The rule of the rich

By Dr Aasim Sajjad Akhtar


THE IMF issues commandments, and our finance czars comply. The most recent iteration of this merry-go-round saw the government going through the motions of farcical parliamentary legislation to levy yet more indirect taxes on a helpless populace. No need to whisper it: this is a banana republic.

Debate over whether the khakis, bureaucrats, the moneyed political class or donors are most responsible is moot. None of them are interested in rocking the boat. The increase in the GST — not to mention another increase in natural gas and fuel prices — confirms that creditors only want their money back; bureaucrats and bourgeois politicians are ever ready and willing to push the burden of deficit onto the working masses, and the khakis – they remain largely untouchable.

All the shenanigans will only result in a measly tranche of $1.2 billion, almost all of which will go straight back out of our coffers to meet existing debt repayments. IMF monies will presumably open up the way for bilateral funds, which is to say that the best-case scenario is more debt followed by more austerity.

In sum, the downward spiral shows no sign of relenting. Global credit rating agencies have just downgraded us to CCC-. Inflation is projected at 33 per cent through the first half of the fiscal year. Neither the government nor the IMF concerns itself with publishing unemployment figures these days, because who cares about the livelihoods of working people?

We trundle along towards a real ‘nazuk daur’.

Many commentators are asking how long this can continue. There is no sense that economic hardship for the numb masses will soon translate into mobilisation on the streets. Indeed, the most viable short-term prognosis is that economy, society and polity will continue to implode.

But do not expect this state of suspended animation to last forever. Unless there is fundamental transformation of the debt-fuelled formal economy, default and/or stagflation will hit us soon. Lest anyone has forgotten, ours is an exceedingly youthful population; 150 million young people cannot bide time forever through illicit/informal means and/or the gig economy.

So we trundle along towards a genuine nazuk daur (critical period). I am not talking about the one which our (predominantly uniformed) ruling class has been threatening us with since 1947 — the basis for the obsolete militarised, rentier state logic that finally appears to be running aground.

The truth is that this logic never worked for the vast majority in this country; it is just that the entrenched political-economic order is now combining with demographic pressures and ecological meltdown to generate a perfect storm.

But there is still one big absence here — that of a meaningful, popular political alternative that can actually author a different script. Ours is not a technocratic problem which can be fixed if the right minds are able to design ‘good’ policy. We are staring down a political impasse because the establishment and mainstream politicians doing its bidding will never take away their own power and resources.

This is true irrespective of whoever is the finance minister. Certain liberal segments are convinced that all would be well if Miftah Ismail had not been replaced by Ishaq Dar at the helm of the PDM’s economic wheel. But both represent a party of trader-industrialists, and the only major difference during their recent stints in office is that Miftah did a deal with the IMF as soon as he was made finance minister, while Dar dithered and put off the inevitable.

What we need is a political vehicle that actually represents Pakistan’s long-suffering working people. Only then might we see the will to art­iculate and execute the right policies, in­­cluding the redistribution of land and other wealth, reduction of defence exp­enditure, enforcement of progressive taxation, and an industrial policy that does­n’t devastate our vulnerable ecosystems in the interests of short-term profit. In case anyone needs reminding, the IMF never forces such policies on our finance czars.

Creditors will always be fine with indirect taxes and price hikes of basic amenities to pay off outstanding debts even as our currency remains in freefall. Meanwhile, our own governments can do no better than sell unattainable dreams of social mobility to young people through privatised education, stunted entrepreneurial initiatives and, most of all, old-fashioned connections. When the dreams don’t materialise, there is the ever-reliable option of hateful propaganda against ‘corrupt’ parties, foreign conspirators and domestic ghaddars.

Short-termism is making things worse, as is the fake choice of PTI/PDM, both overseen by the establishment. We need a concerted effort to bring together emaciated progressives, win over the centrists and then liberate the youthful mass taken in by the hateful sloganeering of various shares of rightists.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

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