Capitalism, Crises and Human Life

Picture: citymetric.com

The COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest crisis that has had a major impact on human life. Two other crises are also upon us: the crisis of growing inequality and the environmental crisis. The former places a stress on the fabric of societies and the latter threatens all life on earth. In this paper we trace the roots of all three crises in the structural features of capitalism. In the first section, the relationships between the state, the market and communities are examined in light of the current pandemic. In the second section, we analyse the phenomenon of growing economic inequalities and the inequality of power inherent in the capital labour relation. In the third section, the environmental crisis is traced to the tendencies located in the structure of the capitalist economy. Here we explore the peculiar relationship that capitalism has created between humans and commodities on the one hand and humans and nature on the other.     

State, Market and the People

COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on human life. In the capitalist world, the widespread suffering following the outbreak has cast aside the veil of ideology that the market system delivers the ‘maximum good of the maximum number’. What has been revealed is the structure of a mode of production that, left unchecked by democratic government, caters to the needs of the few at the expense of the many. While there are enough high-tech nuclear weapons in the advanced capitalist countries to destroy life, there is a shortage of simple masks, gowns and ventilators to preserve life. In the US during the lockdown, while the rich ensconced in their mansions had enough to enjoy gourmet meals served by liveried waiters, the poor had to stand in long queues for state handouts of food in little brown bags.

 Never before was the inability of the market to deliver public welfare so stark. Never before was the flaw so apparent in the view that the government has only a minimal role as facilitator to the free functioning of markets. The ideological belief that less government is good government led to under-funding of public health infrastructure. In Spain and Italy, for example, hospitals were so overloaded with patients struck by the disease that many had to lie in crowded corridors awaiting treatment. Distraught doctors desperately short of equipment, had to decide which patients to let die and which to try saving.

In the face of the mysterious virus and the lockdown, there was fear and social isolation. At the same time, ordinary people across the world came forward with acts of heroic compassion to affirm their humanity and sense of community. Doctors, nurses and health workers with inadequate personal protective equipment, fought to save the lives of patients, even as hundreds of their colleagues died of the infection. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters volunteered to buy groceries for old people confined to their homes in England or provide rations to the unemployed in Pakistan. Others mobilised charity for those in need in country after country. In India as well as in Pakistan, a wide range of NGOs, charities and other civil society organisations came into action to provide relief to those pushed into hunger by the lockdown. 

 A 99 year old war veteran in England, barely able to walk, undertook to collect a thousand pounds as a donation for the National Health Service by walking a hundred laps of his garden. There was a flood of donations from the UK and 52 other countries and he ended up collecting 37 million dollars. He had touched a nerve with his courage and compassion that brought people together into a community that cared.  

From the terrible experience of the pandemic, three lessons that strike at the foundations of contemporary economic wisdom can be drawn:

First, the market mechanism, contrary to neo-classical theory, currently the dominant paradigm in economics, does not necessarily deliver efficient outcomes in terms of the public good. Worse, in a situation of the unequal distribution of income, it allocates national resources for the production of a basket of goods that may deny an unacceptably large proportion of citizens the minimum goods and services necessary for their health and a dignified life. 

The reason for this misallocation of national resources in terms of the criterion of public welfare, is that need is expressed in the production system as demand only when it is backed by purchasing power. The underprivileged do not have the purchasing power to register an adequate vote for their needs. The lesson therefore is that the market mechanism can no more be used as an exclusive framework of resource allocation for the production of goods and services for society. 

The market is essentially an impersonal coordinating mechanism.[1] It does not work very well (by the criterion of public welfare) as a framework of resource allocation for the production of goods and services in a situation of unequal distribution of income. Left to itself, the market system over time tends to accentuate inequality (see the next section). Thus, the pursuit of public welfare requires that other coordinating mechanisms should also be used, such as the government, local community organisations and civil society.[2] 

Second, the idea derived from mainstream economics that the government has only a marginal role to play in free market-based economies has proven to be invalid. Democratic governments are supposed to aim for the welfare of society as a whole. Yet governments until now have stood by as the market system failed to cater to even the survival needs of many citizens, let alone advance the welfare of all. The pandemic has made people aware that the government, not the market, must take the lead in pursuing the aim of public welfare. The economy must work for all citizens, not just the elite. 

The third lesson of the pandemic is recognition of a fundamental flaw in the assumption of neo-classical economics– that society is atomised and consists of isolated individuals who, without regard to others, pursue their individual material interests. The expression of social responsibility in myriad acts of quiet heroism has demonstrated the simple fact that humans have an essential relatedness with each other. The ‘rationality’ of the individual, as neo-classical theory presupposes, is not just that the individual finds satisfaction exclusively in personal acquisition. Beyond pure selfishness, there are inter-personal considerations, whereby individuals get fulfilment in caring for others and sometimes sacrificing for the community.[3] The collective battle against the pandemic has shown, as so many times before in human history, the importance of society working together to overcome adversity. Therefore, the community and not just the atomised individual, must become a category of analysis in the study of the economy. The community should also become an important consideration in the formulation of economic policy. 

Economic orthodoxy holds that even though in this case the market has failed, such market failures are unusual events and the market system itself normally delivers not only welfare but continuous improvement in the lives of people. This, they argue, has been achieved over the last three hundred years since the Industrial Revolution, through the mostly continuous process of market-based economic growth and the technological change underlying it. In the ensuing analysis we will question this view by examining some of the structural features of capitalism to show how it has systematically generated two phenomena that are inimical to the wellbeing of many and indeed all life: First, the growing inequalities in income and wealth, whereby the elites live in fabulous luxury amidst the misery of millions. Second, the environmental crisis that is undermining life support systems and hence threatening life on planet earth.

Roots of Inequality

During the second half of the twentieth century, it was believed by economics orthodoxy, as indeed by most governments in the capitalist world, that initial inequalities will in time be reduced by market forces as the process of economic growth proceeds. This view was based on the work of Nobel Laureate, Simon Kuznets, who marshalled evidence from a number of countries to argue that inequality would first increase, then as economic growth proceeds, inequality will decline through the market mechanism.[4] Kuznets’ bell-shaped curve showing the relationship between growth and inequality, had a major influence on the design of growth strategies in many underdeveloped countries, especially in Pakistan. Here, it was thought that the size of the cake should first be increased before worrying about inequality. During the decade of the 1960s, the policy makers in Pakistan went a step further and actually initiated policies for a further increase in inequality as a means of maximizing economic growth. This was called the doctrine of ‘Functional Inequality’, whereby, on the assumption that only the rich save and invest, policies were undertaken to make the rich richer, so that high rates of investment, and thereby high rates of economic growth, could be achieved.[5]

Recently, in a seminal study, Thomas Piketty, showed on the basis of data from a large number of countries over a 150-year period that inequality within the market-based system, far from declining over time, has actually increased.[6]Piketty thus put the Kuznets theory to rest, calling it a ‘fairy story’. 

Inequality in the world capitalist economy today has reached a point where the very social fabric and integrity of states could be threatened. According to one estimate, one percent of the world’s population has as much wealth as the rest of the 99 percent put together.[7] While a small global elite lives in fabulous luxury, 821.6 million in the world are hungry (1 in 9 people), and 2 billion people are food insecure.[8]  At the same time, 198.4 million children suffer from malnutrition (stunting and wasting). Capitalism, after three centuries of economic growth, has created a situation where, while the rich live in unprecedented affluence, millions suffer from hunger.    

It can be argued that the tendency of growing inequality that Piketty has observed empirically is rooted in the very structure of the capitalist economy. The fundamental design feature of this structure is the unequal production relationship between the capitalist and the labourer. Bereft of the means of production, the labourer, to survive, has to sell his labour power as a commodity to the capitalist who owns the means of production. Now the unique use value of labour power as a commodity is that it can produce more value than its own. So as the capitalist buys labour power at its market price (the wage), he appropriates the difference between the value of the commodity labour power and the value it produces, that is, surplus value.[9]        

 The existence of surplus value is based on the fact that the labourer does not have the power to negotiate his wage to a point where it would equal the value he produces. The magnitude of the surplus value depends on how much greater the power of the capitalist is relative to the labourer. Over time, the capitalist is able to increase the rate of surplus value by increasing labour productivity through investment in new, more efficient machines that embody new technology. Thus, the capital-labour relationship is essentially a relationship of unequal power.

It can be argued that the increasing share of the return on capital in national income is based on this continued inequality of power in the capital-labour relation. The process of technological change that unfolds within this relationship enhances the power of capital relative to labour, unless labour wields a countervailing power through worker organisations. 

Thus, the growing income inequality apparent in Piketty’s empirical work is in reality located in inequality in the structure of the profit-driven economic growth process. This structural inequality in turn manifests the underlying dialectic of power between capital and labour. This is a dialectic that defines the period of history called capitalism.

Capitalism, the Environment and the Threat to All Life

It is now well established by scientists that in the period since the Industrial Revolution there has been a rapid degradation of the physical environment. There has been pollution of both the surface and groundwater hydrologic systems due to the deposition of industrial waste; increasing infertility of soils due to over use in agriculture production and associated loss of humus in the topsoil. The application of toxic chemical pesticides accentuates soil infertility; and finally, air pollution in urban centres poses a threat to human health. These forms of environmental degradation in themselves have major adverse effects on human life. But what is a matter of the greatest concern to the world community in this context, is the climate crisis, induced by global warming. This has been caused by greenhouse gas emissions of historically unprecedented magnitude.

The landmark Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, led by Mrs. Brundtland in 1986[10], first showed that the physical environment was being damaged due to its unsustainable use by human societies. Later in 2007, the Nobel Prize-winning UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change published its Fourth Assessment Report, presenting irrefutable evidence to establish two propositions: 

First, global warming has indeed occurred, as “The atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have increased to levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years…”[11]  Second, this climatic change was not part of some natural cycle, but was the direct result of human intervention into the physical environment by the levels and forms of production, consumption and waste disposal.

The IPCC Report predicted that global warming would increase the intensity and frequency of extreme climatic events, including more frequent and more devastating floods, droughts and hurricanes. At the same time, mass migrations following climate-related loss of livelihoods, water scarcity and food shortages could result in great human misery and major social disruptions. The changed vectors of diseases following shifts in temperature zones were also predicted to cause significant damage to human health.   

Despite a number of international agreements such as in the Kyoto and Copenhagen climate summits, no serious action was taken to implement commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This was largely due to the concern that creating disincentives to the use of fossil fuel-based technologies may reduce investment and thereby economic growth. Furthermore, the shift to green technologies would involve writing off the investments made in the existing machine stock.[12] Even where the green technology was cheaper than the fossil fuel-based technology the cost of shifting in some cases still make it economically infeasible, allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise rapidly. 

As global warming accelerated, a major summit was held in Paris in December 2015. At this summit, leading scientists stressed to the assembled world leaders that if present trends in emissions remained unchecked, the average global temperatures could increase beyond 2 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. If this happens there could be a catastrophic destabilisation of the life support system of the planet threatening all life on earth. These grim prospects brought a sense of urgency and the leaders resolved to reduce greenhouse gas emissions such that the average global temperature increase by the end of this century would be kept below 1.5 degrees centigrade. 

To achieve the goal of keeping below this ceiling of temperature increase by the end of this century and avoid a climate catastrophe, it was calculated as necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, and this became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development goals (SDGs). What has actually happened since then? If the zero-emission goal by 2050 is to be achieved, there would have to be an average annual reduction of carbon emissions by 3 percent. In actual fact emissions have been steadily rising by 5.3 percent. 

Clearly, the world has moved in the opposite direction to what is required to save life on earth. The question is why? China as well as a number of social democratic countries in Europe have taken significant steps to shift to green technologies, though, even in their case meeting the UN SDGs zero-emission by 2050 target, remains uncertain. The gap between targets and performance so far is much greater in the case of most capitalist countries. In the case of the current US leadership, they are in denial of the fact of global warming and have actually revoked the US commitments made at the 2015 Paris summit.

 It can be argued that such is the desire for more commodities and such is the power of big Capital that any public policy that would threaten the growth of profits and consumption faces strong political constraints. The tendency for a continuous increase in production and consumption we will argue is located in the structure of the capitalist mode of production and the psyche it has fashioned in the process of its expansion.

There are three tendencies that are rooted in the structure of the Capitalist System:

First, the individual firm is placed in a competitive environment, where the imperative of survival is to continuously reinvest a large part of its net profit for expansion of output and further profit. 

Second, in the process of reinvestment, the firm introduces technological change embodied in new machines, with a view to increase labour productivity and thereby the rate of surplus value. This further accelerates the process of growth of output and profits.

The third structural feature is that, as the volume and range of goods expands, a sales effort has to be undertaken to ensure that the goods produced are actually sold. The design of the advertisement sends a subliminal message that influences the psyche of individuals to create a desire for the commodity.[13] At the aggregate level this has created a consumerist culture. Thus, as Marx presciently observed, “The Capitalist system not only produces goods that satisfy needs, but also the needs these goods satisfy.”

Over two centuries of this systematic sales effort, a cultural and individual psyche has been fashioned, whereby the individual is driven by the insatiable desire to buy more and more. A new relationship peculiar to the historical epoch of capitalism has been created between the individual and commodities. Qualities of power, attractiveness, sexuality that are organic to human beings are transposed into commodities. They are then represented not so much in terms of their functional attributes, but are re-presented as embodiments of qualities we originally experienced as our own. A luxury car is not simply a vehicle that takes one from A to B, but is the embodiment of sexual attractiveness, success and status. Thus, in buying commodities the individual essentially is attempting to re-possess himself. These three tendencies underlie the continuous increase in the volume and range of products in capitalist society.

