The mirage of middle class revolution

The middle class is incapable of bringing change in a praetorian state like Pakistan

Change seems to be the new anthem exciting the people of Pakistan. Crushed or pulled apart by two opposing influences, people want change. On the one hand, there is the humiliation of being endlessly poor and powerless, suffering from a moth-eaten political system. On the other, there is the burden of an image of a pariah state that has resulted in reduction of opportunities for an average Pakistani. There are several diagnoses and an equal number of prescriptions.

However, what seems to have caught the imagination of many, especially in large urban centres, is the idea of replacement of the traditional elite comprising of feudal landowners and industrial-business elite by the middle class. The latest political narrative being spread through the media and newer publications talks about the growing power of the middle class. There are at least two books published in 2011 that repeat the middle class mantra. But will this emerging middle class bring the much-needed change in Pakistan?


Photo: Benny Lin

In sociological terms the concept of lower, middle and upper classes developed as a response to the rigid and deterministic Marxian definition of class. However, as experts point out there is no consensus on what constitutes these different categories, especially the middle class. Every society though has its own variation. For instance, while looking at Pakistan, the middle class must be divided amongst three levels: lower, middle and upper, as well as on the basis of location such as urban versus rural middle class. According to Nayyab, the middle class represents the middle position on the continuum of wealth, power and prestige.

“In the wealth continuum middle class can be presented by individuals who are neither rentiers nor unskilled labourers. On the power continuum they can be the people who are not as weak as to carry out the commands of others but not as influential to achieve their goals despite opposition. Similarly, they cannot be individuals who receive little respectful treatment nor the ones who are entitled to deferential and respectful treatment”.

There are three estimates of the size of the middle class: first, 20 million; second, Ishrat Hussain’s 30 million; and third, Durre Nayyab’s 61 million. Nayyab’s definition uses the concept of ‘extended middle class’. Without getting into the issues of definition, it is noteworthy that the growth of the middle class is accompanied with increased urbanisation. In fact, Pakistan has the fastest growth rate of urbanisation in South Asia. The estimated growth rate of urbanisation for 2005 is calculated at 35 percent. According to Arif Hassan, this urbanisation also includes migration from rural to urban areas. About 8 percent of the total population(1998 census) comprises of migrants, out of which 63.7 percent have migrated from rural to urban areas. Another important phenomenon is the growing number of urban centres. For instance, in Punjab alone there are five large cities (population around 10 million), 15 intermediate cities (population around 5 million), 74 small cities (population around 1 million), and 114 towns (population less than 50,000). This number will increase after the new census.

As far as the nature of the middle class is concerned, the bulk of the rural middle class represents medium-sized (less then 100 acres) farmers and the burgeoning trader-merchant class that live in towns or small cities but have cropped up from villages and depend on the agrarian economy. The rural-urban borderland middle class, on the other hand, comprises trader-merchants, small businessmen and professional class belonging to various vocational groups in intermediate cities and large cities. The purely urban middle and upper middle class includes the bulk of the state bureaucracy such as civil servants and military, the burgeoning media, judiciary and legal community, the NGO sector and professional expatriate Pakistanis that are keen to build their influence in their home country by remaining central to its politics. The case of Ghulam Nabi Fai, an expatriate Kashmiri leader based in the US and some of his friends that were allegedly part of the ISI’s operations in Washington, DC is a case in point.

One of the primary assumptions is that this extended middle class works for and is an instrument of change. It is also believed that this class aims at a new agenda that represents departure from the traditional elite. Since the middle class is an intermediary class that has the potential of transforming into the upper class, it desires an environment that supports upward mobility. In Pakistan’s case, the upward mobility of the middle class thus far has been in the form of economic growth accompanied by very slow political growth. Hence the argument is that the empowerment of the middle class will result in a drastic change in the country’s power structure. Some even argue that such empowerment will trickle down to the lower classes as well. The subtext of this change theory is that empowerment of the middle class will bring liberal-secular modernity to the country. The political movement led by Imran Khan or Pervez Musharraf and a few others is viewed as representing the ethos of the middle class. People like Shoaib Hashmi have defended Musharraf’s coup on television programmes on the basis of the general representing middle class ethos.

