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Our rooms and their streets

Use your brain before May 11 – this meme, one of many that are doing the rounds on the Pakistani blogosphere in the run-up to the general elections, comes as something of a strange, New Age commandment from on high. It betrays a cavernous assumption – those who do not vote do not employ reason, that most virtuous of all modern virtues.

It suggests too that reason can only take a certain definite form (voting for candidate XYZ), that the expression of the authentic political can only mean one thing ie holding free and fair elections. And if I may venture to say, in a perverse manner it also suggests that ‘brains’ are not really required much post-May 11!

The general elections and the accompanying voter turnout have become the ultimate symbols of all things democracy. Not a moment goes by before we are reminded of the crucial ‘choice’ before us. Is it A, B or C, we are asked incessantly? Choose! Now! Or forever hold your silence! I would add the suggestion is more to the tune of: Choose, or don’t, but forever hold your silence either way.

For a country locked in an eternal battle with its colonial and dictatorial history, the question of the democratic and the political is no laughing matter. But can we not take a moment to deconstruct the task before us? Is voting every five years (if we are lucky) the only form of political engagement required, and desired, of citizens? Should we be satisfied with being given the choice of A, B and C, and then make our peace with whatever horrors they might unleash? Is this not a total limitation of our choice, a severe reduction of legitimate alternatives? Is it not a violation of our freedom to not be able to create our own alternatives?

The Greeks called it ‘to pepromeno’ – inflicted destiny as opposed to one that is freely chosen. It might be most plainly visible in the context of Balochistan where a very defiant population will be forced to make this (non-)choice at gunpoint.

And if you look closely you will find it at work everywhere: in blood relations from influential families who contest against each other for the same seats, in brothers who are corporate tycoons and also happen to run the defamatory media campaigns of two rival political parties against each other, in manifestos that say nothing of neo-liberalism and foreign debt, in speeches that could go on for hours without addressing the issue of privatisation and labour laws, land rights and agrarian reform.

Any meaningful discussion of subjects of concern to the ordinary people is off limits in this electoral campaign it seems. Let us not fool ourselves then…the electoral exercise and the act of voting serve to limit our political engagement in manageable bounds. The New Age political commandment stands decoded thus: Exhaust your choice and close your brain post-May 11, lest you start asking uncomfortable questions regarding how the system really functions.

Well over a century ago, the German scholar Carl Schmitt problematised the marriage between democracy and liberalism for their very divergent tendencies. A bourgeois ideology par excellence, liberalism is the ethical commitment to the rights and interests of individuals seen as self-contained units, and the economic commitment to the profit motive and unimpeded growth (leading to unequal development).

The very notion of democracy, on the other hand, suggests collective decision-making, and the community’s influence as a whole over economic activities. Ethically, it fosters community over selfish individual interests, and is only invested in such economic activity that can garner a genuine consensus and is beneficial to all.

Modern liberal democracies could, therefore, be described as a real life oxymoron. By transforming economic enemies into competitors in the market and the ethical world into debating adversaries in parliament, they lead to the depoliticisation of politics proper.

We are forced to believe that no truly political issues actually exist (in Schmitt’s sense of rival groups posing an existential threat to each other). Everything can and will be resolved through debate by elected representatives in parliament. Inequality can continue to exist but formal legal equality (universal franchise) is sufficient for democracy.

Liberal democracies also equate the political to the state. The world beyond – the economic and social struggles of the masses against or outside the state’s realm – are relegated to the non-political, something to be managed and dealt with, rather than the actual determination of our collective political destiny.

Little wonder then that our present election campaign is in a sense the epitome of the apolitical. Meanwhile, what is termed a ‘law and order’ situation – isn’t. It is in Balochistan’s killing fields, in crowds that riot over loadshedding in Punjab, in Lyari’s ethnic and economic clashes, in the young doctors’ strikes against the doomed health sector, in the tussle over land rights by peasants, in shady deals with the International Monetary Fund behind closed doors, in the apparently benign suggestions by corporate tycoons to further liberalise and privatise the economy, that the real political fate of the country is being wrought. Unfortunately no free coffee at fancy cafes, discounts at fashion houses or blow-dry deals at beauty parlours are on offer for participating in these. We only have to use our brains to figure out why.

This is not to say that elections can or ought to be boycotted all across. And this is definitely not a call for more military dictatorships. Rather it is a sombre reminder of the limitations of choice and the ‘sameness’ of change possible in the present system. For those of us waking up to the dream of real public engagement in the political, the electoral exercise can only serve a very small part of the strategy.

The real task is herculean and involves bridging the distance between our drawing rooms and their streets. It involves recognising that the real fight – the class fight – shall continue and cannot be resolved by the system that exists to perpetuate it. In other words, it involves us using our brains not only on May 11 but every waking moment of our lives.

The writer is a lawyer and researcher.She tweets @DissentingMuse.

Sonia Qadir, "Our rooms and their streets," The News. 2013-05-11.
Keywords: Social sciences , Political parties , Society-Pakistan , Loadshedding issues , Monetary policy , Social issues , Foreign debt , Elections , Democracy , Carl Schmitt , Balochistan , Pakistan , IMF