In his brilliant essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote, “[A]n effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.”
Let’s put a variation on this. A state may resort to coercion because it thinks that it is being subjected to subversive attacks that can weaken it, and then become even weaker because it has no tools other than to coerce and oppress the very people from whom it must draw its strength.
The sentinels guarding the ideological walls of this state like to talk about 5th Generation war, non-linear conflicts and our enemies’ desire to exploit the fissures and fault-lines in this society. Their standard response is to shut down conversation, flag anyone who deviates from the meta-narrative as a threat, come down hard on such persons, declare that enemies are lurking behind every shadow and announce that in such a crisis we must close ranks and speak with one voice, diversity of views be damned.
Arresting young scholars and slapping sedition charges on them is reminiscent of hard states that are extinct precisely because they lacked the tools to negotiate
There is an obvious problem with this reasoning, even if we accept that non-linear war relies on a number of non-kinetic tools in the service of kinetic results. To quote Sun Tzu: “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact.” In other words, to break the enemy’s will to fight without having to destroy him.
And yet, there’s a deep flaw in the way our sentinels think. Consider.
Before we begin discussing the state, it’s important to know who or what constitutes the regime that seeks to represent the state. Is the state to be identified with a bunch of people at any given point? Or is it to be identified with rule of law and a constitutional compact?
One doesn’t need to mount an exhaustive argument to distinguish between the two forms the state can take. In the first case, for instance, Bashar al-Asad of Syria thinks the state inheres in him, as does Kim Jong-un of North Korea; in many Latin American states, it rested in military juntas; in countries like China the Communist Party represents the state. In the second case, state-society relations are guided by a constitutional agreement. The rules it enshrines are meant to check both, not just one, in order to create complementarities.
In speaking constantly about ‘hybrid’ war, we have ended up with a hybrid system, a dyarchy. We have the trappings of a constitutional compact, but we continue to erode the checks that are supposed to keep the state leashed. Worse, the civilians voted in by the people, the supposed guardians of that compact, are the ones who meekly genuflect before those who engineered their rise unto the place.
This is where the problem begins; unfortunately, it doesn’t end there because what looks strong is in fact hard and brittle. And what’s hard and brittle is never flexibly strong.
The late Nazih Ayubi described this brilliantly in his Over-stating the Arab State, distinguishing between ‘hard’ and ‘strong’ states. Ayubi argued that the authoritarian Arab states had little ability to control populations, trends and changes which is why they could not enforce laws and break traditional structures. The hard state coerces; the strong state achieves its goals because it is accepted by its people. By this definition, the Arab states were/are weak states. Or, as Ayubi put it, “The Arab state is therefore often violent because it is weak.”
The thesis is simple: A hard, centralised state is interventionist and seeks “to enforce a detailed, standardised regulation of the economy and the society.” It’s quite another thing, as Ayubi demonstrates, that such interventionist approaches often come up short. A strong state, in contrast, partners with its citizens. State-society relations complement and strengthen each side. Put another way, the strength of the strong state lies in “its ability to work with and through other centres of power in society.”
What we are witnessing is the work of a hard, weak state. Arresting young scholars and slapping sedition charges on them is reminiscent of hard states that are extinct precisely because they lacked the tools to negotiate; they are also reminiscent of episodes in democracies that those states and societies are not very proud of (and for good reason).
Luckily, we are still short of going over the cliff, thanks to the Islamabad High Court which not only granted post-arrest bails to the arrested young activists, but asked a question central to the conversation: How can you question someone’s patriotism?
This is indeed the question and is intrinsically linked with the other question about who defines national security, how, and in and through what framework.
The other problem with the sentinels is that they externalise problems while arguing that the state is under attack. Of course, the enemies will exploit the fissures; they will also use a society’s freedoms to make space for more dissent. This is, in fact, a no-brainer. The question, however, is this: if there are fault-lines that can be exploited, should the response be coercion that can worsen those fault-lines or an approach which heals those rifts? If we end up externalising every problem, we run the risk of not addressing the problems that can be exploited.
It’s like the human body; it’s more susceptible to ailment when the immune system is weak. The attack does come from outside, but shoring up the defences against it means focusing on and strengthening the body’s own defences.
Finally, what keeps people together is not shutting down the conversation but opening it up. Dissent, far from being a problem, is cathartic and provides a safety valve. Shut down the valve and you will let the pressure build up to a point where it will blow the lid off. The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement was in disarray with differences among its leadership. The recent moronic action against them has helped it close ranks and given it a new lease of life. For that the geniuses dealing with ‘national security’ deserve a slow clap.
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times and is convinced that Hydrogen and stupidity are the most abundant elements in this universe. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider