Shahrukh Khan

A review of Rosita Armytage’s Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micropolitics of Wealth in Pakistan.

It’s a Friday night in Islamabad’s Gol Market, located in one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods.  

A pearly white Toyota Land Cruiser pulls up curbside: aluminum rims, sport fenders, extra side-view mirrors atop the hood, blacked-out windows, and a tinted windshield. The works. A group of friends disembark for a nearby restaurant, and a mustachioed chauffeur cautiously parks the V-8 next to a bevy of other snazzy cars.  

Teeming about the collection of high-end restaurants are stereotypical figures that saturate the rank of Pakistan’s upper air: light-skinned customers and dark-skinned workers, English brandishers and Punjabi speakers, indigenous foodies and foreign cooks. Such an arrangement is common in other exclusive eatery-complexes in Islamabad, like Beverly Centre or Kohsar Market.

Among the many American-themed places that pepper the neighbourhood’s epicurean landscape is one called “Howdy!”—a Texas-inspired burger joint with services that might intrigue the average Westerner.  A 25-year-old is celebrating her birthday and the restaurant has apparently arranged a custom-made cake for her. Young, proletarian waiters are taking pictures of the birthday girl and her friends. Customers of a more conservative persuasion occasion furtive, feverish glances at the collection of the girl’s insufferable, flashy guests and obnoxious aura. Some men, perhaps loafers, are grateful to simply witness the celebration unfolding before them, so that they can catch stares and glimpses of women—after all, that’s why they came there in the first place. The food—pricey as it is—was simply an excuse.

The capitalism that has materialized in Pakistan is taking the country in new directions—one that defies prevailing notions of what it means to be a capitalist society in an increasingly globalized world. The country’s complex public vivacity inspires painful, confusing reflection on how long contested and oft ambiguous concepts like “class” or “status” or “mobility” can capture the messy peregrinations of socioeconomic life in a country of frustrating contradiction.

Anthropologist Rosita Armytage is the latest to explore these issues, locking in on Pakistan’s ultra-wealthy. In her new book, Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micropolitics of Wealth in Pakistan, Armytage weaves in exciting stories with sociological theory in what makes for a worthwhile read.

Studies on class in Pakistan have tended to focus on the interaction between mobility, aspiration, and religious piety—Ammara Maqsood and Humaira Iqtidar have done important work on this. Iqtidar has looked at how pious Muslims, especially mass proselytizing groups such as the Tablighi Jamaat, avoid questions of power or inequality as they fit their religious aspirations into a neoliberal framework. Maqsood, in her study of the consumptive habits of middle-class Lahoris, argues that part of being modern is buying modern religious items and services. She also shows how consumptive patterns are different among the middle-class and the elite—and that the specific patterns of consumption among the middle-class reflect a contestation and challenge to the elite based on the difference in geography of vendors that sell religious items, and even the value attached to specific items themselves (some consumers see amulets as superstitious).

Armytage takes class analysis a step further but also narrows it, because the subjects of her study are neither seeking to change the hearts of the impious or looking to challenge anyone in an attempt to move up the class and social ladder. Armytage’s interlocutors are intensely committed to maintaining the status quo. And if change is to occur, it will be on their own terms.

The full range of this scholarship occupies a unique place among the company of indispensable studies of class in Pakistan, and in years to come, so will Big Capital—whether as a point of departure or as an object of critique.

Pakistan’s Elite

Armytage’s aim is to understand how and why the Pakistani one percent operate. Armytage anchors Pakistan’s distribution of wealth to the country’s short, volatile history that enabled and dislodged particular groups, their power, and their wealth.

She ultimately suggests that Pakistan’s elite have become proficient in navigating regional trade and foreign investment, refusing to suspend cultural practices that outsiders would perceive as corrupt. It is not uncommon for industrial business-folk to schmooze with bureaucrats or send kabobs to a police superintendent in return for favors down the line, such as access to import licenses or scarce raw materials. Armytage shows how these interactions are held behind closed doors, even as they are talked about quite openly. As Zahir, the owner of a major media company, boastfully put it to her:

?To be successful in business in Pakistan you need affluence, connections, parties, socializing…I keep a budget for entertaining and parties. I know everyone. I have all the powerful big boys on my speed dial…Anyone who is big enough has access to these devils. My family is responsible for fifteen per cent of the parties in Lahore— for those who matter, that is. It is only a handful of people who host these types of parties.

