Labour Day, an occasion steeped in great significance, synonymous with working class politics as well as the historic struggles of colonised peoples to free themselves from imperial servitude, will pass by this year with few even noticing. Food for thought in a country where exploitation and oppression of the wretched of the earth is a daily affair.
The bitter irony is that on May 1, working class households around the country will be trying to survive the suffocating heatwave amidst hours-long load-shedding. A few days afterwards they will be forced to stomach the new government’s withdrawal of what some ‘experts’ call ‘pro-rich’ fuel and power subsidies.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s most brutalised ethnic periphery, Balochistan, continues to burn, with the killing of working class drivers in Chagai followed by the Karachi University suicide bombing, all while enforced disappearances and racial profiling deepens alienation amongst Baloch youth.
I mention both IMF conditionalities and the Baloch question to underscore how much (or rather, how little) has changed with the replacement of Imran Khan by Shehbaz Sharif. The absence of a powerful and unified leftist political force with organic roots in the working class and ethnic peripheries is both cause and consequence of mainstream politics being dominated by competing shades of the right and centre-right.
It is thus that the new PM acknowledges a lack of meaningful authority with respect to missing persons, and the finance minister actually argues that elimination of the fuel subsidy is necessary while blaming the PTI for passing the buck.
I was not amongst those who celebrated the recent change in government as a momentous constitutional moment because I knew there was little relief on the horizon for the mass of Pakistan’s people. Imran Khan and the PTI may be extremely reactionary and I am certainly not upset to see the back of them. But this does not change the fact that the entire ruling class is implicated in our current predicament.
For instance, is there anyone in the mainstream who disputes the argument about the necessity of withdrawing fuel or other subsidies and is simultaneously willing to address structural crises in the economy through more radical steps like redistributing wealth through land reform, reduction of non-productive expenditures like defence, as well as corporate, income and other progressive taxes? Instead of imagining such alternatives, some ministers are choosing to antagonise Cuban diplomats by dismissing the socialist island’s achievements in health, education and unparalleled commitment to internationalism.
In a similar vein, is there anyone in the mainstream that is willing to take on the PM and ask why he cannot do something about missing persons and who is stopping him from doing so? Baloch nationalist parties like the BNP-Mengal that are part of the new governing coalition, at least for now, can at best make public statements demanding accountability for the Chagai killings and/or ‘urgent action’ on enforced disappearances.
Only a leftist political force worth its name would be able to not only name propertied classes and the establishment but also challenge them. At present, the best we seem to be able to do is demand accountability for the best friend of the former first lady, Farah ‘Gogi’ Khan.
Better than nothing, I suppose. And since Gogi is representative of our Gucci-adorning, cosmopolitan bourgeoisie, it is only logical that, alongside the class and national questions, I also dwell briefly on the question of empire. If the IMF represents the Western financial oligarchies which have ruled the world since the onset of capitalist modernity, the emergent global power, China — and its ‘developmental’ interventions — must also be critically interrogated. Think, for instance, about Gwadar’s fisherfolk.
Just like the mainstream insists that we have no option but to adopt standardised neoliberal policy measures like reduction of subsidies, it also insists that capital and expertise must be welcomed into Pakistan from countries like China. Indeed, the PML-N has already gone through great pains to remind us all that CPEC was a ‘game changer’ and that one of its first priorities after returning to government is to resume business with Beijing.
But is ‘development’ not supposed to serve the people? Is unconditional acceptance of foreign investment/conditionalities our only means of development? If nothing else, we should consider how such positions trigger popular feelings of outright rejection of — and violence against — donors like the Chinese.
If nothing else, amidst the eerie quiet this Labour Day, dwell on the fact that the absence of a left, progressive force explains why disaffected young people, particularly in the ethnic peripheries, but also in metropolitan Pakistan, are lurching towards different expressions of reaction.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.