Numb masses?

Published February 6, 2023
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

ANNUAL consumer inflation reached 27.6 per cent last month, the highest level since 1975. Categories that experienced the largest increase in prices included perishable food items (61.6pc), non-perishable food items (40.3pc), and transport (39.1pc). Since January 2022, the price of a kilo of chicken has doubled, onions are up by an eye-watering six times, and eggs and wheat by over half. Price increases in everyday essentials directly impact low-income households the most, whose biggest share of everyday expenses is on food and transport. Over the past few months, discussions about trade-offs — occasional leisure vs everyday necessity, good education vs basic sustenance — seem commonplace. Poor households are helplessly witnessing a massive decline in their spending power, with bleak prospects of any recovery.

A question worth asking then is why don’t we see a greater reaction from those most impacted? Why aren’t there protests, riots, or upheavals taking place, given the sustained pressure of inflation for nearly four years?

The question becomes even more pertinent given the kind of politics on display. Under the caring hand of the military establishment, the ruling PDM coalition seems more concerned with suppressing opposition leaders and making its own legal troubles disappear. The PTI is busy fighting farcical cases and attempting to place pressure on the government through other political manoeuvres. Mainstream political discussions, as seen on tens of news channels every evening, seem to have no time for the rampaging cost of living crisis.

Asking why people aren’t fed up enough to take matters into their own hands is a reasonable query. Protests and strikes against increasing cost of living are a common feature of politics in other countries, and have become even more so over the past couple of years. Why have Pakistanis taken their worsening conditions mostly lying down?

Why have Pakistanis taken their worsening conditions mostly lying down?

The study of protest politics provides us some general answers. Scholars from a past era used to think that when external pressures reach a certain threshold, individuals are more likely to rebel. The careful study of protest movements around the world now shows that this is not necessarily the case. There is no one-to-one relationship between worsening conditions and people’s ability and psychological inclination for protest. Grievances are almost always present in some form. Whether people pour out on the streets depends on if they have the resources needed to do so. Resources include time, money and the ability to find and join other people experiencing the same grievances.

Low-income households in rural and urban Pakistan do not have easy access to these resources. Time is scarce, money is scant, and the everyday grind of life can be isolating. There is then partial truth to the common adage that the ‘masses are numb’. This numbness, however, is not some unique pathological condition as is often suggested, but rather the outcome of very difficult circumstances.

Another factor that may explain whether people come out or not is whether the context allows an opportunity to voice grievances without severe costs. The Pakistani context usually does not. Police action has not spared protesting teachers, nurses, farmers, or even the blind. The cost of being water-cannoned, tear-gassed, or put into prison is too high, and one that cannot be borne by those feeling the greatest brunt of inflation.

A third factor looks at how people emotionally and mentally understand their grievances and whether they see protests as a solution to those grievances. Here it is common among well-off people to somehow see inactivity of the Pakistani masses as a result of their faith, their acceptance of conditions as a trial by divine power, and their reliance on supplication and prayer as the only solution.

While people may resort to religious reasoning, this does not mean that they can’t have a clear understanding of the economic crisis. Inflation and unemployment are frequently mentioned as the biggest issues affecting people’s lives in surveys across different income groups. Any conversation lasting beyond a few sentences will inevitably turn to economic constraints. The masses are neither immune to pain, nor are they somehow hard-wired to accept only supernatural explanations for it.

For protest to happen, people need resources, they need opportunity, and they need to find a way to understand what the problem is, what the solutions are, and how protesting can help. In all three areas, the role of political parties and unions/civic associations is key. The latter are mostly nonexistent in Pakistan. But political parties, however, can provide time, money, and link similarly aggrieved people with each other. Parties can provide the opportunity and the platform for the masses to air their grievances. And party leaders can help people understand what the origin of their problem is, who should be held accountable, and how it can be solved.

What are Pakistan’s mainstream parties doing instead? Creating farcical court cases against opposition leaders. Colluding with the military to create a favourable political field for themselves. Whipping up the spectre of foreign conspiracy or religious panic. In other words, acting utterly detached from the society they claim to represent.

For grievances to be aired effectively, one would have to look towards alternatives outside the mainstream. Last week, one such alternative — the newly formed leftist Haqooq-i-Khalq party — mobilised working-class families in Chungi Amer Sidhu in Lahore against inflation, poor service delivery, and the apathy of the ruling elite. Scores of people came out because activists reached out to them, gave them a platform, and understood their grievances. It is far more than what the entrenched status quo is doing, and given the apathetic state of affairs in the mainstream, supporting such alternatives seems to be the only way forward.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2023

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