For Armytage, longstanding “primordial” affiliations—permutated to incorporate emergent, post-1980s new money types (or “Navay Raje”)—are what encapsulate and push the substance of wealth creation and distribution in Pakistan today. Navay Raje have shattered the dynastic monopoly that a handful of families have had on the country’s wealth, even though inequality continues to soar. Having broken into the establishment, Navay Raje now jealously guard their strategic position in society. They are adept at taking advantage of globalization by, for example, attracting foreign investment and Howdy’s-style fast food chains—but on their own terms:

?The Pakistani elite retain a hyper-provincialised, highly localized form of business and finance that contradicts widely-held assumptions that the world is transitioning towards an era of globalized and standardized capitalism.

The localized panache of business in Pakistan resists the notion that the world is becoming more capitalistic in the Euro-American sense of the term. In fact, Armytage argues, Pakistan is a highly capitalistic nation that may offer more valuable insight into how the world operates “at large”.

Under such an arrangement, international private equity funds or investment banks cannot enter the Pakistani market without tapping into the local network of elites who act as gatekeepers to economic opportunity. Conventional standardized legal architectures that normally facilitate these types of transactions are thus of little use.

Exclusive Interlocutors

Armytage’s custodial interlocutors (mostly male) are of an exclusive preserve, but they are personalities average citizens know well. They speak in sometimes raspy, often affected voices while puffing their cigarettes or liberally consuming alcohol and snorting cocaine in private residential parties—where the vast majority of elite social incest-fests occur. The semiotic implications of wealth in Pakistan could not be more salient: these individuals and families are gatekeepers in the most literal and most figurative sense of the word.

The reader comes away with the impression that Pakistan’s elite have not attempted to forsake their mammon. They never had a reason to. If in our neoliberal moment, governments have become weaker in checking the power of wealthy individuals and institutions, then evident from Armytage’s analysis is that such an arrangement was baked into the very foundations of Pakistan. Not because someone like Mahbub-ul-Haq, the country’s finance minister under General Zia, was trained at the University of Chicago. The country never needed a Friedman or a Mont Pélerin Society. The political holdover from a colonial past and the challenges that came with building a country for South Asia’s Muslims spawned enough complications—incentives perhaps—for the complex of militaristic, bureaucratic, and political scaffolding that came to dominate state-making in the decades following independence. Hence, a culture of anemic regulation and rent seeking became standard techniques of civil society and statecraft.

Whither Race?

A departing point on Armytage’s positionality is worth mentioning. Speckled throughout her analysis, she self-consciously acknowledges how her positionality as a foreigner and as a woman affect interpretation and observation—a practice common in Malinowski-style ethnographies. But do her acknowledgements go far enough? Skin color and race hold more weight in Pakistan than she gives them credit for. One is reminded of the monkeyshines of a white American woman by the name of Cynthia Ritchie, a self-styled blogger who has found herself at the center of controversy in Pakistan. In her apparently benign attempt—accompanied by acerbic Twitter fights with critical, mostly liberal Pakistanis—to portray Pakistan in a positive light, Ritchie has attracted great condemnation. Critics say that Ritchie is a military prop—given her glowing, but selective portrayals of the country—and receives preferential treatment among Pakistan’s elite because of her race.

A common theme that runs through multiple socioeconomic strata in Pakistan (and certainly South Asia) is the aspiration for lighter skin, green or blue eyes, and even slim noses. Physical and epistemic realms of social practice—whether in Gol Market, the Islamabad Club, or showbiz—within which the elite exist, treasure, produce, and amplify such traits. Race is a remarkably important relic of the colonial yesteryear, one which Armytage spends curiously little time discussing—both in a self-reflexive and outwardly analytic capacity.

But in an age where technologies of difference like race or ethnicity have assumed doxological purchase in the domain of secular academia, perhaps it would be more prudent to nonetheless evaluate the merits of her arguments more straightforwardly—a position that the largely progressive discipline of anthropology would no doubt scoff at.


In a true scholarly form, Armytage deploys ethnographies like a blacksmith slams his hammer: to shape and define, solidify and congeal, and meaningfully weld together disparate narrative elements of otherwise banal and ordinary character. She deserves our thanks for that, and much more.

The darkening gleam of Pakistan’s wealthiest offers a troubling forecast about the viability of greater economic progress for what is now the world’s fifth most populous country. What’s more is the woefully inept tenure of a Prime Minister who promised far more than he could deliver on. Imran Khan maintains great popularity among the ranks of the comparatively wealthier and educated diaspora, but he could not be more detested by swathes of middle- and lower-class Pakistanis at home. His elite opposition has spared no effort in carping him either. If Big Capital can presage what is to come, then it is that the collection of wealthy, powerful actors will see to it that they get their way. And they will do it with or without the impeccable, swashbuckling political cavalier who furnished assurances of a Pakistan that would look starkly different from the one Armytage portrays.

Shahrukh Khan is a JD candidate at Emory University School of Law. He was formerly a high school teacher in New York City and graduated from Harvard University with a BA in Social Studies.
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