unwilling to transcend the logic of first-past-the-post constituency patronage politics.

It is also common knowledge that the winning formula in Pakistani politics involves the helping hand of our uniformed guardians. Indeed, notwithstanding the intensifying gags on — and willing self-censorship of — the corporate media, there is more everyday critical commentary about the establishment, the so-called ‘national security’ ideology and the civil-military divide generally.

So, what explains our debilitating impasse, a stalemate in which objective indicators suggest that more ordinary people are disaffected amidst greater awareness of how organised power operates, yet a critical subjective mass for transformative politics remains conspicuous by its absence?

This is an age-old rhetorical question. But it demands reconsideration in our present conjuncture, as the starkness of the impasse between general disaffection and meaningful responses to this disaffection becomes increasingly acute.

First, we must accept — no matter how troubling — that a significant number of people from various backgrounds actually support the incumbent populist-strongman regime. While in Pakistan there is a general tendency amongst dissidents (hailing mostly from ethnic peripheries) to identify ‘Punjab’ as the heartland of the authoritarian structure of power, this explanation requires slightly more nuance.

There are certainly more Punjabis of a urban, middle-class ilk, indoctrinated in the standardised version of Pakistan Studies, that support both the current hybrid regime, and the militarised structure of power generally. But the dominant political subjectivity — which combines a siege mentality demonising the ‘other’, and the desire for upward mobility in an increasingly commodified world governed by capitalistic rat-race rules — is far from only a Punjabi phenomenon.

Indeed, the fact that similarly populist-strongmen re­gimes thrive in India, Turkey, US, UK, Philippines and many other countries in the face of an inegalitarian world compel us to think beyond the current conjuncture as explained only by particularistic oppressions.

This brings me to the second, related point. It is important for critical commentary — and the making fun of power — to be encouraged at times like these, especially in societies such as ours in which direct resistance to power entails brutal consequences (disappearances, sedition charges, etc). But dissenting voices, especially on social media, must be able to forge a political hegemony of their own, strategically capable of challenging the populist-strongman regime.

The current conjuncture is disturbing, yes, but also ripe with contradictions. Calling these out is only the first step: the real challenge is to build what Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci called a national-popular-collective will to forge political action. Else we will continue to bear the ignominy of the proverbial queen continuing to tell us to eat cake, even while her guards continue killing and maiming our bodies while pillaging our resources, all while claiming to act in the ‘greater national interest’.

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

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2019