Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


An over-politicised state

January 09, 2012


THIS may sound odd, but like individuals, states also have multiple ‘career’ options to choose from. These choices are made by the country’s dominant groups based upon their own skills sets, worldviews and value systems.

A glance around the globe helps in identifying the different ‘career’ or development strategy options that are available to countries.

East Asia is the land of export-oriented developmental states (e.g. Japan, China and South Korea). This option involves having competent governments working very closely with the private sector to accumulate human and technological capital and become major exporters of sophisticated manufactures.

A second option consists of the path taken by several European countries which earlier were developmental ones but later became welfare states once their private sectors had achieved sufficient strength to compete globally without state support. Such states then started focusing on protecting lower classes through generous social security nets, which unfortunately have started unravelling since the advent of neo-liberalism in the 1980s.

Other states support the domestic economy indirectly by becoming hegemonic states and tilting the regional or even global economy in their favour based on their military clouts, e.g., the US globally and Russia, China and India regionally.

Some states become open-market, competitive states which focus on attracting global investment by minimising government regulation. Another variation of the open-market option, practised usually by micro-states (e.g. the Caribbean islands), are offshore parasitical states, which are normally located near large industrialised economies and survive by becoming tax-free and tourism havens for their larger neighbours. Other lucrative options are heavily dependent on inherited endowments.

For example, natural resource-rich states such as Russia and the Gulf monarchies are fortunate to possess minerals that are in high demand globally. Another option, available mainly to large countries, is to become an inward-looking state, and attempt to industrialise by restricting imports, e.g. India, China and Brazil till the 1980s. With increasing globalisation, this option has become less viable. However, a less protected version of this strategy survives today in the shape of economic blocs formed to increase the size available to national producers, e.g. the European Union.

The common denominator possessed by these different types of states is that of an institutionalised state, i.e. one where avenues for individual/group political and economic advancement are generally non-violent and rule-based. Although these rules may discriminate somewhat against certain socio-economic groups, they are still largely accepted by most people in society. This routinisation of advancement avenues reduces transactional costs and uncertainty, and enhances economic dynamism.

In contrast to institutionalised states are over-politicised states. These are not states where there is an excess of political activity, such as political speeches and rallies, as the name may suggest but states where the rules for advancement either do not exist or are often violated. Thus, there is unpredictable, cut-throat and often violent competition for advancement which crowds out the space even for those willing to follow rules, hence reducing predictability and economic dynamism. Thus, states, like individuals, can also select ‘careers’ from a menu of less worthy options.

Foremost among such unappealing options is that of the predatory state, where a small group, usually revolving around a well-entrenched dictator, rapaciously exploits the people and the natural resources of the country to enrich themselves while severely impoverishing the majority. Congo under Mobutu and Zimbabwe under Mugabe are quintessential examples of such predatory states.

Another variation on this theme is that of hermit states where dictators isolate their countries almost completely externally, e.g. Myanmar, to wreak havoc on unprotected citizens. Some isolated states also choose to defy international rules and norms to become defiant states, e.g. North Korea. The last option consists of criminalised states which become safe havens for organised criminal and/or terrorist groups, and corruption, crime and violence becomes widespread there, as in Nigeria and Mexico.

Which option has Pakistan’s rein-holders selected for it? Unfortunately, Pakistan has steadily become a criminalised and defiant state over time. The means for political change and advancement became non-institutionalised immediately, to some extent under the founding fathers but more so under the succeeding bureaucrats.

Ayub added the phenomenon of corruption at high levels to the national fabric. Yahya supervised massive bloodshed. Bhutto’s era witnessed the politicisation and de-professionalisation of the bureaucracy, leading to corruption even at lower levels. Zia opened the floodgates to the inflow of mafia and violent groups. The 1990s semi-democratic era took high corruption to new depths. Musharraf allowed violent groups to become stronger. The present government is largely seen as corrupt and incompetent. In between, Pakistan also attempted to become a regional hegemonic state with a one-state (Afghanistan) sphere of influence.

Thus, each successive regime has added new dimensions of over-politicisation to the national fabric. This unfortunate state of affairs exists despite the fact that, unlike many other criminalised or defiant states, Pakistan possesses significant human and natural resources to easily pursue several positive options, e.g. become a developmental or large-market state.

However, the intellectual limitations of those that have ruled Pakistan, whether soldiers or politicians, has meant that these considerable resources have not been utilised to pursue the worthier options. Soldiers must be awarded a larger share of the blame since they have exercised much greater powers within Pakistan. Thus, with China, Brazil and Indonesia succeeding in reinventing themselves, Pakistan arguably represents the largest pool of human and natural resources being used sub-optimally at present globally (followed by Nigeria).

Could Pakistan also reinvent itself in the future? History and the laws of nature suggest that this sub-optimal state of affairs cannot persist forever because of this large pool of resources. The soldiers and traditional politicians are unlikely to change their worldviews and become the instigators of such a transformation. However, it is quite likely that social groups possessing more constructive and productive worldviews and skills sets will succeed in wresting power from these unproductive groups, as has happened in many other countries.

The writer is a political economist at the University of California, Berkeley.