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The left-right muddle

We stand, yet again, at a division – this time between the left and the right. Unable to match the momentum in the election campaigns of the PML-N and the PTI, the erstwhile coalition of the PPP, the ANP and the MQM have suggested that the terror incidents that have wreaked havoc in Karachi, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over the last couple of weeks target only these three parties. These parties also suggest that the terror incidents seem to have provided a helping hand to parties of Punjab – literally dividing the polity into pro- and anti-Taliban groupings. This is a dangerous game. One would have expected the Taliban to resort to this, but for the three ruling coalition members to be sucked into such convenient mischaracterisation, is unfortunate.

The left-right divide is no divide; not in Pakistan, surely. There was a time when Pakistan had an established left wing – which could be seen in the Progressive Writers’ Movement. But much like it happened internationally, the left in Pakistan too found itself overtaken by new realities. Most importantly, the institution of the free market as the dominant global economic system has virtually taken the sting out of leftists’ aspirations. Today, there is only a miniscule self-proclaimed leftist presence through associations such as the Workers Party and the Kissan Mahaz, but these are mere shadows of what the real left was in Pakistan.

Essentially the liberal left must establish itself on three separate axes – political, social and economic. Historically, the left germinated with a system of values associated with liberalist movements from the days of the French Revolution to the economic mutation that governed the dominant philosophy of the Russian Communist revolution.

China is perhaps the final expression of the new philosophical mix that is a capitalistic, market-based, economy; a social philosophy that espouses communal virtues, and a polity that is still hierarchical and regimented but not aristocratic or dynastic. The most remarkable definition of the left lies in its commitment to the ideals of equal distribution of resources and wealth, and social equity.

Though the liberal tradition began with the advent of various transformational movements preceding the French Revolution, over time such value system has found wider assimilation in the standard democratic tradition that is now almost universal.

This new system has a ‘new bourgeoisie’, the uber-rich, as well as political dynasties et al that now rule within democracies – and comes with its own challenges. A global reaction to the elitist clique and an exploitative laissez-faire economic system under contemporary democracies has come in the form of the Arab spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement. It seeks wider participation of the common man in power structures and reacts to the centralisation of wealth in a few hands.

The coming elections in Pakistan are a very weak example of such ‘reaction’ manifested by Imran Khan, the new determinant in our politics. With time, if traditional politics does not change to appease the genuine interests of the electorate, the reactionary phenomenon represented by Imran Khan will entrench itself further and gain momentum. It is another thing that the PTI is classified as a pro-right party but exhibits leftist reaction as its underlying philosophy and in popular acceptability. Therein lies the dilemma of any political scientist who must venture to define left and right wing politics in the 21st century.

What is really left of left politics are liberal social attitudes – more in personal lifestyle than as a belief in societal systems. Such attitudes are elitist in nature and countervail the most fundamental principles of leftist ideologies. A chasm appears thus in liberal and leftist social philosophies. Those who claim liberal mantle in Pakistani polity or society are those who retain a bourgeois existence but espouse proletarian values. This remains inherently contradictory.

Within Pakistan only the MQM can claim some parity in representation; but then, it suffers from a very strong central hold more akin to extreme disposition in political structures. In all other aspects it remains a party with a pragmatic philosophy of accommodation with all to remain relevant to its narrow interests in the urban political structures of Sindh.

One dilemma of modern liberalism lies in the widely-held belief that all societies are intrinsically conservative, since personal property overrides all other interests. It is democracy as a system that will nudge society towards a more liberal and equitable notion of ‘sharing’ through taxation and checking the urge of personal greed.

Extending this logic then, if one were to relate education with democracy as perhaps the most important underlying factor, the causality between weak and strong democracies becomes easily established. Less literate societies churn out weaker democracies. Society, on the whole, remains a consistent tug of war between the left and the right.

In the contemporary world, the left liberal President of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, has a task at hand in a country with an Islamist parliament. An NBC correspondent noted, “….there are two Tunisias: one religiously conservative and anxious for socioeconomic improvement, the other secular and progressive and terrified of losing its freedoms. Marzouki’s job … is to reassure both that they can coexist….” That remains a challenge for any modern political leader in nations that seem divided into liberal and conservative – not left and right – approaches.

Pakistan has an established market-based economic system in place; a political system that is centrist at best and a social mix that exhibits both liberal and conservative attributes. Social liberalism alone cannot be a substitute for the two other more fundamental determinants, liberal political philosophy and an equitable economic system. Pakistan’s society already stands subsumed into a neutral mix and provides a common anchor to all politics. Any claimed divide then is only misplaced and opportunistic.

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its deputy chief of staff. Email: shhzdchdhry@yahoo.com

Shahzad Chaudhry, "The left-right muddle," The News. 2013-05-08.
Keywords: Social sciences , Political parties , Economic issues , Society-Pakistan , Social issues , Political issues , Elections-Pakistan , Education , Taxation , Taliban , China , Imran Khan , Moncef Marzouki , Pakistan , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Balochistan , Punjab , Karachi , Sindh , Russia , PPP , PMLN , PTI , MQM , NBC