Does this middle class have the capacity to bring a real change based on political liberalism? No. Here is why it is not possible.

First, as some would argue that Pakistan actually does not have a middle class but an middle income class. This differentiation is due to the inherently pre-capitalist nature of the socio-economy that has not gone through the same experience of industrialization as Europe where the entire argument of the middle class was based. Second, the middle class cannot be politically progressive as it is a product of a praetorian society and political structure that is driven by politico- economic factors such as the link between military dictatorships and the middle class. The economic growth of the extended middle class is linked with a praetorian state system that is based on kleptocratic distributive system. There are two aspects of it: one, according to Akbar Zaidi, the regimes of Generals Ayub Khan and Zia-ul- Haq and Musharraf built and provided fillip to the middle class in terms of enhancing its economic potential which creates a bonding between the military regimes and the middle class; and two, given the praetorian nature of the society, which means it is driven by an authoritarian instinct, the political process remains dependent on military authoritarianism even under civilian governments and the distributive system kleptocratic. Not surprisingly, this group of people is inclined towards authoritarian rule, especially by the military, rather than support the democratic process. Most recently, new political movements denoted by urban- based political parties such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI, the justice party) run by the former cricketer Imran Khan espouses wrangling political control through the army’s help. This in Pakistan is referred to as the ‘Bangladesh model’, a form of a middle class coup meant to eliminate traditional power centres.

The military in Pakistan, which is also considered as representing the middle class interests, is inclined to insert a ‘clean’ party in the political process. In any case, the armed forces, which form a sizable chunk of the middle class, are inclined towards their organisational control of politics of the state, indirectly if not directly. Therefore, the middle class is not necessarily inclined towards a democratic process. Such a behaviour is directly related with the absence of means to negotiate political power through legitimate means. The society has become so deeply praetorian that it cannot imagine a change without force. The middle class aligns with faces rather than values and principles resulting in a situation where particular groups will align with set icons in the name of liberalism or radicalism.

Third, a glance at the behaviour of various groups that fall in the category of extended middle class shows that it has an authoritarian nature. The media and the legal community, for instance, are as inclined towards force as the elite. So there is no basic difference between the two.

Fourth, the divide between the middle class and the elite may be imaginary as the various classes are linked and so the extended middle class is partly an extension of the ruling elite. Historically, the urban middle class grew into the elite, which Hamza Alavi categorised in his work as the indigenous bourgeoisie and metropolitan capitalist. The state has always had a direct role in elevating groups from one class to another. The British state, for instance, made many middle class players, who worked as its contractors into upper middle class and later the upper class. Similarly, the deep state or the establishment in the country has supported various groups and propelled them or kept them in power. Hamza Alavi expounded upon this factor at great length. Describing and explaining the linkage between the various power centres or classes is certainly one of his biggest contributions. In his seminal work that explained Pakistan as an overdeveloped state, Alavi hypothised about the linkage between the various elite groups and the manner in which their interests were served and protected by the military and the civil bureaucracy. The state evolved as a bureaucratic state in which the bureaucratic forces were more powerful and the politicians to legitimise the former’s power. Although Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal has vehemently challenged Alavi’s perspective, the fact of the matter is that it is Alavi’s paradigm that aids in understanding the peculiar behaviour of Pakistan’s power politics.

It is important to understand the power structure and behaviour of power politics to understand why the middle class may not be the agent of change. Pakistan has a power structure in which power is a continual process that does not stop but changes face and perhaps colour. The middle class, which is being imagined as the focal point of power in the future, has actually never been out of power.

