Where’s the Resistance At?

A review of Aasim Sajjad Akhtar’s The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society and Culture in Pakistan

“The truth is that people are more conscious of the system’s injustice (nizam ki na-insafian), but less convinced that anything can be gained by rebelling against it”

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar describes his book The Politics of Common Sense: State, Society and Culture in Pakistan as an attempt to “put together a somewhat grand narrative of continuity and change that can improve our understanding of contemporary political economy, social mores, and the daily play of power relations”. He takes us through several key moments in Pakistan’s history since the 1970s to help uncover why the potential for counter-hegemonic politics, transformative strategies, and collective class-based struggle has waned in recent years. The book aims not only to tackle this big question, but also to offer an alternative to security-centric narratives of Pakistan’s political history.

A broad swath of political science scholarship treats instances of collective action in its various forms as puzzles in need of explanation. Why do men rebel? Why does anyone ever cast a vote? Why do people participate in protest? These are the kinds of questions that animate seminal works in our discipline. A point of agreement in many of these works is that collective action is prohibitively costly and highly risky, and it is only under certain conditions that individuals would choose to engage in it. 

The question animating The Politics of Common Sense is the opposite: why we don’t see more concerted movements of resistance in Pakistan in the present moment? Why is it that under conditions of deep inequality and subjugation, subordinate classes -- who are largely excluded from the spoils of a patronage-based political system -- continue to acquiesce to the status quo?

For some of us, there’s the obvious facetious answer: “the costs are too damn high”. Akhtar himself admits this in Chapter 5 when he notes: “Counter hegemonic ideologies and active political movements of resistance have to contend with the everyday compulsions of ordinary people seeking to survive the system.” I found it fruitful then to approach the book as a rich account of how the actual and perceived costs of ‘counter hegemonic’ politics have come to be so high in Pakistan, while the perceived benefits of participation in a patronage based system have come to be higher still.

It is worth pinpointing precisely what Akhtar expects resistance to, and what form he thinks it ought to take. The target is a by-definition exclusionary patronage-based political order, which was institutionalized by during colonial rule, has since undergone massive transformation, but remains inegalitarian. Akthar notes several instances of resistance and mobilization in recent history, but they all fall short of what is required for a “genuine overhaul” of this order. The best approximation of what he is looking for is the class based mobilization of the 1960s and 70s in Pakistan, with trade union organization, peasant movements and student politics at its peak, and a sense that “the whole world seemed to be headed inexorably towards revolution”.

Akhtar seeks to explain the decline in such resistance by examining political history since the 1970s through the lens of what he calls the dialectic of coercion from above, and consent, or legitimation from below. Both coercion from above and consent from below are necessary to sustain the patronage-based political system as the “common sense politics” of the day. Indeed, coercion alone can instead facilitate, and create the conditions for counter-hegemonic politics to emerge. A point of departure from other work on the post-colonial state in Pakistan (most importantly Hamza Alavi’s work) is his envisioning of the state as more than just a coercive apparatus and focusing on its strategies of accommodation and cooptation to create consent from below.

In Chapter 2, Akhtar points to the change in the demographic composition of the bureaucracy and military services as one such strategy: “More than ever, individuals that populate the services hail from the same social background as the people they seek to administer/control”. He argues that this composition allows for personal relationships that facilitate everyday practices like sifarish (favors), and make higher rungs of the bureaucracy “permeable” for citizens. Akhtar suggests that while certain members of urban middle classes deem practices like sifarish and rishwat (bribes) as corrupt, these practices are --especially at the low level of bureaucracy -- the stuff of common sense: “anyone who doesn’t acede to the system is considered stupid”.

