Of legitimacy and power

January 17, 2021

Pakistan’s Political Economy is a collection of eleven pieces, inspired by an article in the EPW on state and Alavian thesis

Hamza Alavi wrote about Pakistan being an “overdeveloped” state in 1972 in the New Left Review. Does his argument still hold? To look into this question, it is worthwhile to revisit arguments in the above-mentioned book. It has been inspired by Zaidi’s 2014 article in the EPW on state and Alavian thesis. The book has eleven chapters written by well-established relatively young scholars and a detailed introduction by Matthew McCartney and S Akbar Zaidi. Chapters range from the social sciences and the overdeveloped state in Pakistan to overdeveloped Alavian legacy, institutions, women and Islam, the amnesia of genesis, uneven state-spatiality, class structure, agrarian transformation, bazaar traders, democracy-patronage debate and media transformations.

Hamza Alavi is a pioneering Pakistani social scientist. He contributed to the structuralist Marxist thinking on the theory of state for the post-colonial countries. He states that the traditional Marxist view of state reflecting the interests of the bourgeoisie class needs to be revisited in the non-European context. Post-colonial countries like Pakistan do not have only one dominant bourgeoisie class but at least three diverse and separate classes: the indigenous bourgeoisie, the metropolitan bourgeoisie and the landed class. These three “propertied classes” have competing interests with a certain degree of convergence as well. The overdeveloped “military-bureaucratic oligarchy” is relatively autonomous of the influence of these classes and mediates their interests.

Zaidi, McCartney and some other contributors of the book critique the Alavian thesis of an overdeveloped state and argue that it needs revision to reflect the changes in the contemporary Pakistani state and society over the last almost five decades. A few other contributors are of the view that Alavian thesis still holds. As McCartney and Zaidi write in their introduction to the book, Shah, Javid and Armitage believe that the Alavian theory is still applicable while Jan, Suhail, Javed, Akhtar and Khan are of the opinion that it needs revision by introducing new thought into it.

Zaidi’s critique of Alavi revolves around the missing analysis of changes and transition in Pakistani society. He is of the view in his 2014 EPW article that Pakistan is almost urban (a point that Jan, another contributor in the book, contests) and there is “urbanisation with informalisation” that makes the state somewhat bypassed rather than it being “overdeveloped”. Khan states in his chapter that massive informalisation in Pakistan (almost 73 percent of non-agricultural labour works in the informal sector) needs to be viewed in the context of onslaught of the neoliberal economy rather than being viewed as a weakness of the state.

Another point Zaidi makes is that Pakistani state does not enjoy absolute monopoly over instruments of violence. It struggles to collect taxes and has many fractures and fissures. Shah, in his chapter, states that Pakistan’s army’s successful operations against terrorists show that it has been able to establish order despite being challenged.

Zaidi is also of the view that now there are new contenders for power i.e. the parliament, judiciary and the media and the military does not enjoy overwhelming power. To a certain extent, it shares power with the emergent institutions. McCartney points out various strengths and weaknesses of the Alavian thesis and gives it a mixed score. He states that the state pursued some policies vis-à-vis the landed and agricultural sectors that showed that it was relatively autonomous of their influence and did not reflect the corresponding class power. McCartney challenges the “overdeveloped” state implicitly by citing Pritchett’s work on India to state that there is a “flailing state” in these countries.

McCartney writes, “…the capacity of the Indian (or Pakistani) state to implement programmes is weak and there is ‘rampant absenteeism, indifference, incompetence and corruption’ in the functioning of the ‘police, tax collection, education, health, power supply, and water supply’”. He also refers to the failure of rural development schemes in Pakistan. Pakistani and Indian states do not effectively deliver public services, development, and governance to their citizens. The evidence challenges the idea of Pakistan being an “overdeveloped” state.

It is worthwhile to mention here that Alavi makes an important distinction between “legitimacy” and “power”. Though Akhtar, in his chapter, writes about the Gramscian concept of coercion and consent. We think Alavian categorisation of legitimacy and power is more direct. A lot of McCartney’s above-mentioned discussion refers to state capacity. We think that state capacity should not be conflated with the notion of “overdevelopment” of state. Shah, in his chapter, puts the same phenomenon in another way. Citing sociologist Michael Mann, he distinguishes between “despotic” and “infrastructural” power.

We take this debate further by stating that the “overdeveloped” model of state coexists in Pakistan with “underdeveloped” state dynamics. State theory in Pakistan does not need to be seen in either/or terms of its over/under-development. Pakistani state is “overdeveloped” in certain aspects and “underdeveloped” in other aspects. The “overdevelopment” and “underdevelopment” coexist.

Pakistan lacks state capacity and state institutions are underdeveloped in many ways. The overdeveloped aspects of Pakistani state and its underdeveloped dynamics are intertwined. Pakistan has not progressed as an enterprising, liberal, dynamic, and progressive country. It has relied on foreign funding due to its strategic location. It has not fully explored its economic potential and has underinvested in human development.

Akhtar employs a Gramscian framework to comment on state and capitalism. A cross section of the society has absorbed the Gramscian “common sense” approach whereby people seek patrons as intermediaries to deal with the state and market. Both Akhtar and Zaidi discuss informalisation and urbanisation and “newly emergent classes”. Akhtar says, it is time to “cut down the overdeveloped Alavian legacy to size”.

Zia thinks that the earlier Alavian class analysis has been taken over by privileging Islam as a category of analysis in the post 9/11 scholarship and this needs to be challenged. She is critical of this “post-secularist” analysis, as it has primed a “pietist agency” over liberal empowerment of women. There is a need to focus on working class movements of women that are secular in nature and include the mobilisation by Lady Health Workers all over the country as well as the movement of the Okara peasant women for their land rights.

Javed’s chapter focuses on bazaar traders in the Punjab. These traders run commercial activities related to the retail and wholesale in marketplaces referred to as bazaars. These traders are part of the informal economy constituting a good part of the intermediate class. These bazaar traders played an instrumental role in anti-Bhutto mobilisation in 1977. The Zia regime subsequently incorporated the traders in its power configuration by selectively distributing patronage to them. Bazaar traders were able to finance this patronage politics due to their control over money. The state has been “socialised ‘from below’ to a considerable extent”.

Sulehria, in his chapter on media, disagrees with Zaidi that the media is an independent institution. Agenda-setting, ownership and representation are three important elements in the political economy of media. He says that it is often the military that sets the agenda. Ownership consists of traditional media houses and metropolitan bourgeoisie has stayed away from it. In terms of on-screen representation, it is an Urdu-Punjabi dominated media.

The book is theoretically and empirically sound. It is a welcome addition to the political economy literature on Pakistan. Though, the empirical side of the book is mainly focused on the Punjab, it does offer some other geographical glimpses. The editors have produced a rigorous introduction and an array of academically solid contributions.


Pakistan’s Political Economy: State, Class and Social Change

Edited by: Matthew McCartney and S. Akbar Zaidi

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Pages: 275 (hardcover)

Price: INR 995



The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist. She can be reached at [email protected]

Of legitimacy and power