Let us also not forget that one of the major components of the middle class is the military and civil bureaucracy that has undergone a class transformation as well. A recent research done by Shuja Nawaz and Christine Fair highlights the changing colour of the military as being more urban middle class. This is not a recent phenomenon but something that had begun to happen after the 1950s when the indigenisation of the officer cadre forced the military to increase its induction and so it could not be limited to just the elite families. The intake into the two bureaucracies has a strong middle class component. It is another matter that there is a class system within the bureaucracies as well in which the echelons integrate smoothly with the rest of the ruling elite mainly due to common interests. However, those at the bottom of the ladder aspire to get to the top and thus become protectors of elite interests. Or those at the bottom of the ladder have been made to believe that it is through their association with a particular organisation or interest group that they can further their own interests.

People like Fahmida Riaz and Shoaib Hashmi, among many others, failed to understand the peculiar construct of the country’s power politics. Had they read Hamza Alavi and understood his underlying philosophy, they might not have been confused by Musharraf’s personality. It would certainly not take them much time to understand that the middle class may be the background for many in the military and civil bureaucracy but, once at the top, the echelons are integrated into the elite and represent elite interests rather then that of their original class. Power wipes out their original memory or association with the lower-middle or middle class except for some superficial values or belief system.

The power structure has resulted in the evolution of a praetorian society or what Alavi used to call the pre-capitalist socio-economy which means a combination of feudalism and post-colonial capital. Most important, force, authority and even violence is central to the social structure. The formula is not liberal at all. So, we have to think hard when we talk about rampant feudalism in the country. It is fashionable to say that the middle class will become a source of ending feudalism when the fact of the matter is that the feudalism’s physical shape has changed. The 2008 Parliament,for instance, has about 25 members out of a house of 342 with over 100 acres landholding. Not to forget the leadership of parties like the PML-N, PML-Q and Jamaat-e-islami that have a middle class background. Even the current PPP leadership, a party usually associated with feudal-landowners, has become a mix of rural and urban middle class with peppering of traditional elite. This is not the defence of the feudal-landowners but it is to understand and explain how it is not necessarily kinship that cuts across class, sect and cast which determines the power of an individual or a group. In addition, it is how a particular group is connected with the power centre and included into the kleptocratic distributive system.

This system determines both the distribution of power and resources. Thus, the state and its establishment plays a critical role in determining who will be powerful and what kind of power each will have. The establishment is the permanent power which comprises of primary and secondary players. Over the decades since independence, the arrangement of these players has changed. But in the past five decades, the military and civil bureaucracy have been almost like permanent members of the establishment. One of the reasons for this is the state authority which is critical for power politics. Today, the media, expatriate Pakistanis and even jihadis are part of the relationship. These actors are certainly not part of the traditional elite but the middle class. However, they have risen to become part of the new elite which is as exploitative as the old one. But the hatred and dislike of the traditional elite, the emphasis on religion and militant-nationalism, are some of the tools to generate a narrative that helps control the society and the ordinary people. Controlling the narrative or influencing the mind of the masses through a discourse is central to establishing the hegemony of the establishment. In a conversation I once had with Hamza Alavi, he explained to me how the same forces that apply real-politique rules for their actions then emphasise moral-politique. This is mainly to establish hegemony which is a triangular equation comprising of: “political power + economic power + intellectual control”.

The military-dominated establishment has in 64 years created a sophisticated formula for generating a narrative and building partners that cut across all ideological divide. The liberal and the conservative and the radical are all in some form of partnership with the establishment, most certainly in the extended middle class. The lower class or the dispossessed are too uninteresting for the establishment to partner. The machinery for generating the establishment-friendly narrative is so extensive and well-oiled that it has almost completely dominated all means of producing and communicating the narrative. As a result, the society, especially the middle class has structured itself along two axis: neo-liberal-nationalism and right-wing-radical-nationalism. While the neo-liberal-nationalism axis depicts an authoritarian and top-down model of economic and political development marked with the expansion of a national security obsessed middle class and ruling elite, the right-wing-radical-nationalism axis denotes growth of religious radicalism and militancy as symbols of geo-political modernity and being anti-imperialist in nature.

