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Status quo and its illusions

In times of crisis the status quo will find both defenders and detractors. But in Pakistan the last thirty days reveal that the meaning of status quo is itself in dispute — and that this dispute is an interesting one

Status quo and its illusions

Status quo: the literal meaning of the phrase is ‘the state in which it is’. ‘It’ could be anything, a political system, a society, an institution, an ideological tradition, or a relationship. In times of crisis the status quo will find both defenders and detractors. But in Pakistan the last thirty days reveal that the meaning of status quo is itself in dispute — and that this dispute is an interesting one.

The standoff in Islamabad shows that there is a political dispute about what the status quo is. Generally, in the modernist politics of the twentieth century, whether on left or right, ‘status quo’ means habituated ways of thinking and doing that prevent experiments in change, which become the target of attempted reform or revolution. Maintenance of the status quo certainly is in the interest of those who benefit from it, but to their critics’ unending mystification, the multitudes that do not benefit actively perpetuate or passively tolerate the status quo.

Change-seeking politics situates itself in the gap between the illusions they harbour about status quo and reality of their situation. It ought to be possible, whether through critique or propaganda, though the experience of structured political participation or charismatic leadership that effects something like a conversion, to get people to turn from illusion to reality, to act in their own interest. ‘Own’ can mean different things in different political traditions; but a collective subject such as class or nation, or an individual or aggregate agent, can all be meaningfully exhorted to change the status quo if ‘you’ want to see a better world.

As against this, defenders of the status quo point to another kind of reality that can be imperiled by change — the reality of what already exists. They point to the risk of instability and failure, the danger that blueprints for a better world are out of sync with customary life and human nature as we know it, and the danger that parties and individuals promising change cannot be trusted because they don’t know themselves what they are doing. How can they, when it has never been done?

These positions are notional poles along a spectrum which is diverse and complicated, with yet-to-be discovered shades. Nor can we say that thinkers in the socialist and liberal political traditions have always blindly sided with change and status quo, respectively. A cursory glance at twentieth century political writing will tell us that thinkers classed as conservatives have taken the indictment of status quo as perhaps the most critical modern problem. It will also tell us that socialist and radical thought in the same period has been equally concerned with how its own political and pedagogic practice and epistemological commitments have never been able to shut the door on forms of status quo.

 In reality, the army has strong options on either side of the divide. As one of the biggest investors in the state as it presently exists as well as the most frequent instigator of regime change, it can choose without contradiction to play the saviour of the ‘system’ or its nemesis.

In Pakistan, there seem to be two competing versions of the status quo, and they seem to be magnets for different kinds of contestation and solidarity, which keeps one clear line of antagonism from developing. Version A of status quo locates it in the military’s monopolisation of key aspects of political power, and holds it to be the cause that inhibits continuity, stability and civilian supremacy, and therefore reasonable power-sharing arrangements. Version B identifies status quo with the political ‘system’, immutable and loaded against political actors who are not embedded within existing elite political networks and their modes of governance. Military supremacy, in this version of status quo, is regarded only as an element in the system (rather than its antithesis, its ‘other’) and often underemphasised.

Analysts may conflate these two into one, based on ‘real, material’ causes, but it might be that in terms of rhetorical registers and public perception they have diverged. And this divergence makes them politically significant.

The first group appears to think that achieving stability, and institutionalisation that favours civilian supremacy, will be the biggest blow to the status quo. The second does not recognise managing stability and achieving continuity as the decisive victories against status quo that the first one does. This may explain why military involvement does not seem as dangerous to B as it does to A. The army has repeatedly acted to disrupt continuity and give ‘new starts’ another chance, which makes it a tempting partner.

In reality, the army has strong options on either side of the divide. As one of the biggest investors in the state as it presently exists as well as the most frequent instigator of regime change, it can choose without contradiction to play the saviour of the ‘system’ or its nemesis.

The fact that the army acts against the ‘system’ above all in its own institutional interest does not seem to carry much weight with anti-system protestors. All politics has a blind spot, and this one is particularly egregious in Pakistan’s context where military domination has been the context of so much political struggle.

However, we are not interested here in the ‘real’ lessons of history, the real vectors of change, or in adjudicating between status-quo A and B. Let’s also leave aside for the moment conspiracy theories, even true ones, that see the hand of an apparently omnipotent army behind every protest that reaches a critical magnitude. The fear of instability, an object of fear among those who strive to institute a civilian supremacy, has little traction with the system refuseniks: Why? Only because they’re after a cynical self-interested power grab through unscrupulous, unconstitutional means? Maybe. But we are assuming for the moment that not everyone among group B has the political motivations of a Sheikh Rasheed.

It is not really surprising, in a way, that as the strength of the army as a puppet-master becomes ambiguous, that the consensus of the last two decades about what counts as status quo should also wilt a little, if not wither away. In a situation fraught with multiple meanings and possibilities, the othering of anti-democratism by identifying it neatly with the army may become subject to complication. A shift is taking place: it is no longer so certain that the other of democracy is necessarily the military regime. Democracy can be against itself. As a writer not-so-famously remarked, “the alternative to democracy can always be represented as a democratic alternation.”

Coming to the PTI: it’s not difficult to see that it shows a preponderance of B-type thinking, but the Javed Hashmi episodes and its continuing negotiations with the government also suggest that it, too, has elements that recognise both versions of status quo. There has been some interest in the question of whether PTI is a populist movement. It might be the case that PTI’s is not a sufficiently populist politics because there are too many antagonisms in the house for the person or the party to become a sufficiently polarising one. A successful populist cause brings together various political demands that cannot be met through present institutional arrangements into a clear front of antagonism. It claims, symbolically though not necessarily numerically, to represent the ‘people’ against the status quo. But in Pakistan, as the germ of protest under military dictatorships, the cause of institutionalisation is itself becoming a somewhat popular cause.

What might refract the force of any one populism? Perhaps a contending popular movement traversing the same terrain, claiming that the problem is not that the system is corrupt, but that the system is not sufficiently stable, resilient, capable of doing the things it should be normatively capable of. The achievement of status quo in this sense is a cause that unites the liberals and sections of the left and right.

Sociological analysis proceeds by constructing a ‘common substance’ for analysis. It does not always serve as the best lens to spot the divisions that appear in things that are apparently the same — in other words, the political process of becoming. PTI is certainly vying for the domination of Punjab, and derives from the same physical, socio-economic and cultural space. And yet there we might be witnessing evolving distinctions between the same and the same — between Punjabi and Punjabi. If their rhetorical strategies continue to diverge, they may crystallise the emergence of different kinds of political outlooks.

This will not make life easier for those who correctly identify what is missing from this political theatre of becoming: the voice of the poor and the marginalised, a progressive politics whose own battle against the status quo will surely take different forms if it were to be successfully articulated. The premise of equality — and not just social equality — in which the left tradition is grounded is a powerful force against any politics of closure, even those it proposes for itself. But in the absence of left parties from both parliament and popular discourse, we can only speculate on what this articulation can look like.

But already we can see some of the complications that might arise. Is the presence of women at the dharnas a sign of social progress or not? Identify them as the elite, in terms of the common social substance, and it doesn’t look like it. Hear the words and mark the gestures, and another picture might emerge.

Should a progressive politics look for clear lines of antagonism to emerge? What might be its own interests, its own alternatives?

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