A Daewoo bus running on the Rawalpindi - Lahore route is probably my favorite field site for practicing amateur anthropology. The thing that sets a Daewoo bus journey apart is that it happens to be in a weird little league of its own. A Daewoo is not a Kohistan, nor a Skyways, nor a Niazi, and its certainly not a New Khan. For most customers, a Daewoo trip is never a backup to that forever elusive Isb-Lhr PIA flight. A Daewoo bus journey, ladies and gentlemen, is a Daewoo bus journey.
Ever since I moved to Islamabad from Lahore nearly 7 months ago, I've clocked up a whole lot of Daewoo miles. Add that to my chronic problem of being unable to sleep in a moving vehicle, i'm often left with little choice but to dwell on the sociological composition of the bus. Given this rather boring combination, what i've realized is that when my bus leaves the station, the 30 odd travelers on it represent one of the most practical manifestations of the North Pakistani middle class.
You always have the student sorts, going home from either direction. You'll always have a couple of telecom/IT/Development professionals, lugging their laptops. You'll have the desi aunty type visiting her daughter, or the daughter with kids going home or back to her husband. You'll have the odd civil servant reading The Nation with great intent. You'll have a couple of Pashtun cloth merchants and a few Punjabi traders. All in all, it's an interesting mix of people, with each of them having just the right amount of disposable income to travel in relative comfort.
A few weeks ago, on my kazillionth mid-journey stop at Bhera (Sargodha), i chanced upon 7 chartered coasters full of young boys on their way back from a trip to Murree. These boys were students at one of the many private colleges in Lahore, and were what Karachiites lovingly refer to as 'Maila's' or what we in Lahore call 'Nash Laundas'. Their private college caters to a select class in society, mainly those sahibzadas and sahibzadis who can afford the marginally higher private college fees but basically suck at studying. Their's and other mono-building colleges are now responsible for providing education to a very large part of our urban population. The appearance and general demeanor of their student bodies suggests they're completely in sync with consumerism and some perceived notion of 'modernity'. Their language, social positioning and essence is, in all likelihood, still fairly rooted in indigenous culture.
For me, these young boys and girls are part and parcel of a larger middle class formation as well.
This post, for which these first few paragraphs were a lengthy preamble, is being written in response to Rafia Zakaria's eloquent but mostly misplaced op-ed in today's Dawn. The basic crux of her argument, as i understood it, was that there is a class of people in Pakistan that do not belong to the landed elite, nor to the industrial elite, but somehow possess enough wealth to purchase branded clothes and accessories, live in roughly the same neighborhoods, attend the same parties, be seen on the same social pages, and generally hang around with the actual elite. She labels them, interestingly enough, as the 'almost elite'. Their roots and social rise is not from land or industrial wealth, but rather on their abilities to dispense mental labor or artistic talent.
The article places this almost-elite, completely westernized (for the lack of a better word) in world-view and practice, as part of the country's middle class formation. The proposed tragedy is that they actively label themselves as part of the upper class, and in the process shrug off all the responsibilities that a constituent group of the middle class would have in a developing country like ours. The proposed solution, however, is that an honest appraisal of reality is badly needed, which would ultimately direct the talents of the almost-elite towards the betterment of Pakistan.
Despite the insistence of several people, i find this piece to be highly problematic, both in terms of definitional depth and in terms of the solution it has proposed, (the latter is intrinsically linked to the former). For starters, people who can afford to wear Armani and Versace, live in upper class neighborhoods, and get waited upon by servants and drivers, are not almost-elite. They are, for all intents and purposes, by all definitions and measurements, and by all perspectives, part of the elite. The origins of their wealth, or their personal talents and skills, do not in anyway separate them from the upper class.
The obvious question that comes out of this is then what exactly is the elite?
The Pakistani Elite:
In academic discourse for post-colonial societies, a class formation is defined in three distinct ways.
Firstly, it is defined in terms of its relationship with the prevalent mode of production, or to put it in simpler parlance, its economic status. In 1947, the elite of West Pakistan, under this particular definition, would be the landed families of Punjab, Sindh, British Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Alongside these families, there was a small but rapidly growing segment of industrialists and businessmen in Karachi, and to a much lesser extent, in Lahore. By the late 70's to early 90's, the elite consisted of landed families, the families who gained from the de-nationalization process, and the noveau riche businessmen and merchants of central Punjab, KPK, and Karachi. This third class was a direct consequence of the gradual shift from an agro-manufacturing to a commerce based urban economy, and the cultivation of closer trading ties with Europe, America, and the Gulf region in particular. From the mid 90's onwards, and through the last decade, the elite has expanded even further to include certain members of the services sector. CEOs, CFOs, Lawyers, Bankers, and even Consultants and Technocrats are now economically as well off as most mid-sized unit owners. They might not have direct control over labor as nakedly as land owners and industrialists, but they exercise considerable authority due to their position in the economy and the sheer amount of money they make.
