Warts and all

Point is that in sociopolitical, economic evolutions, one cannot hope to look for patterns that are always all good.


Ejaz Haider June 12, 2012

I quite like what’s happening. Politicians, bureaucrats (civil and military), businessmen, journalists, the whole lot of them caught with their pants down. The conmen have turned upon each other and have begun to consume themselves. That’s a plus.

The minus, or at least that which remains unknown and uncertain, is whether this show will help establish some rules of the game. Exploitation and extraction can never be fully eradicated. Until Man retains the desire to create surplus, the cycle shall go on, resulting, sometimes, in works of art and other times in chicaneries and vulgarities. But rules of the game help in preventing the undesirable from getting out of hand. When you get caught, you pay for it.

Quite frankly, I am not interested in which father or son did what. What has come to the fore like much else that still needs to, has been known or partially known for a long time. Nothing new in the fact that we have been ruled, as is the case in many other states, by an exploitative elite. What is new, and encouraging, is that the warts now come to the surface. That can only be good.

Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have recently published a big book Why Nations Fail (2012). Their main argument has two strands: economic growth depends on institutions and the nature and efficacy (or otherwise) of institutions depends on the political actors in any society. In other words, whether the institutions are good or bad will depend on the interests of the political actors. Like all institutional economists, Acemoglu and Robinson define institutions as rules of the game according to which organisations function and interact with each other.

Good institutions allow for a larger spread of the gains. To use the authors’ terminology, they are “inclusive”. Bad ones, on the other hand, are “extractive”. They are perpetuated by political actors for private gains, which are almost always at the expense of the broad society. So, it’s not that the actors, or the extractive elite, do not know what’s good or bad but they have no incentive to change the template because it works fine for them. The onus of responsibility for the change is, therefore, on those who are being exploited, not those who are exploiting.

There are many problems with Acemoglu and Robinson’s work as identified by recent reviews by Francis Fukuyama and Jared Diamond. Those critical insights are important. But without getting into the debate on how exactly to define ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ or even whether ‘democracy’, ‘modern state’ and ‘rule of law’ are necessarily and sufficiently allied concepts — Fukuyama has a problem with standalone ‘democracy’ as a panacea and I agree — one thing we can agree on: unless there is some kind of pressure on the extractive elite to change the rules of the game, they will not.

Pressure itself, historically, has had two models: the good, old English gradualness and social revolutions, those great upheavals that transform the social and political structures in a mutually reinforcing fashion. Both models are rooted in different and differing socioeconomic, historical and political experiences and trajectories. My own preference is for gradual transitions, multiple ones leading to a big transformation. I held the same view during the second phase of the lawyers’ movement, drawing the ire of many, some of whom I am happy to report have since come round, though without once offering a mea culpa.

It is from this perspective that I find the current happenings rather promising. Organisations fighting turf battles in a fractured entity is always messy. When states and societies have developed such fissures, the battles are never neat, nor the battle-lines clearly drawn. Yet, it is easier to put up with obnoxious attacks and insinuations in a courtroom or in the pages of newspapers, on the idiot box or in blogosphere than by the use of the guillotine.

Lest anyone get his hopes high, it’s not going to change big time anytime soon. Many a bound there are still to go. But the direction seems right. Nor will it be linear. Take an example: the army’s political role in this country is on the decline. That is good. But this decline, helped in great measure by some exogenous factors, has come under the rule of a party whose five years may acquire legendary status in the history of Pakistan for dysfunctionality. So, how would we judge it? It depends on where one stands and what one ascribes a higher value to: army’s decline or utter lack of governance.

The point is that in sociopolitical and economic evolutions, one cannot hope to look for patterns that are always all good. Much good can come out of what is seemingly bad and vice versa. The historian who has the privilege of being removed from the immediate also has the luxury, not afforded to us, of looking at the cumulative impact after things have shaped up — for good or bad. He will see the wood where we see a lot of trees.

Finally, and this links up with Fukuyama’s critique of Acemoglu and Robinsons’ work, rule of law is more important in developing a modern state than a standalone democracy. Predictably, he cites Samuel Huntington’s argument in Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) that “expanded political participation may destabilise societies (and thereby hurt growth) if there is a failure of political institutions to develop in tandem”. Huntington himself was beholden to De Tocqueville for the sharp insight about the “art of associating” as the most important prerequisite for a democracy to work.

What we see through court cases and debates in the media — mainstream and social — is the attempt to resolve some of those nettlesome issues that have continued to hamstring this society. That even the most powerful have to submit to the law, even when they might still retain the ability to manipulate it, offers the hope that we may be headed towards developing institutions. The interim will of course be chaotic and much would also depend on external factors and threats that we are not counting in here.

Published In The Express Tribune, June 13th, 2012. 

COMMENTS (28)

elementary | 9 years ago | Reply

@ayesha_khan: I was talking about democratic government.

ayesha_khan | 9 years ago | Reply

@elelmentary: "Five years is enough time to atleast get the rules of the game right" Did Zia get them right in 11 years? Did Musharraf in 9 years? What about Ayub/Yahya period? Did the army get it right then?

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