Jan 6, 2010

The world in and after

The last year proved just how difficult it will be to bring all of Pakistan's diverse nations together to take power away from the establishment and its cronies

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

For 500 years capitalism has created enclave after enclave of gore and suffering. Yet the powers-that-be have always depicted it as the epitome of everything good about human civilisation. In the 20th century this dominant discourse was challenged, ultimately unsuccessfully, by the experiments of socialist regimes in Eastern Europe. With the end of the Cold War the ideologues of imperialism congratulated one another, announcing that there is no alternative to capitalism and liberal democracy. By the end of the last decade it was clear that the mutual back-slapping was premature, but it took 10 years for the bubble to finally burst. And now capitalism faces its biggest crisis of legitimacy since the Great Depression.

That capitalism is prone to crisis is a well-established fact. But the corporate media, educational establishment and culture industry have ensured, till now, that common people remain in the dark intensifying internal contradictions of the system. Now even Barack Obama with his considerable oratory skills is unable to deny that something is wrong. Yet if 2009 was the year in which it became clear just how shaky the house of cards really is, then it was also the year in which desperate attempts to maintain capitalist hegemony were initiated.

The problem, as ever, is that most people around the world are so stultified by the system that they find it difficult to imagine that there is an alternative. We need not look further than our own society to get a sense of just how acute the problem is. The year 2009 was a traumatic year for Pakistan, or at the very least for the innocents who were caught in the crossfire of a new Great Game that is unfolding in the region. For 40 years a complex political economy of war has developed in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the direct intervention of American forces has triggered a terrifying cycle of violence which has little do with ideology and much more to do with deeply vested material interests. Amidst the carnage the already weary people of this country have either become completely convinced of the futility of resistance or have become cannon fodder for the various exclusivist (violent) ideologies that run parallel to imperialist war.

If the expansion of imperialist war is the most obvious face of a system in terminal decline, then the structural violence of neo-liberalism is perhaps more insidious. Pakistan is locked in a downward spiral of debt and exploitation, and in the last year the situation has gone from bad to worse. The exponential increases in prices of basic commodities is just the tip of the iceberg; much more damaging in the long-run is the ruthless exploitation of our already depleted natural resource base and the fast growing pool of under and unemployed labour. Unfortunately, neither mainstream parties nor the intelligentsia appear equipped to understand the scale and nature of the situation, let alone develop an alternative vision.

As it turns out, this lack of vision is at least partially a function of the deepening contradiction between the political and administrative arms of the state. This longstanding tension has coloured our entire 62 years, and it appears that little has changed. The elected government remains convinced that conspiracies are underfoot to undermine it while the military establishment appears unwilling to relinquish any meaningful power. Needless to say, imperialist interventions in this messy internal conflict only exacerbates the underlying structural problem and thereby further marginalising people's power, which is the only genuine force that can guarantee a lasting social contract.

Towards the end of the year many pundits were arguing that the ruling party had played the 'Sindh card' in response to the perceived threats to democracy. Whether it did or not, the point is that the identity crisis of the state remains as acute as ever. It was hoped that the end of dictatorship would mark the beginning of a process of healing but Balochistan continues to burn while the Pakhtun nation is increasingly suspicious about the manner in which it is bearing the brunt of the so-called 'war on terror'. In short, 2009 proved just how difficult it will be to bring all of Pakistan's diverse nations together to take power away from the establishment and its cronies.

In the light of all of these unfolding problems, some observers have been harping on about the existential threat to Pakistan. But this is an old and tired theme. Pakistan will not just collapse. As I mentioned at the outset, the entire world system as we know it is facing a crisis and rather than invoking Armageddon scenarios, serious thinkers and doers must think of the current conjuncture as an opportunity to evolve fresh ideas about a new social order.

This is not just a question of invoking socialism or some other name. In fact, it is about understanding the current trajectory of the human race and recognising that we collectively face very serious challenges in the decades to come. The failure of climate change talks in Copenhagen makes clear that the powers-that-be are not interested in owning up to the problem, because they are implicated so deeply in creating it. But as I suggested earlier, capitalist hegemony survives because ordinary men and women are co-opted into reproducing an exploitative and unsustainable social order. Thus, we collectively must answer the following questions if we want to move beyond the doom and gloom that characterised 2009.

First, is it true, as Margaret Thatcher once infamously noted that there is no such thing as society? In other words, are we not part of collectivity and do we not have collective obligations? Capitalist hegemony is precisely the deeply ingrained belief that there is no expansive collective interest, that individual or parochial group interests are the only interests worth fighting for. Pakistanis are as badly stricken by this 'disease' as any other people in the world, and it is important that we move beyond tired nationalist slogans and engage in some introspection about our collective future.

Second, is human progress measured solely by the acquisition of material things? The well-known anti-colonial thinker, Aime Cesaire, once incisively noted that modern colonialism gave rise to 'thingification', that is, human beings cease to be human beings and instead simply become 'things' (Marx had a parallel argument about commodification and alienation within the capitalist social order). If everything in our world can be sold for a price, including ourselves, then why should we be surprised that we are heading towards implosion?

Third, it is imperative to ask what it means to be human. It is after thousands of years of human struggle that led to the onset of modernity and the tremendous material and social progress that has come with it. But capitalist modernity cannot possibly be the end of the road, because this would mean that we have learnt only how to create only as much as we know how to destroy, and that is surely not the legacy of the human race that we wish to leave behind.

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