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Beyond the box

August 09, 2012

IT is election manifesto season, and the contenders are all hard at work. In principle those who will compete to win over voters should be trying to present workable alternatives to the incumbent regime’s policy frameworks (which almost everyone appears to agree have been an unequivocal failure).

In practice most of what is being spewed out on the airwaves is hot air; Pakistani politicians appear to be content in the knowledge that votes are won not on the basis of policy pronouncements but by sustaining existing patronage networks at the local level.

Indeed, when push comes to shove, it becomes painfully apparent that none of our mainstream parties are willing, or frankly able, to break with the by-now standard neo-liberal policy set that has become common sense across the world in the post-Cold War period.

They may have become very adept at hurling dirt at one another, but our politicians — including those that are these days bandying about terms like ‘revolution’ and ‘tsunami’ — have done nothing to demonstrate that they wish ton challenge entrenched structures and build something new.

In particular I wish to draw attention to what are called ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, which, slowly but surely, are being corporatised, dismantled and dutifully sold to the highest bidder.

Until not so long ago, it was not considered taboo to argue in favour of retaining major productive-service enterprises such as telecommunications, railways, electricity, water, gas and so on in the state sector.

In fact it was just as much common sense for the commanding heights to remain in public hands as it is now for these same commanding heights — and just about everything else — to be handed over to the all-knowing, all-encompassing private sector.

I am still an unashamed believer in the need for a ‘big’ state, inasmuch as it is only the state that can guarantee the provision of basic services and secure employment to a large part of the population.

Even in countries such as ours where the state bears little resemblance to the post-Second World War ‘welfare’ variant that came into being in western Europe, the state’s service-delivery apparatus played a not insignificant role in catering to the needs of under-serviced populations (even while its coercive apparatus lived up to the reputation of its colonial predecessor). The state was also the biggest single employer of ordinary Pakistanis.

The founding fathers of neo-liberalism, who famously made Pinochet’s Chile into their original laboratory, understood the world in black and white. The state was to be banished to the dustbin of history, at least in terms of control over society’s major economic assets.

Because neo-classical textbooks promised sugar and honey for all and sundry in the shape of perfectly competitive markets, we were told to forget the fact that the profit imperative of the private sector might not gel so well with the livelihood concerns of working people, or the need to provide services to under-serviced regions and classes.

Only those who have been living on the moon since the global financial crash of four years ago still unqualifiedly sing the praises of neo-liberalism. It is now common knowledge that inequality has increased dramatically in almost all countries of the world since the disassembling of the developmental state began four decades ago. Other new and pressing crises have also been generated, including most crucially an ecological one, but that is beyond the scope of this particular column.

Unsurprisingly, we in Pakistan seem to be unaffected by the emergent critiques of neo-liberalism, capitalism even, that more and more people are taking seriously in the wake of the spectacular implosions of the much-heralded private sector. This, I submit, has as much to do with the quite despotic attitude of the so-called free media as it does with the lack of political will and vision of our politicians and the sheer ineptitude of our intelligentsia.

Take, for example, the story of Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited (PTCL). One of the only profit-making state enterprises in the country when it was privatised in 2005, almost half of PTCL’s workforce has since been let go, while its UAE-based management is least concerned with reaching out to the many under-serviced areas of the country.

Under the guise of the so-called Voluntary Separation Scheme (VSS), the PTCL management plans to retrench another 16,000 workers over the next few months. As for its economic performance, PTCL’s share price has plunged while the $2.5bn that was due to the Pakistan government under the sale agreement has still not been received in full.

But does anyone know about this privatisation ‘success story’? No. It is unheard of for even remotely negative reporting about PTCL to make the newspapers or headline bulletins in this country. Too much is at stake for media outlets who rely on PTCL advertisements for revenue. Presumably, this is the kind of freedom of information that neo-liberals celebrate.

Meanwhile, what was once the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) and the close-to-collapse Pakistan Railways are being privatised by stealth. In this case the neo-liberals have much more ammunition in their arsenal because these enterprises are not anywhere near profitable (and have not been for decades).

But surely we should take advantage of the benefit of hindsight and accept the role that the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and National Logistics Cell (NLC) have played in undermining Wapda and the Railways respectively. In both cases the private sector, rather than moving beyond the inefficiencies of the public sector, has succeeded in both destroying established public services and introducing a vibrant form of crony capitalism into the power and transport sectors.

In all of these cases critical debate in the media is conspicuous by its absence, while no attempt has been made by mainstream politicians or intellectuals to formulate alternative policy frameworks. And alternative policy frameworks there must be, because the state — preferably of the non-colonial, non-coercive variety — cannot be done away with just because neo-liberals say so.

The developmental state of the 1950s and 1960s may not be revived — and indeed should not be exactly as it was — but the austerity measures and erosion of the welfare service apparatus of the state, à la what is now happening across much of Europe, are only going to cause more polarisation. We need, as ever, to think beyond the box.

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