IN comparing Western societies with Myanmar, North Korea or most Central Asian ones, one is struck by the contrasts. Western societies are vibrant and creative. Their states give citizens the freedom to explore, make mistakes, even fail, learn and adjust. This unleashes citizenship initiative and creativity and produces economic, social and political novelty in the shape of excellence in new product development, management techniques, sports, arts and political activism. Western states have their problems, including high inequality and anomie, eg in the US. However, their dynamism and creativity are beyond doubt.
On the other hand, we have the Asian states listed above. One hardly hears of their individuals or companies excelling in any of the three spheres. The few flashes of excellence that one sees, eg North Korean gymnastics, emerge from harsh, state-enforced discipline. Governance is highly autocratic. The state intrudes heavily in the social and private spheres and keeps a close eye on the private lives of citizens.
Any digression from state-dictated social and political boundaries is crushed. Citizens live in constant fear of surveillance and usually toe the official line. Media and social media are badly gagged.
The state controls large segments of the economy. Economic returns are largely tied to high contacts and rent-seeking activities, eg from natural resources, state permits, etc. Thus, they are stagnant societies as autocratic states crush individual initiative so much that societal creativity and productivity in all three spheres disappear. The end result is usually ugly. The states undertake extensive repressive measures to keep citizens subdued, as in ex-USSR and North Korea even today. In multi-ethnic societies, this leads to endless civil wars, as in Myanmar, and even state break-up, as in ex-Yugoslavia.
States able to break out of autocratic stagnancy usually receive quick dividends in the shape of higher social, political and/or economic dynamism, like in former Warsaw Pact states, China and Latin America. But the move is not always from stagnancy to creativity. Some states take steps backwards. Unfortunately, that list includes Pakistan. Clearly, it is not as stagnant a society as Myanmar and North Korea. But the movement is in reverse gear.
Large segments of the economy are stagnant, producing the same old low-value goods for decades and deriving large rents via their contacts with state elements. There is a heavy imprint of the state on economic activities both through direct production and regulation. There is the production done by regular state-owned enterprises that one sees in many states. But Pakistan is quite unique that one state institution that is usually not involved in economic activities elsewhere is involved here. All this reduces space for private initiative and creativity and creates monopolies and rents.
In the social sphere too, there is increasing surveillance. Social behaviour is expected to conform to vacuous brands of religiosity and patriotism and even positive deviance is heavily censored by state and allied retrogressive religious elements. Critical thinking is discouraged and there is little space to experiment. The crackdown on media and social media is growing. Here too, the driving force comes from the same institution.
Finally, there is the bottom-up stagnancy of patronage and dynastic politics, which is made worse by the top-down stagnancy coming from constant political manipulation and absence of civilian sway. Predictably, this too is imposed by the same institution.
The end result is increasing stagnancy in social, economic and political spheres. One can see creativity and initiative being sucked out of the nation’s bone marrows before one’s eyes. The populace is fast being converted into programmed robots, with a tiny minority desperately trying to maintain its freedom of mind against all odds.
In field after field, we are increasingly failing to innovate, compete and excel. So will Pakistan end up like North Korea or more likely like multi-ethnic Myanmar?
The good thing about Pakistan so far, unlike Myanmar, etc, has been that past periods of autocracy didn’t last more than a decade, as society revolted each time. But then, those past periods of autocracy, being overt, were easier to revolt against. We now have a period of covert autocracy where the real face of autocracy is hidden behind a democratic façade and thus better protected against anger and revolt. Thus, it is critical to call a spade a spade and openly say this is not democracy at all. Perhaps it is time to launch another Movement for the Restoration of Democracy. Political parties, being compromised, may not launch it. But will civil society rise to the occasion?
The writer is a political economist and heads INSPIRING Pakistan, a progressive policy unit.
Published in Dawn, September 8th, 2020