It is due to the fact that all stakeholders take strength from the praetorian culture that it is impossible for them to formulate things in terms of liberal values and democratic principles. For instance, the supporters of PTI and its leadership do not believe in following the democratic means for change. Rather, they want to use extra-constitutional methods to bring a change that would then represent middle class rule and democracy. Similarly, the representatives of the middle class even though they are liberal, have little patience for any alternative perspective such as disagreement by ethnic minorities. There is, in fact, greater acceptability for the use of violence against ethnic minorities or any other group that disagrees with the central narrative. The formula of the upcoming middle class, hence, is not only a contradiction in terms but denotes praetorian behaviour of the society. In any case, the middle class is not liberal, secular and politically progressive. The middle-class politics is actually about initiating the process of re-formatting the power political structure rather than any deep-set structural change. The establishment, which had supported a certain type of players, is now keen to replace them with others. Therefore, it is not that pre-capitalist socio-economic structure is changed at all or feudalism discarded but that there are newer actors who have become the neo-feudal such as the media barons, media practitioners, significant members of the legal and judicial community and the militants.

Today, it’s not merely coincidence that militant organisations hold jirgas and enforce their version of justice in certain areas of Punjab and Sindh. They have acquired this power due to their association with the state and the establishment which does not allow its law enforcement agencies to really apprehend the jihadis. One phone call and the friendly ones captured by the police are freed. Like the traditional feudal- landowners that had grown powerful in the past in assistance from the civil and military bureaucracy, the militants and other groups mentioned earlier have risen to a level where they cannot be challenged due to their association with the establishment. Today, the militants question the power of the feudal-landowners resulting in a change in the power equation. Consequently, there is not a single political party or group that does not have a linkage or partnership with the militants. Violence and unquestionable power is the name of the game as far as the country’s politics is concerned.

It is not just the traditional elite or even the new elite that recognise the growing power of the militants. The new rural and urban middle class, especially in the emerging urban centres contributes resources

and supports militant organisations and madrassas. For those who get passionate about supporting the seminaries as part of the local culture, the fact is that the old madrassas were tied to the local culture but not the new ones are burgeoning all over the place. In the past 6-7 years, for instance, more than 2,500 new madrassas have been established in rural Sindh. These are the ones with high walls and no connection with the local culture or people. The middle class contributes because it sees the militants as a possible source for renegotiating power in a system where power cannot be renegotiated through non-violent and legitimate means. This kind of middle class, hence, is what can be defined as representing right-wing- radical-nationalism axis. Interestingly, this trend can be found amongst the more educated urban middle class living in large cities as well.

Last year, I conducted a study on the socio-political attitudes of youth in elite universities in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. One of the surprising findings of the study was that their world view was not very different from that of the madrassa trained youth. The militants are seen as representing a force that can fight for and serve the national cause vis-à-vis the external world, especially the United States. This is the same thinking that is echoed by liberal leftist thinkers like Tariq Ali or many others without calculating the cost of such association for the state and the society. In other words, the other axis, which is neo- liberal-nationalism, is indirectly tied with the other axis. The common denominator is nationalism, a trend worth looking at because nationalism produces different results including fascism.

In Pakistan’s case, there is a greater likelihood of extreme forms because of the praetorian nature of the society. In any case, the neo- liberal-nationalist represents Pakistan’s neo-conservatives the bulk of whom may not support the militants or the radicals but swing towards the military and the state establishment. These neo-cons, in fact, have increasingly been swinging towards a more non-religious-militant nationalism. This group usually considers itself as liberal because it is anti-mullah. However, it is not politically liberal and more inclined towards partnering with non-religious elements amongst the military as a guarantor of ‘liberal security’.

The bottom-line is that the middle class formula that is being espoused by some segments of the elite as a harbinger of great change and transformation is nothing more than a bid to carry out some cosmetic restructuring of the political scene without altering the norms of politics or the basic structure of the state system. Pakistan is a praetorian society which means that it is mired in or inclined towards illegal and excessive authority and violence. Different segments of the society tend to partner with various actors that possess means of force and violence to renegotiate power.

