THE 20th century gets a lot of bad press, and rightly so. In its first half inter-imperialist rivalries culminated in worldwide orgies of death and destruction with no precedent in human history. In its second half, violent conflicts continued to proliferate on the Asian, African and Latin American continents in what became known as the Cold War. All told, the report card does not make for good reading.
For the experts that constitute today’s intellectual and political mainstream, both the hot and cold wars that defined the 20th century were a direct result of the obsession with ‘ideology’ — and particularly that of the leftist variety. The post-Cold War relegation of ideology to the dustbin of history, then, is considered an unambiguously good thing.
It is another matter altogether that most of the political movements which secured the freedom of colonised nations from the shackles of European colonialism were tinged with more than just a little bit of ideology. And what of the great socialist revolutions in Russia, China and Cuba (among others) which were also acted out on the 20th-century stage? Whatever the experts claim, such political movements represented giant steps forward for humanity, whatever their shortcomings.
Foreign investment is touted as the panacea for all our woes.
The most invoked (mainstream) economist of the 20th century — John Maynard Keynes — was not averse to engaging in the ideological debate between left and right of which today’s ‘experts’ are so dismissive. Indeed, Keynes was very clear that the market could not be left to its own devices and that some measure of state intervention was necessary to secure social goals.
In effect, Keynes — like almost all of his contemporaries — was concerned not only with questions of supply and demand; his stress on establishing a balance in economic affairs reflected his wider philosophical concerns. What does a healthy society look like? What is a well-rounded individual? How do collective and individual goals coexist?
Needless to say 20th-century thinkers did not anticipate all of the many imperatives that have come to the fore in today’s world. Ecology, for instance, was not a major concern 50 years ago. In similar vein, there was little recognition of the deeply patriarchal bases of modern conceptions of development.
Yet there is something to be said for the richness of ideological debates that characterised the 20th century — it is this richness that is conspicuous by its absence in our time.
We live in a world where ‘foreign investment’ is touted as a panacea for all our problems. We have no electricity — it is taken as an unmitigated truth that foreign investment is the solution. Our public enterprises are failing — apparently everything can be fixed once foreign investors wave their magic wands. We want to end our dependence on America and stand on our own feet — Chinese foreign investment is the answer. Even the imperative of establishing peace in the country is explained by the need to make sure the foreign investors don’t get scared away.
If my characterisations sound absurd, it’s because the ‘foreign investment’ mantra is, without a shadow of a doubt, quite absurd. The complexities of the human condition, and the notion that our collective and individual development requires more than just big money is almost completely taken out of the equation when social and economic policy, and intellectual life more generally, becomes so one-dimensional.
Among other things we are unwilling to acknowledge the facts. Take, for instance, the case of 141 sacked workers in a Philip Morris factory in Swabi district, whose termination by one of the world’s biggest tobacco multinationals represents a flagrant violation of legal protocols according to our own National Industrial Relations Commission (NIRC). Has the government — including the PTI ‘change-makers’ that run KP — stepped in to protect the rights of its citizens? Quite the opposite: three dozen of the peacefully protesting workers were locked up for a few days in jail, presumably because their struggle might scare the esteemed foreign investors away.
In the political heartland, the khadim-i-ala is overseeing Punjab’s coal power initiative through which numerous foreign companies, many of them Chinese, are being invited to help solve our energy crisis (through the least environmentally sustainable non-renewable source of energy known to humankind). Five districts, and numerous sites in each, have been earmarked for the construction of coal plants; thousands of local people near Mehmood Kot in Muzzaffargarh district who stand to be displaced by one of these plants and also have important objections to the project on ecological grounds are being intimidated into silence, some even facing police action.
It would be naive to expect the ‘foreign investment’ brigade to admit the fallouts of its development paradigm. It will continue to depict multinational capital as our saviour, as a self-evident truth that is challenged only by those trapped in the ideological politics of a bygone era. Ideology is dead! Long live neo-liberalism!
Published in Dawn, January 15th, 2016