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Uncomfortable despondency

April 14, 2011


WHEN scholars and academics suggest that we need to start moving out of cycles of despair and despondency, we should be very worried. When they start painting what is often referred to as a 'brighter picture' of their country's conditions, you know that the country and all that it represents is in a deep state of crisis, particularly an intellectual crisis.

No sense of a creative image makeover is going to help understand or deal with the deep structural causes which have resulted in that despondency. The task of academics and scholars should not be to create myths about overcoming truths, but about giving greater thought to why the problems exist in the first place. They should not gloss over difficult truths.

While fiction writers, poets, artists and musicians are far freer to imagine different realities, fortunately in Pakistan, the better artists and the few outstanding fiction writers and poets, want us to understand and confront our despondency, making us uncomfortable, rather than trying to distance themselves from it by moving out of cycles of despondency. One can only feel good when there is something to feel good about.

The issue is not one about emphasising gloom or pessimism, as many who do research and analyse and discuss Pakistan's numerous problems are accused of doing, but, based on far greater and deeper understanding and research, it is to be able to go beyond simple policy solutions. Sadly, the quality of Pakistani social science writing and research remains in a dismal state, and while there have been some commendable examples of exceptional scholarship, much of what passes for research and analysis, is merely poorly informed opinion on the basis of which policy is formulated.

Moreover, numerous former policymakers and those who have previously been in positions of power and influence, sound particularly dishonest and hollow when they begin to lament about the current state of the nation, conveniently forgetting their own contributions in creating the mess. They blame what they call 'politics' or bad governance for the sorry state we are in, having played politics for military dictators for years on end without taking any responsibility for their past wrongdoing.

Despondency and despair are genuine and justified responses to material conditions which exist, and one need not be ashamed of being either despondent or in despair. Only when one is in a position to understand the extent of the problem and its causes, is one in a position to be able to change it. And if that is the case, it is the particular causes which need to be addressed and changed, not simply the despondent and desperate responses to those circumstances.

If the purpose to move beyond cycles of despondency and despair is to offer some sort of positive spin on a desperate situation, or to offer hope to a people in desperate times, one needs to be reminded, paraphrasing a 19th-century philosopher, that history cannot be made under circumstances chosen by those who want to move out of despondency, but must be made only on the basis of circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

What was called Pakistan's 'image problem', by its most recent military dictator, has now been repackaged as an attempt to move out of cycles of despondency and despair. Pakistan does not have an image problem; its problems are very real and entrenched.

Try telling women, who are doubly exploited because of their gender and class, who are subjugated by patriarchy and misogyny of the worst kind, usually sanctioned by interpretations from religious readings and understanding, that they need to 'move out of cycles of despondency and despair', and see how they respond. Or, the oppressed and the poor, whose lives are based on the realities of despondency and despair, not some imaginary futures which are unimaginable in their real dreams. Clearly, in every such case, it is not wishing away one's despondency which will change the material conditions which caused it in the first place, but the transformation of those very same material conditions.

It is only the Pakistani elite, and the globalised elite at that which has the means and the ability to move out of cycles of despondency and despair, which is free to live in a differently imagined and disconnected reality from the rest of the nation, often by literally moving to their second homes abroad.

More importantly, it is this very same elite which is responsible for creating the material conditions — economic, political and social — which creates despondency in the first place. Deal with the causes which create despondency first, and one can easily move out of cycles of despondency which follow.

Social scientists need to get back to a better, more thorough and deeper understanding of the causes and conditions, and suggest ways as to how those material conditions can be changed. They need to use political economy frameworks which are based on the economic and social relations of production, and as a consequence on the articulation of power which results, to be able to do some justice in untangling issues and problems.

The reality, no matter how uncomfortable, cannot be wished away. They should leave the fantasies and promises of a better future to artists, writers of fiction, preachers, and of course, to politicians and military generals.

The writer is a political economist.