Umair Javed

Book Review: The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Pluto Press, 2022; pp 192.

Within the framework of methodological nationalism that dominates so much of social scientific inquiry, Pakistan is seldom invoked as a case study to develop political theory. Barring Hamza Alavi’s efforts at drawing on and universalizing Pakistan’s experience as a particular variant of the post-colonial state, the fifth largest country in the world remains, at best, a testing ground for theoretical propositions developed elsewhere, and at worst, an insularly perceived, self-contained series of exceptions.

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar’s The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire, and Revolutionary Horizons is an ambitious departure in this regard. It has, as its starting point, a condition broadly prevalent the world over – the rise, entrenchment, and periodic tumult of neoliberal globalization and its attendant crisis-ridden transformation of economic structures across different societies. It supplements this by localizing the experience of this condition in Pakistan, specifically in the political domain, which provides the unequal configuration of power necessary for its implementation and continuity.

“it has as its subject a particular idea – “middle class aspiration” – that provides a lens to both understand how neoliberal globalization has functioned politically as well as what makes it prone to a series of economic and social crises. ”

The political in Pakistan, then, is intended to recast light back on the political elsewhere; an attempt to make sense of how the structural condition politically originates, survives, and transforms in the post-colonial context. In doing so, the book is a welcome addition, not just in its attempt at developing a theory of the politics of neoliberalism and its crises from the Global South, but from the perspective of a sizable country that is infrequently examined.

Historicising the nature of neoliberal economic transformation and the crises it breeds in an attempt to illustrate its political facets is an ambitious task, and one fraught with the risk of becoming unwieldy. This volume makes an interesting and insightful choice to mitigate against that danger: it has as its subject (and central argument) a particular idea – “middle class aspiration” – that provides a lens to both understand how neoliberal globalization has functioned politically as well as what makes it prone to a series of economic and social crises.

This choice of subject is well founded for several reasons: First, consumerist middle-class aspiration is perhaps the central concern and a key rhetorical ambition of contemporary economic discourse across the world. The neoliberal order is sustained by the successful and pervasive sale of ‘desire’ to the masses, or, put differently, ‘idealised middle class subjectivity’ serves as a hegemonic device in the conventional sense. As a key figure of Blairite Britain, John Prescott famously proclaimed, “We are all middle class now” – a frontal reference to comfortable consumption and ‘the good life’ as the ultimate dream of the late 20th and early 21st century, and perhaps a more oblique way of suggesting that class conflicts over redistribution are a thing of the past (even while the underlying conditions of inequality may still persist). In Akhtar’s framing, such imaginaries serve the dialectical function of providing both a normative material-cultural benchmark for the public, i.e. the desire; as well as a political instrument to mask the inequities and violence that accompany its attempted attainment, i.e. the fear.

Second, the contemporary importance of digital technology to neoliberal globalization and its relationship with the middle classes cannot be understated. A vocal concern for observers in the Global North since the 2000s, its impact is increasingly apparent in the Global South as well. Disinformation campaigns during elections, religio-communal and ethnic polarization through messaging apps, and the targeting of consumers using social media platforms are all features that now shape political and societal culture in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Digital technologies exemplify the most potent object of neoliberal globalization, while the aspiring middle classes have become their most pervasive users.

Third, by centring middle class aspiration as a subject of analysis, Akhtar is able to round off the holistic analysis of Pakistan’s political economy that he initiated in his previous volume, The Politics of Common Sense. In that book, the focus was on the expansion of the sphere of politics to include religious movements and the intermediate classes, who have politically asserted themselves since the 1970s, alongside civil and military state-elite (the old middle class), the landlord class, and imperialist powers, and remain instrumental for the pliant incorporation of marginalized group into the extant dispensation of power. Chapter one of this new book thus replicates that analysis and adds to it by introducing the 21st century regime of aspiration as the latest constituent of the political sphere and one that stands on the foundations of consumption and inequality laid by neoliberalization.

Empirically, the book is a rich account of both sides of the desire and fear dialectic. On one side, it covers the making of middle-class subjectivity in Pakistan’s urban and peri-urban heartlands and its intertwined relationship with digital media. Spanning two chapters, this half of the equation captures the economic structures central to feeding desire – the unleashing of consumerist capitalism during the early 2000s as well as the commodification of housing, education, and health. It also demonstrates how economic structure plays itself out in the digital space through the creation of a new public sphere, where individuals are recast not only as aspiring consumers but also as subjects playing out a series of political identities. The recreation of a public sphere and its attendant class, ethnic, and partisan cleavages, on social media and other digital platforms is, according to Akhtar, a seismic shift in how power functions in contemporary Pakistan.

