Jul 27, 2009

Not a new story

The only way to reclaim even some economic sovereignty is to break ranks with the international financial institutions (IFIs) entirely
By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The spontaneous protests that have erupted all over the country against unannounced and extended loadshedding hours and increases in petroleum and utility prices simply underline what we already know -- that the state continues to unravel. While the Pakistani state is not about to fail in the way many western observers insisted it would 6 months ago when the 'war on terror' hype was at its peak, it nonetheless is increasingly unable to play the role of the basic provider of services.
Those who study third world societies such as ours note that the 'formal' state has always struggled to fulfil its basic mandate, and that it is state functionaries acting in an 'informal' capacity that keep things going. Be that as it may, it is difficult to deny that the entire political-economic structure, formal or informal, is now creaking at the seams.
It will not collapse however, because there is no political force capable of forcing a rupture. Instead it will continue to trundle along, squeezing the life out of working people who desire only to eke out a living, and rewarding those who (already) have access to the echelons of power. This domestic dispensation will reinforce and be maintained by the international political-economic order, or what is otherwise known as global capitalism. The oligarchs of capital, in turn, remain rulers of the world.
The recent protests were triggered by Asif Zardari issuing a presidential ordinance a couple of weeks ago notifying an increase in petroleum prices. Immediately prior to this, the Chief Justice had stayed an executive decision made by the prime minister to impose a carbon tax on petroleum products. In the end the government managed to increase petroleum prices, but in the process severely undermined its own popularity.
Much has been made, this being the first of many impending stand-offs between the president and the Chief Justice. It is indeed possible that a conflict is in the making (or has been since well before the Chief Justice was restored in March). This is not my concern in this essay however. I wish to draw attention to the reasons behind the government's insistence on increasing petroleum prices in the face of so much public disaffection.
In short, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)'s continued financial support is contingent on the government raising more revenue. As there is no chance that the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) alienates the rich and powerful by levying a direct income tax (even if it wanted to chances are that the administrative apparatus of the state neither has the capacity nor the will to collect such a tax), the only way to meet the IMF's demands is to indirectly tax the people.
This is not a new story. It is now more than two decades old. Without a meaningful rupture in the economic structure of society, and a similar rupture in the international political economy, the IMF and its sister institutions will continue to rule the roost and our elected rulers will continue to take steps just as unpopular as the dictators that they replace.
Needless to say this bodes very badly for democracy, because it makes it easier for the healthy number of pro-military 'experts' around to claim that democracy does not deliver and that on many accounts, benevolent dictatorship is a better option. In the heat of summer, with the 'war on terror' in full swing, monsoon rains down 30% and loadshedding at historic levels, many dubious segments of the media play along with the 'democracy has already failed' narrative.
It is difficult to defend those who have been brought to power through the people's vote if their only concern is self-preservation (although one can sympathise to some extent, after all, the establishment always does its best to discredit elected regimes). I wrote on these pages a few weeks ago about the plight of a dozen or so workers of a textile mill in Faisalabad who were fired for trying to form a union. Little support was forthcoming from the PPP and the PML-N. Democracy must be made to work for the people, regardless of the history of conspiracies that we have suffered as a nation. It is a hard task, but those who have been brought to power by the people must stick their necks out and make hard decisions.
I believe the only way to reclaim even some economic sovereignty is to break ranks with the international financial institutions (IFIs) entirely. However, Asif Zardari is no Hugo Chavez. Therefore I offer the next best option: to tell ordinary people some truth about what is actually going on. Given how regularly our leaders address us on live television and radio, why can there not be a broadcast about the economic situation and who is pushing the price hikes? Of course it does not help if large numbers of our representatives are engaged in shady activities (although never more shady than the men in khaki), which severely undermines the credibility of the elected regime. But I imagine a straight and honest speech or two would make at least some ordinary people feel like democracy is in fact quite different from dictatorship.
I have written before that in the absence of meaningful policy space, elected leaders need to take symbolic initiatives, which garner them, some public backing. As the majority of us suffer through the sweltering heat without generators and UPSses, so should those who are in the public spotlight and ostensibly making decisions that are causing the grief. This will not engender revolution, but it will reduce the distance between people and those who claim to represent them.
Finally, a message for PPP jialas who consider every protest during the tenure of a sitting PPP government a conspiracy to unseat the elected regime. It is true that the fundamental contradiction in Pakistani politics is between the establishment and political forces. But it is also true that there are numerous other contradictions that are no less important and cannot simply be pushed to the wayside. Class struggle is ubiquitous in Pakistan, as it is in all societies, and if any elected government chooses not to take meaningful steps to lessen exploitation -- because in the absence of a movement for structural change, eliminating exploitation is out of the question -- then it should not except that there will be no dissent. Any democratic government worth its name must be held accountable. One of the biggest impediments to building a democratic alternative in Pakistan is the belief that only the PPP is genuinely anti-establishment and anyone else talking about change is somehow complicit with the establishment.
The spontaneous protests against price hikes and loadshedding are neither sufficient to bring about fundamental change nor part of any conspiracy by the forces of dictatorship. They are simply expressions of frustration on the part of working people who are struggling to get by. If it cannot end the miseries of working people, the elected government should take them into confidence about its compulsions. This is the least it can do.

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