Although, Akhtar is dismissive of “anti-corruption populism”, it is worth considering what implications this rhetoric and associated strategies have for these everyday practices. Sameen Mohsin explores this in her piece titled “Good Sifarish, Bad Sifarish”, where she describes how the incumbent Punjab government has publicly championed anti-corruption policies to “break the idols of sifarish” but the implementation of such policies remains discretionary. On the surface, this neatly fits Akhtar’s framework under which piecemeal anti-corruption measures will still operate under, and ultimately reinforce a broader logic of patronage. However Mohsin’s note of the feeling among junior and mid-level bureaucracy that such measures target them, rather than the high bureaucracy is telling. The discretionary implementation also potentially undermines citizen’s access to the state via lower rungs of the bureaucracy, which Akhtar sees as central to maintaining consent from below. A key point in Mohsin’s piece, that is underemphasized in this book, is the extent to which politicians themselves rely on access to patronage to satisfy voters. In the face of discretionary reform, a place to look for resistance may be from disgruntled elites who end up excluded from patronage bargains rather than just their clients.

Chapter 3 of the book focuses on the “intermediate classes” comprising aarthis (agricultural middlemen), thekedaars (sub-contractors), transporters, urban shopkeepers and traders. Their cooptation into a system of patronage is both part and parcel of how the system has transformed since the 1970s, and also key to its persistence. On the one hand, these classes have come to share in the spoils of capitalist development and thus have little incentive to engage in a politics of resistance. Simultaneously, Akhtar suggests that the intermediate classes project an image of upward mobility to subordinate classes and as such, raise the perceived benefits of acceding to a prevailing logic of patronage. This is a compelling and seemingly plausible claim, but there is little empirical evidence for it in the book.

The actual prospects for intergenerational mobility in Pakistan are sorely understudied (for an exception, see Javid and Irfan (2010) who use data on fathers and sons to study occupational and income mobility). But the factor of interest here is the perception of mobility rather than objective prospects. An important caveat to this logic is the potential for an aspirations gap: if exposure to the intermediate classes raises aspirations that ultimately go unfulfilled, this may create dissatisfaction and unrest. Healy, Kosec and Mo (2018) test this logic using a survey experiment conducted in rural Pakistan, and find that priming the possibility of economic mobility alongside relative poverty reduces self-reported support for government among those with high aspirations. A worthy complement to this study, that draws on Akhtar’s insights, would be to test the effect of exposure to intermediate classes on individuals’ aspirations, and perceptions of relative poverty and mobility.

In Chapter 4, Akhtar turns to the religious right and the role of religious mobilization in legitimizing the politics of patronage in Pakistan. Although the instrumentalization of Islam by various state and non-state actors is by no means a new topic in the study of Pakistani politics, an important contribution of this book is focusing on the economic and political aspects of this strategy, rather than just ideational ones. Despite “epic invocations of Muslim unity” and claims to challenge the status quo, Akthar argues that the religious right has largely sought to participate in rather than overhaul the system of patronage-based power in Pakistan. Concurrently, its appeal should be understood, at least in part, as an alternative means for subordinate classes to access the state and claim a stake in status quo politics.

The book also outlines the explicit linkage between intermediate classes and the religious right, particularly the urban shopkeepers and traders, and the religious right. This alliance dates back to urban trader associations’ support of the opposition movement mounted against Bhutto by the Pakistan National Alliance (a conglomeration of conservative religious parties). Akhtar notes the ideological affinity between urban shopkeepers and traders, many of whom are former Gulf migrants and were exposed to Wahabi Islam during their time abroad and the religious right. However, he argues that the instrumental purpose religion serves for traders in providing legitimacy for their profiteering is essential to understanding this enduring alliance. For those interested in this topic, a detailed treatment is available in Umair Javed’s piece “Profit in the Name of Islam: the Bazaar-Mosque Relationship in Pakistan”, which includes careful case-studies of Nankana Sahib City and the Shah Alam Market in Lahore.

The book closes with a consideration of the instances of resistance that have emerged and persisted within the grander scheme of politics of patronage. Akhtar is unsurprised by such acts of resistance and sees them as an inevitable product of conditions of subjugation. Although he admits that everyday acts of resistance can produce short-term shifts in bargaining power and improvement in material conditions, they are ultimately “unspectacular”, as they do not challenge the larger system of power.

