Of oligarchy & plutocracy

It appears to be a reasonable assumption to make, given the socio-economic-political ground realities in present day Pakistan and the performance track record of nearly six years of civilian democratic rule, that the majority of common Pakistani citizens are asking important political questions: Does Pakistan need a “New Republic” focused on the attainment of a purely “people’s democratic welfare state?” Has Pakistan’s sad political odyssey for democratization been achieved? Or has Pakistani democracy been reverted backwards to the rule of “oligarchs” and “plutocrats?”
The word “oligarchy” is rooted in Greek. In basic terms, an “oligarchy” is a system of government by the few. There is an implication of exploitation of public and national wealth by which the “oligarchs” enrich themselves; historically many certainly did. “Plutocracy” refers to the rule or power of the wealthy. In precise terms it means that wealthy individuals exercise a combination of economic and political power, and consequently have an overall dramatic impact on the entire shape and structural form of a society. Hence, it is obvious that “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” are not complimentary factors in the development of democratic institutional building.
Has the recent Pakistani democratic experience, starting in 2008, been a fearful and disappointing encounter with fate for the majority of this nation’s common citizens? Indeed, common people in this country are suffering unprecedentedly and encountering socio-economic disasters on a daily basis on a scale unimaginable in a civilized democratic society. Let us do a bit of soul searching and careful philosophical and political reflection on what has been happening to us (as a nation) at the hands of our self-proclaimed democratic leadership.
To logically embark on this retrospection, I am reproducing here parts of an unpublished article of mine, written when Asif Ali Zardari came to power in early 2008:
“The Pakistani people, on the fateful day of February 18th, thought they had finally arrived at the destination of a democratic dispensation. They had also thought that they would be honored for their expressed opinion on that auspicious day. They had thought that their country’s sad and difficult odyssey filled with repeated malevolent dictatorships had finally ended. They had imagined a Pakistan independent of American yoke. They had imagined a people’s government in Islamabad. They had hoped for the end of state-terror against its own citizens and the final termination of the so-called “War On Terror” in their country on America’s behest. They had hoped that finally the political elite in the county would rise above their self-interest and power-hunger and serve the interests of the general masses. They had hoped for epic changes in the conduct and authoritative mindset of the political leadership.
But the Pakistani public’s dreams have been shattered and their hopes smashed. Nothing of the sort has happened. Pakistan’s sad odyssey to democratization is relapsing again. The leadership of the People’s Party is hell-bent on creating an oligarchy – a political structure in Islamabad that is a purely civilian “junta” and is being built on propagating the “personality cult” of the party’s Co-Chairperson. Hence, in this journey of democratization, the PPP has so far only succeeded in alienating Pakistani masses. The PPP is preparing a blueprint of another kind of party dictatorship – in fact, the dictatorship of its Co-Chairperson, seemingly different in appearance but having a perspective malignantly similar to a dictatorship doctrine.
What has been a dramatic transformation in today’s Pakistan is the emerging political enlightenment of its civil society and its accompanying political activism. And now another struggle falls upon the nation to challenge the growing unacceptable political excesses of the PPP leadership.
Asif Zardari will win the presidential election under the present political circumstances, but he will never win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people. The present-day struggle in Pakistan to win over the masses can only be achieved by a pro-people’s democratic dispensation aimed at serving and restoring public confidence in the government’s absolute commitment to building a welfare-state.”
Let us face some brutal facts: Pakistan’s elected democracies have been disingenuous so far. Elected civilian leaderships, time and again, have chosen oligarchic and plutocratic approaches to governance (by some measures, worse than military dictatorship) instead of a determined and steadfast commitment to democratic norms. It is to be noted here that in the ongoing national debate on General Musharraf’s trial, the print and digital media (for that matter the academies, political pundits, political analysts, and intellectuals) have all forgotten to point out that military takeovers in the country were made possible only because the civilian regimes, over and over again, failed to deliver. Also let us not forget, and go into denial; every martial law was not welcomed by the majority of people. Mind you, I am not exonerating or vindicating Musharraf here for any of his flawed judgments (I wrote several anti-Musharraf columns when he was in power) but this should certainly be an indictment against the entire Pakistani civilian leadership.
Have we not witnessed massive corruption, unprecedented political mismanagement, fiscal disasters, incompetence, inefficiency and domestic and foreign policy crises during the elected governments’ tenures, including the incumbent government in Islamabad? The apologists claim that this is the immediate and transitional price that has to be paid for the survival of democracy, and soon things will get better and democratic norms will prevail. But these apologists are wrong. They are conceptually flawed, intentionally and knowingly unethical in their views; it is a deceptive perspective promoted because of vested interests.
The fact of the matter is that we live in an age of mega-expensive politics. In Pakistan, money has been allowed (by the elected leadership) to transgress from markets and business enterprises, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business. Consequently, the elected democracy in Pakistan has structured itself into a mega-merger of political power aimed at seeking massive financial capacity and control, hence putting political power in the hands of a selective group of “oligarchs” and “plutocrats.”
Nearly a century ago, the US Supreme court Justice Lewis Brandeis warned: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
“It is not enough for governments to be simply democratic; they must deliver or decay,” wrote Stein Ringen, the emeritus Professor at Oxford University in a recent article. Professor Ringen further states that Athens was a role model of democratic governance until “privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, (then) the lights went out…In Athens, democracy disintegrated when the rich grew super rich, refused to play by the (democratic) rules and undermined the established (democratic) system of government.”
The vital questions that need to be asked in today’s democratic Pakistan are: Has the Pakistani elected democracy already gone far beyond the threshold of institutional democratic destruction? And does Pakistani democratic governance simply suffer from a moral dilemma and spiritual bankruptcy?
Above all, can Pakistan’s democracy survive side-by-side with “oligarchy” and “plutocracy” factors, at least for the time being, and eventually reinvent itself? History does not seem to endorse this contention.

The writer is UAE-based academic, policy analyst, conflict resolution expert and author of several  books on Pakistan and foreign policy issues. He holds a doctorate and a masters degree from Columbia University in New York.


ePaper - Nawaiwaqt