Unsustainable trajectory

By Umair Javed
Published in DAWN on August 08, 2022

LAST week, the monthly inflation figure for July came in at over 20 per cent. This stat provides numerical proof of something that middle- and low-income households have experienced nearly non-stop for the last four years.

Wage data through a more recent round of the Labour Force Survey is not available yet, but it is safe to assume that people’s incomes are unlikely to have kept pace with this inflationary pressure.

Forecasts for the next few years look fairly grim. The general sentiment among macroeconomic analysts is that countries like Pakistan will struggle to stave off the pressure imposed by a stronger dollar. The irregularities of the domestic economy – rent-seeking sectors, unstable agricultural markets and meagre exports — will extract their own toll. Households feeling a severe financial crunch today will continue to feel it over the next few years.

None of this is unfamiliar in the Pakistani context. Short boom periods followed by elongated busts and painful adjustments are the norm over the last three decades. The only change is that the booms appear to be getting shorter and the busts ever sharper and frequent.

In such a context, where inflation erodes people’s incomes; where planning for the future becomes impossible; where people are forced to make abject trade-offs between school fees and groceries, surely something has to give. How can the political landscape not give way to massive societal pressure?

And yet, for a country experiencing stagnant growth and lacklustre human development over the last few decades, public reaction does not take the kind of outrage that we’ve witnessed recently in Sri Lanka or other struggling economies in the recent past.

None of this is to say that such displays of anger are necessarily positive or even desirable in the larger scheme of things. Just that Pakistan appears to see far less political assertion by those who largely bear the brunt of a struggling economy.

The booms appear to be getting shorter and the busts ever sharper and frequent.

This question of ‘relative acquiescence’ and a ‘resignation towards circumstances’ among the masses has been dealt with in two books authored by political economist and activist Aasim Sajjad Akhtar. The first book, The Politics of Common Sense, published in 2018, argued that since the 1970s, patronage politics and the transactional crumbs handed out by local elites are enough to keep the masses in check.

The occasional development project for a neighbourhood or a village, the employment handout, the preferential contract, the mediated negotiation with state officials in the judicial and policing system – these are recurring examples of how Pakistan’s political system manages local pressure. Where necessary, the Pakistani state uses religion to demand acquiescence or applies brute force, as we’ve seen frequently against protesting workers and others who demand rights for their own communities, mostly in the geographic peripheries.

In a recently published second, and arguably more provocative book, titled The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar tackles this question by focusing on the realm of ideas and culture. What has been sold to the Pakistani masses that allows the current state of affairs to continue in the way that it does?

The common answer to this is religion and religiously inspired nationalism, but the truth is that there has never been an easy acceptance of what the state propagates. It has always been contested by local practices, other orthodoxies, and even alternative ideas of what it means to be a Pakistani.

Instead, over these last four decades fuelled by neoliberal globalisation, Pakistanis too have been hooked onto this idea of consumerism and the belief that a materially more rewarding life is possible through an increasingly commodified economy. Akhtar calls this the ‘sale of desire’ to the urban and peri-urban masses, and its biggest pillars have been the rise of private electronic media followed by the rise of social media.

It’s very easy to see how this idea of a good life based on consumption makes its way to people’s imagination. Mass marketing and advertising, specifically around lifestyle-oriented consumption has grown astronomically in the past two decades. The lynchpin of this shift has been the commodification of agricultural land through real estate schemes, which use over-the-top branding and faux imagery made to resemble global cities.

The basic message being that invest in these schemes and you too can eventually live a lifestyle like those in Dubai. The fact that most such schemes that do get built such as the DHAs of this world are well beyond the reach of most middle-income households, and the ones that are accessible mostly fail, is a crucial aspect to this story.

According to Akhtar, what complements this sale of desire is a darker side of the equation, ie the systematic and frequently violent dispossession of marginalised groups, especially in geographic peripheries.

From the war-torn northwest to ecological catastrophes along the river Indus, the experience of Pakistanis across vast geographic areas demonstrates the dark underbelly of aspiration. It shows that while a few might make it, they often do so at the expense of so many others. And in many cases, these others are marginalised groups — religious minorities, ethnic communities in the peripheries, and, of course, women and other vulnerable gender groups.

On occasion, a response emerges in the shape of resistance being mounted by marginalised groups. It takes the language of ethnic rights, or religious mobilisation, or for greater gender equality. These embryonic responses, however, have so far failed to overcome the broader structure of inequality that continues to sell dreams to some at the expense of many others.

What is becoming apparent, though, is that this model is increasingly unsustainable — both in terms of people actually buying into it when inflation wipes away basic subsistence, let alone any dreams of the future; and politically — with the occasional crumbs and the frequent coercion being sufficient to keep them in line.

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