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Aspiration and victimhood
Publication Date : 02-10-2012
In the last few years, middle-class discourse in Pakistan has witnessed a steady increase in the importance being accorded to the state of the economy.
Everyday conversations begin with the electricity crisis, end with how inflation has broken everyone’s back, and remain peppered with stories of corruption, society’s moral decay, and with comments on the unbearable weight of being "middle-class" in Pakistan.
The emergence and subsequent outrage of this much-vaunted class has been a recurring theme in analytical literature over the last two years.
Discussions have covered a variety of subjects, including the rise of Imran Khan as a political heavyweight — in response to the Pakistan People's Party (PPP)’s failure to govern, religious exhibitionism by urbanites across the country, and the ideological emergence of "rule of law" as a moral alternative to the status quo.
There’s also been some talk on how increased middle-class participation in the political process, either through the PTI or through tacit support of the army and the Supreme Court, is proving to be an effective change-agent in what’s perceived to be our traditional and morally bankrupt political sphere.
What’s interesting to note, however, is that both the general narrative of economic, social and moral collapse, and of salvation through middle-class honesty and dynamism, is being developed and perpetuated by the same class — largely through its presence in print, electronic and social media outlets.
The narrative draws on a particular reading of Pakistan’s history and naturally of its current predicament, wherein a small coterie of elites, mostly from the landed and industrial classes, along with individual (never institutional) collaborators in the bureaucracy and the armed forces have kept the state captive and subservient to their interests.
This exclusivity of power has allowed the elite to sustain itself at the expense of everyone else, and has resulted in a complete breakdown in sovereignty (drones), morality (as gauged through corruption, nepotism, and flouting of merit) and the delivery of services like railways, electricity, health and law and order.
In one repeatedly articulated way, the middle class, a class that functions at the same time as victim and saviour, positions itself in opposition to the state, and in opposition to the traditional arrangement of power.
Yet for all the media anchor outrage, and for all the angry, drawing-room chatter in the world, it’s hard to actually see the aspirational middle class as a victim in any conventional way.
Travelling through the country, or even making a short trip to the neighbourhood market throws up sights and sounds that tell a different story. People are out there, despite the loadshedding, despite the inflation, despite the drones, buying everything and anything they can lay their hands on.
The elites have 10 instead of two places to go for their fine dining and high-street fashion needs. The upper-middle class, forever trapped in the shadow of their richer cousins, now has access to a wider array of retail options. The upwardly mobile satisfy their consumerist fetishes through cheap knock-offs from China, live out their residential fantasies in suburban housing societies, and attain the much desired badge of educational achievement through privately owned schools and colleges.
The numbers tell a similar story. Retail and wholesale in Pakistan, in the year 2012, is now worth about $40bn, and has been growing at 5.3 per cent in real (inflation-adjusted) terms for the past five years — much faster than overall economic growth during that period.
In tandem, income for the upper two quintiles, categories that would certainly include the metropolitan and secondary city middle classes, have exhibited similar growth.
In fact, it’s probably fair to say that if we were to scribble one headline describing Pakistan’s story over the last 10-15 years, middle-class fuelled consumption would be second only to Islam and the war on terror.
So where does this victimhood complex come from? One explanation is that over the last four years, governance failures and general economic sluggishness have taken some of the shine off our carefully constructed urban dream.
Not having electricity for 12 hours in a day means not being able to run air conditioners bought five years ago. Expensive fuel means that the third car stays parked at home.
The general uncertainty surrounding everyday life in Pakistan means that annoying roadblocks have emerged, interrupting suburban fantasies, and momentarily crystallising the gap between the rich and the aspirational.
Amidst such supposedly testing times, the middle class in Pakistan has successfully managed to equate itself to the common man/woman, and has consequently managed to situate itself at the centre of Pakistan’s economic and political malaise. This situation is true for a vast majority of developing countries where selective economic mobility, brought about through consumption and private-sector growth in retail and services has allowed some classes to exert themselves more forcefully in politics and public discourse.
In the process, the classes on which the real burden of neo-liberal consumption, inflation and uncertainty falls, that is the urban and rural poor, have become a footnote in how inequality is perceived and discussed in Pakistan.
They have become nothing more than a mute mass, providing numbers and anecdotes for the middle class in their rhetorical battle against the elite, and against those in positions of political authority.
In the end, perhaps nothing captures this situation better than writer Siddhartha Deb’s acute observation of how “It is one of the triumphs of our age that aspirers can be made to feel empowered and excluded, and that all over the world, one sees a new lumpen bourgeoisie quick to express a sense of victimisation, voicing their anger about being excluded from the elite while being callously indifferent to the truly impoverished.”
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.