It is the structural imperatives of capital that have fashioned a culture where commodities have a psychic power over individuals. It is such a psyche and the associated political forces that constrain a shift to forms of social life where commodities would be considered ‘merely useful’, as Aristotle observed[14], or ‘mere dust’, as the Sufis suggest.[15] How distant has the world become from nurturing our sense of beauty, truth, and loving kindness towards all creatures as a measure of well-being.

Just as in the case of commodities, a new relationship has been established between humans and nature to suit the needs of capital accumulation. These relationships are divorced from the perennial intellectual tradition of both East and West. Under capitalism, nature has been seen in fragmented terms, as a set of natural resources to be exploited as inputs into the production of commodities. By contrast, in the perennial tradition, nature was seen as a sacred wholeness. It provided through the unity of the ecosystem the material conditions for sustaining our physical life. At the same time, through its harmony, the environment nurtures our sense of beauty and thereby evokes the transcendent.[16] Thus, nature enables humans to live in both the ephemeral and the eternal.   

Given the perception in this epoch of nature as a set of fragmented natural resources, it is not surprising that water systems have been polluted, soils rendered toxic, forests depleted and greenhouse gases built up to a point where global warming is occurring. Few were concerned with this spoliation of nature for three centuries of industrial growth. Even now, when the evidence has become clear that environmental degradation poses a threat to all life, very few countries have acted to meet the agreed goals of emission reduction.

Conclusions

In this paper we have analysed the structural basis of the three major crises confronting human society: the pandemic, the crisis of inequality and the environmental crisis. 

The current health crisis has been examined in terms of the contradictions of capitalism that this crisis has revealed. Three lessons can be drawn from this analysis. First, the market mechanism can no more be used as an exclusive framework of resource allocation for the production of goods. Second, contrary to the prescription of mainstream economics, the market mechanism on its own cannot deliver public welfare. The government has a key role to play in achieving this aim and hence setting the priorities of what is to be produced, how much and for whom. Third, contrary to the dominant economic theory, the functioning of society involves social relationships. Therefore, the community and not just the atomised individual should become a unit of analysis and an important consideration in the design of public policy.

The growing inequalities in capitalist society are traced to the capital-labour relation and the unequal power underlying this relation. The dynamics of the appropriation of surplus value, its continuous reinvestment and associated technological change in the process of capital accumulation, are manifested in growing inequality.

Finally, we have analysed the emergence of the environmental crisis and the failure so far to reduce carbon emissions in terms of the tendency for the continuous increase in the volume and range of commodities that is located in the structure of the capitalist mode of production. In the effort to sell products firms engage in systematic advertisement campaigns that in the aggregate have created a consumerist culture. A particular psyche has been fashioned through this process whereby the individual is driven by an insatiable desire to buy more and more. 

 Given the imperatives to expand production and the single-minded pursuit to increase consumption, nature is seen in fragmented terms as a set of natural resources to be exploited as inputs into the process of production and consumption. 

We conclude by suggesting that such is the power of capital and the consumers’ impulse for increased consumption that any constraint to the expansion of both would be resisted.[17] At the same time, the current struggle by human communities for environmental protection and providing succour to the hungry and the sick provide grounds for hope. The structural basis of each of the three crises faced by humankind suggests that there is a basic conflict of economic interest between the global power elite and the people.

A concomitant of this contradiction is the culture shaped by the imperatives of capital accumulation. This culture is characterised by the fetishism of commodities, the atomisation of society into individuals pitted against each other and the perception of nature as a set of natural of resources to be exploited for commodity production.

An essential feature of the political struggle to confront the interests of the elite with the interests of the people is to build a counter-culture to the culture of capitalism. Such a culture would engender a new relationship between humans, commodities and nature. A culture of relatedness with others within a human community; where commodities are seen as being merely useful and not the embodiment of power; and where nature is experienced as beauty within a sacred wholeness. Such a consciousness can become a material force in the struggle for human liberation to enhance life.

Akmal Hussain, Distinguished Professor, is a development economist and Founding Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Information Technology University, Lahore. akmal.hussain@itu.edu.pk


End Notes

[1] Robert Neild, “Economics in Disgrace: the Need for a Reformation”, Discussion Paper, 01-13, Graduate Institute of Development Studies, Lahore School of Economics, 2013.

[2] Ali Jan and Fahd Ali, “Beyond the Market: Polanyian Reflections on Economics in the Time of COVID-19”, (ITU Webinar Talk, May 9, 2020).

[3] Akmal Hussain, “Capitalism Consciousness and Development,” Economic Theory and Policy Amidst Global Discontent, eds. Ananya Ghosh Dastidar, Rajeev Malhotra and Vivek Suneja (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

[4] Simon Kuznets, “Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” The American Economic Review, 45, no. 1 (1955): 1-28.

[5] Akmal Hussain, “Institutions, Economic Structure and Poverty in Pakistan”, South Asia Economic Journal, 5, no. 1, (January-June 2004). 

[6] Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

[7] Winnie Byanyima, “Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016”, Oxfam, January 19, 2015.  https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressreleases/richest1willownmoreallrest2016

[8] Food and Agriculture Organizaton, “World hunger is still not going down after three years and obesity is still growing.” United Nations, July 15, 2019. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1200484/icode/

[9] Karl Marx, Capital, Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production, Volume I, ed. Frederick Engels (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1954), 204-20.

[10] Gro Harlem Brundtland, “Our Common Future”, UN World Commission on Environment and Development, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[11] Climate Change, The Physical Science Basis, Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, 2007, 2

[12] For a detailed discussion of the economic constraints to green technology adoption, see: Akmal Hussain, “Capitalism, Consciousness and Development”, Chapter 3, pages 48-49, in Ananya Ghosh Dastidar et. al. (eds), Economic Theory and Public Policy Amidst Global Discontent, (Oxford: Routledge, 2018).

[13] Akmal Hussain, “Commodities and the Displacement of Desire”, Daily Times, November 28, 2002

[14] Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963).

[15] Shah Hussain, the 18th century Sufi Poet who said in one of his Kafis, “Lakh crore jinnaan de jurria, so bhi jhoori jhoori”, or “Even those who have accumulated large sums of money, that too is mere dust.” (Trans.), Kaafian Shah Hussain, Majlis Shah Hussain, Lahore, 1966.

[16] Akmal Hussain, The Eternal in the Ephemeral, (Lahore: Topical Printers, 2014). See particularly the seminal works on this subject: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Man and Nature, (Chicago: Kazi Publications Inc., 2007) and Man and the Order of Nature, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). 

[17] I am grateful to Dr. Zafar Shaheed as well as the editors for helpful comments that led me to elaborate this conclusion. However, any errors of omission or commission are the responsibility of the author alone.


Labour Relief Campaign

Rations distributed among 2500 families in Nine Cities

The Labour Relief Campaign, initiated by Pakistan’s Left and Progressive movements, has entered its second month. The effort was initiated with the objective to provide monthly rations to working class families affected by the coronavirus-induced lockdown. Door to door rations have been provided to more than 1800 families in nine cities across Punjab, including Lahore, Faisalabad, Okara, Sheikupura, Toba Tek Singh, Pakpattan, Gujranwala, Quetta and Qila Saifullah.

Political workers, trade unionists and students from different social and political movements are volunteering with the Labour Relief Campaign. The funds are generated through sympathizers and active supporters of the collective Left project in Pakistan. This campaign’s initial objective was to provide relief packages to 500 working families, but with the support and help pouring in from home and abroad, its scope and reach was extended. The selection of recipient families for rations are carried out by worker unions in each city, and rations are then prepared and delivered by volunteers. As the lockdown has affected many working families, this campaign aims to extend its reach farther.

The origins of the Labour Relief Campaign begin in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake of October 2005 in Pakistan. Our political workers prepared relief trucks loaded with rations and necessary equipment and sent them to the areas affected by the earthquake. Relief camps were also set up for the earthquake victims. Similarly, the relief campaign continued during the devastating floods of 2010 and 2012 in Pakistan. The campaign does not have a permanent secretariat or any salaried employees. All arrangements are carried out voluntarily with the support and help of progressive social and political movements.

This year, the campaign was re-launched by Haqooq-e-Khalq Movement, with the help of Progressive Students Collective, Progressive Academics Collective, Labour Education Foundation, Folio Books, Aurat March, Progressive Labor Foundation and Pakistan Kissan Rabta Committee.

You can extend your solidarity in the form of a much-appreciated contribution to Labour Relief Campaign. Young, healthy volunteers are also encouraged to help source and distribute the rations to the laid-off workers and their families, while wearing protective gear.

For international donations:

Account Title: Labour Education Foundation
Bank Name: Silk Bank, Main Branch, Egerton Road, Lahore
Account No. 0003-2001806109
IBAN: PK26SAUD0000032001806109
SWIFT CODE: SAUDPKKAXXX

For local donations:

Account Title: Folio Books
Acc: 025902080713321
IBAN: PK26SONE0025902080713321
Bank: Soneri Bank
Title: Folio Books
Contact: +92321-4848956, +92322-4561162


A Call for Revolutionary Internationalism

Illustration: flickr.com

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonized people, what kind of revolution are you waging?

~ Ho Che Minh

For all of the outrage that many rightly feel, it is not surprising that the Pakistan state’s inherently authoritarian streak has come to the fore in the midst of the pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed the racialised and gendered logic of capital everywhere, not least of all in post-colonial states. The murder of Arif Wazir, the discovery of Sajid Hussain’s body in Sweden two months after he disappeared and the killing of two young Baloch men who had turned to militancy only a few short years after graduating from the country’s pre-eminent public sector university are not necessarily coordinated actions as part of a wider state policy devised to ‘take advantage’ of the shutdown of ‘normal life’ due to the novel coronavirus. They are just the most recent and spectacular episodes in the subcontinent’s longstanding series of colonial statecraft.

Put differently, these incidents simply remind us of what ‘normal’ looks like in Pakistan’s ethnic peripheries, pandemic or not. The fates of these young men are on the extreme pole of a spectrum of repression that awaits those who make the conscious political choice to challenge the colonial writ of the state. It is not as if the community of political dissidents in Pakistan is comprised only of Pashtun, Baloch and Sindhi youth. Nor that all Pashtun and Baloch youth are, by dint of their ethnic identity, necessarily dissidents. Even if our numbers are small and we are sadly as divided as united, the political community of what can broadly be termed ‘progressives’ in Pakistan includes many from within the Punjabi heartland of power as well.[1]

But there is little doubt that a wholly disproportionate weight of violent repression falls on the shoulders of those labeled ‘suspicious’ simply by virtue of their ethnic inheritance. The experience of discrimination is felt viscerally by Baloch, Pashtun, Sindhi and other historically oppressed ethnic-nations. This includes a host of depredations visited upon them on their own soil. The feeling of oppression is exacerbated in urban centres and/or central regions, where they go to escape the ravages of war/terrorism, or for education/employment in the hope and expectation of upward social mobility. The humiliation visited upon them as migrants is particularly galling, as confirmed by both the murder of Naquibullah Mehsud, the lightning rod for the formation of PTM, and the journey of Shah Daad and Ihsaan Baloch from the ‘civility’ of enrolling as Quaid-e-Azam University’s students to ‘pariahs’ picking up arms against the state.

I wish to qualify the above statement about repression necessarily being the fate of those who consciously choose to become political rebels. It is axiomatic that the worst wrath of the (post) colonial state is reserved for the most self-aware and conscious political workers, including those who hail from the Punjabi heartland.[2] It is, after all, in the central regions of the state that the hegemonic apparatus is most developed: it is here that the education system, mainstream media, religious establishment, etc are tasked with posing unitary state nationalism, Islam-as-cultural-genius and patriarchal normativity as unchallenged objective truths to be parroted by all loyal citizens.

It is, therefore, generally true that for the Punjabi or Urdu-speaking dissident, political awakening is not borne of personal suffering, but of a recognition that the dominant ‘objective truths’ are in fact ‘official’ histories penned by the powerful, in which ethnic peripheries in particular and the wretched of the earth more generally (both in the centre and peripheries) are rendered invisible, even expendable.

For the peripheral subject, however, politicisation is an experience borne of suffering. If one has not been directly subjected to physical or mental torture, then a close relative or acquaintance almost certainly has been.[3] One need not explicitly take up a political cause to be subjected to repression. The most obvious case is that of Baloch youth – so many have been disappeared and/or killed simply for being related to a known dissident, or even for being educated and mixing in certain circles.[4] A similar fate awaited many in Swat, Waziristan and other epicentres of military operations when family members of individuals alleged to be affiliated with the TTP were disappeared and subjected to unspeakable treatment in internment centres.[5]

It is with such examples in mind that it becomes clear what it means to ‘feel’ like  a second-class citizen, or, perhaps most accurately, a colonial subject. I wish to also reiterate, however, that not all Pashtuns, Baloch, Sindhis, Siraikis, Hazaras, and so on inhabit such lifeworlds. The very insidious nature of colonialism is reflected in Fanon’s famous words: “The colonised is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards.”[6] In the current conjuncture, the equivalent of adopting the ‘mother country’s cultural standards’ is to buy into the established rules of the game – or what I have elsewhere called, following Gramsci, the politics of ‘common sense’.[7] In short, to hail from the ethnic peripheries does not preclude affluence and ascension to positions of power within the ruling class/establishment.[8] By imbibing the logic of capital and peddling the hegemonic narrative of the Pakistani state, particularly vis-a-vis the restive peripheries and the disquieting elements who challenge the edifices of state, class, and other forms of power, the ‘colonised is elevated above his jungle status’.

