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In And Beyond Pakistan’s Civil-Military Divide

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Some commentators argue that all questions of democratization can only be addressed after the “main issue” – i.e. the civil-military divide. But could a single-minded emphasis on civilian supremacy be the result of a poor understanding of why procedural democracy has never taken root in Pakistan?
Ayyaz Mallick considers the problem.

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A Stagist view of Democratic Struggle

The Maulana’s Azadi March and its public back-and-forth with the Imran-Bajwa status-quo has once again reignited the age-old question of “civil-military imbalance” in Pakistani polity. For progressives (ranging from liberals to leftists), the latest iteration of dharna politics has brought to the fore a particularly vexing conundrum: the establishment is this time fully behind the government (for all purposes, running the government), while the march for “civilian supremacy” and democracy is being led by a religious party with a decidedly regressive take on social issues (e.g. gender, Ahmadi persecution etc.).

Thus, the contours of the debate among progressives are not surprising: while some berate the Maulana – and his fickle allies – for being anti-establishment at their own convenience, others advocate for (critical) support for the March. This latter tendency chooses to focus on Maulana’s demands regarding military interference in politics and ostensibly places the institutionalisation of procedural/formal democracy as the first step in any kind of positive change in the country. At a deeper level, it is advocated that questions of ideology and of substantive democracy (such as class, gender, and regional inequalities) must take a back-seat – and in fact, be subordinated – to the more immediate questions of the civil-military imbalance and distortion of liberal-democratic norms in the country.

At a surface level, this fixation on the civil-military divide may be seen as an obverse of the fixation on “corruption” as the root of all evils in Pakistan. As far as “corruption” is an empty signifier, which by coming to stand for everything stands for nothing at all, a mere ruse for selective accountability and perversions of the Praetorian Guard, it is not even worth considering as a serious line of demarcation. However, while we sympathise with those advocating for the primacy of the civil-military divide in Pakistani polity and their championing of democratic space and norms, the stagist view of democratic change promoted therein is fundamentally limited and unlikely to be of help in the institutionalisation of even formal democracy in the long run.

At a deeper level, such a stagist view – which subordinates questions of substantive democracy in a temporal lag to formal democracy – shares much of its worldview with the outdated precepts of modernisation theory. Thus, much like modernisation theory, the stages of “development” become so many uni-directional steps towards industrial development and “take-off”, without considering the historical and world-scale accumulation contexts which keep some polities in the state of underdevelopment and others as permanent winners of the world capitalist system.

The fixation on civil-military divide, too, is indicative of such a stagist understanding of democratisation, which – while not misplaced in its aims – is limited precisely by dint of misunderstanding the means to achieving these aims. In an analogue to modernisation theory, such a view of procedural democracy is limited by virtue of discounting of the wider historical and social context in which the civil-military divide and the expanding perversion of democratic norms has taken root in Pakistan.

The Incoherence of the Ruling Bloc

To understand why the temporal priority on formal democracy vis-a-vis substantive concerns makes “civil-military imbalance” the invariantly primary faultline of politics, it is important to understand how the civil-military divide has come to play such an important role in Pakistan. To emphasise, it is not that the civil-military divide or the struggle for formal democracy is an unimportant structuring faultline of the polity, but that our conception of its origins and social bases are important determinants of how politics is assessed and strategy formulated. The social bases of these faultlines are elaborated briefly below.

The unstated assumption of the votaries of the primacy of the civil-military divide is a conception of a state conceived in abstract terms i.e. as an “independent”, even supra-societal body of institutions, each with their defined remit and functions ensuring the protection of life, liberty, and property. Thus, what remains of political struggle is to correct the “aberrations” and deviations from this liberal-institutionalist homeostasis, with the distortion of military encroachment and the struggle against it taking the form of calls for “civilian supremacy” and procedural democracy.

A more historicised and less abstract view of the state, of course, sees the latter as the institutionalisation of class power. State power and struggles are thus integrally linked to the condensations of power and domination in spheres such as the economy and civil society. In this view, the institutionalisation of the procedural norms of liberal democracy and its vacillation at the hands of civil-military tussle is not a “distortion” from the abstract (and even market-like) “norms” of the liberal-institutionalist state. But in fact, the latter themselves are tied to the historical rhythms of struggles both within and outside the reified spheres of the state.

