Populist haven – Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

IT has been more than a century since the renowned German sociologist Max Weber wrote about the declining influence of charisma in the modern era.
Weber argued that the larger-than-life individuals who had in the past commanded unquestioned authority on the basis of extraordinary traits were becoming increasingly obsolete with the emergence of modern and impersonal rationality that privileged written laws and bureaucratic procedures.
Like all of his contemporaries, Weber thought that modern Europe was more `advanced` than other regions of the world. Thus legalrational forms of authority were conspicuous by their absence in non-European societies and charismatic figures and various superstitions governed the behaviour of a majority of people.
If someone had asked him, Weber might have argued that the rest of the world would eventually catch up with Europe. Yet the truth was that catching-up even if it were desired was impossible given that modernity in the non-Western world was mediated through European colonial empires.
Indeed it was during colonial rule that formal legal and bureaucratic institutions of the modern kind were established in most of the non-Western world, with the British Raj in India arguably the most comprehensive experiment of all.
Weberian legal-rational institutions have over the course of the past century and a half dramatically shaped the trajectory of subcontinental society. But what Weber called charismatic and traditional forms of authority have not yet withered away, and areunlikely to do so in the near future. So what does that tell us about the institutions of the state that the British promised would lead us to the promised land of `legal-rationality`? Some Pakistan `experts` in the Western academy argue that `traditional` social norms have been so historically resilient that the state`s modernising project has been completely neutered.
In other words the state has in spite of its best efforts simply failed to `advance` society in the face of deeplyingrained ideas and practices.
Writers like Anatol Lieven have lauded the military in particular for being the only fountain of modern rationality in a sea of backwardness.
The truth is that our state both the colonial original and its post-colonial successor hardly fits the Weberian prototype. Its claims to being the bastion of modern rationality fly in the face of its utterly contradictory practices, including its regular privileging of `tradition` so as to insulate itself from challenges to its power.
Pakistani urbanites often ignore historical truths about the state and heap scorn on their own society instead by insisting that no other country in the world would tolerate `charismatic` figures such as Sufi Mohammad and Altaf Hussain who are revered in quasi-prophetic ways by their followers. In effect they share Lieven`s contention that (the majority of) Pakistanis are yet to become truly rational and modern.
The fact is that eccentric and sometimes outrageous characters who might exude a certain charisma ply their trade in virtually every country of the world.
For example, Rush Limbaugh and Jean-Marie Le Pen who represent political views on the extremeright enjoy considerableinfluence in the US and France respectively. Thus it is important to first establish that `charismatic` figures are not the exclusive preserve of Pakistan (along with other socalled `backward` societies).
Insofar as there are clear differences between the polities and culture of post-colonial countries and those of the so-called `advanced` world, they are explained not by Eurocentric notions that we lack modern traits. Our modernity is just different, largely because of the postcolonial state and notwithstanding the universalising force of global capitalism.
The point may be further clarified through a cursory discussion of the most obvious claimant to the Pakistani charisma throne, namely Imran Khan.
The Pakistani Tehreek-iInsaf head has in recent times been able to mobilise a large number of ordinary people around his person. He is an incredibly handsome World Cup-winning cricket captain, unmatched philanthropist and Oxford graduate.
He is the symbolic spearhead of a middle-class anticorruption crusade. He is viewed as honest and uncompromising, admitting even to his own political naiveté (supporting Musharraf`s 2002 referendum) and personal transformation (having renewed his faith after years of distraction).
In short it can easily be argued that he is the most charismatic personality in Pakistan at the present time.
None of these compelling aspects of his character confirm anything about his or Pakistani society`s rationality. His selective (and electorally motivated) references to his `traditional` background aside, Imran Khan is very much a cosmopolitan man, or in other words, as modern post-modern evenas any Pakistani could get.
His popular appeal also cannot be attributed to premodern traits in his followers, not least of all given that so many `youth` reputedly flock around him.
Of course we need to explain why individuals like Imran Khan are able to convince thousands thatthey can actually solve Pakistan`s problems by blockading the transport route supplying Nato forces in Afghanistan and how they are able to get away with election promises like ridding Pakistan of corruption in 90 days and shooting down drones.
In other words, we need to consider why populism is the name of the game in Pakistan. Our politicians are populists, our judges are populists, our intellectuals are populists and our media persons are populists.
Populism of the variety on show in this country is an entirely modern phenomenon. Indeed, media-driven populism makes charismatic characters out of the most uninspiring individuals one might ever come across.
But just the same way as populists erupt out of nowhere to save us from our problems, they also fall from grace dramatically because populist solutions never work. Indeed populists completely misdiagnose the problem let alone provide sustainable solutions.
Of course, none of this means that populism is irrational or anything of the sort.
It is an entirely rational and calculated politics in the name of the people that only reinforces elite privilege.
That Pakistan has become a populist haven should not be blamed on the subjugated mass of people who have to suffer in it on a daily basis.