Hence, there are considerable fissures within the oppressed ethnic-nations of Pakistan, in class and gendered terms especially so. The nation’s most conscious political elements who consider themselves inheritors of the anti-colonial struggle –the contemporary leaders of the national movement – do not deny these internal fissures.

For this political element, as well as for progressives outside the ethnic-nation, the deaths of Arif Wazir, Sajid Hussain, Ihsaan Baloch and Shah Daad Baloch do not constitute a shock as much as confirm what we already know about contemporary colonial statecraft and its brutalising fallouts. Such brutalisation can further limit our imagination of a progressive politics within the confines of the Pakistani state that brings together all of the ethnic-nations that inhabit it, or make even more urgent the building of precisely such a politics. And if so, it is the most conscious political element within and across ethnic-nations that can make revolutionary internationalism our political horizon.

Such a horizon is certainly not beyond our imagination. Oppressed ethnic-nations have made common cause with the Left in the Punjabi/central regions of Pakistan before. Most significantly, the National Awami Party came to power in both Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (at that time known as NWFP) following the 1970 election on a political programme vowing to transform Pakistan into a federal, democratic and socialist polity.

Left praxis throughout the modern period has conceputalised crisis as the progenitor of the new. The pandemic generates potentialities to reset political imaginaries, and ultimately, practices. Examining the imperative of rehabilitating imaginaries of a NAP-type political formation in Pakistan – and also moving beyond it in some crucial ways – is paramount, and first requires an exploration of divergent nationalist movements in Pakistan, particularly in the post-Cold War period.

The Divergent Trajectories of National Movements in Pakistan

Both the Left in Pakistan’s central regions and progressive ethnic-national movements in its peripheries have become more insular during the interregnum known as ‘neo-liberal globalisation’. There are many inter-related reasons for this, including the growing digitalisation of the political field, the tendency to emphasise a politics of recognition over a politics of redistribution[9], as well as more objective factors such as the geographical unevenness of development (both the long-established contradictions between centre and peripheries and the differential developmental trajectories of ethnic peripheries themselves).[10]

Two contemporary ethnic-national movements illuminate both the immediate past and potentialities for the future. These are the two movements most brutalised by the Pakistani state’s prosecution of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ since the turn of the century.[11] While this war was geographically centred on the Pashtun northwest of Pakistan, it was nevertheless a pretext for yet another phase of military operations against Baloch nationalists in both the traditional heartlands of the Baloch ethnic-national movement (Marri, Mengal, Bugti tribal zones) and more emergent centres of nationalism in Makkuran.[12]

The obvious differences between the contemporary Pashtun and Baloch national movements is embodied by the recent deaths/murders of Arif Wazir on the one hand, and Sajid Hussain, Ihsaan Baloch and Shah Daad Baloch on the other. The PTM’s response to Arif Wazir’s cold blooded killing was consistent with its strategic posture since its inception almost 30 months ago: to ask its supporters to remain calm, to reiterate the principle of non-violence, and to refract the burden of violence back onto the state.

Contrast this assertive and relatively unified posture of the Pashtun national movement, celebrated openly in the digital space, to the considerably more masked and fragmented response to the deaths of Sajid Hussain, as well as Ihsaan and Shah Daad. Sajid Hussain had secured political asylum in Sweden two years ago under the pretext of a threat to his life on account of his critical journalism vis-a-vis state repression in Balochistan. While his death thousands of miles away from Pakistan cannot directly be attributed to the state, it certainly reinforced the sense that Baloch who speak for the rights of their nation can face retribution wherever they may be. Meanwhile the personal trajectories of Shah Daad and Ihsaan are even more telling insofar as they reflect that even those Baloch youth seeking to become part of the Pakistani mainstream become disaffected enough to take up arms against the state, eventually losing their lives like so many before them.

While Sajid’s death was mourned to a significant extent by Baloch nationalists and progressives more generally, to lament the fates of Shah Daad and Ihsaan meant equivocation with the militant path the two young men had chosen. While the contemporary state still patronises militancy (or what can be termed cold wars) against other states while visiting terror upon dissidents within its own borders, for progressives to even pose rhetorical questions about the cause of young men like Shah Daad and Ihsaan turning away from the mainstream is to immediately be cast off as a supporter of ‘terrorism’ and ‘anti-state conspiracy’.

Such accusations are certainly nothing new in Pakistan, and reflect the deep penetration of hegemonic state narratives within the body-politic, especially in the Punjabi heartland, but, no less importantly, amongst privileged allies of the establishment in Pashtun, Baloch and other social formations.

Certainly the PTM’s otherwise overtly celebrated politics of non-violence is also relentlessly pilloried by those who uncritically peddle state nationalism, including a significant element of Pashtuns that support the PTI and decry  the PTM as ‘anti-Pakistan’. Yet the difference between the PTM’s much wider reach and the fragmentation of the Baloch national movement confirms that, for all of the slandering of the PTM that takes place alongside violence, harassment and other forms of repression, the movement has remained steadfast in its commitment to non-violence.

PTM’s most mobilised and tech-savvy constituency is that of university-going Pashtuns in urban centres like Islamabad, Karachi and Peshawar. In the shape of Shah Daad and Ihsaan, this is precisely the same demographic which, in the Baloch case, is, at least in part, still  drawn to militancy.

Of Structural and Other Violence

For any principled supporter of the national cause, and, for that matter of the wretched of the earth more generally, the most galling aspect of the Baloch condition is the fact that the national movement – and individuals like Shah Daad and Ihsaan – bears the burden of political violence. During the heyday of decolonisation, Jean-Paul Sartre, a celebrated metropolitan philosopher, announced:

If violence were only a thing of the future, if exploitation and oppression never existed on earth, perhaps displays of nonviolence might relieve the conflict. But if the entire regime, even your nonviolent thoughts, is governed by a thousand-year old oppression, your passiveness serves no other purpose but to put you on the side of the oppressors.

The Baloch national movement has suffered through the worst forms of colonial state power, compelling at least a segment of the movement to pick up arms. There is, hence, no question of issuing a blanket condemnation of Baloch militancy. So long as the state continues to brutalise Baloch youth, including women, who are increasingly active in the national movement, it must be held primarily responsible for the unending cycle of violence and hate.

While I believe that non-violence as a political horizon, as means and end, is central to revolutionary praxis in our times[13], the present discussion is limited to  the question of strategy. The PTM’s ability to garner what is by any account the biggest support base of any ethnic-national movement of recent times – both amongst Pashtuns themselves as well as non-Pashtuns – is largely due to the ideational power of non-violence, particularly when seen in light of the oppressive ‘War on Terror’ in which both purported antagonists, state and non-state ‘terrorists’, brutalised ordinary people.

There should be no doubt that the military establishment – and the state’s organic intellectuals in the media and educational institutions –constantly provoke the PTM so as to trigger violence. Indeed, the mainstream has repeatedly attempted to depict the PTM as championing violence in any case – the Khar Qamar killings being the most obvious example. But the failure of the state strategy, time and again, suggests that the a non-violent Baloch national movement, in concert with the other national movements and a principled Left in central Pakistan, could also thwart all designs to de-legitimate it.

The question of unity is essential, given the fact that the PTM has gained so much traction, in part because of the significant Pashtun component within the civil and military services, and more generally the demographic fact of Pashtuns being the second biggest ethnic group in the country. The Baloch, in comparison, comprise barely 5% of Pakistan’s total population, and have miniscule representation within the state apparatus, most notably, the army.[14]

Yet the structural violence visited upon the Baloch – in which colonial statecraft is grafted onto a complex of multinational and military capital – derives, in the final analysis, from the same fundamental logics of capital and colonial statecraft that cast a shadow over  the Pashtun, or, for that matter, Sindhi, Gilgit-Baltistani, Kashmiri, Hazara, Siraiki and other oppressed nations.[15] The Baloch are certainly subject to the most brutal and intense forms of physical violence, intimidation and harassment, but then colonial capitalism has, since its inception, always generated difference along racial/ethnic lines – not to mention gendered ones.

It is precisely through Capital’s reproduction of ‘difference’ – refracted through colonial statecraft – that we can only transcend to a universalist politics, or what here I have called revolutionary internationalism. In short, our horizon must be wider than simply resisting the politics of hate propagated by the state, which we often do by reciprocating hate.[16] To posit a forward-looking and constructive politics that prefigures both the political order and society we wish to build – federal, democratic, peaceful, egalitarian, sustainable, beyond toxic masculinity, caring and compassionate – is our primary challenge.

It is of course impossible to countenance such a political horizon without reckoning with historic oppressions that continue into our present. In our multi-national country, with a long history of colonial statecraft, the biggest burden of uncovering the truth falls upon the dominant nation. As suggested at the outset, principled progressives in the Punjabi heartland have tried to carry this burden, and continue to do so today. But in comparison to the heyday of revolutionary decolonisation, the challenge today is indubitably more difficult.

It is not just Punjabi progressives that confront difficulty in addressing the national question. The very fragility of the Pakistani nation-building project has engendered ethnic tensions over a considerable period of time in many different contexts. Perhaps most notable in this regard is Sindh, where Muhajirs were for a long time viewed by the indigenous population as usurpers, particularly with respect to Karachi. In recent times, Sindhi nationalist sentiment has also heightened in relation to Pashtun in-migration in the 2000s when military operations forced many Pashtuns to flee their historic abodes in Swat and the ex-FATA districts.[17] Meanwhile, latent tensions between Baloch and Pashtun communities in Balochistan, as well as the badly brutalised Hazaras in Quetta, rear their head from time to time. Over the past few years occasional sparks have also flown between Baloch and Siraiki nationalists in districts like DG Khan and Rajanpur.

In all of these cases, truth is necessary for reconciliation. As ever, it is the most conscious political element of each respective national movement that must lead the way in this regard. To build a meaningful political coalition of ethnic-nations and working people in as fractured and brutalised a context as Pakistan – in which so many ordinary working people from across ethnic-national divides feel compelled to simply follow the lead of status quo forces to navigate state and market – cannot start from a point of judgment in which any particular national movement – or left in central regions – lords over any other partner in the struggle. We must begin from a position of empathy and understanding, establishing a minimum agenda – and attendant strategies – to build a viable movement.

But to build a viable hegemonic coalition that can clearly articulate an anti-establishment politics in the mainstream like the NAP must be our horizon. Simply limiting ourselves to resisting the excess of colonial statecraft – or class exploitation or patriarchal oppression as the case may be – means that we are likely to continue preaching to the already converted. To build a hegemonic coalition – which means pulling over onto our side those who have hitherto bought into the ideology of colonialism – requires a long and conscious effort in which ordinary people, especially in the Punjabi heartland, willingly relinquish privilege in favour of freedom and dignity for all.[18]

We find important lessons in the extremely powerful and transformative politics symbolised by a new generation of Baloch women who have emerged to lead the national struggle. Their personal sufferings, and their ability to express them, compel their male comrades in the national movement, as well as relatively privileged feminists hailing from central regions, to recognise the multiple levels of oppression that exist in colonial conditions. Their commitment to overturning all structures of power embodies the revolutionary internationalism called for in our present conjuncture. Freedom for all nations, but also social emancipation from patriarchy and class within the proverbial nation.[19]

Such a politics – and vision – cannot be confined to the nation-state boundaries of Pakistan, or, for that matter, to any other contemporary bounded state. To quote Fanon:

[T]he building of a nation is of necessity accompanied by the discovery and encouragement of universalizing values. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this two-fold emergence is ultimately the heart of all culture.

To invoke ‘culture’ for Fanon is to speak both to the particular and the universal, both the national and international, to the celebration of difference, but the transcendence of exploitation and oppression in all their forms, especially their class, racialised and gendered forms. If Pakistani progressives build the hegemonic coalition that brings together oppressed ethnic-nations, the working class movement and feminist movements and principles, their first task will be to challenge the Pakistani state’s historic enmity towards Afghanistan and India. To challenge the global-imperialised logic of capital that COVID-19 has exposed must start with the peoples of our own regions, those who, like us, have been brutalised by colonial state apparatuses and reactionary forces.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest shock that many of us are having to come to terms with is that, after years of positioning itself as an opponent of ‘globalisation’, the Left now finds itself at a crossroads where it must take up the mantle of an open and free world.

The pandemic has certainly not thrown up a sudden shift in the political mainstream: the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) that signaled the beginning of the end for the political-economic regime known as neoliberal globalisation directly led to collapse of the so-called ‘liberal centre’ in the Euro-American heartlands of the capitalist world-system. Trump, Bolsanaro, Boris Johnson and many others who have called for a repudiation of the liberal imperialism that characterised the Clinton-Blair interregnum came to power on the basis of nationalist sloganeering, even if being far more circumspect in destabilizing the complex and globalised configuration of American, British and western capital more generally.