Secondly, a class can be defined in terms of its own consciousness and cultural ethos. This particular bit is problematic when it comes to most countries, probably because it's near impossible to have homogeneous elite culture, orientation towards political systems, and a shared understanding of their own position in society. The Pakistani elite is no different in this regard. While Rafia Zakaria used Armani and Versace as qualitative measures of elite status, it would be worthwhile to mention that even within each elite sub-group there is considerable variation in adoption of western modernity and socio-political orientations. There are certain landed families where social liberal tendencies, globalized orientations, and positive attitudes towards formal higher education prevail, but for every Noon in Punjab, there's a Maher in Sindh. Incidentally, you'll be hard pressed to find a family more elite than the Mahers, but that still doesn't stop their sons from plastering their cheap sun-glasses adorning faces all across Ghotki district. Similarly, within the industrialist families, the attitudes of Chiniotis and Kashmiris are considerably different than other families. Nawaz Sharif is an elite by every possible definition but his personal sphere revolves largely around his biraderi as opposed to Sunday Magazine parties. It's predominantly the new elite which has been more amenable towards consumable western modernity, i.e. the accents, the designer bags, the parties etc etc. All in all, there is no one elite culture in itself, but the most whole-scale and accurate adoption of western social and cultural practices is now almost always found within these elite groups.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly in the case of Pakistan, elite status is defined in terms of proximity to state power. State power here implies the ability to use the resources and institutions of the state for personally determined aims. (The difference between personally determined as opposed to personal is important. The former leaves space for altruistic and positive acts through politics and the institutions of the state, while the latter is synonymous with rent-seeking, corruption, and nepotism). Major and even mid-sized landed families that enter active politics reinforce their elite status. Industrialists and the commercial elite have proximity to state power due to their ability to enter active politics, finance political parties, and influence bureaucrats and army men. The real conundrum is actually with these last two social groups. High ranking bureaucrats, Judges and Army generals are the most obvious representation of state power. They control capital, labor, and all sorts of other resources. They are deeply embedded in the political economy structure of an over-bloated state and hang around in largely the same circles as some portion of the economic elite. Their only problem is that usually get discarded once they retire (unless they've accumulated enough wealth during service). So while you're in service, handle a corps or a ministry, you're basically right there with all the others. Finally, this brings us to the connection between the service sector elite and state power. As far as i see it, the service sector elite is heavily linked to state and government officials. When the CEO of Abu Dhabi group's Pakistan operation held a wedding reception for his daughter, every major political leader was present (regardless of party affiliation), and every senior bureaucrat and General he's ever dealt with or was planning on dealing with was present. Similarly, I'd be hard pressed to find a person who can work as President of NBP for a gazillion years without having adequate connections with the powers that be. I'll concede that this new elite does not have access to disposable state power (they don't control SHOs and DCOs) but that kind of influence is probably only a few phone calls away, mostly to someone within their own families.
With that ladies and gentlemen, you have the economic, political, and social elite of this country. The almost-elite class of Rafia Zakaria's imagination is very much part and parcel of this formation in all its Armani wearing glory. I promised myself that i'd be as objective as possible about this, but there's something very infuriating about the fact that people still only associate land and industry with elite status in Pakistan. A topic as delicate as class analysis should rarely be put forward in op-ed form because it requires too much nuance, a solid understanding of our political and social history, and extensive attention to detail. A bumbling attempt, like this one, obfuscates our understanding of ground realities.
The only way to classify the 'almost-elite' as a middle class would be if we were talking about the global middle class. It's only at an international level where their Ivy league skills, artistic talent and liberal aesthetics find a middling presence, primarily in the company of similar individuals from different countries. As an example, it comes as little surprise that most of our English language writers were based abroad, some of them in very non-literary but highly skilled jobs. The real middle class, those who work jobs and worry about rent/bills, is what was flippantly described at the start. The middle class (both upper and lower) is not on the pages of the Sunday Magazine, nor do they share the same public and social spaces as the elite. They ride their Daewoos and it's only because of the elite and almost-elite that the PIA flight remains forever elusive.
However, amidst all the confusion, the op-ed unconsciously stumbled upon an important observation. What one could possibly take from it, after resolving the definitional contradictions, is that intellectual or artistic talent, has now become the sole prerogative of the elite in this country. I touched upon this in a whimsical way last week with my Asif Bhatti column, but in more concrete terms what needs to be stated is that a portion of the real middle class in this country has grown increasingly reactionary, largely apolitical, and completely immersed in the capitalist rat race. The middle class liberal is a dying breed. The middle class intellectual is also a dying breed. Its really not about getting the elites to think they're middle class. Its about getting the middle class to engage with alternate ideas, which at one point in our history was the norm. While the elite waxes lyrical about secularism and tolerance, the supposed engines of our developing economy are busy sharing Zaid Hamid videos on Facebook. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our real problem.