As such, the primacy of the military in the polity is not simply a perversion of abstract norms, but an indication of the historical structuring of the whole social terrain in Pakistan. To ensure their stable rule, any class or group of ruling classes must decide as to who among them would be the leading group i.e. which class or fraction within the ruling bloc will rule in their name and give its particular interests the form of universality. This is the political level of hegemony, one which requires giving real concessions both to intra-ruling bloc partners but also to those outside the ruling bloc (i.e. the majority of the masses).

In Pakistan, the crisis of the political level consists exactly in this inability of the ruling classes to decide upon its leading group i.e. which fraction will rule in their name over all others. However, it is important to understand that this inability is no mere moral or subjective failing on each contending group’s part which can be corrected by everyone coming onto the proverbial “same page” with regards to the military’s role in politics. It is in this context of a limited political project, with contending fractions unwilling to brook concessions to others (and to the vast masses), that the Pakistani military – with its centrality to the colonial and later neo-imperial/Cold War project, its expanding footprint in political economy, and its centrality to the dominant ideology of Islamic Praetorianism – comes to form the articulating principle, the guarantor of last resort of a weakly hegemonic order.

However, this is not the whole story (otherwise, we would be back in the same terrain of the “primacy” of the civil-military tussle). In fact, this inability to form a stable hegemonic bloc, the constant one-upmanship among contenders, their lack of scruples upon the “rules of the (liberal democratic) game”, is itself rooted in their social and objective failings, in the fundamental incoherence of Pakistan’s dominant classes.

As indicated above, any kind of stable hegemonic project, requires giving real social and economic concessions to the masses. However, if one looks at Pakistan’s history – especially in the post-Ayub era – what is distinctly obvious is exactly this lack of a coherent economic project, which can both anchor the accumulation of the ruling bloc and provide substantive concessions (such as some kind of welfare state) to the vast majority. Since the eclipse of the highly unequal Import Substitution Industrialisation (ISI) project of the Ayub era, the ruling classes have had no stable accumulation project of their own. In fact, even during the Ayub era, the coherence to this ISI project was provided via US imperialism (which sponsored close to half of the Ayub-era Five Year Plans) and colonial exploitation of East Pakistan (which provided 60% of foreign exchange and 40% of the market for West Pakistani industrialists).

With Bhutto’s Islamic socialism having floundered on the world-wide economic crisis of the 1970s and the prevarications of Bhutto’s own narcissism and contradictory social base, Pakistan’s ruling classes have resorted to various forms of arbitrage for maintaining some form of a coherent economic project e.g. selling one’s labour to Gulf countries and selling military services to various imperial and sub-imperial powers (such as US, China, and the Gulf dictatorships). This dependence on imperial help for any kind of coherence is amply demonstrated in the Zia and Musharraf regimes’ timely “rescue” by the US (for the Afghan wars) and in the regular resort to IMF Adjustment programs.

Before we continue, the reader must note that the question of imperialism as a source of coherence for the ruling bloc, while extremely important, is a much longer one and cannot be tackled here in this space. Briefly, such a strategic conception of imperialism and its role in Pakistani polity moves us beyond both ultra-left portrayals of imperialism “controlling” Pakistan and liberal denials of the materiality of imperialism in toto.

With a stable accumulatory project not forthcoming, concessions to the popular classes are reduced to little more than the crumbs falling from vertical patronage networks, “model development” projects, and the ever-ready and heady mixture of Islam and patriotism. It is thus the lack of a hegemonic accumulation project, with appropriate concessions for subordinate classes, that makes the political dominance of any class or fraction so fraught with danger and always susceptible to the encroachment of other fractions (such as the military, Imran-led new middle class, and so on).

To emphasise again, the lack of political coherence is itself related to the social and economic limitations of the dominant bloc. Any long-term project of accumulation and concession would involve a program of internally-focussed development via, for example, urban and rural land reforms, concerted investments in manufacturing and agriculture, elite taxation, and de-linking from imperial projects. This, of course, the dominant classes are incapable (and not simply, unwilling) of doing, because it would undercut the social basis of their own power, the logical conclusion of such an inclusive and substantive social project being the end of their own royalty-like privileges (the DHAs, the Avenfields, the Qatari letters, and the Surrey Palaces). And thus, the constant dissatisfaction and unstable absorption of popular masses into these weak economic-political projects always makes one fraction of the ruling bloc susceptible to populist upsurges from other fractions (especially, with the help of the every-ready military).