While most of the metropolitan Left is engaged in discussion about how western societies emaciated by decades of neoliberalism can move beyond free market orthodoxy and rehabilitate egalitarian imaginaries, there has also been some recognition that a meaningful Left politics for the present and future must put the rest of the world –particularly the world’s most populous, historically imperialised zones of South Asia and Africa – front and centre. Just as in Pakistan the uneven developmental logics of colonialism continue to haunt us – in the form of a dominant (Punjabi) nation that controls the levers of state power and is the repository of capital – so the world is also indelibly shaped by the history of European colonial rule. There is no doubt that the rise of China as a world power is both cause and consequence of shifts in the global political economy, but the world’s financial centres – which suck resources and the best educated people away from the historic colonies of Europe – remain in the western heartlands of the capitalist world-system. Meanwhile, Europe and North America still remain the major contributors to the climate crisis. A genuine revolutionary internationalism thus demands that the western Left attend to the truth of imperial past and present – and then relinquish privilege accordingly – in much the same way as it demands of the Punjabi nation to do so within the construct known as Pakistan.

In many ways, the Left everywhere was intimately connected to the struggle of national liberation movements in a bygone era. Indeed, until the 1970s, to be committed to revolutionary politics was to speak of a world free of exploitation, both within and beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. So it must be again today.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar has been closely affiliated with the ethnic national movements across Pakistan’s peripheries for almost two decades. He is a writer, teacher and political worker who represents the Awami Workers Party.


END NOTES

[1] Not to mention what Marxists would call ‘class traitors’, or men who undertake the long and humbling process of recognizing and redressing their privilege in a deeply patriarchal society. There are certainly many more sub-categories of ‘progressives’ beyond these.

[2] I have been privileged to struggle alongside many Punjabis subjected to horrific state repression, including Jamil Omar, Salman Haider and Mehr Abdul Sattar.

[3] The well-publicised facts of Ali Wazir’s family having lost 18 members to war and terrorism speak for themselves – and bear in mind that his is a relatively privileged clan within the local context.

[4] See Muhammad Hanif’s powerful recent Urdu piece on the perils of being an educated Baloch: https://www.bbc.com/urdu/pakistan-52541262

[5] Taha Siddiqui and Declan Walsh, “In Pakistan, Detainees Are Vanishing in Covert Jails”, New York Times, July 25, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/26/world/asia/detainees-vanish-in-secretive-facilities-as-pakistan-fights-taliban.html.

[6] Frantz Fanon,  Black skin, white masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 18.

[7] Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “The Politics of Common Sense”, podcast by James M. Dorsey, New Books in Middle Eastern Studies, NBN, November 29, 2018.  https://newbooksnetwork.com/aasim-sajjad-akhtar-the-politics-of-common-sense-state-society-and-culture-in-pakistan-cambridge-up-2018/.

[8] The ethnic peripheries are internally differentiated. Take, for instance, the lush and relatively well-integrated Peshawar Valley in comparison to the war-ravaged tribal districts. There are further sociological faultlines within these variegated social formations that partly explain why some take on pro-establishment and others anti-establishment political positions.

[9] Nancy Fraser, “From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a ‘post-socialist’ age”,  New Left Review 212, (July/August, 1995): 68

[10] For relatively recent comparative analyses of ethnic-nationalism in Pakistan, see Farhan Hanif Siddiqi, The politics of ethnicity in Pakistan: the Baloch, Sindhi and Mohajir ethnic movements, (London: Routledge, 2012); and Adeel Khan, Politics of identity: ethnic nationalism and the state in Pakistan, (New York: Sage, 2005).

[11] I am not suggesting that Sindhi nationalists, for instance, have not been the target of the state’s ire over the past two decades. They have, but the Baloch and Pashtun cases are arguably more demonstrative for the argument I am presenting here.

[12] An investigative report from a decade ago rightly called the state’s coercive intrusion into Balochistan ‘Pakistan’s secret dirty war’: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/mar/29/balochistan-pakistans-secret-dirty-war

[13] See the recent powerful exposition by Hurmat Ali Shah in this regard: https://www.himalmag.com/redefining-citizenship-in-pakistan-2020/

[14] Pashtuns are also better integrated economically within Pakistan compared to the Baloch.

[15] If Reko Diq, Saindak and Gwadar Port are contemporary examples of multinational capital combining with the military to expropriate the Baloch nation, Thar’s coal and Sindh’s marine resources/oil and gas are parallel examples, just as Waziristan and other Pashtun tribal regions at the epicentre of the ‘War on Terror’ are pillaged for their mineral deposits.

[16] Here I am not referring only to the strategic differences between national movements on the question of violent or non-violent means to challenge state oppression, but also to the overt conflict that takes place more and more often between ethnic-nationalists, Marxists and feminists. While productive tensions are welcome, and even necessary, the ‘competition of oppressions’ that often plays out in digital spaces is entirely counter-productive and serves only to bolster the hegemonic triad of colonial statecraft, class exploitation and patriarchal power relations.

[17] Of the banning of JQSM-Arisar, a largely peaceful political organisation that has in recent times raised the issue of Sindhi missing persons, is obvious evidence of the state’s growing intolerance towards any kind of national assertion. See https://www.bbc.com/urdu/pakistan-52628714.

[18] The example of PTM is important insofar as many young Pashtuns – including those associated with nationalist parties – were either passive or even acceded to the statist/imperialist logics of the ‘War on Terror’ until the PTM erupted into existence, thus providing an avenue for a political position for which no organisational form previously existed (or even seemed possible). This is both to note that revolutionary subjects cannot be willed into existence – the PTM, was, after all, a spontaneous uprising – and the fact that latent feelings can indeed be given concrete form if the political vision is articulated by a small yet politically conscious critical mass.  

[19] Mahrang Baloch is one such shining example. Her recent Urdu column on the suffering of Baloch women and how to deepen the national movement is essential reading: https://haalhawal.com/Story/41990

 

The Roots of Pakistan’s Food Crisis

Picture: Flickr.com

By Hashim Bin Rashid and Mohsin Abdali

Millions of Pakistanis have been pushed into hunger with the COVID-19 lockdown. The first cases of COVID-19 began to be diagnosed in Pakistan in the midst of a two-year assault on the country’s economy by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. Prime Minister Imran Khan, whose tenure had already been responsible for over a million jobs lost across the country[1], began to play the populist card: Pakistan’s poor cannot afford a lockdown.

Cheap food under attack

This was not the line that the government took when it enforced a deliberate contraction of the country’s economy immediately after taking power. Alongside bringing the real GDP down by 30 percent in a single year and handing over control of fiscal policies to the IMF’s man in Egypt, the PTI government began an assault on cheap food in the country.

Only months after taking power, in December 2018, the PTI government announced a plan to close 1,000 Utility Stores across the country.[2] In particular, it is the assault on Utility Stores that shows why the state is unable to step in to provide food to the most impoverished members of society amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. Created in the early 1970s, Utility Stores played a crucial role in maintaining cheap food supplies to the country’s growing population amidst mass rural displacement that came after the Green Revolution. Since the announcement of the closure of Utility Stores, its employees have remained locked in the battle for survival. While the Minister for Planning, Asad Umar, was announcing ways for the public to order online deliveries from Utility Stores, all Utility Stores across the country went on strike on April 24, despite the lockdown, to continue their struggle for unpaid wages and the future of cheap food for Pakistan’s poorest citizens.

In the next fiscal year the government allowed the consumer price of wheat to begin spiraling upwards,[3] culminating in the high wheat and sugar prices of January. Months of profiteering from essential commodities culminated in a surprisingly candid inquiry report by the Federal Investigation Agency, which held that key government officials were beneficiaries of the price manipulation. Amongst those named are Minister of Food Security, Khusro Bakhtiar, head of the PM’s Agricultural Emergency committee, Jehangir Tareen, and member of the ruling alliance, Moonis Elahi.[4] The named agro-industrial capitalists, who control agro-processing and storage to the detriment of wheat and sugarcane growers, were able to benefit by lobbying for a subsidy for sugar and wheat exports, while also benefiting from the resulting high domestic prices of processed sugar and wheat by creating an artificial shortage in these essential food items across the country. The report confirms that wheat prices spiked despite 21 million metric tonnes of wheat being present in storage.

Hunger and malnutrition before COVID-19

The PTI government’s dual attack on cheap food is the context in which the COVID-19 lockdown began. With the public distribution system under threat and prices of essential food items spiraling out of control, millions of unemployed workers have been left to fend for themselves. It is clear that the government’s policies were bent towards crippling the already tense balance in Pakistan’s food system.

The irony that PM Imran Khan chose to talk in his inaugural address about the malaise of malnutrition remains a serious contradiction to the government’s actual policies. Instead of targeting the structural causes of impoverishment and malnutrition, Khan announced a ‘domestic poultry’ plan. Somehow domestic poultry was supposed to step in while food prices increased by at least 20 percent in a single year.[5] The failed policy continued to deliberately misunderstand why millions continue to go hungry across the country.

The National Nutrition Survey conducted in 2018[6] shows that one in five Pakistanis faces severe hunger. The World Food Programme in 2017 estimated that 68 percent of families in Pakistan cannot afford a diet that is adequate from a nutritional point of view. This is in addition to the fact that one in five households in the country has experienced external shocks, such as floods, drought and displacement, which have severely affected their annual food intake.[7] Around two-thirds of households in the country suffer from malnutrition, with there being a sharp difference in child stunting in rural areas at around 43 percent compared to 34 percent in urban areas.

Why Pakistan’s food system does not work

Such remarkably dire numbers are not new to Pakistan. The egalitarian myth of ‘peasant agriculture’ ushered in by British colonial rule did not correspond to a rural countryside shaped by landlords, tenants, exploited small farmers and a large mass of agricultural labourers. Net increases in grain production in colonial agrarian settlements in the Indus and Peshawar valleys were offset by large landholdings, high agrarian taxes, a highly unequal rural society, and export-oriented agrarian markets. Food producers continued to go hungry amongst the lush green fields of colonial agrarian settlements.

These colonial agrarian settlements became the ground on which the national food system of Pakistan was built. The new state continued to follow the same model of agrarian expansion as new agrarian frontiers were opened up in Sindh, Balochistan and the Seraiki Wasaib in the 1960s. Many still continue to think of the development of ‘national agriculture’ in the 1950s and 60s along this model successful in solving the ongoing food shortages across the country. However, even the doubling of grain yields in the post-Green Revolution period did little for most of the country’s rural and (growing) urban, labouring poor.[8]

While small and large food producers remained reliant on agrarian markets for at least a century and a half, the post-Green Revolution period was marked by a remarkable increase in market dependency for a range of agrarian inputs, including seeds, fertilizers, machinery and pesticides. The Green Revolution set off a process of de-peasantisation through evictions and mechanisation, which led to the loss of land and base subsistence for millions across the country.[9] The result was the creation of a large surplus population, producing a crisis that was resolved through state-supported mass migration to the Gulf and incorporation, within growing urban populations, of the poor into menial jobs in Pakistan. Already food insecure populations were left even more food insecure.

COVID-19 hits the working class

The fact remains that Pakistan’s food system does not work and has only further deteriorated under the coronavirus crisis. The large surplus populations expelled from rural life found a semblance of refuge in informal sector employment. Even before the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, major textile factories began factory closures– a ripple effect of the collapse of the European market. Factories continue their practice of enforcing long-standing anti-union policies and employing labour without contracts, foreboding a wider sectoral collapse and mass unemployment. The closure of textile factories means the closure of all forms of processing, all the way down to power loom workers, cotton farmers and cotton pickers. With the cotton plantation starting in April, we should prepare for another crash in cotton cultivation as farmers expect low demand. This in turn will translate into a major decrease in on-farm labour hiring during the cotton harvest starting in the autumn.

The urban proletariat and agricultural workers are united in their deepening misery due to the collapse of the cotton-textile chain. The story is the same across all economic sectors. With many so-called formal workers being put out of work, it would not be outlandish to suggest that most of Pakistan’s 73.3 percent of the informal labour force has been left without a source of income. The situation in urban centres is desperate, and the sight of the urban working class on the streets has driven fear into the hearts of the well-to-do professional and elite classes.

Many remember the food riots of 2008 across Pakistan. The emergence of such a situation once again is not a remote possibility, with the food supply for the upper middle and elite classes in Pakistan remaining largely undisrupted while the urban poor are staring starvation in the face. Grocery stores that supply the middle and elite classes have continued to remain open, while informal food vendors on carts, which supply the urban poor, have been unable to operate freely across the country due to the mobility restrictions. Instances of food looting have also begun to rise[10] as the state continues to play virtually no role in alleviating the misery of those starving amidst the pandemic. While its security apparatus has enforced lockdowns by force[11], the Pakistani state is playing a limited role in food distribution to the most vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 hits the farmer

Agriculture has arguably been the worst hit sector in the economy, and remains the most crucial requirement for ensuring the population continues to be fed and that industries have labour to function. The agricultural sector is responsible for a significant portion of the income of over half of Pakistan’s population[12], a significant portion of industrial inputs and almost all of the country’s food supply.

Pakistan has already been in the midst of an agrarian crisis for over a decade, with the previous two governments declaring an ‘Agricultural Emergency’ in the country. Agriculture has suffered amidst a longstanding ecological crisis that goes at least as far back as the colonial agrarian settlement process. This is a crisis that has only intensified. More crucial has been the disruption of whatever limited forms of subsistence crop production existed over the last century and a half. The situation has become even more acute in the last two decades as the prices of agricultural inputs have continued to rise far beyond meagre increases in the price of crops.