Will this trend change? The answer is not in the short to medium term. There is no magic wand that can change the way this society operates. There are people who suggest that given some changes in the political system, greater democratisation of the political parties, more sensibility by the politicians and other such means Pakistan will change into something akin to a new shiny coin or close to it. Others believe that installing systems will bring the change. The mantra is bringing change from within.

None of these tactical methodologies will work beyond a short span at best. The situation must be weighed against the nature of the power political structure. The current day Pakistan lacks the societal sensibility to calculate the opportunity cost of praetorianism that would lead them to think of switching from the ‘roving bandits’ to the ‘stationary bandits’ formula. While studying Pakistan, it is instructive to remember the economist Mancur Olson who wrote about kleptocratic distributive system and the problems of over-plundering. According to Olson’s concept of roving versus stationary bandit, roving bandits enforce a higher cost on the settled community/town/village that they pillage. By engaging in collective over plundering, the roving bandits impose a negative externality on the society resulting in depletion of resources. This ultimately reduces the dividends for the bandits as well. The stationary bandits, on the other hand, are rational; since they settle down in a community, and agreeing to willingly protect the society against other roving bandits in return for economic gains. The entire paradigm is based on negotiation of mutual interests. Applied to Pakistan’s case, this means that the ruling elite the emphasis is on over-plundering at the cost of the masses and the country’s well being. The middle class is also part of the kleptocratic cycle.

Since the country is generally dependent on external sources of income, the current over plundering has not resulted in an urgent realisation for transformation. Perhaps, a state and society continually in a mode to beg and borrow from foreign sources or means not internal to the economy cannot begin to comprehend the significance of domestic re-engineering. This behaviour is reflective of the feudal tendencies of the society, or the ruling elite. The Pakistani middle class or those that represent middle class interests are no exception when it comes to plunder. Incidentally, these middle class forces including the state bureaucracy and some political parties also suffer from a feudal attitude. The use of force and coercion is similar as one hears in stories about the jagirdars. In fact, jagirdars have proliferated. Nevertheless, the mantra of the middle class as an agent of change is extremely powerful. People can hardly guess that the middle class suffers from praetorian behaviour mainly due to the fact that education and access to sources of information puts them in a position where they can ably manipulate image and analysis. Surely, the voice of the poor farm or factory labour in remote parts of the country is less likely to reach the elite than those with access to media. Education is an enabling tool as far as influencing image is concerned.

At this juncture, there is nothing short of structural change that will do the trick. Pakistan needs a regime change, which does not refer to a shift from civil to military or vice versa, but a real structural change. Most formulas are long-term including the age- old method of injecting more democracy to kill bad democracy. We always forget that a single election does not bring democracy. Every time the process is interrupted, the machine has to be started once again. So, every interruption, no matter what form it takes, brings the system back to where it started. Not to forget that we have an unnatural environment of the establishment constantly interfering with the process of electoral democracy. Referring to the theoretical framework presented by Hamza Alavi, it has also become difficult to separate the grain from the chaff as the civilian powers are connected with the establishment or are its secondary or primary partners. There is this inherent flaw in Pakistan’s socio-political system that may not repair until there is a direct conflict between the power fraternity and the dispossessed. This means more suffering until we get to a point where a genuine demand for change is generated and people are moved to combine forces and alter the structure rather than replace a face.

Some might consider this as nonsensical but can Pakistan even dream of bringing about a change without acquiring tools for transformation. Pakistan needs its genuine historians, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers and scientists to conceptualise a metamorphosis. This is no mean idea but its only with the birth of sociologists like Hamza Alavi and Feroz Ahmed, historians like Aziz Ahmed, scientists like Abdus Salam and many others that Pakistan will step on the path of change. Pakistanis have to get praetorianism out of their bloodstream to become sane again.

Adapted from the Tenth Hamza Alavi Memorial Lecture