Last week this column had posited that Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was the culmination of a long series of failures by the Pakistani ruling class to manage the contradictions inherent in a State based on strong landed property with a weak industrial base. The column argued that such conditions created a predilection for the use of brute repression (the strategy of the stick) to deal with popular demands and undermined the possibility of democratic institutions gaining ground. The column further argued that this predilection was conditioned by the structural limitations that landholding imposes on the political strategy that a ruling class can adopt vis-à-vis the demands of the masses.
These structural limitations are the falling rate of return on primary products in global trade and the physical difficulty of dividing landed wealth among new aspirants to the ruling class.
As the price of agricultural goods falls continuously in relation to industrial goods or modern services it weakens the political position of the landed ruling classes vis-à-vis that class which produces industrial goods (capitalists) or provides services (professionals). Parallel to this objective weakening of their power is the need to continuously increase repression and control over the competing social classes in the domestic sphere. On the global stage, such regimes show a strong tendency to align with Imperialism to strengthen their domestic repressive regime. States ruled by landholders generally end up as client states of Imperialism.
Unlike industrial wealth, which has a natural tendency to grow, land is geographically fixed and agricultural incomes tend to fall over time. Landed wealth can be acquired or shared only by division or conquest. These economic and physical constraints on sharing landed wealth makes it doubly difficult for the landed ruling class to allow democracy, as democracy requires at least some sharing of resources with leaders of popular struggles who need to be co-opted into the power structure. This explains the difficulty democracy has faced in establishing roots in Pakistan.
Each time there has been a real possibility of democratic progress, the landholding ruling class has hit back at the democratic forces with the favourite political weapon of the feudals – assassinations. Liaqat Ali Khan’s assassination, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legalised murder and now Benazir Bhutto’s killing are all examples of this thunderbolt of reaction.
The first phase of military dictatorships, those of Yahya Khan and Ayub Khan, were largely bereft of ideological baggage (read religious fundamentalism) as the landed ruling class was confident of using secular tools of repression to beat back the popular demands of livelihood, democracy and equality. This period was also marked by the annihilation of the communist left as a significant political force in Pakistan.
But the biggest weakness of repressive regimes is that this very repression, which supports their power, undermines their popular legitimacy. Class rule, to be stable, needs legitimising ideologies which justify the status quo and promise space for redressal of grievances. Democracy, disciplined within the confines of private property, provides the best such ideology.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his Pakistan Peoples’ Party was the democratic answer to the crisis of class rule which the eroding legitimacy of Yahya and Ayub Khan had exposed the Pakistan State to. In a brilliant use of the strategy of the carrot, Bhutto successfully combined popular anger at military dictatorship with leftish economic populism and coated this mixture with an ideological layer of millenarian Islamic ideals and national pride. This was not an easy combination to build and sustain and it is to his credit that he managed to weld a political constituency out of this politics which survives to this day. From a Marxian perspective, it is important to remember that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his PPP were not a challenge to the class rule of the feudal landholders (in contrast to the earlier communists) but rather a strategy to better administer the State for this particular class rule.
But the economic and physical constraints on landed class rule soon kicked in, which found even this limited democratic experiment too dangerous for its security. Even minimal democratic space exposed the class rule of the landholders to unmanageable pressures which threatened to uproot feudal land relations itself. Reaction was swift and brutal – Bhutto was hanged and his democratic populism dumped. In Islam – with its strict moral codes, clear ideals of justice and rights and an alternative value system to modern political theories – Zia found the key to legitimisation of military dictatorship. The political use of Islam for shoring-up State power is the joint legacy of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his nemesis, Zia-ul Haq.
And lest we forget, military dictatorship has always been merely a form of class rule of the big landholders. It was under Zia that the complete intermeshing of the military and the landholding class was achieved, which today results in 58% of Pakistan’s agricultural land being under the control of the military or military personnel, and makes the Pakistan military the single biggest contributor to the nation’s GDP. Today it is perhaps possible to postulate that the ruling class has merged into the State and the formal distinction between the State (military) and a dominant social class (big landholders) has been erased.
After Zia, all governments have been under the control of the military. To demand an end to military rule today implies a direct assault on those property and social relations which define the Pakistan State. Therefore, it is not possible to oppose only military rule while continuing to support landed class interests. The secret of Benazir’s “opportunism”, much commented upon by analysts, lies in her inability to oppose landed interests. Therefore she had, willy-nilly, to come to terms with the military each time she made a bid for power.
Today it appears that the conditions of class rule have become more fragile in Pakistan than ever before. The Pakistan ruling class is still crucially dependant on landed wealth for its economic sustenance and politically on the twin, presently incompatible, props of political Islam and US imperialism. Two decades ago political Islam and US imperialism were in alliance which strengthened the Pakistan State, today their conflictual relation is a source of great weakness. The very ideology (political Islam) which provided legitimacy to military rule is cutting the other way today. Political Islam, drawing on Islam’s clearly defined concepts of justice, equality of the Ummah and promises of betterment, has become a rallying call for opposing both the injustices of class rule which is experienced as a military dictatorship by the people of Pakistan as well as for opposing US imperialism. The fragility of the class rule of the military-landlord complex is evident from its acute difficulty in even accommodating a largely controlled and stage managed manifestation of democratic urge, as was expressed by Benazir Bhutto in the past three months.
On the other hand, the denial of democratic space for expressing dissent and redressing grievances has meant that the mountain of injustice has only become higher. A fragile ruling class coalition will find it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to hold up this mountain much longer. Chances are high that this entire edifice will collapse under a social revolution as the masses rise to avenge their centuries of oppression and no State structure has enough strength to beat them back. Where the left has been decimated for decades and fundamentalist Islamic ideologies and their political formations are strong, this recipe only portends that the coming revolution in Pakistan will be steered by the forces of fascism, like in its neighbouring Iran. A fascist social revolution will also offer the landed interests a further lease of their property rights and will, therefore, be welcomed by them at the moment of greatest crisis for providing stability. As Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright said, “Will there be singing in the dark times? Yes, there will be singing of the dark times…”