This dire situation is the context in which Pakistan’s agricultural producers entered the COVID-19 lockdown. The complete shutdown of agricultural trading markets, especially those that purchase outputs from farmers, has led to significant losses for farmers. With the movement of goods suspended, crops ready for harvest, including grain, have been left to rot in the fields.[13] Not only does this translate into immediate losses for farmers, but it means that Pakistan’s traditional bumper wheat stock is no longer likely to be available. Instead, once the lockdown-enforced shortages are over, the country will have to prepare for at least another year of shortages in essential grains. More expensive-to-produce vegetables have been left to perish in the fields, which, beyond the losses to farmers, have also led to a major reduction in the diversity of food available to rural and urban populations.[14]

While the shortfall in supply of food to major markets could have been expected to increase the price of essential food items, the situation has been found to be the inverse. The collapse in demand through joblessness and the closure of all kinds of food sellers has brought the price of many food items to rock bottom. Even pre-coronavirus, small farmers across Pakistan received lower prices due to their limited ability to transport their produce from farm to market. In lockdown conditions, the entire network of agricultural trade found itself in limbo.[15] For the food traders continuing to operate, this has opened a space for further exploiting small farmers by paying them far below the price the food items will be sold for in the market. Reports continue to emerge of multinational companies buying milk from farmers at one-third of the normal purchase price, while continuing to supply milk to urban centres at the same rates as before.

Amongst food producers at risk of collapse is commercial poultry, which relies on the unsustainable mass production of chickens for the market. With spiking coronavirus cases and deaths amongst meatpackers globally, the unsafe working conditions of butchers and meatpackers is evident. Beyond unsafe working conditions, workers along these supply chains are suffering due to the crisis. In Pakistan, the lockdown brought the price of chicken in the market down from over Rs250 per kg to Rs90 per kg, while demand has continued to shrink. Reports indicate that hatcheries let chicks die and destroyed eggs with poultry farms unwilling to take in new supplies.[16] Industrial meat production continues to be particularly vulnerable to pandemics; millions of birds had to be culled in 2007 due to the spread of bird flu.[17] While industrial meat farming in Pakistan continues to suffer from the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it also remains acutely vulnerable to new pandemics.

The forced return home of millions of unemployed workers has created surplus labour in the countryside for the first time in decades. Farmers who often complain of labour shortages during harvest seasons face a unique season where labour is available, but agricultural markets are more difficult to access.[18] They have no incentive to harvest their crops with food demand collapsing. One could take the romantic view that this mass return of urban labour signifies that the so-called ‘moral economy’ of the village is the last refuge of the poor, where there will somehow be subsistence in the villages for the returning landless population. But the reality is that surplus labour in villages is unlikely to be fed if food crops are not harvested and commercial crops are not sold. While there is a theoretical possibility of some form of solidarity economy emerging, as has been seen with reports of small-scale revival of barter practices in parts of India, there are significant barriers to such practices emerging in a context where agricultural inputs and labour are increasingly monetised out of necessity. The reality is that most rural households, including small and middle peasants, are net buyers of food. This means that while cultivators have access to some non-marketised food, a range of factors such as the choice of crops, size of landholdings, amount of debt incurred, and household livestock are critical in shaping the ability of particular farmers to withstand the crisis.

A permanent ecological pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the ecological ‘pandemic’ that has been brewing in Pakistan’s agriculture since the mid-20th century. Pakistan’s agricultural system is not just vulnerable due to high market dependency; it has been suffering due to the growing ecological crisis in the mode of agrarian production in the country. There is little doubt that this has to do with the agro-industrial mode of agrarian production that has depleted soil and water tables across the country, reduced biodiversity, promoted monocultures, and spreads poison in the form of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers across the rural landscape. The Green Revolution fundamentally altered the relationship of farmers and peasants to land and livestock, where the logic of productivity supersedes the logic of sustainability. Major crops, such as cotton, continue to suffer bouts of disease and pest infestations, which have become increasingly intense since the move to BT cotton.[19]

The ecological threat to agriculture has become more severe due to external changes, such as changing weather patterns and global locust swarms. Unseasonal rains continue to severely damage wheat harvest season after season. Once again, the standing wheat crop is set to be damaged by severe off-season rains. This is to say nothing of the cycles of floods and droughts that continue to impact large parts of the country every year. The major locust attacks sweeping from southern Punjab to Sindh last year have returned once again[20] and will continue to return as decades of pesticide use destroyed entire populations of insect-eating birds and animals. Natural resistance to pests has broken down, while chemical pesticides remain limited in their ability to counter new pest and disease infestations.

A food system on the brink of collapse

The return of surplus populations to rural Pakistan is only adding more mouths to feed in a food system that has not worked for food producers, let alone the rest of the country’s population. The situation is reminiscent of Amartya Sen’s work confirming that major famines occurred in times of bulk production due to market failures. The World Food Programme recently issued apocalyptic warnings of a famine of ‘biblical proportions’. The prospects for economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 situation are already bleak in a global sense. In this context, Pakistan’s truncated economy faces particularly significant challenges following two years of the PTI-IMF austerity governance in the country.

Austerity-led economic compression will combine with the expected post-pandemic compression to create mass joblessness. The ability of major export-dependent industrial sectors to recover depends on quick demand recovery in Europe, which is unlikely to be the case as jobs shrink and wages are compressed globally once the COVID-19 lockdowns come to a close. The inability of industries to recover would have a severe impact on agriculture, where both the textile and leather sectors are crucial spaces for agrarian producers to sell their products. Moreover, there is a serious question over whether workers, even those on highly exploitative informal contracts, will be able to get back to work if industries and businesses do not reopen.

This, combined with the short-term and long-term losses suffered by both small peasant and larger capitalist producers, is already eroding whatever resilience access to cultivable land provides them. Market dependence is a poisoned chalice for small farmers in the best of times. The COVID-19 lockdowns mean crop surpluses are either stuck in the fields or being sold at severely truncated prices. The percentage of the wheat crop that ends up being harvested in Pakistan will provide us clues regarding whether the World Food Programme’s apocalyptic predictions of famine will come true. It is clear, however, that the risks are severe in a food system that has produced hunger and malnutrition across the rural-urban spectrum even when it was supposed to be working.

Is there a path out of this?

There are two tendencies of how to emerge out of this situation. Mainstream solutions propose more of the same failed approach. Such measures continue to suggest the intensification of processes that are increasing the vulnerability of food producers. Proposals include increasing market integration for farmers, promoting building of cold storage and promoting the growing of more commercial crops to serve the global agro-industrial agenda.[21] Such solutions continue to replicate the hubris by the private sector, World Trade Organisation and a motley crew of so-called ‘free trade’ supporting countries of the global North that benefit from the dumping of grains and surplus milk in the global South and importing cheap food from the South.[22]

These ideas are out of place in a time when many countries around the world are looking to ‘re-nationalise’ their food systems. It is clear that when Europe closed borders to all during the COVID-19 lockdown, it continued to protect its agriculture through the import of Eastern European agricultural labour. It is clear that the COVID-19 lockdown has exposed the disastrous state of neoliberal agro-industrial food systems. This is a food system that not only fails to protect the social, economic, and political rights of those involved in agriculture, it has failed to fulfill its core task: providing food to the world’s population.

The collapse of the globalised food system in the face of COVID-19 has forced a return of ‘food nationalism’.[23] There are important lessons to be drawn from the last era of food nationalism that came out of the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and ‘60s. The key question now, as was the key question then, is whose voices will shape the future of our food systems? In the 1960s, the heyday of peasant movements across the formerly colonised world, agronomists from the anti-communist North won the debate through the mechanisms of World Bank loans and the programmes designed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. Newly independent countries that had been looted by their colonisers were too reliant on external loans and external expertise to be able to chart a path that could break the chains of the neo-colonial networks of global trade. Green Revolutions were implemented, which for a time seemed to reward farmers with more produce and states, struggling to produce enough food for their own populations, with food surpluses. This short-term boom was swiftly followed by the collapse of the international price of primary agricultural commodities, which was and remains controlled in the global North. Food nationalism was dead, as trade deficits were filled with international debts and forced liberalisation of economies of the global South via the IMF in the 1990s.

COVID-19’s impact on food systems has raised serious questions about ‘food nationalism,’ in particular the ability of the state to deliver the end of hunger. As noted, the current crisis has been made more severe by the Pakistani government’s own assault on cheap food. Moreover, the disruptions in food supplies moving from farm-to-market and market-to-consumer have occurred within the national economic borders. Pakistan’s national food systems continue to suffer from the assault of austerity and profiteering. While the failure of the state to provide food to all within its borders is not always bound to repeat itself, it is clear that the current state formation as well as the national food system are unable to feed the most vulnerable populations in the country. Moreover, the market dependence of farmers and peasants has meant that crops are being wasted, rather than distributed among the mass surplus labour populations that have returned to the villages. While there might still be some food that reaches these workers, unemployed urban workers have been forced to rely on charity and begging to make ends meet.

The mass return to the rural areas raises serious questions about the binary relationship between urban and rural space that has traditionally underpinned how we think about food systems. The working class has long oscillated between these two spaces in order to secure the means of its reproduction. Any path forward must be oriented toward securing a path for the reproduction of workers in both urban and rural spaces. While urban habitations might not be able to become self-sustaining in food supply, urban planners would do well to incorporate provisions for urban farms within working class settlements. The rural world needs to be transformed on the basis of two principles: land redistribution and localisation. One cannot operate without the other if we are to build a food system that can feed our population – especially in times of crisis.

Those charting a path to eliminate hunger today face two choices: to follow the failed policies of the ‘globalisation of food’ lobby or to heed the voice of the global ‘food sovereignty’ movement anchored in the peasant movements of our age. La Via Campesina South Asia, which brings together over twenty major peasant movements in the region, is one of the voices on the ground that has offered detailed proposals on how to mitigate the immediate impact of the COVID-19 lockdown and principles to transform our food system to protect peasants and workers beyond the current crisis.[24] 

It is clear that the path to agrarian reform must be charted on a new basis, with some principles from the peasant movements that were prematurely abandoned in the 1970s, and some from the peasant movements of our age. We must revive the slogan of ‘Land to the People’ in a time in which hundreds of millions of workers have returned to their villages to stare mass hunger in the face due to the absence of land ownership. It is also time to build a new peasant-worker solidarity, based on the recognition of the shared relationship between land, labour and food that the lockdown has reminded us is the beating heart of our food system. We must look to the principles of peasant agroecology[25] for a new ecological principle to organise agrarian production that can avoid ecological catastrophe in our agricultural systems. Finally, solidarity must replace profit as the principle that organises our food systems and our economy if we are to avoid mass hunger.

Hashim Bin Rashid is writing a doctorate on peasant movements in Punjab at SOAS, London. He works with the Pakistan Kissan Rabta Committee.

Mohsin Abdali is doing MPhil research in Agricultural Studies at Punjab University, Lahore. He is a founding member of Progressive Students Collective, Student Herald and Agrarians Collective. 


End Notes

[1] Siddique, S., 2019. Contrary to slogans of job creation, unemployment on the rise in Pakistan. The Express Tribune, [online] Available at: <https://tribune.com.pk/story/2088407/2-contrary-slogan-job-creation-unemployment-rise-pakistan/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

The PTI government’s unemployment figures have been challenged by industry experts and independent economists.

[2] Bhutta, Z., 2018. As losses mount, ministry suggests shutting 1,000 utility stores. The Express Tribune, [online] Available at: <https://tribune.com.pk/story/1677671/2-losses-mount-ministry-suggests-shutting-1000-utility-stores/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[3] Hassan, M., 2019. Regulatory lacunas let the wheat price test new highs in Punjab. The News, [online] Available at: <https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/487864-regulatory-lacunas-let-the-wheat-price-test-new-highs-in-punjab&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[4] Raza, S., 2020. Sugar crisis probe report leaves ruling alliance red-faced. Dawn, [online] Available at: <https://www.dawn.com/news/1546520/sugar-crisis-probe-report-leaves-ruling-alliance-red-faced&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[5] Saeedi, T., 2020. Inflation jumps to near 8 years high of 12.67pc on food cost. The News, [online] Available at: <https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/578633-inflation-jumps-to-near-8-years-high-of-12-67pc-on-food-cost&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[6] UNICEF, 2019. National Nutrition Survey Report 2019. [online] Available at: <https://www.unicef.org/pakistan/media/1951/file/Final%20Key%20Findings%20Report%202019.pdf&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[7] Fill the Nutrient Gap, Pakistan: WFP. Summary Report, 2017 [online] Available at: <https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000040001/download/&gt;

[8] Niazi, Tarique, 2004. “Rural poverty and the green revolution: the lessons from Pakistan.” Journal of Peasant Studies Vol. 31, no. 2: 242-260.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Pakistan Observer, 2020. Truck carrying food looted in Hyderabad. [online] Available at: <https://pakobserver.net/truck-carrying-food-looted-in-hyderabad/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[11] Baloch, S., 2020. Pakistan doctors beaten by police as they despair of ‘untreatable’ pandemic. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/09/pakistan-doctors-beaten-police-despair-untreatable-pandemic&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[12] World Bank, 2020. Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate) – Pakistan. [online] Available at <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?locations=PK&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020]

[13] Latif, A. and Niazi, S., 2020. COVID-19 lockdown sparks harvest crises in Pakistan, India. Asia-Pacific, [online] Available at: <https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/covid-19-lockdown-sparks-harvest-crises-in-pakistan-india/1799536&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[14] While hunger is the more immediate and serious concern, there is also an ongoing nutritional crisis which is likely to further manifest due to the lack of diverse food choices in the COVID-19 months.

