The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
Pluto Press, UK
ISBN: 978-0745346670
185pp.

Many an event — natural or otherwise — has brought prodigious change to human lives. We have witnessed wars, natural disasters, epidemics and pandemics alter the course of history but, according to Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, they haven’t necessarily prompted people to go for alternative or revolutionary politics in Pakistan. In his new book, The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons, he explains why it is so.

Covid-19 and the subsequent halt of global economic life multiplied the various kinds of crises people were already suffering from, and the measures taken during pandemic lockdowns were just another reminder of the tremendous power the military, industrial and media establishments and political demagogues enjoy. Everything served to exacerbate the dominance of capitalism without care for the consequences.

Tracing middle-class hegemonies in theory and history, Akhtar asserts that an ideological offensive at large to re-engrave modernity brought dizzying shifts in the global political economy.

Epic challenges to capitalism, colonialism and patriarchal social institutions around the world could have shaped history, but resistance or revolt was manipulated by supporters of the capitalist system and reduced with ideas of liberalism and free market practices.

A book attempts to present a sketch of capitalism in Pakistan, what form it takes, what class structure prevails in society and how hegemony is created in the age of mass media

The ‘new normal’ of democratic liberalism gave rise to a hegemonic politics that had appeared uncontested on a world scale at the end of the Cold War. But after 30 years, all promises of free markets as well as free individuals proved hollow. The historic peripheries of the capitalist world system are currently more dispossessed, exploited, repressed and replete with violence than ever before.

Akhtar’s book attempts to present an empirical and theoretical sketch of capitalism in Pakistan, what form it takes in our very diverse and uneven society that still bears the legacies of colonialism, what class structure prevails in Pakistani society and how hegemony is created in the age of mass media.

The author also addresses how different forms of identity oppression — on the basis of caste, ethnicity and nationality — and patriarchy are engraved into a patronage-based structure of power. Additionally, he attempts to theorise a politics of emancipation, a hegemonic alternative to what he calls “the politics of fear and desire.”

However, Akhtar does not offer answers to all the questions raised, only points of departure. He elucidates the social-structural underpinnings of politics in Pakistan and the book is, more generally, a modest addition to political theory in postcolonial South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The present post-pandemic economic and climatic crisis of capitalism reveals the theoretical and practical terrain upon which revolutionary political action must be devised and enacted in the future. A grounded theory of politics for the said regions is necessary for emancipatory goals to be achieved. The postcolonial conditions make it more relevant.

In the past, the bourgeoisie were idealised subjects of capitalist modernity in Europe; today’s idealised subject in the non-Western world is the ‘new middle class’ that not only brings economic liberalisation, but is also the beneficiary of the same. Today’s politics is shaped by the hegemonic middle class ideology, an order that thrives on the fallout generated by what Akhtar calls the “madness of economic reason” in postcolonial conditions.

Covid-19 exposed the brutal realities of the global regime of capital accumulation and many glaring facts about the historically imperialised zones of the world-system were brought to light by the pandemic. But mainstream intellectuals and politicians quickly moved on from this nascent critique.

Author Aasim Sajjad Akhtar argues in his book that most young Pakistanis are imbued with a hegemonic middle class aspiration | Dawn file photo
Author Aasim Sajjad Akhtar argues in his book that most young Pakistanis are imbued with a hegemonic middle class aspiration | Dawn file photo

Despite deepening class conflicts, the exploitation of natural resources, majoritarian violence against oppressed castes, genders, ethnic nations, religious communities and minorities, an ideology of middle class aspiration remains hegemonic. In fact, argues Akhtar, most of Pakistan’s young people are imbued with a hegemonic middle class aspiration.

In his book, Akhtar defines the middle class as a combination of specific social groups, such as urban consumers, state functionaries, contractors and the like. It is described as an ideological category and the aspiration to be middle class in the non-Western world is taken as a central subject of analysis.

Most theories of contemporary capitalism overlook the Third World and only a few individuals have gained any attention — for instance, populists such as Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan. However, the socio-structural roots of current authoritarianism have generated very limited theoretical interest.

Against this backdrop, the author takes a contrary view, arguing that, in order to understand the global crisis, we have to centre our attention on the global South. It affords privileged insight into the functioning of the world at large for certain reasons — the growing population, especially urban population, in the global South is experiencing a massive bulging of youth connected both physically and digitally to the world. And the worst fallout of climate change is expected to play out in South Asia.

A question of concern is why the capitalist mode of production seems uncontested. From a Marxist point of view, it is because the capitalist rules with the uncontested ideological view that money-making is not only respectable, but the most important objective in people’s lives. This is widely understood by people anywhere in the world.

What makes us greedy and what are the repercussions? This phenomenon of greed is also interrogated and explored by social psychologists, Buddhists and people from almost every walk of life. As American social psychologist Sheldon Solomon has said, “People like to have a lot of stuff because it gives them the feeling of living forever.”

From the Buddhist philosophical perspective, desire, greed and the struggle that brings about anger and aggression are all the resultant states of a person consistently trying to look at what is not true.

We talk about three fundamental truths. One is that things are impermanent. The second is that the principle of everything is said to be emptiness. But we try to build something that makes us forget about ephemerality. We strive for the everlasting. And that struggle leads us to the third truth of our self-made suffering: we begin to hang on to things.

We are never happy with what we have, and now our excessive consumption has taken our planet past the breaking point. Human beings’ fatal desire and greed are leading to the collapse of not only our societal systems, but of the Earth’s climatic system as well. To halt this acceleration towards disaster, we must come to terms with our own mortality. We have to explore other ways to feel happy and content. Can people do this by changing the way they think politically?

In the book’s first chapter, Akhtar adapts Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s concept of ‘integral state’ to explain Pakistan’s prevalent structure of power, in which the militarised state apparatus collaborates with domestic and foreign capital to exploit nature, via a regime of financial accumulation.

The making of the middle class and the politics of fear and desire are discussed in Chapter 2, which shows how fear is generated among captive urban populations. Some Baloch and Pakhtun peripheries are taken as a case study to support the argument.

Chapter 3 discusses the increasingly digitised field of politics and how hegemony is crafted. The author looks at movements mobilised largely through social media by young people affected by the so-called ‘war on terror’ and urban feminist movements.

The fourth and last chapter, about emancipatory politics, deploys the Marxist theory of class system and urges the people to have a classless society.

The present post-globalised world is growing more complex by the day and many factors make the task of triggering a Marxist revolution challenging. Some of these factors are acknowledged by the author; however, there are a few questions that we still need to think about. Past experiments with communism and socialism did not go so well, so how can people be convinced to try again? Amidst the digitisation and global outreach of communication, business and knowledge networks, how can ideas across borders actually be brought to converge?

It is difficult to subsume such complexities in ideological agendas, but Akhtar’s book helps towards gaining some kind of understanding. It is a must-read for academics, progressives and activists who are involved practically in alternate politics.

The reviewer is a lecturer at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. He tweets @Sohail_QAU

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 9th, 2022

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