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Rethinking Pakistan’s Political Economy

Both statist or Islamist Pakistan undermine the vast array of processes that are at work and feed into the nature of Pakistan’s state and society

Rethinking Pakistan’s Political Economy

This paper examines how the political economy of Pakistan has changed, both in theory and reality, when one considers the country as it actually exists today, and identifies the problems and challenges in trying to theorise about the new political economy. It is a critique of how the political economy has been constructed in Pakistan, especially with regard to the state and the military (perhaps for understandable reasons usually seen as one and the same), ignoring the actually existing country. Since Pakistan has changed in so many fundamental ways, one needs new ways of looking at the state, the military, and its society.

I begin with a brief summary of what theorisation has existed, and for this assess the contribution of the country’s main theoretician of the state and its political economy, Hamza Alavi, to show how he envisioned the state. I then examine some critiques of Alavi that suggest new ways to build on his work, where relevant. I also examine some new formulations about how Pakistan is seen, especially in the context of Islam, 9/11, and some institutions. I identify some of the major changes that have taken place in Pakistan’s social structure and its broad political economy and how the state functions. Following this, I turn to identify the restrictions or problems that exist in providing a systematic analysis of Pakistan’s political economy. Unlike many countries in south Asia and elsewhere, it is difficult to look at trajectories of the Pakistani state in evolutionary terms or on the basis of social structures and path dependence, or what Kaviraj calls “a combination of structural processes and conjunctural openings”. The old debate on the autonomy of the state – relative or otherwise – with regard to social structure and class formation poses an interesting challenge. To what extent does Pakistan’s social formation and social structure inform the behaviour and nature of its state?

Theorising the Pakistani State

Despite a number of eminent scholars and academics, there has only been one serious attempt of any significance theorising on Pakistan’s state, but, importantly, not its society. Alavi’s 1972 article and its subsequent reorderings by him (1972, 1983, 1990) have defined, unfortunately for far too long, the limited debate on the state in Pakistan. His thesis of an “overdeveloped state” laid the path for all scholars looking at the state in Pakistan to follow. This is not the place to examine whether Alavi’s simplistic structuralist interpretation of the state in Pakistan was a faithful and careful explanation at that time. For, much work has been built on this erroneous foundation, and any serious scholar in Pakistan today would certainly recognise a very different state and class structure in the country. One could even argue that Alavi’s analysis is irrelevant to what Pakistan is today and the theorisation is merely of historical relevance because the country is very different now by every account.

That all scholarship on the state in Pakistan owes its allegiance to Alavi speaks less about his intellectual insight and prowess than the inability of Pakistani intellectuals, academics and scholars to think for themselves. Alavi’s analysis laid the foundations for an unchanging, static, statist mode and model of analysis, which still dominates discourses on social change and the nature and foundations of the state in Pakistan in the fields of political economy, sociology and political science. However, there are some notable exceptions that have opted to evolve different paths, looking more at the social structure – that is, the country as it actually exists – than what was considered to be the omnipresent and overbearing institution of the state and its core components. While there were and still are numerous flaws in Alavi’s analysis, perhaps the inability to examine – or even understand and recognise – social forces must stand out as his biggest failing. That numerous scholars after 1972 have not recognised or corrected for this failing illustrates the poverty of ideas among Pakistani scholars examining the country’s state and society. Only with it becoming amply clear that Alavi’s highly statist analysis does not help in explaining Pakistan today has recent work emerged that is free of the earlier rigidities.

I briefly summarise Alavi’s key arguments about the nature of the state in Pakistan in 1972 through the work of Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, the most recent and thorough interpreter of the overdeveloped state thesis. Akhtar critiques Alavi’s formulation and builds on it, highlighting significant weaknesses and adapting it to the present socio-economic and political formation of Pakistan. Following this, I provide some pointers that may help in designing and developing a further understanding of Pakistan’s state, its classes, and its institutions.

Simply put, Alavi’s argument is based on the notion that a nexus of power exists in Pakistan between landlords, the military, the bureaucracy, and what he calls “metropolitan capital”, which, based on Pakistan’s colonial legacy and evolution, has resulted in an “overdeveloped” postcolonial state presiding over an undeveloped or underdeveloped society. It is the military-bureaucratic “oligarchy” with the three propertied classes of landlords, industrialists, and metropolitan or foreign capital that has kept what can be called Pakistan’s political settlement in place, perhaps too functionally and rigidly. One of Akhtar’s many critiques dismisses Alavi’s “static conception of structure that underlies his understanding of the overdeveloped state”. Using a Gramscian framework, he brings in an analysis of the political and cultural spheres, which were missing in much of the neo-Marxist analyses of the 1970s.

As Akhtar reminds us, not only was an analysis and evaluation of society missing in most of Alavi’s work, but also that of resistance and of the working classes. As he argues, “While Alavi’s model of this state has offered much insight into the legacy of colonialism and the state forms it left behind, arguably the most gaping hole in his theoretical treatise is the lack of attention paid to the politics of the subordinate classes, or in other words, the working people upon whose exploitation the entire system of power rests”.

There seems to be a complete absence of the dynamics of change and transition in Alavi’s work, and one wonders how a theory of superstructure could have been so easily formulated while ignoring social and class dynamics.

Read next: Role of Intermediate and Propertied Classes

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One comment

  • It is a good attempt for a”Thought Provocating ” and Brain Storming” Sessions for the State and the People of Pakistan .

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