[15] Actioncontrelafaim.org, 2020. COVID-19 could cause the collapse of Pakistan’s food system. [online] Available at: <https://www.actioncontrelafaim.org/en/headline/covid-19-could-cause-the-collapse-of-pakistans-food-system/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[16] Pakistan Today, 2020. Poultry farmers seek govt’s help amid COVID-19 crisis. [online] Available at: <https://profit.pakistantoday.com.pk/2020/04/27/poultry-farmers-seek-govts-help-amid-covid-19-crisis-2/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[17] The New Humanitarian, 2007. Government plays down bird flu risk. [online] Available at: <http://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/70051/pakistan-government-plays-down-bird-flu-risk&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020]

[18] Latif, A. and Niazi, S., 2020. COVID-19 lockdown sparks harvest crises in Pakistan, India. Asia-Pacific, [online] Available at: <https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/covid-19-lockdown-sparks-harvest-crises-in-pakistan-india/1799536&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[19] BT cotton is a genetically modified form of cotton, which is supposed to be resistant to bollworms.

[20] Zayauddin, M., 2020. Is Covid-19 overshadowing locust threat to food security?. Dawn, [online] Available at: <https://www.dawn.com/news/1550582/is-covid-19-overshadowing-locust-threat-to-food-security&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[21] Jamal, S., 2020. How will COVID-19 affect Pakistan farmers, food system?. Gulf News, [online] Available at: <https://gulfnews.com/world/asia/pakistan/how-will-covid-19-affect-pakistan-farmers-food-system-1.71196910&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[22] In a meeting of the Committee on World Food Security on the Voluntary Guidelines on Food System and Nutrition on April 15, 2020.

[23] Ashraf, M., 2020. Pakistan’s exports in the post-Covid global marketplace. The Express Tribune, [online] Available at: <https://tribune.com.pk/story/2211764/6-pakistans-exports-post-covid-global-marketplace/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[24] See  La Via Campesina South Asia, 2020. COVID 19: Urgent support needed for rural poor, migrants, and urban workers says La Via Campesina South Asia. [online] Availabe at: <https://southasiaviacampesina.org/2020/04/05/covid-19-urgent-support-needed-for-rural-poor-migrants-and-urban-workers-says-la-via-campesina-south-asia/&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[25] Nyéléni, M. 2017. Declaration Of The International Forum For Agroecology. Foodsovereignty.org. [online] Availabe at: <https://www.foodsovereignty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Download-declaration-Agroecology-Nyeleni-2015.pdf&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

[25] Nyéléni, M. 2017. Declaration Of The International Forum For Agroecology. Foodsovereignty.org. [online] Availabe at: <https://www.foodsovereignty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Download-declaration-Agroecology-Nyeleni-2015.pdf&gt; [Accessed 7 May 2020].

Radical demands of the 1960s and lessons for our present

Picture: jamhoor

Student and worker movements took place across the world in the late 1960s. So the fact students and workers across Pakistan also came out on to the streets in the same period is not particularly remarkable. However, historian Srinath Raghavan goes so far as to say that, “the uprising in Pakistan was arguably the most successful of all the revolts in that momentous year.” Now this claim is remarkable! For Raghavan, the success of this movement can be measured by the fact that the military dictator it targeted, General Muhammad Ayub Khan, was forced to step down.

However, this essay argues that what was most remarkable about this movement is how radical its demands were. Its success can then be measured in how Pakistani workers, by 1969, believed that they had won. They believed that the factories could be taken over, land would go to the tiller and so on.

An anecdote from this time is narrated by Philip Jones in his book The Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power (2003), where he discusses how, during the movement, poorer people walked around the rich residential areas of Gulberg and pointed out the houses that would be theirs after the revolution. Focusing on Ayub Khan or the Pakistan People’s Party (which won the election in 1970 and then dominated this portion of Pakistani history) blunts the radical message of this time.

The people of Pakistan were not articulating demands as Pakistanis alone. They were articulating an agenda for what freedom meant. There were no spies and no enemy agents who were forcing them to believe one thing or another. They, and the recently decolonised peoples across the world, were taking on their governments, taking on American imperialism and articulating a belief in a world that was more equal. It is possible to argue that what was remarkable about the ideas in circulation in the first half of the 20th century is how open political imaginations were. This does not mean that a revolution in which workers took over the factories and maintained hold of them was ever really on the cards in Pakistan, but workers, students and activists all believed it was. Their actions, their political demands, the organisations they formed were guided by this belief. It was this belief, this faith in the inevitability of revolution that fuelled the conspicuous absence of despair. Any discussion of the labour movement in Pakistan cannot divorce itself from this very basic fact.

Why discuss the labour movement in Pakistan at all? Why does it matter that the movement of the 1960s had a radical agenda? It matters because it tells us that our political inheritance as Pakistanis was not just determined by one political party, or by a small segment of Sindh centuries ago. It tells us that as Pakistanis, we shared demands with radicals across the world. These demands were not just those of English-speaking elites, but were articulated by workers and labour leaders. For instance, an excellent account recently written by Ahmad Azhar, traces how the workers of Mughalpura were, from the interwar period onwards, independent from the pressures of nationalist elites and political parties. Their concerns as workers almost always came first, something that would not have been possible if they had not been such a strong, organised and politically important force in Lahore.

Identity and Links

Worker demands for inclusion and autonomy have been written out of Pakistan’s history, but they were there from the very beginning. Indeed, one of the main demands of workers in the late 1960s movement was to have class-based representation in the National Assembly. The qualification to have a BA is, by contrast, an elitist demand. This was a radical demand. Indeed, a look across the sorts of demands that were articulated during the later 1960s in Pakistan shows that workers and students were linking their ideas of freedom to a demand for nationalisation of industries, while also demanding the end of American imperialism. In the context of the late 1960s, these demands were seen as legitimate and workers within their neighbourhoods became considerably powerful as a result of this movement.

Two years ago, I wrote a piece about an important labour leader in Lahore whose notoriety can be measured by how strongly workers in the city reacted to his death in 1974. Abdur Rahman, described as a larger than life figure, was fascinating to me because everyone I interviewed for my PhD thesis, which focused on the labour movement in Lahore, and every story I followed in the archive to the early 1970s somehow touched on the life and murder of this iconic figure.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that his death shut the city down in a way that can only be compared in our contemporary period to the way Karachi reacted to the death of Benazir Bhutto. However, the more interesting story is perhaps not about the man Abdur Rehman himself (though that is a fascinating story in and of itself), but what the rest of the sources tell us about the time– about the 1960s and Pakistan’s early years. In the case discussing his murder, the judges of the high court talked about the power that workers had, and how all employers were wary of upsetting them.

Compare this to the contemporary period, where employers have the right to hire and fire at will. Not only did workers have this power within the context of the factory, it extended into their neighbourhoods as well, where they were able to force their neighbourhood police to be answerable to them. This is crucial because it points to the fact that increasing the power of workers can allow for institutions to become more accountable. No matter how many laws and protective legislation the country comes up with, implementation is only possible if workers themselves have the organisational strength to run and regulate them. There can be no real worker protection without a labour movement and in the late 1960s, workers believed in their right to organise and be part of a labour movement.

Crucial to the labour movement’s organisational strength in the 1960s was also its strong links with students and other groups. Abdur Rehman was present at study circles also attended by students across Lahore’s universities. Part of what made him so powerful was that the labour movements of the late 1960s were supported by students and activists across Lahore. As these groups met regularly with workers, they all got to know and support one another. This support was not just expressed through messages of solidarity, but through concrete political action.

For instance, 1969 in Kot Lakhpat saw several ‘labour camps’ take place where students, lawyers, politicians (both men and women) came to support workers’ strikes for days at a time. This was what labour politics meant. To meet people, to know one another, to show solidarity.

When we are told in Pakistan that politics is not the business of students, we are confusing following party lines with politics. Ideological nit-picking is definitely not the business of students, but building community, getting to know the people you live with and their demands is an essential part of education. Something that this chapter of Pakistan’s history makes clear. You cannot, in other words, have a strong labour movement that does not have links with a strong student movement, women’s movement, and so on.

Indeed, in the 1960s in Pakistan, intelligence reports refer to prominent women like Tahira Mazhar Ali and Begum Shamim Ashraf Malik, but there is also evidence that other women leaders and worker labour leaders were central in this time period. Last year, I spent some time in the Punjab Police (Special Branch) Archives and found several mentions of women leaders in areas like Bahawalpur, who addressed worker gatherings and were clearly important enough to be noted down (by name) by intelligence officials. However, beyond this source, the trail of historical evidence that could have uncovered who they were runs cold.

The point I am making here, however, is that the fact that women were involved in the labour movement is an important part of understanding how working class women were central in the struggle in a way that even progressive historians often tend to miss.

The work of scholars like Cynthia Enloe (amongst others) alerts us to the fact that what we consider to be serious or worthy of being the proper subject of history, is often a result of our own bias. We tend not to look in the right places. We tend to not ask the right questions. I spent so much time during my fieldwork days interviewing men, talking to men and just accepting it when their wives said they did not know much. The ways in which we think are crafted from years of socialisation. What do we consider worthy of knowing? We are taught this answer through our school curriculums, through what we hear our parents talk about and the behaviours we observe. It would not be an exaggeration to state that Pakistanis are taught to disregard radical politics as being antithetical to who we are. One of the crucial lessons of the 1960s and its many histories is that demands for gender equality and a more welfare-oriented state are very much part of our intellectual inheritance as Pakistanis.

Internationalism of Pakistani Workers

International links were important to workers and students in the late 1960s. These were expressed through shows of solidarity. For instance, the death of Patrice Lumumba and the Vietnam War saw student protests take place across Pakistani universities. They were, even then, very clear on the fact that they supported demands for freedom across the newly decolonised world. These global ideals sat alongside expressions of the local demands, so these same students were demanding better hostel and classroom conditions, even while they were attending anti-Vietnam war protests. One of my favourite anecdotes from this time period was narrated by Tahira Mazhar Ali Khan, who had invited a group of Vietnamese women who had been fighting against the American army to speak to a gathering of workers in Lahore. The women came to the front of the gathering. They seemed soft spoken and diminutive, so when they spoke and sat down the workers did not quite know how to react. Tahira then went to the front and yelled, “These women fought the Americans! They took down six foot tall Americans who were attacking the Vietnamese!” and suddenly the crowd got to its feet. Cheers and applause reverberated through the hall. This incident meant conveyed to me was a sense of how the world outside Pakistan and outside the factory managed to enter the world of labour in ways that are not entirely visible to us.

Who knew that workers in Lahore actually met a group of Vietnamese guerrilla fighters? The networks between students, activists and labour meant that demands and meanings were constantly circulating, deepening the world of politics and possibilities.

The radical promise of the late 1960s did not deliver. The reasons for why the dreams of revolution were not fulfilled merit analysis and debate. However, it is essential to begin by noting and commemorating the fact that indeed these dreams existed. The demands of radicals of the time are a part of the political history of Pakistan. Centring the importance of workers and the demand for social and economic equality is the only way to truly commemorate the struggles of those who, in the late 1960s, thought a better, more equal future for Pakistan was possible.

 Anushay Malik is a visiting faculty member  of History and Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University.


It is Right to Rebel

By Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali

End Times?

At a time in history when human expectations of the future are beginning to resemble sci-fi reality, COVID-19 has abruptly disrupted these fantasies. The manner in which the mightiest empire appears helpless in front of a virus makes for both a terrifying and humbling spectacle. The sight of the greatest military and economic power in human history, the United States, spectacularly failing to protect its own population, reveals the limitation of a system that privileges corporate interest and military domination over adequate investment in health care and education.

With the US as the horizon of desire for the rest of the world, it is not surprising that the vulnerabilities of Third World regarding investment in care were woefully exposed. The lack of adequate health facilities are compounded by the fact that a lockdown means food scarcity and unemployment for poorer sections of society. In pursuit of the mirage of unbridled development, Third World elites abdicated the responsibility of taking care of their citizens, making the current adjustment incredibly painful for the public.

It is clear that we are experiencing an intense feeling of loss of a world, a melting away of long held certainties. Inhabiting the end times can produce a subjectivity that can be both melancholic and inward-looking, suspending political action in the midst of pervasive confusion. Yet, before participating actively in political praxis, it is crucial to remember the frameworks and horizons that have lost their vitality. In other words, we must fix our vision on the elements that have died so that we can bury them, thus clearing the way for the recommencement of radical thought.

Clearing the Way for Radical Thought

Three key certainties of Pakistan’s ideological compasses need to be discarded. The first is the militaristic culture induced by a sense of pervasive insecurity combined with nostalgia for an imagined Muslim past. The paranoia of being besieged by enemies (both internal and external) stems out of our colonial history, with the state perpetually feeling threatened by its own subjects. As historian Mark Condos has shown in his book, The Insecurity State, the excessive resources allocated to the British Indian military stemmed from a deep unease with local populations. Militaristic violence became a recurrent language of communication between colonial officials and their Indian subjects.