On the other side, perhaps the volume’s most substantial contribution, is the narration of the darker side of the equation, i.e. the systematic and frequently violent dispossession of marginalized groups, especially in geographic peripheries, which is very crucial to sustaining Pakistan’s regime of skewed capital accumulation and consumption under neoliberalism. From the war-torn North West to ecological catastrophes along the river Indus, Akhtar leverages encounters and narrations across a vast geographic expanse to demonstrate the dark underbelly of aspiration and how it remains an entirely unattainable dream for large swathes of the population. In fact, by drawing this contrast the book is at its strongest in demonstrating how a regime of dispossession and marginalization – especially around natural resources – is a central feature of contemporary post-colonial capitalism rather than a transient aberration. It is this feature then that aspirational interventions attempt, but frequently fail, to paper over.

Throughout the text, but more so in the final chapter, the book turns to a prescriptive narration of what a possible emancipatory politics would look like in Pakistan’s increasingly connected, capitalistic, and digitalized landscape. Here Akhtar draws on his extensive experience as a progressive activist with a large array of class, ethnic, and gender-based movements to talk about the possible alternatives and more universalistic hegemonies that continue to crop-up as counter movements to the current unstable regime of accumulation. Among the reimagining of possibilities and alternatives, the one that lays out the contradictions of the current moment most sharply (and relevantly) is that of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM). Akhtar’s illustration of the PTM as an example of one of these ‘embryonic’ popular hegemonies is particularly pertinent because of the movement’s emergence at the intersection of imperialist war in the region, the ravages of local capital accumulation, and the authoritarian denial of cultural and citizenship rights that have long characterized statist power in the peripheral regions. Over and above, the movement’s use of social media to organically connect with large swathes of young people on the peripheries, and with progressive allies in the ‘heartland’, encapsulates the pervasive digitization of the public sphere that remains a central thread to the overall argument.

As with most ambitious intellectual projects, this volume too suffers from space constraints that leaves some threads under-developed. On the former, Akhtar acknowledges the role of China in enabling the current phase of globalization and for providing a blueprint of a digital-world centred on the hegemonic project of consumption. There is also a nod to the centrality of Chinese capital, in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in enabling dispossession in Pakistan’s peripheries, but it is not fully fleshed out nor is it put into a productive tension with conventional market-oriented accounts of what neoliberalism looks like.

“Akhtar clearly demarcates his deployment of the middle class as a hegemonic idea rather than a concrete social form.”

The inability to undertake a structured unpacking of what the ‘lived form’ of neoliberalism looks like in Pakistan is sacrificed for a more accessible narration. While economic liberalization is certainly a dominant theme of economic management in the country, the pervasive structures of rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and state-led accumulation distinguish the type of inequality as well as the experience of marketization and commodification across various countries of the Global South.

It is this distinction in economic structures that also plays itself out in variations across different social fractions, including the broader idea of the middle class itself. To his credit, Akhtar clearly demarcates his deployment of the middle class as a hegemonic idea rather than a concrete social form. But the idea is played out among a variety of social class fractions. A clearer empirical delineation of who exactly falls within and outside of such categories would have added further clarity.

Finally, the tyranny of the news-cycle places its own burden on any volume that seeks to explain the present and near-past. Presumably concluded during the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health catastrophe is cited in the early pages of the book as one of the many exogenous shocks that expose the inequality and brittleness of contemporary globalization, but is rarely revisited, especially in the context of Pakistan, further on. The state’s response and some recent related innovations in social protection and welfare initiatives suggest that a Polanyian double-movement based in the mainstream itself may be part of the many embryonic responses to the damages caused by marketization and commodification since the 1980s.

Overall, however, Akhtar’s book is an excellent addition to ongoing conversations about neoliberal globalization from the vantage point of global and sub-national peripheries. As a volume on Pakistan, it sustains a critical scholarship on social transformations and their attendant linkages with the nature of power in the country, and sets itself apart by eschewing the usual focus on high-politics and palace intrigue that dominates theorization of state and society in the country. In this regard, it is both a valuable follow-up act to The Politics of Common Sense for readers interested in Pakistan, as well as a productive contribution to the theorizing of neoliberal capitalism from a post-colonial vantage point.

Umair Javed teaches politics and sociology at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Lahore, Pakistan.
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