Crazy rich Pakistanis

24 Jun 2020

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A white anthropologist in a pith helmet and safari suit, dissecting the lives and traditions of ‘primitive natives’ — this is an enduring, uncomfortable image for its role in marginalising colonised populations. Visiting non-European settlements (the further flung, the better) and, oblivious of their power as representatives of the hegemon, these anthropologists fetishised the lesser-known ‘periphery’ even more for curious readers back home.

Indeed, a traditional pitfall of ethnographic writing is unawareness of one’s privilege as an economic and politically dominant outsider. That Rosita Armytage, author of Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micropolitics of Wealth in Pakistan, fails to acknowledge this is unfortunate; her belief — that writing about the rich and powerful elite makes her immune to this error — is mindboggling.

Armytage’s book aims to reveal how wealthy Pakistanis perpetuate their socioeconomic hold over the country through political connections, marriages and exclusive institutions. Aside from her ignorance of the power dynamics embedded in her very topic, and her unsettling fascination with the elite’s lifestyles, it is an otherwise reasonably well-researched ethnography.

Armytage uses wealth as an obvious marker of status: an ‘elite family’ must earn at least $100m a year to qualify. Other requisites are a culturally liberal lifestyle and patronage of colonial-era schools and gentlemen’s clubs — although she admits this is changing as more of the lower classes join the upper ranks. But while her criteria are very clear at the outset, they become hazier as the book proceeds. Does being elite mean being super rich? Some of her informants admit their inability, or unwillingness, to afford nouveau riche pursuits such as new social club memberships, yet are classified as elite.

The first chapter, detailing her methodology, is perhaps the most problematic. As she talks about navigating Pakistan’s socioeconomic landscape as a foreign female researcher, one cannot help but detect a patronising tone. She almost gloats that, as a simple academic from the West, she has access to the who’s who of Pakistan. She calls her elite informants “friends” who introduce her to their contacts and divulge their business and family secrets, based on their assessment of her as a trustworthy, harmless confidante.

The problem is, why would the rich and famous — who keep their own countrymen out of their close-knit circles — befriend a complete stranger? The only explanation is the privilege Armytage, a white Australian, enjoys because of the colour of her skin. Pakistan undeniably defers to white figures. That she’s completely unaware of this continued beholdenness to white skin, and doesn’t acknowledge it even once, is bizarre.

The absolute irony is her attempt to call her affiliation with the elites an “inversion” of the classical anthropologist-informant relationship, where the former wielded more power over the latter. In fact, she feels that, as a foreign, unmarried woman she has very little power, failing to see that as a white woman, she would probably have unfettered access to power corridors in most postcolonial states. The rich and famous might enjoy sacrosanct status in Pakistan, but they still want to count a Westerner as a “friend.”

Sadly driving the point home, she states how she received unsolicited advances from a few businessmen, but this was resolved without incident largely because of the elites’ own code of conduct: a man misbehaving with a guest is shunned by all and he wouldn’t dare transgress further. Again, she dismisses the power of her passport (and again, her skin colour) in the intra-elite reaction to what they would probably consider a peccadillo. Would a brown researcher have been accorded the same scot-free getaway? One is not so easily convinced. Armytage is certainly not powerless, whether or not she admits it.

She’s also rather enamoured of the elite’s lifestyles — evident from her elaborate description of their parties, schools and clubs. At times, her writing seems designed to shock Western audiences. Such voyeurism only exoticises elites more and is, perhaps, inessential to explaining how they accumulate and retain clout.

Going through the defining moments of South Asian history which led to various waves of elite formation or decimation, Armytage finds that political instability both challenges and supports a starkly elite-dominated form of capitalism. The first instance was the British war effort in the 19th and 20th centuries, including the War of 1857 and the two World Wars, when some Indian families partnered with the colonisers by providing essential supplies and profited enormously.

The next wave came with Partition. As Mohammad Ali Jinnah lured them en masse to Pakistan, trading families turned into industrialists almost overnight. Most settled in the new capital, Karachi, and, in the first 10 years, made proverbial hay, developed closer relations with the mostly Muhajir bureaucracy and used state incentives to grow richer. Karachi became an industrial hub, to the chagrin of Punjab’s landed elite. There was nascent conflict between the industrialists of Karachi and Punjab.

