The now decade-old tussle between Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) is a political reflection of economic and social tensions between two factions of the country’s middle-class. But, whereas a similar tension between two strands of the Turkish middle-class is defined by two clearly differing ideological dispositions (i.e. traditional secular-republicanism on the one end, and an upstart Islamism on the other), the ideological distinction between the two middle-class strands in Pakistan is somewhat blurred.
Both strands belong to a new middle-class that began to emerge from the late 1970s onwards. The expansion of this class has been a constant study of interest for political economists, who have noted an unprecedented growth of economic and political influence of the middle-classes in developing countries, especially in Asia. This has put the new middle-classes in various developing regions at the heart of their respective countries’ social, political and economic evolution.
The old middle-classes in these regions were engineered by state-backed ‘developmental economics.’ This sought to form a ‘national bourgeoisie’ which was designed to fortify a post-colonial nation-state’s sovereign status. The national bourgeoisie were tasked to produce an organic economy navigated by a bureaucracy. The old middle-classes (in developing countries) were thus either involved as entrepreneurs or white-collar employees in manufacturing sectors that the state helped set up; or they worked as civil servants.
The old middle-classes were highly dependent on the support provided by a state working to bolster a modernisation project. Yet, historically, whereas a national bourgeoisie was expected to develop into becoming a progressive political force, and a mediator between labour and capital, in most developing countries it remained weak and undermined by oligarchs. The oligarchs and/or economic elites who, too, were the result of the state’s national economic policies, sabotaged the political evolution of the national bourgeoisie as a way to subdue its potential to democratise a country’s politics and economy.
This is what happened in Pakistan during Ayub Khan’s ‘modernist’ dictatorship (1958-69). Z.A. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) understood this as a malaise, largely expressed by the frustrated intelligentsias of the national bourgeoisie developed by the Ayub regime. With the help of these intelligentsias, Bhutto radicalised the frustrated components of the national bourgeoisie who had failed to convert themselves into becoming a more politically influential class.
The radicalised bourgeois intelligentsia worked closely with working-class groups and student outfits by adopting leftist political ideas as a way to challenge a modernisation process that had given birth to rapid industrialisation and, ironically, also to the national bourgeoisie. The radicalisation of the bourgeoisie was not only challenged by the state and the oligarchs, but by Islamist outfits as well, such as the Jamat-e-Islami (JI).
The JI, too, was part of the bourgeoisie. But it vehemently disagreed with the other half of the same class by rejecting socialism. Instead, it concentrated on replacing the ‘secular’ nature of the national bourgeoisie through a more theocratic strand of nationalism. To the JI, the national bourgeoisie should be working to ‘Islamise’ the state and the economy.
In the 1990s, PML-N was a major party that found traction among the Islamic segments of the new middle-classes. However, during the party’s third stint in power (2013-2018) it began to shift more to the centre in a bid to absorb (as potential voters) the religion-neutral segments of the new middle-classes
The Z.A. Bhutto regime that came to power in December 1971 began to reshape the national bourgeoisie as a mediator between the state, the peasants and the proletariat. Instead of facilitating an industrial bourgeoisie that the Ayub regime had developed (and many of whom had become oligarchs), the Bhutto government began to make the national bourgeoisie more dependent on the state through policies of nationalisation.
Yet, by the mid-1970s, it became apparent that a steady growth in numbers of middle-class folk was giving birth to a new middle-class that had begun to demand more economic freedoms and less state intervention. The Bhutto regime had greatly facilitated the ambitions of thousands of Pakistanis wanting to travel to oil-rich Arab countries as blue- and white-collar workers. After earning more than they could in Pakistan, the workers began to spend heavily on lifestyle choices that the state had strictly regulated.
Interestingly, apart from the oligarchs, one of the first political forces to demand new private investment opportunities for the middle-classes was the JI. The party dismissed any notion of land and economic reforms (deeming them as being socialist and thus ‘un-Islamic’). JI advocated an ‘Islamised’ variant of free market enterprise. This version envisioned a new middle-class storming the national bourgeoisie. Members of an emerging new middle-class were to become enterprising economic agents working towards building an indigenous Islamic society/economy and consequently, an ‘Islamic state.’
This narrative/plan had the backing of wealthy, conservative Arab monarchies. Therefore, the Bhutto regime began to move to the right from 1974 onwards in a bid to usurp this narrative and shift. But the government’s political opponents continued to proliferate the perception of the Bhutto regime being socialist, irreligious and detrimental to the economic interests of the national bourgeoisie. Much of the national bourgeoisie had begun to be navigated by the money and ambitions of an evolving new middle-class.
