I USED to be shocked, not many years ago, to hear newly landed desi students on American shores immediately start spouting contemporary social justice jargon, as though they were born with it. Where did this strange verbal facility come from? How could they be so fluent in the language of deconstruction, when someone like me had had to laboriously struggle through the ramparts of classical liberalism, and then its various ideological opponents, just to get a handle on post-structuralist thought to see if it was relevant to my own project?
Now it’s much worse. It’s not just academics in the humanities and social sciences, but writers, artists, intellectuals — indeed, anyone with anything to say in public. With the current state of instantaneous global communications, the moment a liberal panic takes off in America, the next moment it infects opinion-makers everywhere. Whatever anxiety is agitating American intellectuals confronting a dying liberalism — #MeToo, white supremacy, transgender oppression, alleged Trumpian ‘fascism’ — it immediately saturates elite thinkers in parts of the world with no connection to the cultural petri dish wherein these self-involved viruses germinated.
This churn and froth, this lightning-fast imitation, this instant plugging into what appears as avant-garde thought, ignores that none of it is relevant to a country like Pakistan, or any developing country. The rhetoric comes from different sources and has different motivations than the needs of a violently unequal, feudal, patriarchal, even deeply misogynistic culture like Pakistan’s, where even the basics of liberal constitutionalism have yet to be worked out, let alone transcended.
Poverty, often driven by exploitative colonial dependencies, that in the case of Pakistan assumed a new darkness after the War on Terror, is the biggest problem; but the new language of social justice has nothing to say about it. It is entirely emptied of a class perspective — indeed, even in today’s popular intersectionalist vocabulary, which pretends to do so — and is rooted in the culture wars of the American right and left elites, with no relevance to working-class struggles in Pakistan or other poor countries.
The moment a liberal panic takes off in America, the next moment it infects opinion-makers everywhere.
The original French and European post-structuralists, in turn connected with the Marxist-leaning Frankfurt School, had much to say about understanding the blind spots of the Western democracies, particularly with regard to the cultural hegemony exercised in relation to then marginalised groups. Then American academics got hold of theory, never to let it go. They turned it into mush. Shorn of class content, it has become, in various iterations of identity politics, a handmaiden to neoliberal political economy. It is a mere rearranging of musical chairs when it comes to bureaucratic administration of who gets to speak at what table in elite circles — in academia, the arts, and politics.
In its popular version, which has gained total ascendance through the power of social media, it is spouted by ill-informed influencers as some sort of radical insight into the human condition, when it represents nothing but repeatedly diluted do-overs of the original post-structuralist framework. It fits well into pre-existing American notions of non-judgmentalism towards personal lifestyles, and it performs a spectacular celebration of individual choice that is by now meaningless within the constraints of neoliberal precariousness.
So it’s disturbing that it’s this brainless ideology that has caught on like raging wildfire everywhere, and is repeated ad nauseam, down to its quirkiest verbal tics, wherever elite opinion is disseminated, as though what was being spoken were a special language opening up a wormhole into timeless justice.
Consider what happened after the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police two years ago. Protests, of an intensity and spread not seen since the late 1960s, erupted all across the US, and indeed other democracies as well. At first, there was an explicit class element to it: recognising the very foundation of American police as an aid to maintaining unjust property relations. But this activist dimension came entirely from those who don’t speak the contemporary language of social justice, and these dissenters were soon marginalised and excluded. An utterly compromised and elite-endorsed institution like Black Lives Matter (BLM) then took over all the activist energy, and predictably turned it into watery slush. The radical movement against police brutality has now well and truly ended.
One could talk about how feminism, which had some truly radical class dimensions in the 1970s, slowly turned into bourgeois white feminism — obsessed with an array of lifestyle choices not available to women in the developing world, and yet somehow presented itself as universal in nature. It too is in service to neoliberal class relations, as much an instrument of oppression — because it refuses to recognise any feminist impulse as valid other than its own constrained ideology — as any economic instrument deployed by neoliberalism.
Where does one look to, then, for a vocabulary (and practice) of social justice that doesn’t imitate these compromised American culture war holdovers? This has been made difficult because neoliberal globalisation has explicitly followed the goal of cultural flattening and homogenisation, and indeed celebrated it, all over the world. But autonomous culture has not yet been fully eradicated, nor can it be.
We have plenty of sources of genuine compassion in our own culture, if we care to look for it. One needn’t resort to obscurantist philosophies, which are often a reflection of desperation, following centuries of colonial and then domestic overlordship, but there is plenty of authentic humanism in our own heritage. Edhi certainly practised it, and so many others in the past and present. Our own history, art, music, literature, philosophy, architecture and social relations and personal morality, when they are at their best, can be sources of endless inspiration.
We can be both practical and unselfish, able stewards of the human body and non-human animals and nature — cognisant of the true value of life and death — and generally good human beings, without ever having to resort to the jargon and mindset of the Western technocratic lifestyle management device known as identity politics.
The writer’s books of fiction, poetry, and criticism include Karachi Raj: A Novel and the recently finished novel The Incident of the Missing Kanchani.
Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2022