Pakistan’s Problems: Letter from Berlin

By Bettina Robotka

Dear Anjum,

First, a word about that unspeakable article of Hitchens. He obviously has never lived in Pakistan and doesn’t know anything about its people in reality. Part of his argument is emotional – an emotion that is negative, an emotion of ridiculing and contempt. Whosoever has lived in Pakistan knows that the people on the ground in their majority are neither humorless nor eager to take offense, but warm, hardworking, hospitable and very much tolerant. Actually I always thought that they are too tolerant, they should take offense much earlier. I think they are not very brave in the sense that they go and risk in order to fight injustice, but that is also related to the fact that they are not individuals who think and care only about themselves and that their right and welfare was most important but they are family people who feel responsible for those depending on them and would not want to endanger the welfare of the family for some abstract or concrete injustice. They have accepted me without much asking; have taken me into their custody though I was nobody to them. One should never analyze a society without knowing the sounds and smells of it.

Now, I agree with much what you have said in your write-up. In the first place with the fact that we can not look at Pakistan in isolation but much what has to be said is right for the rest of the subcontinent also. After thousands of years of common heritage and two hundred years of unified development under British colonial rule the last sixty years make only a relative difference. According to my understanding, honour killing which is so much in the focus of BBC and CNN is due to the fact that in a pre-modern tribal society the idea of honour is very much important and women are regarded as the custodians of the husband’s or the family’s honour. That must be related to their roles as mothers who are the ones who transfer the values of the society to their children. So when a daughter misbehaves it is especially the mother (together with the rest of the family) who feels accused of having failed. Only this way I can explain to myself that mothers are approving of and help the killing of their daughter if she has ‘misbehaved’.

I fully agree with your first hypothesis that colonial intervention (which was a form of globalization because it drew the colonies into the world market and that in a dependent, underprivileged position) cut off independent indigenous development. I would insist that in this process the economic factor was most important. We don’t know if capitalism would have developed on its own in the subcontinent if the British had not colonized and thus brought and implanted parts of their capitalism into India, as far as it suited them by creating indigenous junior partners. They introduced the idea of private property of land which was missing in India (1793 Permanent Settlement) and other British (European, Western, capitalist) legal principles which created havoc in Indian society. But this type of ‘development’ or ‘progress’ implanted from the outside into Indian society (top-down) was not the same as if it had developed on its own, rooted in the land and the people in accordance with their lifestyles (bottom-up). My hypothesis is that the colonial type of capitalism which was brought into India by British has created much of the trouble that the subcontinent is facing today. Because of the top-down mode it took roots only in a very small part of Indian society and left large parts unchanged in its pre-capitalist, pre-modern state of affairs. While Indian capitalism in the Indian Union today is slowly making up for the deficits  that the colonial introductions had created, still only a part (if a growing one) of Indian society is capitalist; still large parts of Indian society are out of its scope.

Now, Pakistan comprises of the areas which were constituting the fringes of British colonial India where the introduction of capitalism was weak (Sindh) or even absent (Balochistan, KP, GB).  Those areas were even hardly under British rule like Kalat/Balochistan or the tribal areas, Swat, Dir and the whole North of Pakistan and consisted of territory which was accessible only with difficulty and agriculture or industry were too difficult or impossible there. That is why capitalism is weakest in Pakistan, much weaker than in India. That means pre-capitalist and pre-modern influences in society remain dominant. The Pakistani state thus being dominated and ruled by a pre-modern, feudal landowning and tribal elite has been reluctant to modernize society and introduce capitalism because that would have undermined their own power and hold over the people who depend on them, who work for them and make them rich, and who vote for them.