Gen Ayub Khan’s arrival in 1958 signalled the beginning of the end of Muhajir dominance. He moved the country’s capital to Punjab, reducing the business community’s influence on bureaucrats and encouraged industrialisation in Punjab, which upset Karachi’s businessmen. Lopsided industrialisation in the ’60s led to the emergence of the infamous 22 families. Incidentally, Gen Ayub was also the first army chief who successfully lured the business community away from the bureaucracy towards the military. The military began viewing businessmen as a support base — a relationship which has only grown stronger.

In 1971, many West Pakistani families with business interests in erstwhile East Pakistan lost their wealth overnight. Later, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto tried to address growing inequality through nationalisation. The survivors of this cull were families with diversified interests, and smaller groups who benefitted from the sudden loss in competition, as big units were appropriated by the state.

With Gen Ziaul Haq, new people from a class below the established elite acquired military contracts and were groomed to replace the old political elites by a dictator desperate for support. Gen Zia also continued shifting the locus of economic power away from Karachi. Armytage notes that those who followed Zia have not upset the economic balance considerably, and the country has not witnessed any more waves of elite creation or decimation since the ’80s (arguably, the Afghan war did create opportunities, but she doesn’t touch on this).

Armytage talks at length about elite schools and clubs — dens that act as entry barriers and grudgingly admit only a select number of the nouveau riche. By patronising these former bastions of the colonisers, the established elite evoke nostalgia for an era where, ironically, entry was denied to them, too, when the British were around. Resultantly, their mannerisms and tastes are unknowingly similar to those of 1940s Englishmen rather than the contemporary global elite.

To the reader, this emphasis on exclusivity based on being a class apart from the masses should underscore the elites`hypocrisy. While at pains to portray themselves as liberal and Westernised, their values are still extremely patriarchal and socially conservative, as evident from their denial of private club membership to women, paying homage to an assortment of spiritual leaders (especially among political elites) and marrying cousins rather than`outsiders` Armytage contends that spouses are selected to further business alliances or keep wealth within the family. She concedes that religion is a factor despite their touted liberal credentials, elite families avoid matches from a well-to-do marginalised community if the children are to live in Pakistan.

She claims this is a decision based on managing financial and political risk, but doesn`t mention that barring persecuted religious communities elite marriages straddle the Shia-SunniIsmaili-Bohri barriers quite smoothly, which suggests that elites look out for financial interest above all else.

On the importance of socialising, Armytage divulges that intra-elite events are explicitly designed to deepen links among powerful peers. She suggests that,as these lavish parties risk convincing the masses of the elite`s immorality and corruption, codes of conduct are followed: alcohol and hard drugs are common, but public images are censored because the elite don`t want to `fan the flames` about their reputation. Armytage claims this hidden social world cannot be accessed by non-elites, but forgets that the ubiquity of social media has challenged this significantly.

In discussing elite networks`nexus with the military, Armytage quotes the late sociologist Hamza Alavi, who identified the military as a facilitator rather than a component of the elite class. This assumption might need revision. While it may be incorrect to refer to the military as a class per se, is not the military itself part of modern Pakistan`s economic and political elite? But how do Pakistani elites measure up with global elites? Unsurprisingly, not that well. According to Armytage, Pakistani elites are not well-integrated with the global elite. She doesn`t explain why, but one can think of two reasons. One, intra-elite racism: elite in rich countries might not feel Pakistani elites are blue-blooded enough to join their ranks. Second, more importantly, Pakistani elites may not be rich or powerful enough. Here, the distinction between what it means to be rich in Pakistan versus the West is important, and one wishes Armytage had spent more time on it. Unfortunately, this distinction appears lost on her.

Often, when foreign writers study class in Pakistan, they overlook a class divide they themselves represent: that between rich and poor countries. Poorcountry elites are very often just trying to unsuccessfully keep up with the Joneses. When Armytage talks about ordinary Western citizens, she forgetsthey`re probably affluent for the developing world`s poor. That may be why the masses from poor countries could not fully relate with Western anti-poverty movements such as Occupy.

For the same reason, the idea of a transnational elite is not too convincing, either, because of the stark disparity between rich and poor countries.

Pakistani elites`failure to be admitted to the hallowed ranks of the global elite despite their eagerness reminds one of Khushwant Singh`s short story `Karma`, about Oxford-graduate Mohan whose Received Pronunciation is unintelligible to the English soldiers who alight the first class carriage for free, by virtue of their skin colour. Despite having paid for the ticket, Mohan is thrown out on the platform by the soldiers. It feels little has changed in a hundred years.

The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi