Dangerous classes

17 Apr 2020

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

IT is a measure of the almost surreal times we are currently living through that the IMF, anything but a principled voice for the working classes, has warned that failure to protect the most vulnerable segments of the population in responding to the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to massive social unrest in many countries.

That the IMF, along with mainstream media outfits like the Financial Times and The Economist, is calling for a suspension of ‘free market’ orthodoxy to save capitalism from itself, is unsurprising. The most powerful business interests of all thrive on the wheels of the economy turning as fast as possible. As the saying goes, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Yet the biggest can still easily tide themselves over in hard times. Those at the bottom rungs of the social ladder do not, as the IMF warning suggests, have any room for manoeuvre. If the state does not step in to protect the most vulnerable, resentment, anger, and, ultimately, unrest can follow.

The PTI government has undertaken notable policy initiatives in recent weeks, including the cash transfer scheme which can become the basis of a universal basic income. But our society is still on the cusp of a potentially explosive situation because of a hydra-headed elite. Only a concerted and organised pushback from the most politically conscious segments of society can hold it to account.

If the state does not protect the vulnerable, unrest can follow.

First, the state continues to rely on the use of coercive force in many different parts of the country. This can take the form of low-ranking state functionaries such as police constables and paramilitary personnel beating ordinary working people in public, bulldozing katchi abadis, as took place in Islamabad yesterday, or more systematic policy directives such as the apparently deliberate media and internet blackout in war-torn ethnic peripheries such as the recently merged tribal areas of KP as well as many districts in Balochistan.

Throughout this country’s history, the use of force by the state against its own people has always exacerbated disaffection. State personnel continuing to wield the big stick in already restive regions is bad enough, but when this starts happening in major urban centres, even the most pliant of populations are unlikely to remain so.

Second, the religious establishment — or at least some important components of it — is stoking the sentiments of ordinary people, particularly with regard to prayer congregations. This is nothing new in Pakistan, and the consequences have always been dire in the past. With the approach of the fasting month, religious sentiments are likely to intensify, and cynical provocations can quickly snowball in uncontrollable ways. Expediency on the part of the government has hardly helped, but the religious right’s uncontested power is explained by the historic patronage of the security establishment. It is telling that the latter has apparently made no intervention till now to rein in tensions growing by the day.

Third, affluent ‘apolitical’ segments living in mansions and gated communities are evincing increasingly myopic attitudes towards the working poor. Even at the best of times, the rich and powerful in our society subject to semi-serfdom those who cook, clean, drive, and do the care work for them. But the haughty notion that the poor will bring a life-threatening and extremely contagious virus into rich homes is bringing out the absolute worst in the latter. Indeed, the rich appear to be insistent on making the colonial trope of the ‘dangerous classes’ into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not a question of giving charity to those without the means to survive economic hardship, but about according basic dignity to the most vulnerable at a time when the slogan ‘we are all in this together’ is being bandied about liberally.

Social unrest is not inevitable in Pakistan, or, for that matter, any other country in the world. If things do deteriorate, it will be because dominant social forces and state institutions do not possess the foresight to prevent things from coming to a head. Till now, our military, religious and financial establishments have provided no evidence that they have a plan for dealing with impending social strife that incorporates concern for ordinary people. Digging a hole in the sand and submerging one’s head in it is hardly a reassuring strategy.

The majority of working people, oppressed ethnic, religious and gendered segments are deprived of meaningful leadership. Rest assured, machinations are already under way behind the scenes, even as a global pandemic plays out, for another motley crew to be put into government once the PTI reaches the end of its rope, the unending game of musical chairs set to carry on. Social unrest or not, what we need more than anything else is a genuine political movement to change the fate of this country and its long-suffering people.

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

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2020