50Pakistan inherited its military infrastructure from the British colonial state

Pakistani elites inherited this infrastructure of the colonial state and used it with precision against political opponents, leading to widespread accusations of treason against their own citizenry. The postcolonial addition made by Pakistani elites is to rent out its military capacity to global powers, while also giving this militarised logic of governance an Islamic façade, imbibing it with a sense of religious destiny to be fulfilled through Jihad.

Yet, the cost of our bloated military budget has exposed the inadequate attention paid to our health and education sectors, as well as leaving few funds for productive economic development. With COVID-19 and other epidemic and climate catastrophes on the horizon, we cannot afford to perpetuate fantasies of regional domination or carry the burden of bloated militaries that are more often used against our own people.

Second, we must give up on the notion that a return to civilian rule would mean a return to some form of normalcy. Even if one is able to get rid of the military-backed PTI regime, the two conventional parties, the PPP and the PML-N, do not have a substantial alternative vision to deal with the growing crisis of a purely parasitic form of capitalism. There seems to be a convergence of all political actors on imposing the IMF-plans, facilitating big industrialists and land mafias while repressing the question of land reforms.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, of PPP, and Maryam Nawaz, of PML-N, are widely viewed as the new faces of the traditional dynastic parties.

This is partly a result of the social classes that these parties represent, including the decadent feudal and industrial elites of our country that are only sustained through bailouts at the expense of the public. In the absence of a vision for a different form of social relations, all parties are reduced to mere managers of a broken system, thus blurring the dialectic between military and civilian rule that has sustained political antagonism for so long.

Finally, we must abandon the illusion of capitalist development that has been thrust upon us for the past seventy years. In our desire to “catch-up” to the West, we have facilitated the country’s industrial elites while neglecting social sectors and repressing demands for wealth distribution. Although we were told that the generation of wealth at the top would trickle down in the form of jobs and taxes, we have instead witnessed the emergence of monstrous monopolies that have little regard for labour or environmental laws, and are notoriously efficient at escaping the tax net. The achievement of this “development” acquired after decades of subsidies to the elites is that we have not even managed to provide safe drinking water to citizens, with 40 percent of deaths occurring in Pakistan due to waterborne diseases.

The current government’s decision to hand out bailouts to the construction industry, which has the lowest rates of secure jobs, also exposes the limits of an imagination bounded by capitalism’s logic. We must begin to chart a different path that privileges meeting social needs through redistribution of wealth, rather than accruing more profits for the elites. It is only when we recognise that our political imagination is exhausted, and that we are caught in a repetitive cycle of destruction, that we will begin to confront the challenge of reimagining the very coordinates of our existence.

Where Can We Begin The New Journey?

A key passage that Marx quotes from Communist Manifesto in Capital Volume I ends with the following:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

What was Marx trying to say when he wrote these lines? For Marx as well as for Lenin, Marxism was not a theory describing the processes of the economy, focusing on how much production, financialisation and industrial growth a society experiences. For them, economic relations are relations between people, relations between actually existing beings, which are formed by practical human activity. In the middle of this pandemic any political strategy and political program must start from this great lesson by two of the most formidable Marxist thinkers: “Man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” We believe humankind is very near this realisation.

All over the world, a growing number of people are grasping this reality that Marx argued would be the result of the constant disorders and changes in capitalist production. Today, in France, USA, Italy, UK and many other countries, workers are forming committees, coalitions and organising general strikes. Last week in Lahore working class families protested against the unavailability of food. Doctors in Quetta protested against the unavailability of PPEs. As we stressed in our last article, the situation is going to be much worse for the working class in the coming months. 

Some may argue that the conclusions that we are drawing from this crisis are unfounded, exaggerations or even not radical enough. But this emphasis on the inevitable triumph of human dignity and socialism must be our subjective position if we are to explore the latent possibilities of a better future laying beneath the spectacular decay of capitalism on display today. Lenin provides a lesson in such a strategic optimism in the midst of despair.

“We who are members of the Marxist movement may not live to see the world revolution”. Lenin wrote these lines only a month before the Russian Revolution. Despite his grim personal doubt, Lenin was actively organising his party and a writing his famous book, State and Revolution, that would imagine a post-capitalist order and trace its development within the grim reality of the present. Despite his personal uncertainty Lenin wholeheartedly organised the masses in that period. This is how we as Marxists must think, recognising the contingency of the situation while ceaselessly preparing for the inevitable battles.

Vladmir Lenin was a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of the 20th century

The Coming Storms

We can already see the unravelling of the system, as it lays bare its incapacity to care for the citizens. Consider the horrific scenes last week from Quetta. Doctors and other health workers were protesting against the dangerous shortage of PPE. Fears amplified with the tragic death of Dr. Usama Riaz, a young medical professional who lost his life by catching the virus on the frontlines. Yet, the Balochistan government responded to the genuine concerns of health workers by unleashing police violence on them and arresting a number of young doctors. The arrest of frontline warriors in the fight against an ongoing pandemic makes it difficult to discern whether those at the helm are more cruel or incompetent. Both are unpardonable in the midst of an emergency.

What we are witnessing is a sharpening of the struggle between the managers of this defaulting system and those whose existence is now at stake. It would be naïve to immediately present alternative proposals without taking stock of the development of the workers movement. Thus, the task today is not to provide abstract slogans but to intimately attach ourselves to the unfolding of the class struggle, and reconstruct our horizons based on concrete social upheavals.

It is only from within the space of these struggles that we can trace the hopes, courage and creativity of the working masses. As we participate in the great experiments of resistance and cooperation, we must withhold judgement on the trajectory these struggles take and the new anti-capitalist possibilities they open. In these turbulent times, full of contingency and pregnant with multiple possibilities, we should hold dear the eternal maxim that guides the action of the oppressed, “It is Right to Rebel”.

Ammar Ali Jan is a historian, teacher and member of Haqooq e Khalq Movement.

Zahid Ali is a member of the Haqooq e Khalq Movement and currently working as research assistant at LUMS.


A Socialist Feminist Manifesto for Our Times

Reviewed by Shmyla Khan

[Sheryl] Sandberg and her ilk see feminism as a handmaiden of capitalism. They want a world where the task of managing exploitation in the workplace and oppression in the social whole is shared equally by ruling-class men and women.

Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, in “Feminism for the 99% – A Manifesto”, deliver scathing criticism of mainstream feminism, which they term as “equal opportunity feminism”. They see contemporary feminism at a crossroads, a clear choice between popular feminism and a socialist feminism that rejects patriarchy along with oppressive, racist, patriarchal structures. While many feminists have mounted a critique of the “lean-in” brand of feminism, what makes Feminism for the 99% important is that it expounds on political alternatives. The book is a call to arms as it offers valuable lessons for feminists, both young and old, to realign their politics with the larger fights against late-capitalism.

The book is in conversation with the biggest crises of our times: the economic crisis in which the contradictions of capitalism have manifested in unprecedented income inequalities around the world; an ecological crisis in which climate change poses an existential threat to the planet that we inhabit; the rise of white supremacy and fascism; and the crises around the imagination of feminism. The authors seek to advance a political project that encompasses these problems, not in the language of intersectionality that populates modern progressive movements, but through a critique of the structures that underpin these crises.

While the target of the book is the wider public, it seems to speak directly to feminists and diagnoses the limitations of mainstream feminist interventions. The “gender question” has long been de-politicised and confined to gender studies departments and neoliberal development projects. Feminist politics is often an appendage to most political manifestos, never the foundation. Most interventions seeking to “protect women” through law and policy have benefited only a few women, while working within structures, or, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, use the master’s tools, rather than dismantling the master’s house.

The book seeks to expand the horizons of feminist politics beyond the narrow focus on gender-based violence and harassment (in fact it spends remarkably little time on the subject), to all types of structural violence: from the exploitation of garment workers in the global South to low-paid immigrant women working in homes as care workers. Furthermore, the authors do not shy away from critiquing the hollow calls for sisterhood and feminist solidarity that prevails in feminist discourse, arguing that sisterhood should be a consequence of feminist struggle, but cannot be a starting point. Sisterhood often assumes the narrative of the dominant, which has historically been white, upper-class women, and obscures the different forms of oppression that women of colour face. The manifesto calls for a universal struggle where issues of class, racism and gender are connected. However, the authors are wary of conventional forms of universality in which internal differences are ignored. Taking into account critiques on both sides, the politics espoused in the book manages to strike a balance between traditional exclusionary politics and the divisiveness of pure identity politics.

The language of the book is accessible, direct and incisive. Though grounded in larger academic debate and theory, it does presume some prior knowledge of these subjects. Spanning less than 100 pages, the book has a broad audience in mind, but sometimes slips into in-speak when addressing particular forms of politics. 

The first section of the book addresses current modes of politics in eleven theses, critiquing contemporary politics and status quo structures. The second half lays out an explicit agenda in the form of a manifesto, presenting an expansive view of the crisis of capitalism from the lens of multiple contradictions: ecological, political and reproductive. The authors point out that the exploitation of capitalism needs to be understood both in terms of the surplus value extracted from labour through profit-making, as well as from the exploitation of labour that is not valued, which the authors term as “people-making”, i.e. the unpaid care work and domestic work disproportionately performed by women. The authors reframe the crisis of care work as a structural problem, connecting the women’s struggle with the larger struggle against economic exploitation.

The book starts and concludes with scenes of the feminist strikes on 8th March, calling on the readers to repoliticise International Women’s Day. “Brushing aside tacky baubles of depoliticisation–brunches, mimosas, and Hallmark cards–the strikers revived the day’s all but forgotten historical roots in working-class and socialist feminism” that was espoused in the vision of German socialist-feminists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin in 1911. 

The manifesto rings true in our context, and speaks directly to young feminists organising Aurat Marches across the country. The book presents a political project that eschews both neoliberalism and progressive politics dominating our mainstream. The latter holds a progressive veneer, but is still grounded in the politics of individuality and market capitalism. This is particularly true of the dominant discourse around LGBTQ rights, which, while accepting various sexual identities, tends to be framed within the narrow confines of struggles such as marriage equality. This discourse is critiqued for commodifying queer identity, and failing to question the structure of economic inequality. The book can be an uncomfortable read, as it so directly rejects so much of the language and touchstones of progressive feminism today.

Image source: Folio Books

The tone of Feminism for the 99% is urgent. The political undertaking is ambitious. For the authors, their predecessor is “The Communist Manifesto” penned by Marx and Engels. The authors’ project is to address the spectres haunting the entire planet, not just Europe, but from the hacia la huelga (‘feminist strikes’) in Spain to the feminist struggles in Chile. In 2018 in Spain, more than 5 million workers staged two-hour walkouts on International Women’s Day to demonstrate the collective power of women’s labour by paralysing tasks and activities that women do, both visible and invisible. Similarly, feminists in Chile have been an integral part of protests against state brutality, occupying universities and colleges to protest what they term as “femicide”. They also holding General Feminist Strikes on 8th March. For the book’s authors, the “spectre” is not the same as the one that concerned Marx in 1848. Rather, they are addressing the world at the time of publication in 2018.

The book is a fitting call to arms for our times, a manifesto that stands on the shoulders of socialist-feminist theory and written by women embedded in internationalist feminist struggles. In its final analysis, Feminism for the 99% offers a biting critique of the political binaries we are often confronted with, between conservative values and “progressive” liberalism, but it is also a book about hope. The hope that comes from feminists organising from below to imagine a politics that demands both “bread and roses”.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto
Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser and Tithi Bhattacharya
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834105
96pp.

Shmyla Khan is a feminist activist and works as a researcher on digital rights and gender.


Confronting Viral Uncertainty

Now what? Now that we have read the books and essays we so badly wanted to and fixed almost everything broken that had been screaming for our attention for months, if not years. Having cleaned the dirtiest devilish nooks of the house, played all possible games with the kids, used all tricks to keep them busy, browsed all the websites churning out scary statistics wrapped in apocalyptic narratives, staring into the uncertain potentialities of each coming day in self-quarantine, confronting the emptiness of longer days of approaching summer, we want to scream it out into the world: what next?

The first thing to note is that being able to ask this question is a privilege; being able to philosophize a mundane, material condition of the pandemic and the limitations it imposes on lives that we had so carefully curated for ourselves, or the possibilities of a world wiggling out through the cracks of the crumbling infrastructure of a previous one, is a privilege not available to all. There are millions around us for whom the mandatory social-distancing is much more threatening than the virus itself. Maybe the privilege to theorize is premised upon the non-privilege or existential imperative of making do and staying alive. Maybe the world that can shut down and the world that cannot are the two sides of the same capitalist coin which has enlivened the material, symbolic, and affective infrastructure of production, circulation, and distribution that skilfully crafted and maintained the difference between the two. A difference and distance that does not prohibit contact, but in fact regulates it. The pandemic opens up possibilities of its more strict regulation and intense surveillance. But it also reveals the essential connectedness of the apparent divisions.

Some of us are slowly re-syncing our ‘distanced’ lives with normal routines; setting up our work desks in living rooms, hoping to revive the trajectory of the life that flowed smoothly for us in the past, unwilling to be attuned to the possibilities and challenges of the new world that comes out of this crisis. Partly, because the old world suited us better, but partly because we are confident of human abilities to win this war against the ‘natural’ challenge posed by the virus and our ability to survive to see that day irrespective of the cost. The virus is not going to affect us if we are strictly following the only sane and sanitized practice – social distancing. It is both selfish and altruistic in the sense that it helps you stay safe while simultaneously securing the safety of the others (although it denies us the satisfaction of pinning down the blame on the ‘enemy’). The lock-downs and mandatory social distancing seem to be a mere interlude—albeit a unique one—in the onward march towards freedom and progress. 