Pakistan’s dominant classes are thus caught in a bind: to undercut the power of the Praetorian Guard, they must give real ideological, economic, and political concessions to the vast majority; that would however mean undercutting the social bases of their own power. It is thus that we find the incumbent parties (such as the PTI, PPP, PML-N etc.), sooner or later, always leaning on or looking towards the military for their share in power. To speak with the Marx of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that paradigm-setting masterpiece of political writing, Pakistan’s ruling classes are “bound to fear the stupidity of the masses so long as they remain conservative, and the insight of the masses as soon as they become revolutionary.”

The inability of the dominant bloc to forge any kind of consensus, the constant vacillation between civilian and military superiority (mostly the latter), is thus fundamentally rooted in the incoherence of their wider social, political, and economic project. This is not just an “aberration” from an ideal-type of inter-institutional harmony or a subjective failure to conform to the norms of formal democratic procedures and remits. The civil-military divide and perversion of procedural/formal democracy – while very real and with determinate effects on social struggles at all levels – does not stand on its own: it is concretely linked to the wider rhythms of social struggle, economic concessions, and political (in)coherence of the Pakistani polity. Liberal democracy in Pakistan cannot save itself. And thus, substantive democracy cannot lag behind and temporally subordinate itself to the prevarications of formal democracy. The subjective incoherence of the ruling bloc is rooted in the materialist coordinates of its own idealism.

The Owl of Minerva and its Feet of Clay

It is in this (mis)understanding of the structuring of the polity, that – as indicated above – the fixation on procedural democracy “as a first step” and civil-military divide is a limited point of view. It is not to say that pointing to the civil-military divide in Pakistan is incorrect or that progressives doing so are unaware of many of the processes elaborated briefly above. In fact, most progressives even recognise the “structural” basis of the divide in the military’s vast economic power and ideological centrality to an Islamic praetorian nationalism. However, such a view is limited because it discounts the wider social failings, the political-economic incoherence, and thus the constant tendency to crisis of the dominant classes as a whole. Thus, the coerciveness and Praetorian primacy of the polity is rooted in this wider incoherence and lack of hegemonic project.

Therefore, the stagist conception of democracy and the liberal/progressive emphasis on civil-military as a “primary” contradiction may be termed a “low-intensity structural explanation” i.e. one which remains on the terrain of the “ideal-type” liberal institutionalist state, while discounting wider mechanisms of hegemony, coercion and concessions in which particular forms of state power and state-civil society relations are placed. It is also thus, that such a limited understanding of the social and historical bases (or lack thereof) of political power quickly falls into the valourisation of whoever the next bearer of the banner of “civilian supremacy” may be.

Such an understanding of politics is characteristic of a “situational-tactical” viewpoint which intervenes in history (so to speak) “in the middle” i.e. it obscures other levels of social analysis and the historical struggles which have come to shape the political terrain as it is. Wider social and historical antecedents thus discounted, “democracy” comes to stand as an abstract formula, an empty signifier devoid of ideology, materiality, and history. Strategically and tactically, this amounts to nothing more than tailing elite formations and eschewal of the bases of organic hegemony: politics reduced to clapping from the midst of crowds.

This, of course, is the fundamental pitfall of liberalism and the one-sided politics of “procedural democracy” in Pakistan. It is that Hegelian owl of Minerva, but with its feet cut off. It takes flight at the fall of twilight, but cannot remember where it flew off from and why it is in the air in the way it is now. It knows history, but cannot remember its own history. It knows structure but only in a “low-intensity” – I am tempted to say, surface – manner. It is thus condemned to read politics and time as an eternal recurrence of the present. In Pakistan, that means reducing history to that eternal return: the “civil military problem”.

That there is a civil-military tussle in Pakistan, ever more lopsided/coercive by the day? Yes, obviously. That constitutionalism is worth fighting for? Yes, of course. Liberal rights of association and expression? Sure, why not.

But the question fundamentally is not of the saving/expansion of liberal rights and democracy. The fundamental question is whether liberalism, democracy, and the dominant classes who have come to be its bearers, can save themselves.

That the Emperor (in our case, the unelected institutions of state) is naked, there is no doubt. But can elite politics – and its faithful companion: the politics of civilian supremacy – account for its own lack of ambition, its own historical and social failures?

The owl of Minerva is in full flight. Now would be a good time to look at its own feet of clay.

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