Muhammad Ahmad Hassan
Defeatism is something that too often characterises the public discourse on politics in Pakistan. Ranging from those of political dilettantes to even some of the more well-informed observers, most commentaries end with a gloomy forecast for the future. And that is not without good reason. The well-entrenched exploitative structures, which form both the economic base and the political superstructure, do not seem to be giving way to a more egalitarian set up. On the contrary, if anything, these structures have only strengthened over time, even in the face of regime changes. While it is true that some powerful groups in Pakistan have receded to the margins while others have been created and even recreated within the current set up, but, on the whole, the logic of the structure has been one that has preserved the interests of the mighty and made them even mightier. The way this structure works is through a very well-balanced system of control, which starts from the base and runs all the way to the top. And the one single factor that sustains it is the countryside.
Pakistan’s countryside is the key to explaining the current system of power because of the static cycle of exploitation that it has been locked in for most of history. The local bosses in the countryside have been able to strengthen themselves due to their success at acquiring political office. The access to state resources that political office gives, in turn, allows these local bosses to further consolidate their position in the countryside. However, there is another phenomenon at play, which has made this system remarkably resistant to change. This is the very limited degree of access to the state that these local bosses are able to offer to their voters. These voters are, for the most part, labourers who work on the land of these local bosses. This means that voters in the countryside do not really have much of a choice. Their survival depends on siding with their employers or those associated with their employers, and their loyalty ensures not just their means of livelihood, but also a channel to the state.
Moreover, there is one more, rather subtle, aspect of labour in the countryside, which makes it qualitatively different from labour in the cities. That aspect revolves around one significant factor: mobility. This can be better explained by taking the transformation of western Europe as a point of reference. During the age of feudalism, labour was not just measured in terms of wages, rather it was tied to the land, and subject to the allegiance of the feudal lord. Although it is true that feudalism in western Europe was qualitatively different than what is usually called feudalism in Pakistan, nevertheless, the case does highlight the fact that there is more to labour in the countryside than just its commodification. That is its social aspect, which concerns the relations between labour and the landlord. Land determines this social aspect so much so that even the contemporary castes in the rural areas are valued on the basis of whether they are land-owning or not. Land provides social capital on which there is enmeshed a way of living that defies neat categories. The landlord is much more than the value of the land that he owns. He enjoys a form of control in which those who work on his land feel a misplaced sense of loyalty to him and his land. To make matters worse, labour in the countryside does not have much of a choice to go anywhere else. The land that it works on becomes the centre of its existence, the landlord a symbol of obedience. In certain cases, the landlord is even the spiritual head of the locality, and this gives the landlord religious sanction for his control.
This is the logic of the countryside that makes individual clout more important than party affiliation. According to conventional political wisdom, any party that wishes to succeed in the electoral arena has to co-opt these so-called electables. What this means is that party ideology is only second to the importance of having these electables on board. Some advocate it — brazenly — for expediency while others as an exigency lest others less “enlightened” than them use these electables for their own benefit. What is lost on all of these supposed sages is that these electables bring their own interests to the table, something, which, in any case, limits space for political party leaders to act on their own accord.
All of this surely paints an unsettling picture; however, amid all of this, there is cause for hope. And that is based on a transformative force that is changing the electoral landscape of Pakistani politics: capitalism. While there is no doubt that capitalism is based on the exploitation of labour, but there is one change that capitalism brings about that makes the modern democratic system work, albeit in a limited degree, for the common people. That change is the free mobility that it grants labour. This is because of two reasons. First, capitalism, by its very nature, engenders competition, which would not be possible to sustain if labour is socially bound—it needs cheap labour and that can only be gained if labour is allowed to move from one employer to another. This would provide the unified labour market in which an excess of labour would make labour dispensable for the capitalists, thereby enabling them to systematically keep wages low. Second, capitalism brings with it market forces, which aim to commodify all that they can. This means that regressive social norms, which had before tied labour to the landlord, have to be done away with and replaced with a system through which the value of labour can be monetised.
This phenomenon can be observed in the Pakistani countryside with the emergence of market based farms. These farms employ labour in the same impersonal mode like any capitalist organisation through which the social aspect of labour, which sustains the system of electables, gets eliminated. Moreover, with the success of these farms, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that, in time, they would replace the traditional landlord system in the countryside in the future. Simultaneously, even in traditional farms labour is becoming far more mobile. Market forces have compelled landowners to hire contractual labourers during harvest time to minimise costs, and this has made them look for work in the cities during the period that they are unemployed. Granted this has exposed rural labour to the vagaries of the market and removed stability that comes with being tied to land, but it has also made labour free to make its own choice when it comes to voting. This freedom is a necessary precondition for the working of the democratic system. It has not been completely achieved; on the contrary far from it. Nor is it the panacea for the wide-ranging issues that inhibit voters from exercising their personal autonomy when it comes to voting. But, some solace can be found in the fact that transformative forces are set in the direction of progress. The rate may be slow, but that might as well be a good thing, given how sudden transformations in most cases create more issues than they solve.