The Post-Colonial Tinderbox


The man and society both are bound by the time and space in which they exist. They can break away from them only in an imaginative haul or a dream-like awakened condition. This is exactly the case with us, the people in Pakistan, as we cannot divorce ourselves from time — including the past and the present — and in the world we live-in today. Pakistan as a nation, society and state exists in a modern world, which took its new journey on the wings of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and the 19th centuries. This revolution hinged around the supremacy of machine over man, and of which we see new forms as the time passes. And so far machines continue to rule man’s world.

The invention of the machine for the first time empowered man to produce a huge surplus in factories as compared to the meagre surpluses of the feudal age. This gave birth to capitalism which so far remains a key force behind modern prosperity. It was this supremacy and primacy of machines that gave a cutting edge to the West to colonise almost the whole world, despite their smaller population. Whereas in the colonies, generally the native population was far less exposed to or proficient in the use of machinery and fast expanding associated domains of the modern world.

However, despite this huge deficiency, they espoused the dreams of freedom and liberating their lands from the colonial masters, and mostly got it in the aftermath of World War II, which essentially was a mammoth power struggle fought by the colonial powers of the West. Pakistan also got its independence in 1947 and started its journey in a post-World War II world. Like other former colonies, we were no exception to carving out our future amidst competing ideologies of capitalism and communism. Both these ideologies promised prosperity to the post-colonial world in some sense that had its moorings attached to machines. Though freedom had been won from the masters, internal freedom had to be constructed which could liberate people from primordial tribal affinities, the oppressive feudal system and culture. In a nutshell, the newly liberated countries were yet not fully ready to adapt to the dictates of the modern industrial world. These post-colonial societies borrowed the ‘machine’ but not the idea and culture that gave birth to this scientific cost-effective invention. Despite sticking to old modes of work, production and living, the post-colonial societies, particularly the elite class, deeply yearned for the development and prosperity enjoyed by the First World. In this national pursuit, they embarked on a journey with ‘borrowed money,’ ‘borrowed machines’ and ‘borrowed prosperity.’ They had won freedom, but it got tainted with each new tranche of borrowed loans and capital.

Pakistan, like many other postcolonial states, looks for the new and continued sources of ‘borrowed prosperity with all its strings attached,’ while occasionally claiming for sovereignty and exercise of autonomy in its policies.     

Being a post-colonial nation, we have also inherited a tinderbox which has the essential moorings and ingredients of security, prosperity and sovereignty. High population growth is an additional flint in the case of Pakistan, which is a potential opportunity as well as a great burden, if not handled properly.

On its independence, Pakistan had to make a choice between two poles: the capitalist West, or the Communist bloc led by the former USSR and China. The situation is almost the same even now with the difference that the USSR has now been replaced by Russia. Like the other postcolonial nations, Pakistan continued its journey in these competing worlds that were essentially producing surplus due to machinery and innovative allied technologies.

Almost to the level of paradox, being the creation of a separate Islamic ideology, Pakistan also remains attached to religion in which faith gets the primacy over machinery, which was nothing but an outcome of scientific reasoning and inquiry, duly tested and validated by experimentation; thus often rejecting  ‘others’ (immoral capitalism and godless communism) rather than producing economic surplus. This, however, never allowed us to fully adapt to the work-based dictates of the modern industrial culture of the two competing world powers, rather, the pursuit of economic prosperity-cum-luxury continued as a national hobby. All the successive governments found no easier solution than resorting to foreign loans to satisfy our ego as a developing nation. This mindset has not changed even today.

Ursula von der Leyen edited | Essay from Narratives Magazine
President of the EU commission Ursula von der Leyen put Pakistan’s GSP plus status on hold on account of “human rights violations,” illustrating how the Western powers leverage trade to push a pseudo-moralistic ‘rights and freedom’ agenda.

Pakistan on the one hand is relying for its prosperity on the West, and on the other hand also feels attracted towards the countries which are no longer communist but still represent the opposing pole.

Here we need to keep in mind that when the goal of prosperity is pursued, it means producing an efficient economic surplus that must also find a market to earn foreign exchange. In the case of Pakistan, our main export destinations are west-bound. When we use the term ‘West,’ it loosely means the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan, Canada, and the somewhat West-dominated Middle East. Essentially, the West does not offer its markets following some altruistic goals, but keeps a mixed pursuit of geopolitics and geo-economics. Out of the three ingredients in the tinderbox, prosperity, whenever it is pursued by a state like Pakistan in the post-Cold War World,  comes attached with a ‘freedom and rights’ agenda which may appear moralistic on the surface but nurtures many problems in a society like ours, with its strong tribal, sectarian, ethnic and provincial identities and prejudices. Thus the freedom struggle which has not been properly harnessed by our society through rule of law and habit, is more construed as anarchic and a challenge to order and stability.  

In comparison to the West, China and Russia are more market seeker nations than export destinations. This creates a dilemma for a developing nation like ours which is a prosperity-cum-development seeker. Since Russia and China, as a policy, do not interfere in the internal matters of other states and attach no ‘rights strings’ to bilateral trade relations, they directly or indirectly do not pose a challenge to the order and stability of the other trading society. However, since balance of trade usually remains in favour of these big countries, it reduces the scope of attaining prosperity through export-led trade relations.