Akhtar is pessimistic about the emergence of a transformative politics of resistance, absent a change in the very culture of politics. He closes with a musing on replacement of class-based politics with the idiom of the “middle class”. This harkens to Devesh Kapur, Neelanjan Sircar and Milan Vaishnav’s survey-based piece on the middle class in India, in which they find that middle-class self-identification is linked with higher social aspiration and greater economic optimism. They argue that this self-identified middle class is less likely to be driven by ideology, and more focused on upward aspirations, which is in line with Akhtar’s suggestion.

However, Akhtar seems to regard the Pakistani self-identifying middle-class’s aspirations of upward mobility as apolitical by definition, and laments the loss of a politics that represents people’s class interests. Although Akhtar actively refutes notions of false consciousness, they appears to creep back in here with his insistence on a need for moving away from the articulated aspirations of those who perceive themselves middle-class, towards their “real” class-based interests.

Undoubtedly, the tension between aspiration vs. ideology is a challenge for ideological leftist politics in Pakistan. The book convincingly shows how the potential for an ideological politics of resistance has declined due to coercion from above and consent from below. But there is perhaps some space for looking at the role of the left in its own demise. There is a story to be told about a movement that failed to adapt, and it would have been interesting here for Akhtar to draw more explicitly on his own experiences and challenges with political organizing in Pakistan to reflect on this. Moreover, such stock-taking seems necessary if some form of this politics is to re-emerge.

When reading this book just a month before Pakistan’s general elections, it is difficult not to wonder how democratic and electoral politics fit in (or don’t) into its framework. Electoral politics and political parties are largely missing from the book, except in the epilogue where Akhtar notes their incentives to deepen democracy and strengthen their position vis-à-vis the military, but their discernible lack of incentive to challenge a patronage order in which they have considerable stakes. Although he does not explicitly say this, my hunch is that in the absence of strong ideological parties, Akhtar would view voting largely as a vehicle to gain access to the patronage based state. However, it is worth thinking about how electoral politics has transformed the nature of contemporary patronage politics in Pakistan, but also the possibilities for empowerment afforded by electoral politics, even within the confines of a patronage based system.

A relevant book to watch out for on this is Shandana Mohmand’s upcoming Crafty Oligarchs, Savvy Voters: Democracy Under Inequality in Rural Pakistan in which she tackles both questions, first tracing how traditional patrons (landlords) now compete amongst themselves for vote bloc members based on access to politicians and bureaucrats, and can no longer rely just on their landed power to remain relevant. Second, she explores the varying ability of voters to strike better bargains for themselves through negotiation and contestation within these blocs. In the urban context, Cheema, Liaqat and Mohmand (2017) find that municipal service delivery is better in areas with a higher density of party workers (who essentially transmit demands up to higher politicians) and greater competition at the provincial and national constituency level (where politicians have greater incentive to respond to these demands). Anecdotally, as incumbent politicians return to their constituencies to begin campaigning for re-election, there have been several documented instances of voters confronting them for their failure to deliver during their term in office. An especially poignant moment is of the exchange in DG Khan where an incumbent boasted of the 42-km road he had built, and a member of the crowd responded that they got the road due to democracy, not personal favor. Akhtar is not wrong in saying that mainstream political parties would prefer not to overhaul an exclusionary patronage-based order, but we must not undermine the power of electoral pressure in forcing them to adapt and re-strategize to at least share the spoils more equitably.

Overall, this book is a very exciting addition to a broader body of recent scholarship on Pakistan’s political economy. For the reader less steeped in Marxist political theory, the conceptual framework may prove difficult to access. I myself admit this limitation. However, there is plenty to take away even without this orientation. Most exciting perhaps are the new questions and avenues for empirical research raised by the book on its own, and especially when put in conversation with other work.

Sarah Khan is a PhD Candidate at Columbia University; she will join the Yale Political Science department as Assistant Professor in Fall 2019. In Pakistan, she is affiliated with the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, Lahore. Her research focuses on women’s political participation in Pakistan, and the politics of gender inequality more broadly.

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