In the next three decades (in developing countries) the old middle-class that was being overtly navigated by the state, had all but vanished. The new middle-classes wanted less state interference in economic matters. Across various developing countries, ‘economic freedom’ was gained by the new middle-classes through the accumulation of capital and consumption power, thus gaining them economic influence. In most Muslim-majority regions, economic influence was then synchronised with ‘Islamic’ and/or Islamist outlooks and exhibitionism.
This synchronisation’s stated purpose was to formulate an Islamic society, economy and state. But, ironically, it had more to do with ideas such as neoliberalism and globalisation. The new Muslim middle-classes desired global economic links and markets and experiences. Neoliberal economics facilitated this.
So, in their own countries, the new Muslim bourgeoisie influenced the opening up of the economy and the Islamisation of the state, whereas in countries where they were migrants, they ghettoised themselves. This often entailed being part of a secular Western state, yet having the economic and political influence to stand apart from the cultural norms of their adopted countries. Neoliberalism tolerated this as long as the ghettoised communities were contributing to a now globalised economy.
But not all among the new middle-classes in Muslim-majority countries were initiators and products of the aforementioned synchronisation. Indeed, those who weren’t too desired economic freedoms, yet, they saw the Islamisation dimension of their contemporaries as being an impediment to economic growth, both personal and national.
This division within the new Muslim middle-classes was/is the starkest in Turkey, where the new Turkish middle-classes compete to control economic (and therefore, political and social) influence from two different ideological camps: secular and Islamist. In the last two decades, the Islamist camp has enjoyed an upper hand, even though with the gradual global failures of neoliberal economics, the secular camp’s call to regenerate a national bourgeoisie linked to local developmental economics and secular nationalist disposition is now getting more attention.
In Pakistan, the religion-neutral (as opposed to entirely secular) segment of the new middle-classes are searching for something similar. This a reaction to the manner in which this segment of the new middle-class was steamrolled by their more ‘Islamic’ contemporaries, and even forced to meet certain Islamist-inspired conditions if they were to continue operating as active economic players.
Most, begrudgingly, did meet these conditions. In the late 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, these conditions were enshrined in Pakistan’s constitution and penal codes or were enforced in places of economic activity. To navigate around them, the religion-neutral segment of the new middle-classes presented alternative interpretations of Islam which they insist proved that the Islam was inherently moderate and demands no compulsions. In this case, this segment is like the old middle-class. The difference is that unlike the old one which was invested in the state-backed national modernisation project, this one has numerous vague ideas about how best to gather economic and political influence outside state intervention and state Islam.
PTI adopted the Islamist variant constructed by the religion-neutral segment because it believed that it was this segment which was now gaining more influence than the Islamic middle-class segment
Their Islamic contemporaries continued to strengthen the aforementioned synchronisation process. But due to the global failures of neoliberal economics, the Islamic segment has become desperate to retain its economic influence. As mentioned, neoliberalism benefited the synchronisation process. But since neoliberalism is now increasingly being seen as a failed idea, the Islamic bourgeoisie fear that their project to Islamise the state would stall and with it the economic benefits that the project provides to this segment.
Neoliberalism encourages private capital to dictate the terms of economic growth. Multinationals and banks become vital players and the economic influence of the state recedes. Neoliberalism denotes a preference for markets over government, economic incentives over cultural norms, and private entrepreneurship over collective action. In Muslim-majority countries, centre-right governments established networks of economic and political interdependence by appeasing the Islamic segments of the new bourgeoisie through lucrative contracts and business-friendly reforms. But like neoliberalism, this process, too, has started to come under greater scrutiny.
The erosion of neoliberalism and of the idea of ‘globalisation,’ has begun to limit the influence of the Islamic bourgeoisie. They have increasingly started to look towards the state for solutions. The same state whose economic role this segment had greatly shrunk.
For the state to regenerate itself as a dominant economic actor, it will need to lighten the Islamist baggage that the new middle-classes put around its neck (in a bid to weigh down its economic role). The possible dilution of the state’s Islamist dimension is making the Islamic bourgeoisie jittery because an Islamised state was beneficial to their economic fortunes.
