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The economy unto itself

July 05, 2012


ONE of the most defining features of the present historical period is the discursive separation of the economic from the political, cultural and so on.

Those of us who are socialised through the modern educational institution and via the mass media are increasingly inclined to believe that the social world can be broken up into discrete parts, and that these parts operate independently of one another.

In practice human society is a complex whole and it is impossible to actually separate the economy from the polity or cultural life or any other aspect of the social order.

The conception of the ‘economy’, or the ‘political system’ and the like is itself a very recent phenomenon: it was not until the 18th century that the distinction between arts and sciences, for example, was sanctified within the modern academy.

What we know today as economic science is notorious for its deliberate ignorance of the political, cultural and historical dimensions of human life.

The classical and neo-classical traditions of economics that dominated from the early modern era through to the Second World War did — begrudgingly — recognise that the economy was embedded within a wider social reality.

Not until a set of economists associated with the University of Chicago concocted a set of doctrines that are today known as ‘neo-liberalism’ in the 1970s was economics completely separated from politics (and just about everything else).

This conception is an extremely powerful one, and has literally taken the world by storm since the 1980s. The mythic prime minister of the United Kingdom throughout that decade, Margaret Thatcher, set the tone for what was to come in her declaration that “there is no such thing as society, there are only individuals”.

Thatcher and contemporaries like American president Ronald Reagan not only spearheaded the restructuring of the global political economy but also launched an unprecedented ideological war against everything from trade unionism to non-corporate media and the critical arts.

It is now old news that Pakistan jumped on the bandwagon in the form of the epic war against the ‘Evil Empire’ that was played out in the killing fields of our hapless neighbour Afghanistan (even while that war eventually spread onto our own territory).

Much polemic has done the rounds over the past few years on what was then known as an epic struggle of freedom fighters and what has now transmogrified into ‘religious extremism’.

It is a measure of just how limiting neoliberalism is that there is almost no emphasis within the intellectual and political mainstream on the relationship of the political and cultural dimensions of ‘jihad’ to its economic aspects.

A small example will suffice: Pakhtun society over the past four decades or so has been radicalised to no end, but it has also been awash with cash, guns, drugs and a host of other goods and services that can be linked to the ongoing war that has been played out in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (and, over time, a host of other countries as well).

A large number of ordinary Pakhtuns derive their livelihoods from the diverse (and highly underspecified) economic activities associated with both ‘terrorism’ and ‘counterterrorism’.

How can one possibly make sense of what has happened in Pakhtun society over the past few decades, and may happen in the future, without recognising the inextricable linkages between the economic, political and cultural facets of ‘jihad’?

More generally, as I noted on these pages on the subject of the budget some weeks ago, mainstream economics and economists in this country appear to be unconcerned with a host of economic activities — which are simultaneously political and cultural — that do not fall within the ambit of economic theory as we encounter it in textbooks, news bulletins and political speeches.

In our daily lives too we tend to compartmentalise things in a manner that would make Maggie Thatcher proud.

As we become increasingly hostage to the imperatives of the market, the choices we make increasingly come to be viewed through the prism of ‘cost and benefit’. Crucially costs and benefits are determined by each one of us separately from one another, and in fact we learn to selfishly compete for the benefits and try and be selfless about distributing the costs.

The intensely polarised debate that has been generated by the strike of young doctors in public hospitals in Punjab can also be understood in this light.

The young doctors resent the old doctors and the government for making them work for what they believe to be too little, the enlightened users of social media criticise the young doctors for being insensitive to the plight of the proverbial masses, whereas the Punjab government and the media are concerned largely with rehabilitating their respective images which have taken a battering in recent times.

Nowhere in this ‘debate’ do questions of ‘economic’ rights, ‘social’ responsibilities and ‘political’ accountability come together coherently nor have the majority of those voicing their opinions tried to shed light on the broader historical structures — economic, political and cultural — that that have given rise to the current mess (not to mention the fact that young doctors outside of Punjab are conspicuously silent).

In short, even on daily issues on which progressives should coalesce around clear political and economic principles (workers have the right to agitate for better pay and conditions; the state should provide universal healthcare, etc.), the influence of neoliberal thought weighs heavily.

Perhaps ironically it is in our ‘backward’ rural areas that neoliberal ideology appears to have the least reach. The understanding of the universe that prevails in the prototypical village — and particularly amongst the most oppressed — is that of a totality in which politics, economics and culture are inseparable.

The realities of power structures of all kinds — extremely harsh they may be — are undisguised and openly identified. That these structures are rarely challenged speaks both to their resilience and the absence of countervailing political forces, not the lack of consciousness of the most oppressed.

It is where the ideological apparatuses of state and capital are most developed that the economy appears as an entity unto itself, disembedded from the rest of society, and the motor of all human progress. A meaningful and radical project of social change requires us to expose these series of myths, just

as the ‘experts’ and beneficiaries seek to universalise them.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.