Trenching on failure?


Nation-states, history shows, can take a lot of punishment despite being ravaged by internal and external conflicts. The American Civil War is a good example of an internal conflict and the two great wars of the 20th Century offer examples of external conflicts of terrible magnitudes. In at least two cases much bloodshed and violence also gave rise to peace and prosperity for friends and foes alike, bridging differences and creating, in one case, a stronger nation, and in the case of World War II, new alliances.
The American strategist Bernard Brodie in Strategy in the Missile Age refers to the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, as calming “a young friend’s fear that England would suffer ruin in its wars against Napoleon with the comment, ‘Sir, there is a lot of ruin in a nation.’”
True. But equally, nations perish by and through conflict. The most important factor, one that can perhaps not be measured quantitatively, is how much of the nationhood there is in a nation for it to have enough ruin. That seems to me to be the determining factor in judging the health of a nation, far more, in fact, than other indicators we normally associate with the viability of a nation-state.
It should be obvious that I am taking as a given the idea of a nation-state, a collection of people with a sense of belonging and a legal-social contract that binds them together in and through a discourse whose fundamentals, over a period of time, are internalised by a collection to a point where they are not disputed and where external challenges to the collective identity are simply not entertained.
Would it be correct to make this assumption regarding Pakistan, 63 years of the country’s existence and outward manifestations of nationhood notwithstanding? Even sympathetically put, one would have to concede that the process of such integration is far from over and, in some ways, might not be headed in the right direction.
Of the many challenges faced by Pakistan today, one relates to the threat from the extremists. One set of them is active in the northwest and also the urban centres; the other threat is the supra-state mindset that manifests itself through such acts as the murder of Governor Salmaan Taseer and Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, killings justified and celebrated in the name of religion.
Both are challenges to state authority. But while one, the armed extremist insurgency, can be tackled through use of kinetic force, we sorely lack the means to challenge the discourse that has seeped into society and makes a mockery of the legal-constitutional arrangements that make up and sustain the state.
One defence against this threat could have been the liberal enclave. That has not happened because the state itself put down the liberal enclave over the years and that process of marginalisation, and quite often persecution, has alienated the liberals from state and the institutions that represent its coercive arm.
This to me, increasingly, is another challenge, not in the sense of the other two challenges but of its own kind. The liberals fear the extremists, as they must, but they equally abhor the state and its coercive arm. This makes them look out for a discourse that rejects both extremism and the state in its current configuration.
In theory, one can live with this rejectionist formulation. But theory in these hard times is a luxury not many of us can afford. So, one is constrained to ask the question of how this rejectionist formulation can become a political course of action – if at all?
It should be evident that any viable political course of action must have a unit of analysis as also an organising principle. The liberals reject religious creeds as offering either a unit of analysis or an organising principle. I agree. But when they also reject the state, they end up looking like Beckett’s tramps waiting for something to happen which won’t.
Of course, the liberal enclave is correct in disagreeing with the state as currently configured. The civil-military imbalance is one aspect of it and fundamental to many of our current problems, including the rise of religious extremism. The liberals are justified in being wary of the military and its designs. Even today, as the military fights the extremists and loses officers and men, the liberal enclave refuses to accept that it’s not a tanked conflict. Even objective analyses of the military are considered as manufactured in its favour and thus suspect.
Understandable this is but also problematic. If Pakistan is to become a viable state the liberal enclave has to get into the driver’s seat. And for it to do so, far from rejecting the state, it has to embrace it and change the discourse by accepting the state as the organising principle and redirecting its coercive apparatus. It makes no sense to live in theory and remain unable to transform the state’s direction.
How? The important thing is to identify correctly the principal contradiction. Events have put the military against the extremism generated by its own policies. This makes it an ally of the liberal enclave in the latter’s fight against extremism. This also means the principal contradiction has shifted. By rejecting the state and its coercive apparatus, the liberal enclave is not doing itself any good in its fight against extremism. This is the opportunity to take charge.
In this would also lie the opportunity to win more space for a reconfigured state, one that posts, to quote Peter Feaver, “a military strong enough to do anything the civilians ask with a military subordinate enough to do only what civilians authorise.”
Is the liberal enclave prepared to do that? Unfortunately, no. It laments the loss of space, it carries out vigils, but is not ready to get down to business and take responsibility for the functions of the state which require more than a bleeding heart and a third discourse that stagnates in a vacuum because it is not grounded in a viable unit of analysis and an organising principle.
The writer is Contributing Editor, The Friday Times.