It is this situation which creates havoc in society: Pre-modern societies are community-based (tribe, clan, caste, biradri) and not individualized the way capitalist societies are. The values of a pre-modern society are different and in collision with those of a modern society (collectivism against individualism, hierarchy against equality, cooperation against competition, self-sufficiency against making more and more money…). The trouble comes when a pre-modern society is confronted with and judged by modern principles and value standards, when what is right in your family or village is not right any more in the outside world (city, workplace, TV). The West is trying to impress modern values onto Pakistani society through IMF, NGOs, modern education. US, apart from their role as occupiers, are representatives of that modern world which is rejected because it undermines the traditional values. In addition, the West feels superior and looks at pre-modern societies as inferior. This is a part of the explanation why there is not much love lost for US and the West. (The Islam question and the war on terror question I leave out.)

Finally, I come to your second point: the neo-liberal stage of capitalism. As far as the analysis of capitalism is concerned I remain a Marxist and even think Lenin has something to contribute (see his Imperialism – the highest stage of capitalism. I read it with my students in Karachi CBM; we had really good discussions). Based on that I think capitalism as all the other stages of development of human society go through a kind of cyclical development: an ascending stage when it develops and expands and the positive aspects are stronger than the negative ones, then reaching a zenith when positive aspects are at maximum and balance the negative ones; and then a descending stage when the balance between the positive and negative is changing slowly towards the last.

The philosophy of this model of Marx is that capitalism is going to exhaust itself and something new will have to come which he thought was communism and both (Marx and Lenin) tried to hasten that process by planning and creating a revolution. Even if that last part has been proven wrong so far, what Marx and Lenin say about capitalism seems basically right to me. One can disagree with me on this account but I have to explain it because it is the basis for my understanding. Now, capitalism has never been able to tackle the problem of poverty; the very principle of it (competition) makes sure there will be always winners and losers. Even Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (largest good for largest possible number of people) which are at the bottom of capitalist ideology concedes that the ‘good’ will be there for the largest possible number but not for all. And history of capitalism has shown that this ‘largest possible number’ has been decreasing step by step in the West as much as in the East. We have growing poverty in Germany and US and a widening gap between rich and poor which the welfare state is unable to bridge any more. In Pakistan there has never been a welfare state and that is why poverty is hitting much more people much harder. Liberalism is the cover name for free looting by the rich and strong of the poor and weak in a globalized world. Liberalization of economy means take away all checks and give multinationals free access to your country and economy to suck out the best through it. Multinationals are under pressure to get the most out for a cheapest price, they can’t afford anything else in a competitive market. So liberalization is this stage of descending capitalism which makes the few rich richer and the many poor poorer.

Another problem in Pakistan which you are mentioning is the Pakistani state and its dismal performance. The Pakistani state is a post-colonial state which already says that it is a modern state designed to rule and manage a modern society and economy. Given the facts we have just been stating about Pakistani economy and society it becomes clear that this state is alien and by the values it is founded upon unacceptable and/or incomprehensible to a pre-modern society be it its feudal or tribal elite or its poor masses. That is why after the exit of the British, Pakistanis were unable to run this state properly and to identify with it. While it continued to function on the rules the British left for a while after their departure Pakistani elites could not own it, all they did was they learned how to use it in order to stay in power and get the most out of it for themselves. A state which can now not any more perform the task of a state – to provide security of life and property to its citizens, to serve justice and retain law and order, organize economy and administration and to collect taxes for that – is bound to be rejected and thus failing. It also creates the idea in the minds of the people that they want another state, a perfect one (in their imagination) without all those flaws – an Islamic state, for instance.

Well, what to do with this? Though there seems to be not much time for contemplation before Pakistan tends to descend into chaos one still should contemplate if insisting on introducing the Western model of modern capitalist state and society is feasible or could be termed ‘progress’ if and when it succeeded. It would have to eradicate all pre-modern social structures and values and create single, self-centred and greedy individuals who mercilessly exploit all others in competition and think that their own personal and individual rights are superior; let the rest go to the dogs.

Regards, Bettina

Dr. Bettina Robotka is a historian and a Senior Researcher at the Seminar of South Asian History and Society, Humboldt University, Berlin. She has taught in Karachi.