And there are others who, in a similar vein, but inspired by a different zeitgeist, appropriate the current uncertainty to suit their narratives, to avow the truthfulness of their doctrines. No disease is scary enough to stop them from doing God’s work, no threat excuses them from shirking their religious responsibilities. While pandemics are God’s way of punishing the people who have strayed far from His message, how could shutting down mosques and abandoning the word of God be a potential defense against the disease? What could possibly save us pain and trouble is asking His forgiveness, invoking His mercy. He works in miraculous ways after all.

What all those, who had had their lives and worlds figured out, cannot really deal with is the sheer uncertainty of the present moment. Confronting a new and almost unprecedented situation, they rummage through their old bags of theories to find a piece of narrative that hides the gaping holes in their knowledge-systems that the virus opens up. What they need to do instead is to take this moment as a corrective to their theories and attend to the world that might emerge out of this crisis. For neither lock-downs nor meditations are going to bring back the order that their old theories promised. It has become difficult to neatly segregate the world into haves and have-nots, believers and non-believers, carriers and non-carriers, sane and insane, biological and ethical. The virus, for one, doesn’t care. And people dying of hunger will accompany the virus jumping the spatial boundaries of class, religion, politics, and property throughout the globe.

In between the precautionary social distancing and a devil-may-care approach to social gatherings, the severity of the situation demands that we think of the people who don’t have the resources to sustain the lock-downs and mandatory isolations. Before the threat of dying of hunger makes them challenge the virus and the spatial restrictions to have their last shots at life, those of us, who have set up our work desks in our living rooms, need to find out ways and make sure that sustenance reaches them. After all we are all in it together. This is both selfish and altruistic in an unprecedented time and it requires us to challenge the distinction between thinking and doing too. It is the time not to sit idle and wait till the virus is gone; it is the moment to attend to the imperatives of a world that is breathing through the crisis.

This is what the members of Haqooq-e-Khalaq Movement had realized quite early on in the pandemic. A few other groups have been doing the same. These efforts nourish the possibilities of a new better world that challenges the eschewed distribution of the natural bounties. That emphasise the need to build community instead of self-seeking individuals. These are the efforts that could also prove a bulwark against the state’s tendency to make this state-of-exception a new norm in the society.

Abdul Aijaz is a doctoral candidate at Indiana University Bloomington.


A Left Strategy Against Coronavirus in Pakistan

Dr Ammar Ali Jan and Zahid Ali

Concentration of crisis

We are passing through one of the gravest crises faced by humanity to which no one can afford to be indifferent and neutral. It is clear that the crisis is exacerbated due to the priorities of our ruling elites, who relentlessly pursue fantasies of regional domination rather than the welfare of the public. We have tanks, missiles, even a nuclear arsenal, but do not have enough beds, ventilators and medicine for our patients.

The state is in crisis, due to an accumulation of structural weaknesses and lack of political will. There is confusion and disarray in nearly every sector of social life, as the patriarch guardian of our civilization, the state, has revealed itself to be incompetent and cruel in the most pressing of times. Our society, for all intents and purposes, is passing through a stateless existence in the midst of an emergency. The essential work being carried out by health-workers is despite the presence of the state, not due to it.

Many are suggesting that we should come together in this moment of crisis and forget our political differences. However, a problem transforms into a crisis precisely due to the lack of preparedness, inadequacy of resources and infrastructural apartheid that are political choices made by our ruling elites over the years. This crisis reflects the utter bankruptcy of their policies as they put the very survival of the human race in question.

Budget for the fiscal year 2019-20

Moreover, the most important decisions of our lives are made precisely in moments of crisis. Yet, these decisions are completely overtaken by governments in the pockets of vulture capitalists, military hawks, and unaccountable technocrats. Rulers insist that ordinary people should avoid politics during a crisis. Yet, if key decisions pertaining to our future are taken during these emergencies, it is essential for us to think about the crisis politically, rather than surrendering our right to political engagement.

The coronavirus is not a politically neutral issue. As one of the gravest threats to modern civilization, it has emerged as the most concentrated expression of the social, economic and political contradictions that shape our global order. We cannot treat it as an aberration in the generally smooth functioning of the system. More health crises are looming, while a climate catastrophe threatens the very fabric of our existence. There is no point of return from these crises.

A new world has to be built on a set of shared values and practices distinct from those of the present. This is why populist demands such as Basic Income and free utilities are essential but inadequate, as the system is not geared towards fulfilling them. Therefore, the Left should not only bombard the system with rational demands deemed impossible by the system, we must also construct a long-term strategy to reorient theory and practice. The existing political institutions of the Left (and the Right) are inadequate to meet the challenges of our time. We must develop a new language and a practice of socialism if we are not to be overwhelmed by the persistent immediacy of the multiple crises we face.

Coronavirus is the Representation of the Crisis

A doctor of the Red Cross China said “we have to stop the time; we have to stop all economic activity”. There is something ironic, yet true about this statement. Unconsciously the doctor is acknowledging that we have to stop the flow of the capitalist mode of time, which only functions when there is unbridled accumulation of capital, circulation of commodities and ruthless mechanical exploitation of workers. In other words, if we want to stop further spread of COVID19, we have to completely halt the circulation of commodities and immobilize the production process. Very simply, a house of cards has fallen. An entire world of illusions, self-deceptions, and sophistries has died. We’ve come to the end of a very long string. The crisis due to the unbridled circulation of commodities was already there. COVID 19 just exposed the charade that is the market economy.  

Dr Usama Riaz: The front line medic from Gilgit-Baltistan who passed away on 22nd March after contracting corona virus in the line of duty

First, we should be very clear that what we are looking at is not a “recession”. It is not a “financial crisis”. This coronavirus pandemic is a profound dislocation of the essential components of economic and social life itself. If it is not addressed in such terms – if, instead, like the Imran Khan government, we try and treat this as something that can be managed in a normal setting and expect that the hot weather will kill the virus – we will find ourselves facing hundreds of thousands of deaths, as the government’s own modelling shows. To avoid this dire outcome, normal economic and social life must change fundamentally. What was normal economic and social life in Pakistan before this?

For the middle and elite classes, it was a normal life where they have very well defined routines and the resources to live happily in this country. But for the working classes life prior to the emergence of COVID 19 was already a nightmare. Formal workers were agitating for minimum wage, social security and proper safety at workplaces, while the informal and contractual workers were fighting on a day to day basis, knowing that at any time their factory, workshop or educational institution could fire them without notice or warning. So when we say that to avoid COVID 19, we have to fundamentally change normal social and economic life. What we are saying is that we have to change the ruthless way of life of the capitalist economy in which workers are disposable beings. If the capitalists in cahoots with the Pakistani State still think that they can just close down factories, businesses and other production processes without caring for the lives of working poor of this country then there will be two fundamental implications.    

The first implication of this refusal of care would be on the public health task of demobilizing much of the economy, through social isolation and self-distancing. Until the virus has peaked and the immediate crisis has passed, it will become near impossible to place society, in effect, in something like a state of hibernation for the necessary time period to slow the spread of the virus. If workers do not get proper health facilities, food cards and basic income they will not be able to stay in homes. They will try to come out to find work opportunities, which will further prolong the pandemic. In a way this pandemic is proving that the only way quarantined life for an unforeseeable future in Pakistan or anywhere else would work, if the working poor have all the resources required to stay home in self-isolation. Because, as we know, securing a public health goal requires getting money into people’s hands so that they can socially distance and self-isolate with security, and without the need to work unnecessarily.

For an economy with large numbers of insecure, uninsured, temporary, daily wagers and part-time workers to receive health care alongside universal basic payments, we need radical redistribution of wealth. In this whole COVID19 crisis, workers and working class families are already becoming the biggest losers. Clothing brands like Limelight, Generations and Outfitters are closing their factories without giving workers their salaries or even paid leave, with many being laid off entirely.

This is just the start of a long unknown crisis. It is of fundamental importance that besides asking for basic income, we form self-help, community committees, because in the coming days things will be much more difficult. 

The second implication of the State’s refusal and incapacity to help workers follows that if the State fails to provide workers with mandatory paid leave, food cards and complete health facilities, then in the coming months, despite curfews, lockdowns and quarantine, workers will be on the streets agitating and demanding for the mere basic necessities that one needs to continue bare life– food, shelter, income and health facilities. If other factories, businesses and workplaces follow the example set by Limelight and Generations, soon workers of Pakistan will be left asking the fundamental, existential question, “What is our place in this newly quarantined reality?”

We must keep in mind that coronavirus is a concentration of multiple crises that include broken health-care and education systems, absence of minimum wages and social security, continuous dehumanization of workers and an overdeveloped rentier state. The working poor of this country were already challenging the immediate structures of oppression in the form of workers strikes, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, women, students and peasants marching for their rights. The current crisis due to limitations on the circulation of capital will propel workers to go beyond the mere negation of the immediate structures of oppression to pose the fundamental question, “What kind of human relations exist under a neoliberal capitalist society?” This second negation (negation of the negation) of the whole capitalist economy has revolutionary implications.   

Good Governance or Dual Power?

Many commentators view the crisis as simply a case of neglect and bad governance. There is no doubt that the incompetence of the current regime has only amplified the threat due to its indecision. Yet, in the previous section, we explained how the crisis is not simply one of specific policies, but the general orientation of our state and political economy. More importantly, there is no normal that we can return to, considering that the state will only accelerate exploitation of workers to pay for the crisis.

Therefore, in the absence of a viable governance model, we must begin imagining alternative forms of being and belonging that do not correspond to the logic of capital accumulation and the state. This requires working both with the government (it would be foolish to completely dismiss the government during this crisis) but also seek new spaces of solidarity beyond the state. This requires building networks of care in the areas abandoned by the state, particularly working class neighborhoods.

What could such solidarity look like? It requires building functional self-help and volunteer teams in spaces where the state is absent to spread awareness, provide food and shelter to the most vulnerable, raise voice for those wronged by employers, and coordinate between health workers and the community.

The aim of such activity cannot simply be charity-derived out of feelings of pity for the poor. We must think of these practices politically, as we endeavor to build a world beyond the limits imposed by capitalism.  We should aim to build an entire network of people and organizations that derive their strength from serving the communities they live in and building feelings of trust and solidarity within these communities.

With the weakening of the state apparatuses, we are in a situation where we will either witness perpetual social decay contained by further militarization of society, or we can return to the concept of dual power, a strategy geared towards building autonomous working class power beyond institutional representation. For example, we know once the crisis is over, the ruling classes will force the public to pay for the crisis with unemployment, underemployment, debt and price hikes. The only defense the public will have in such a situation will be their ability to self-organize and resist, using networks of mutual aid to prolong their struggle.

Dual power is part of a strategy of rupture that transforms existing social relations and gears production and distribution towards meeting human needs. This means building networks where the creative potential of the working classes can be established, and a new will can both be formulated and imposed by working class actors within their communities. Such alternative forms of worker committees are necessary to impose limits on capital accumulation, particularly once people return to the work.  

Organs of popular decision-making are all the more necessary, as politics at the top will remain frozen among intra-elite actors. This is because one cannot imagine elections or any mass mobilizations in the coming months (other than riots). In the absence of high-politics, we must develop alternative visions and practices for a future society. If we think with big ideas but act specifically and locally, we can begin developing a nucleus for alternative forms of power, existing outside and independently of institutional frameworks.

It is certain that people will rise against the unbearable conditions being imposed on them. Worker committees can become the central force that both provides aid in these difficult times, and prepare to lead the masses for a decisive fight with the system. If there ever was a time to develop a practice of socialism, embodied by the most robust elements of the working classes, it is now.

“All Power to the People”

For the Left in Pakistan, now is the time for bold ideas because the normal mode of politics that entails making demands on the state alone will not work. We all know that greed of the ruling elite, multiple IMF loans and subsequent privatization of essential sectors of the economy, and an over-developed state, do not have the capacity to handle this crisis. And that they don’t really care about the workers. The mobilization must start now, right in the middle of this crisis. It is our responsibility to stand with workers who know that the state and factory owners will abandon them. The formation of worker, community and self-help committees must start now—we are already very late in catching up with this crisis. On the one hand we need mass awareness through our committees about the precautions one should take to avoid further spread of COVID19, and on the other we need political mass education about worker control of the production process, community control of food and resource distribution, and people’s control of health and medical facilities.

The message from the scientists and the medical professionals is very clear. As the Chinese doctor said, “We have to stop the time”. This means an almost complete shutdown of the production process and hence the circulation of commodities. This is a leap in the ongoing crisis of capital worldwide. This means that in the absence of production and circulation of capital, the underdeveloped states of the global South like Pakistan, are on the verge of a breakdown. 

The slogan “All power to the people” cannot be more urgent than it is today. With courage, clarity and commitment, let’s dive into this pandemic and organize for alternative power. We must train each other as medical workers, provide solidarity to the workers and neighborhoods in small numbers, elect local representatives to inventory food and other basic supplies, run mass people’s clinics, and devise systems for worker and community controlled provision of essential necessities. In this moment we have nothing to lose but the chains of the past.

We have a new world to win!