The perfect storm

Dec 14 2019


OVER the last year, protesters have taken over streets from Hong Kong to Iraq, and from Barcelona to Iran.

The reasons are diverse, as is the composition of the chanting, stone-throwing groups confronting the state. But a few familiar threads run through the fabric of dissent. One is the relative youth of the protesters; next is the frustration with a corrupt and exploitative status quo that is boiling over; and finally there is the failure of systems that have provoked dissidents to risk their lives, limbs and liberty while facing the might of state.

In Pakistan, we have a special case where mobs are usually associated with religious movements or parties. Clerics are favoured by the establishment that often needs their support in the shape of votes, or street power. They are thus often given a free pass for their violent rampages.

The recent dharna, or street protest, by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and his extremist followers is a case in point. Large swathes of Islamabad were blocked off by the protest that had no clear purpose, but the state handled the situation with kid gloves. Had a secular party staged a similar protest, its members would have been thrashed, and jailed quicker than they could have yelled: “Go, Imran Khan, go!”

In Iran and Iraq, the state has been much tougher in facing any challenge to its power. But the reality is that no modern state is going to allow protesters to take power. Nevertheless, the streets in many countries are now contested spaces where the struggle for power is increasingly being waged.

The ballot is being replaced with the bullet and the baton.

The ballot is being replaced with the bullet and the baton because young people no longer view conventional politics as a vehicle of change. The youth now view elections as a cunning way for the establishment to shift power from one party to another without effecting any real change.

In the post-Second World War scenario, those who inherited power from their colonial masters have done little to improve the lives of their people. Corrupt princelings, generals, dictators and bureaucrats have shovelled their snouts in the same troughs. Meanwhile, the poor have got poorer, with education, healthcare and employment being neglected as a matter of course.

Some populists have staged revolutions in the name of equality and social justice, but have then failed to deliver. Whatever your views about socialism, the reality is that most socialist countries have invested in their citizens. China is a prime example of what an educated, healthy workforce can achieve. India, on the other hand, shows us how difficult it is to maintain growth, with poverty and caste divisions slowing down progress.

Apart from purely economic reasons, people are on the streets because they want to win back the dignity they think they have lost. A new generation that has more aspirations than their parents is now pushing for political power, as for most of them, the process of change is too slow.

Many of us with a Western education consider our clerical parties a retrogressive force that wants to push Pakistan back to the mediaeval era. But placing our prejudices aside, the fact is that desire for change can be revolutionary, whether it is secular or religious. So when we sneer at mullahs for their backwardness, we are being intellectually lazy, and making no effort to understand their motivation.

This struggle for power between the people and the state is intensifying at a time when the contradictions built into capitalism are becoming sharper. The inequality between workers and bosses has never been higher. Phenomena like Brexit and Trump are just the tip of the iceberg. Expect more of the same.

So how do we break out of the circle in which we are trapped? Clearly, the elite will not hand over money or power to the deprived. Is revolution the only answer? Obviously, the situation will vary from one society to another: some leaders will make the adjustments necessary to defuse the situation. Others will try and use force to put down protest. In Iran and Iraq, for example, brutal repression has already taken hundreds of young lives.

In a world where one per cent of adults own 47pc of household wealth, it is no surprise when the working class pour out into the streets. To a great extent, it is the excesses of the 1pc that is driving popular anger.

Add to income inequality the collapse in governance and the lack of jobs, education and opportunities, and you have the factors for the perfect storm. To save itself, the system will need to reinvent itself and accept higher taxes to pay for redistribution.

However, the 1pc will fight tooth and nail to preserve its grip on wealth and power. For them, any concession is the thin end of the wedge. But unless they accept some form of compromise, the present system is doomed to go the way of the dinosaur.

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2019