  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 08:10h, 03 July Reply

    Bettina: Many thanks. I read it in conjunction with this opinion on Tagore’s ideas about competition and cooperation in India.

    Written some eight decades ago, Tagore’s thoughts stemmed from these concerns: the growing concentration of economic power and the destruction of rural India. He wrote: “Today our villages are half-dead. If we imagine we can just/ continue to live, that would be a mistake. The dying can pull/ the living only towards death.” (from The Neglected Villages, 1934).

    We could discuss if this offers an alternative future that is more compatible with the social formation in the subcontinent.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 14:34h, 03 July Reply

    I broadly agree with Dr. Robotka’s analysis that Pakistan is a semi-feudal, semi-tribal country that was on the borders of South Asia and so relatively out of reach of the way capitalist development occurred in the more central parts of India. This has allowed the persistence of more group-based identities rather than individualist identities.

    Based more on intuition than evidence, I find the hypothesis of caste-driven dynamics made by Aakar Patel in the previous post rather far-fetched. Economic development is a deeper movement and has the power to completely disrupt caste – as has happened in India where there are even growing numbers of dalit “rupee billionaires.”

    But the question of individual identity is nevertheless an interesting one, especially because Islam seems to conflict with caste but not with tribe and clan. So what are the dominant forms of social identity in Pakistan?

    Never having been to Pakistan, I would like to know more about what the major cities of Pakistan are like. Are they like Bombay and Delhi in some broad sense and, if so, are they robust sources of capitalist development? Are they attractors of rural migrants? What are the identities of the elite in Pakistan like? Are they like those in India and also the West?

    While I agree with Dr. Robotka that capitalism is “bad,” I agree more with Marx that it is infinitely better than feudalism. As he said in the Paris manuscripts, society is about the Aristotelian goal of maximizing the powers of individuals, and capitalist societies allow for a far greater development of individual powers than any other earlier forms in history simply in virtue of the development of science that occurs within it.

    And I feel that Pakistan has not been able to follow a path of capitalist development like India for two principal reasons: one being post-colonial interference from the outside as Anjum has been pointing out and the other being the presence of a politicized Islam since, I think, about the 1980s. Unfortunately, Dr. Robotka says she is going out to leave out the Islam question. Why? Is it to be politically correct? It is the elephant in the room that no one seems to want to discuss.

    Since many comparisons with India have been made in the last several posts, I think the two factors mentioned above outline the key differences with India. But for some reason only the first of these have been discussed and the second internal factor has shifted to the improbable factor of caste.

    A further question I have is about the Pakistani economy about which I know very little. I believe it has been growing at a reasonable rate. What is its broad composition and is there hope for growth?

    I agree with Dr. Robotka that it would be nice if capitalism were superseded and replaced by something more humane, but we have now had over a century of experience with various revolutions and it behooves us to first think through how things might actually work in a post-revoltuionary society. In this context, I personally found the article on Tagore quaint: noble-minded but, sadly, completely out of touch with reality.

  • Arun Pillai
    Posted at 23:18h, 03 July Reply

    In my post above, I asked, “What are the identities of the elite in Pakistan like? ” I meant to ask about the identities of the *business* elite. What is their typical caste background and does it matter?

  • Foqia Khan
    Posted at 07:34h, 04 July Reply

    Excellent review. Just two points: with the circulation of money, part pf Pakistan cannot be termed pre-capitalist. With the circulation of money as a commodity, capitalism permeates the boundaries of seemingly pre-capitalist modes of production. Pakistani is not really feudal in the Marxist sense. Serfdom does not exist in Pakistan. It has large land-owners. For analysis of much sloganeered feudalism in Pakistan, it is helpful to read Akbar Zaidi.

  • mazHur
    Posted at 21:33h, 22 July Reply

    Pakistan has just ONE problem: Bad Leaders.

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