The News on Sunday (TNS): As an academic who has returned to Pakistan after spending time abroad, how do you look at the state of Pakistan? Does it look like a failed state with no hope of redemption? Does the state need to redefine itself?
Nauman Naqvi (NN): Frankly, most — if not all — states look like failed states at this juncture. The Pakistani middle-class has a tendency to see Pakistan as singular in its crises. In general, nationalism and the territorial spatiality of the nation-state, combined with the narcissistic individualism of capitalism, together produce an involuted individual/collective self-imagination that results in an exceptionalist self-understanding: we are the best/we are the worst — in either case, we are like no other.
The discourse of decline and crisis is utterly common in the United States, e.g., as is obviously, the exceptionalist self-aggrandisement of American nationalism and imperialism.
In fact, Pakistan is not exceptional but perhaps exemplary in its critical condition — a sign of things to come as much as the way things are, everywhere. In fact, it is the inter-nation-state system that came into existence in the modern period that is today a manifest failure. The global regime of neoliberal capitalism, politically organised under nation-state communities, is immiserating social life everywhere, even as it wreaks devastation on our ecology.
Humanity is confronted with an unprecedented task of imagining and creating another form of political and economic community if it is to survive the century.
TNS: Sitting in Karachi, how do you view the phenomenon of violence and what did the state do to let it grow to this level and what must it do to bring it down?
NN: As the German legal and political theorist Carl Schmitt pointed out, civil war is both specific and endemic to modern polities. The levels of violence both spectacular and everyday, both national and global, that have characterised the past two centuries or so are unprecedented in human history. There are different stories to tell about the history of modern violence in different contexts.
In Pakistan, apart from the ongoing contestation over the nature of Pakistani nationalism (hardly unique to Pakistan, since all states/nations are artifacts in the process of being contested and made within certain parameters), in which both internal and external players participate (the Gulf States, e.g.), there is also the living legacy of Pakistan’s involvement in two major regional and global events of the late Cold War period: the Iranian revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (There are older layers of sedimented modern violence as well – e.g., the communalisation of South Asian polities under British colonial rule, and subsequently the violence of nation-state formation in the wake of formal decolonisation.)
The Pakistani state — and at the heart of it, the Pakistan Army — has made its geostrategic location a source of revenue by renting itself out to various powerful global actors, which also has direct effects on its internal society and the violence that is endemic to it.
Finally, the immiserated and soulless social life of neo-liberal capitalism — where life is perceived as a struggle for survival of all against all — is also naturally generative of tremendous violence.
Also read: What must the state do?
TNS: A private institution with a liberal vision of education is praiseworthy indeed but what about the State’s role in setting the right goals at the primary and secondary levels of education. What should those ideals be?
NN: Pakistan does even worse on global indices in terms of its tertiary education than at the primary and secondary levels. It is by no means a zero-sum game as far as levels of education are concerned. The idea that we need primary and secondary before tertiary education is a legacy of a colonial developmentalist and stagist model of history. We desperately need a strong tertiary education sector, one that imparts breadth and depth of education, in order to understand both our local and global situation.
That said, the primary and secondary education sectors are an unmitigated catastrophe. Instead of transmitting lies and nonsense to produce phony national subjects, the goal of education should be the transmission of truth, and the fulsome exercise of the faculties of reason, feeling, imagination, insight and intuition — ultimately all the means that the child, and then the student, needs to cultivate him or herself thoughtfully in the world that they inherit today.
TNS: Can we possibly have a role of religion in the state that is inclusive of all sects and ensures their peaceful coexistence?
NN: Even where the state is said to be secular, contemporary scholarship has shown that just beneath the surface are religious, or politico-theological characteristics and ideas. It is clear, for example, that the Western states are Christian, India is Hindu, etc. The question is not whether or not there is a role for religion in state and polity — the question is what form it takes. The modern imbrication of religion and nationalism is what has made the role of religion so problematic.
Premodern states and polities, certainly in our region, were far more ecumenical and universalist in their conception of religion, and therefore in the administration and practice of faith in its plurality and universality. We must revisit our cornucopious inheritances not with a view to the ‘reconstruction of religious thought’ — a meaningless and self-aggrandising self-assignment of which we are hardly capable, both intellectually and spiritually, since we are not prophets, or even saints — but to the much harder and humbler task of inheritance, which involves translation across the mise-en-abyme of loss.
We must learn what we have lost — and are even now losing at an ever-increasing pace. Our future will depend on our relation to our past.
TNS: The state is often pitched against society. What is your reading of Pakistani society which is often said to be a resilient one that compensates for failings of the state and is at the same time known to be excessively patriotic, conservative and living in a state of denial?
NN: Such generic and essentialist statements about entire populations are entirely unedifying and unhelpful. I heard much such talk of ‘resilience’ in New York after 9/11. What choice do populations have except resilience? Mass suicide?
In fact, there exists an extraordinary plurality within the multitude of Pakistan, as elsewhere. Yes, it is true that not just the Pakistani, but also the global multitude have remarkable powers of forbearance in the face of extraordinary systemic immiseration and provocation. These powers are directly linked to our ethical and spiritual inheritance in all its plurality that survives in the lives of the open communities of the multitude.
The perseverance of these powers cannot, however, be taken for granted. Given the violence of the multi-pronged assault on the poor, it is not surprising that this inheritance is being lost and/or deformed now even at the level of the multitude.
TNS: Some people suggest that the state is already on its way to course correction. Would you agree?
NN: I see no signs of such a turn of course. There is large-scale propaganda that obfuscates the fact that there is no systemic change underway. There is rather a deeper, subterfugitive entrenchment of the most deleterious forces, ideologies and trends.