AASIM Sajjad Akhtar’s new book The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan is an ambitious attempt at laying out key features that are shaping and will continue to shape politics in the coming years across the Global South. It is also an invitation to think about what an alternative future would look like.
According to the author, three aspects and how they interact with each other are central to the present moment. The first is the existence of a young population with clear aspirations of becoming middle class. Unfettered consumption is entrenched as the singular aim of economic life in Pakistan, and is also the only marker for social mobility. This is keeping in line with other country contexts as well, though what makes the case of Pakistan somewhat distinctive is the rate at which consumption is prioritised, given the fragile nature of the economy, and some specific forms of economic activity — such as land-focused real estate growth.
The second key aspect is life becoming increasingly digitalised, not just for urban upper-income demographics, but for broad swathes of the population. As the 2017 census showed, upwards of 70 per cent of the population now relies on cell phones for basic communication and for news as well. Usage is highly gendered — men are more likely to use cell phones than women — but household-level impact is considerable. What this means is that people can virtually see and hear what’s happening across the world. Depending on who is creating and distributing content, the impact on people’s ideologies, and their sense of the world and their own place in it, is and will continue to be immense.
Finally, the third aspect — closely linked to the first one — is the catastrophic impact of climate change. It is worth mentioning that Pakistan is not even remotely responsible for the globalised ecological damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions. That blame rests solely with countries who attained a higher per capita income via a rapacious, fossil-fuel dependent form of capitalism. However, we’re experiencing disasters as both a fallout of the global effect, as well as the local disasters being created through increased appropriation of groundwater, the conversion of rural land into dumping sites of speculative real estate activity, unchecked car-dependent urban sprawl, and extractive mining of natural resources.
The task before anyone thinking about politics and the future of this country has never been clearer.
Collectively, these three features represent interrelated problems. Unfulfilled expectations of consuming more and rising up the socioeconomic ladder can breed deep-seated resentment. It can create fertile ground for populist and chauvinistic forms of politics, as already seen in India, Hungary, Brazil and even ‘developed’ countries like Italy and the United States. In nearly all such cases, it is ethnic, religious and gender minorities who are usually blamed for such failures. They are blamed for holding back the country and for conspiring with evil forces within and abroad.
Diffused access to content and digitalised consumption of information opens the space for more transparency and awareness, but also alternative universes where hate can fester and where misinformation can breed disaster. As seen in so many cases, it can generate polarisation — ethnic, religious, gender-based — to the extent of dehumanising the ‘other’ entirely. Violence becomes an almost logical outcome of such polarisation, as we’ve repeatedly seen in the case of blasphemy-related politics.
And finally, the problems of climate change due to humanity’s one-way relationship with nature are already here in front of us. With millions of lives already affected by floods and, come October, millions soon to be impacted by smog, there is no shaking the feeling that our collective existence is in danger and that the next few decades are going to look drastically and unpleasantly different.
The three features and their associated problems discussed here are broadly prevalent the world over, but they create a particular type of fragility for Pakistan. Our mainstream politics is actively fuelling them.
The middle-class dream of consumption is actively fed by every mainstream party. On its own this is a desirable goal — everyone should have the chance to improve their standard of living. But when it is sold as a pipe dream only to distract from the increasing concentration of privileges and entitlement in the hands of a few, it becomes a problem. As rent-seeking upper classes are handed out more and more gifts and favours, the military and the political party in government tell the aspirational that the reason you’re not making it is because of X leader, Y conspiracy, and Z minority. Kicking them out, defeating them, eradicating them is the only path to salvation.
The sphere of digitalised connectivity is even more dangerous, as that’s where fringe elements — especially fundamentalist religious ones — appear to thrive. Again the political mainstream has no answer to the hate being bred, and is in fact, more than happy to leverage the hate for temporary gain wherever possible.
Lastly, reworking the relationship with nature is perhaps the most difficult task and one that we are spectacularly failing at. Having pushed indigenous knowledge and practices related to agriculture, water and built structures to the margins by labelling them ‘primitive’, and wholeheartedly embracing technocratic efficiency has rendered this country nearly uninhabitable for so many. Even when a party in government, such as the PTI, brings in concerns around the environment to the political mainstream, it undermines it by simultaneously pursuing completely contradictory actions (such as a real estate amnesty scheme and the dispossession of farmers around the Ravi river).
The task before anyone thinking about politics and the future of this country has never been clearer. How does one invest in a material aspiration that is ethical and realisable for large parts of the population? How does one build a political community without demonising the vulnerable and the marginalised? And how does one rethink a human being’s relationship to nature beyond extraction and appropriation?
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2022