In the above two choices, ultimately we find less options but to stay connected to the West-led market, and thus also to keep haggling about Western machinations to control and shape our society according to their economic and geopolitical preferences. The common Western model adopted for a developing country has been through foreign aid, loans, and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) etc. alongside a barrage of strings, with implications for security and sovereignty, internal autonomy and the political and cultural life of the recipient/dependent nation. Closer scrutiny also reveals that FDI not only thrives on the raw material of the dependent nation, but also nurtures an artificial consumer market which ultimately adds to the coffers of the already rich nations. Thus despite giving a semblance of development, the local society remains dependent, having less potential for real sustainable growth and prosperity.    

In Pakistan, it is a common trend to give examples of countries like Japan, Germany, South Korea, Taiwan and a few others that have achieved great economic successes. But one thing is mostly ignored and that is the security relations of these countries with the United States. The US forces have military bases there and a direct influence on security and foreign relations. And in response to this leverage, these countries were given positive, preferential access to the Western market. Thus, this model does not hold good for countries like Pakistan which have somewhat divergent regional security goals than the West.

Similarly, it is almost a popular cliché in Pakistan to follow the Chinese model of development. However, again, a few basic assumptions which are the core values of Chinese state and society are often ignored. Being a communist country, religion has no place in China to affect the individual values and collective culture. This lack of faith-based divine obligations provide a vast space for constructing a utilitarian society, giving top priority to economic considerations. The Chinese Military is not an autonomous state organ but a creation of the Chinese Communist Party. It is the one party system, which controls, directs and steers both the politics and the military.

One more factor which affects the economic affairs of an individual in relation to the state is the strict state control of almost all spheres of economic, social and political direction of the country; stringent measures taken for controlling population growth is just one example. In absence of such values and practices, following the Chinese model may have a form but will lack the spirit.

Thus, in view of the above, it can be easily concluded that space and scope for economic prosperity remains limited for a post-colonial society like Pakistan while trading with both the poles. It can also be inferred from this that till the time we remained tied to ‘prosperity’ goal, a certain trade-off will come as a pre-condition as a foreign loans and aid dependent nation.

This necessitates for us to look inward for our sustained development, growth and prosperity, rather than building it on foreign loans. We also need not only to review our policies but also shape and construct a national culture that gives primacy to machinery for surplus production.

A casual glance at Pakistan’s population data is enough to tell that there are very few wage earning members carrying the burden of supporting dependents not doing any productive work. We as a society consume more than what we produce. Display of riches, waste and burdensome customs add insult to injury. While family bonds are a great strength of our society, this ‘dependence culture’ needs to be changed to a state where the majority of the working age population starts contributing in aggregate to national productive work. So far, every government of ours comes with development-cum-prosperity promises but always relies on quick-fixes like foreign loans and aid. As a result, though we see developmental projects as well as modern luxury items, they come with further addition to the foreign loans.

This national trend and practice must stop. Somewhere and someday we will have to say “No” to those projects which we cannot support on our own (the huge Public Sector Development Programme allocation in our annual budget, largely based on foreign loans, is evidence). Any source of borrowed luxury from individual to nation will have to be kept to a minimum so as to promote a culture which gives supreme importance to self-reliance. Productive work by our own people through their own resources should be the new national mantra where each member of the society — minus children and the old — is put to work either in fields or factories. Here it is important to emphasize that ‘machine’ and ‘work’ need to become synonymous in our national lingo as the whole population is needed to shift focus from manual to machine, including the rudimentary labour. Presently our import bill is enormous and as a first step, we need to encourage ‘import substitution industrialization’ (ISI). This should remain a mid-term strategy with a basic aim to train our population to produce for itself. We can start from producing and replacing basic daily used goods and gradually moving towards mid-level industrial production. When we get enough trained and skilled manpower through ISI, we can target specific industries to promote export-led industrialization. In both the stages, agriculture subsistence through machines should remain the top priority as in case of any denial of the foreign market in response to our import substitution policies, we can survive on our own.

A big question arises: who will do it for us? Normally the elite in a post-colonial society are not trusted and seen as brokers to the imperial masters. However, for promoting a national work-drive and culture, it is the Pakistani nationalists, who will have to come forward from all the segments of society including elite, media, academia and progressive intelligentsia. “Everyone at work” will have to be a kind of new mantra for the Pakistani nationalists to transform our nation from foreign loan and imports dependent to a self-reliant and exporting nation. Till the time we reach this stage, a balanced relation with both trading markets needs to be maintained with a firm “No” to the borrowed prosperity. It will be a long journey, but there is no quick-fix method to develop a post-colonial society. Our proficiency at work, machine and technology will open new doors and markets, and till that time, the desire for ‘luxury and prosperity’ should be kept under check to the level at which we can afford ourselves.

The dawn never appears at the start of night, but comes through surviving, struggling and patiently living through long hours of darkness.

Tahir Mehmood
Tahir Mehmood
The writer is a student of human history. He has authored two books: A Lone Long Walk and Where Clouds Meet.

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