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On classification

May 03, 2013
— File Photo
— File Photo

WITH the advent of the modern state, humanity’s unerring quest for control — over the natural environment, of one class over another, of man over woman — arguably reached its climax. And not just because the state, à la Weber, enjoys a monopoly over the (legitimate) use of organised violence.

In my estimation, as important as its coercive power has been, it is the modern state’s establishment and progressive refinement of systems of classification that facilitate social and political control.

The world’s population is now over seven billion. An astoundingly large amount of personal information about an overwhelming majority of this enormous number of people circulates across computer screens throughout the world, available to state personnel who are charged with the task of enforcing the law.

All of us fit into any number of categories at any one time: I am male; a citizen of Pakistan; speak a certain language (or two); hail from a particular religious group, and so on and so forth. The state — or the personnel that act on its behalf — more often than not maps my propensity for either good or bad behaviour on the basis of the categories into which I have been cast.

An examination of history reveals that this method of mapping a population for the purposes of controlling it was arguably perfected in the colonies. India in particular was a major laboratory in this regard. The British conducted many social engineering experiments in the subcontinent, all of which relied on their knowledge of the subjects over whom they ruled. The tautology was that the British themselves produced this knowledge for the purposes of perpetuating their rule.

For example, the colonial state came up with the classification ‘martial caste’, quite arbitrarily determined those who fit into this category, and then proceeded to decree that this select group was predisposed to occupations such as military service. Other prominent categories included ‘agricultural’ castes and ‘criminal’ tribes.

It is debatable whether we have moved on from the crudity of colonial categories but it is certainly true that we have further perfected the politics of classification on a large scale. And it is not just the state that favours the use of categories to serve its purpose. There is now massive institutional and financial investment in the polling industry. The preferences of society are conveniently summarised in the form of polls, and human complexity reduced to easily understood categories.

Even mainstream political parties are statist in this sense. Take for example the current pitch that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) is making vis-à-vis ‘youth’. Now I am all for the idea that we should reach out to the very large constituency of young people in this country, but the manner in which the ‘youth’ factor is being discussed at present is nothing short of ludicrous.

It is as if 100 million or so people who speak a host of languages, hail from different classes, and have often diametrically opposed worldviews are suddenly going to coalesce around a single political party because someone has decided to clump them all together under the category of ‘youth’.

I am not suggesting that we should critique any political force that seeks to mobilise a particular social constituency by name. The left, for instance, has distinguished itself throughout the modern period precisely because it has claimed to speak in the name of a particular ‘class’. The right, conversely, often sees the world in terms of distinct ‘cultures’ or ‘religions’.

All of these interpretative lenses are inevitably reductive, but this is not a problem per se. The problem arises when history is rewritten, or alternatively when society is mapped in a particular way for the purposes of social control. The modern state does this as a general rule. Political parties that gloss over complexity and difference so as to achieve a parochial agenda are but microcosms of the state.

Those who have historically called for oppressed classes and nations to unite do not pretend that differences do not exist within particular classes or across nations. Whereas reactionaries who wish to secure state power and use it to perpetuate the status quo go out of their way to have us see the world in terms of categories that somehow do not overlap with the ‘other’ that is being vilified.

The most obvious and absurd notion of this kind in the present context is that Pakistan is somehow divided between those who are ‘corrupt’ and those who are ‘incorruptible’. All that needs to happen is for the ‘corrupt’ to be banished and for the ‘incorruptible’ to take the reins of state power, and then there will be bliss.

Needless to say I do not share the optimism that there is a critical mass of ‘incorruptible’ Pakistanis who have come together and will lead us all towards salvation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, as elections draw nearer, the truly patriotic contenders for power are invoking more and more imagery of ‘true Muslimhood’ to supplement the ‘incorruptible’ theme.

The men in khaki have also chosen to speak to remind the common hordes that we are all Muslims, Pakistan is the homeland of Muslims, and the army is the defender of this holy homeland.

It is thus that the reality of the statist systems of classification to which we are all subject come into contradiction with the illusion of unity that the state itself projects ad nauseam. It makes one wonder whether those who talk of mobilising grand categories like the ‘youth’ have actually bothered to think about how incredibly confused and divided young people actually are in practice.

But then again, reactionaries do not think much about their immediate objectives. They usually make an already bad situation worse, and leave it to the very awam that they claim to represent to pick up the pieces.

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