Decades ago, the old middle-classes had agreed to bolster state intervention in economic matters — from the capitalist point of view (Ayub) and then from a centre-left one (Bhutto). Empowered by personal economic growth and influence, the new middle-classes, on the other hand, adopted neoliberalism. They synchronised neoliberalism’s amoral, state-repellent disposition with notions of ‘Islamic’ moralism. These were largely constructed as apologias for capitalist profiteering. They were weaved in a such a manner that they became conditions that needed to be met if one was to remain afloat in the new state-repellent economic landscape.
However, the weakening of the economy in Pakistan, especially after 2007, sent alarm bells ringing in the new middle-classes. Both the Islamic and religious-neutral factions began jostling for space in a shrinking economy. This has triggered various responses which we will discuss here in the context of Pakistan’s contemporary politics.
In the 1990s, PML-N was a major party that found traction among the Islamic segments of the new middle-classes. However, during the party’s third stint in power (2013-2018) it began to shift more to the centre in a bid to absorb (as potential voters) the religion-neutral segments of the new middle-classes as well. It tried to perform a delicate balancing act between the two segments. This move was the outcome of the failure of neoliberalism. Therefore, PML-N wanted to slowly but surely reinvigorate the state’s economic role through developmental economics.
The PPP had failed to attract much support from the state-repellent new middle-classes. But during neoliberalism’s global decline, it was the PPP which (in Pakistan) reintroduced certain state-funded welfare initiatives during its fourth stint in power (2008-2013). It did so to address the challenges triggered by the failures of neoliberalism. Initiatives such as the Benazir Income Support Program were not only introduced to reenergise the party’s appeal among the working and peasant classes, but to also ease the fears of the middle-classes which were now once again looking towards the state in an eroding neoliberal economy.
Whereas the PPP’s initiatives were successful in Sindh (outside Karachi), these were seen as a threat by the non-Sindhi bourgeoisie who retained the memory of the PPP as a party that was detrimental to the economic and political interests of the middle-classes. This was not the case with the growing Sindhi middle-classes though, which are a product of PPP’s long rule in Sindh.
The Sindhi-speaking middle-classes in Sindh are largely the outcome of PPP’s long rule in the province. This segment of the middle-class is largely secular. The political dynamics of its birth developed separately from those of the Punjabi, Pashtun and Mohajir middle-classes.
During its third stint, the PML-N tried to replicate similar state-funded schemes in the Punjab and also reintroduced old-school developmental economics. But PML-N, too, began being seen as a threat, mainly by the religion-neutral segment of the new middle-classes who feared that the party would squarely cater to the Islamic segment of the new bourgeoisie.
The religion-neutral segment had been unable to choose a political vehicle from among the established parties. In the 2000s, it allied itself with the Musharraf dictatorship (1999-2008). It understood his version of neoliberal economics as religion-neutral and thus more beneficial to them compared to their Islamic contemporaries who had thrived during the Zia-ul Haq dictatorship in the 19u0s, and the first two PML-N regimes.
After Musharraf’s departure, the religion-neutral segment fell in the lap of Imran Khan’s PTI which was aided in this context by the military establishment. The latter was looking to sustain its own interests and influence in a scenario in which a military dictator (Musharraf) had been forced to resign by the two old mainstream parties, the PML-N and PPP.
As a way to expand its vote-bank and electoral appeal, the PTI set off a balancing dance by continuously shifting between the centre and the right. As mentioned earlier, the religion-neutral segment of the new middle-classes had attempted to formulate their own variant of Islamism as a way to survive in an economic landscape shaped by the synchronisation of neoliberal economics and Islamist markers.
PTI adopted the Islamist variant constructed by the religion-neutral segment because it believed that it was this segment which was now gaining more influence than the Islamic middle-class segment that had dominated the proceedings in the 1980s and 1990s.
With the economy shrinking, tensions between the two middle-class segments increased and can be seen in the manner in which the PML-N and PTI are at each other’s throats. However, with neoliberal economics receding, and the need for the state to once again start playing a bigger role in economic matters increasing, powerful state institutions such as the military have rebounded to once more put their trust in the two older and more experienced parties such as the PML-N and the PPP.
Despite the fact that the Islamist dimension of the state is likely to corrode, the dumping of PTI by its former makers and backers in the establishment has made the religion-neutral middle-class segment return to its besieged state of mind.
There is now every likelihood that both segments of the new middle-class will further fragment. The goal of the state now seems to be to encourage bourgeois economic activity which is less ideologically-motivated and more pragmatic.