Will the state wither away?

Human history is replete with examples of ruling classes that went on the destructive course and are not traceable now in the graveyard of history.

The discussion on failing states in the developing world is not something new. However, the ongoing passionate debate on whether Pakistan is a "failed state" goes back to an article in the February 1994 issue of The Atlantic Monthly by Robert B. Kaplan. Building up on the work of environmentalists, sociologists and deriving material from his own first-hand experience in Africa and Asia, Mr Kaplan suggested at the withering away of many states in the twenty-first century. While this debate was being carried on in academic circles, rumours surfaced that Robert Oakley, ex-ambassador to Pakistan, was publishing a book declaring Pakistan a failed state. Mr Oakley has denied the existence of such plans, but many Western intellectuals are convinced that Pakistan has failed or, at the very least, is a failing state. Very recently, Richard Haase, director of foreign policy issues at the Brooking Institution, and Gideon Rose, a national security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, also hinted at the possibility of a failure of the Pakistani state.

While they did not address the matter directly in their report, which was on US relations with India and Pakistan, the writers called on Washington DC to reinstate economic and other links with Pakistan. This was because "Pakistan´s political system is in dire shape; the country has the potential to become a failed state. That would be a humanitarian nightmare—and a threat to the regional, even global, peace. The United States needs to try to head off such a tragic outcome."

Many Pakistani political scientists dispute this assertion on technical and factual grounds. Tracing the genesis of this notion of failed state, they note the infinite propensity of Western academia to coin catchy terminology ("wordsmithmg" according to Prof Z. Shariff), especially when they can´t find new paradigms to explain the changes (or stagnation) taking place in the world. In fact, some in the nationalist intelligentsia believe that invention of such terminology is a pretext to justify future intervention by the sole superpower.

Picking up the debate, some Pakistani political scientists point out that as long as the state´s monopoly power over coercive means is not challenged— the way it has been in Somalia, Ethiopia or Rwanda— the state cannot be declared failed. Hasan Gardezi, a professor at a Canadian university, believes that the Pakistani state´s monopoly over coercive power has not been challenged in this way.

According to this school, the social anarchy and political disorder in Pakistan has yet to reach the point where it may pose a severe enough threat to the state´s monopoly power over coercion. Karachi might be taken as an exception, but even there, and at least for the moment, the use of the heavy hand has kept matters "under control". No one can predict with certainty the fate of the Pakistani state if Karachi-like social disorder continues and escalates, but it is safe to say that Pakistan, as yet, has not ´failed´.

On the other hand, looking at it from Mr Kaplan´s perspective, Pakistan certainly does seem to fall among that category of countries where the state, as an institution, could fail. His theory is that "to understand the events of the next fifty years, then, one must understand environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic density, and the transformation of war".

Expanding on the theme, Mr Kaplan says that the phenomenal growth of population will deplete natural resources resulting in ecological disasters. The massive migration of peasantry to the urban centres will lead to degradation of the natural and social environment which will generate religious, ethnic and cultural clashes that will, ultimately, undermine the existence of many states.

Most of Mr Kaplan´s conclusions are based on the conditions of African countries where tribal identities are still alive and strong. One observes similar symptoms in Pakistan, too, where the degradation of natural and social environment is not only obvious in the metropolises of Lahore and Karachi but even in remote villages of Punjab. Different institutions are being taken over by a newly urbanised peasant elite which shows an extreme lack of societal sensibility. And this is manifested in the state´s institutional anarchy: fiscal inviability, chaos, corruption, nepotism and the Darwinian economics of "survival of the fittest".

Society is losing its sense of a social contract and is becoming oblivious of any "common will" that furnishes the underlying ethical principle in non-dictatorial societies. In short, if the state is taken to be the "embodiment of the ethical idea and the moral will of the community", as defined by Hegel, the existence of the Pakistani state becomes a question mark.

There are some scholars, however, who believe that these abysmal conditions are designed outcomes of the creation of the Pakistani state and not symptoms of its failure. To put it bluntly, the Pakistani state is successfully doing what it was made for—transfer wealth from the poor to the rich—and the pronouncement of its death is quite exaggerated, to say the least.

Abdul Samad, a prominent political economist, is the main proponent of this idea. He asserts that Pakistan is a predatory state which is designed to benefit the traditional elites at the expense of the rest of the population. Examining different Pakistani institutions, at a micro level, he has shown how the state has been a vehicle of transference of wealth from the poor to the rich. The burden of the almighty state is shifted to the common man, through indirect taxation, while the benefits of the state-run institutions are exclusively enjoyed by the ruling classes. The present conditions of the Pakistani state are most suitable for the elites, and it is not in their interest to make reforms to firm up the major institutions.

The basic problem with Mr Samad´s argument is his assumption that the elites calculated such an outcome rationally. There is no doubt these elites have contributed to the prevailing chaos and anarchy and have benefited from the mess. But had they been consciously aware of where it was all headed, they would certainly have foreseen the ugly future awaiting the whole of society, including themselves. Human history is replete with examples of ruling classes that went on the destructive course and are not traceable now in the graveyard of history.

It is true that the Pakistani state´s monopoly power has not been challenged in any significant way and its sovereignty is not seriously jeopardised by external forces. This, however, does not mean that the present internal conditions of chaos and anarchy will continue forever without generating severe repercussions. Most of the region that makes up what is today Pakistan was under the empire of Ranjeet Singh (1799-1839). Even in the notoriously anarchic era of 1839-1849, the state was sovereign, and maintained unchallenged monopoly over coercive power. However, lacking societal will and an ´ethical idea´ to enforce order, the state ultimately collapsed. Therefore, one cannot preclude the possible withering away of many states (and not only Pakistan) due to social anarchy resulting from depleting resources and fast growing populations.

Pakistan, along with many other developing countries, is going through a transition of mammoth magnitude while exhibiting the symptoms described above. Whether Pakistan will come through this tumultuous period unscathed and intact is probable, but not certain. The one saving factor may be that, unlike many African countries, the bulk of Pakistan´s population is homogeneous in many respects and, except Baluchistan, is by now well beyond tribal divisions. But Pakistan will still have to travel this bumpy road of history towards an uncertain destiny. It is the classic case recalling Nietzsche´s lament that Western society had abandoned the old morals with no replacement. Nietzsche´s Europe went through enormous destruction before it took its present shape. That may happen in Pakistan, too.

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