It is commonly asserted that Marx, despite being incredibly nuanced in some of his earlier work, was far too deterministic, reductionist, and linear in his political economy writings. This critique is predicated on a particular reading of his work that sees a 5 stage process for all societies, eventually culminating in the blossoming of modern capitalism – complete with contradictions and alienated labor.
Whether the criticism is premised on a close enough reading of what Marx actually meant to say is a separate matter, yet there is no denying that many scholars, both before and after Marx, dealt in grand narratives of history and in stories of a homogenous future for the entire planet. During the time of the British, a common subject for debate in Whitehall - between administrators, bureaucrats, and academics - was how to make India modern, i.e. what would it take to make Indian society break free from the shackles of backward traditions and decadent institutions? The aim, as can be gleaned from the debates, was to create a colony in the image of the home country - something that stuck around till as recently as the 1950s, when Rostow and Organski’s modernization theory continued to inform the way western societies dealt with the developing world.
The truth, however, was (and is) that societies have their own pace and pattern of change. The outcomes from this process could very well produce resemblance with other societies at different points in time - for example Pakistan being more open to global fast food chains and imported consumer products - but the intricate dynamics informing the relationship between urbanization, capitalistic development, and people are always quite unique.
Nothing reveals this as starkly as the journey on the National Highway – 5 (GT Road) from Rawalpindi to Lahore. This road, snaking through 300 kilometers of nearly contiguous urban territory, gives an interesting snapshot in how the question of change played itself out in Punjab, how different rural areas eventually became urban centers, and how people both led and became recipients of this rapid transformation.
There were three things that stood out for me on this particular journey. First is the rise of commercial activity in the food, banquet, and retail sector; second is the proliferation of suburban gated communities; and thirdly the spread of technical/vocational educational institutes. Each of these three represent qualitative shifts in the lifestyle choices made by residents in a number of places.
Starting from Shahdara, on the edge of Lahore, all the way to Rawat and Mundra in Rawalpindi district, each intermittent urban patch projects the very urban, and very consumerist aspirations of its residents. Restaurants selling both indigenous and continental cuisine (with names like ‘Chicks and Burgs’ and ‘Take Awayz’) provide anecdotal evidence of leisure time choices, and of a generational shift in dietary preferences. Another pervasive sight on the highway is the presence of large wedding halls, and the movement of wedding convoys from one town to another. Giving a modern twist to the old Punjabi adage of ‘same caste, different village’, the wedding industry is flourishing in the province, with each wedding competing to be more ostentatious than the other. Rows upon rows of gleaming and decorated new Toyotas, and to my surprise, Hondas, dot the sides of the highway giving off a skewed sense of unbridled prosperity and welfare.
Another transformation has been in changing patterns of land-use in and around these small towns and cities. Whereas most of the area between Lahore and Jhelum was at one point fertile canal irrigated agriculture land, large swathes have now been converted into residential suburbs. Large land-owners, facing diminishing returns from cash-crop farming, simply decided to divide their holdings into individual plots, laid down a few metaled roads and converted their farmland into a gated community. Given population pressures and the ubiquitous housing shortage in North and Central Punjab, such development has proven to be good business.
Finally, the demographic reality of having a large youth bulge has resulted in its own outcomes. Every few kilometers or so, one is confronted by large, garish advertisements of private commerce and information technology colleges offering degree and non-degree programs, and promising a brighter future for its potential customers. In many cases, these institutions are complemented by the presence of English language training centers and immigration agents – both of which rely on the deep-rooted impulse of migration in this part of the province.
All of this is akin to stating the glaringly obvious, yet the point of this mundane exercise is to show exactly how the obvious isn’t talked about as much as it should be. Population pressures, urbanization, and its accompanying features all have very real consequences in terms of the politics it breeds, the developmental questions it poses, and the impact these have on society at large. So while the world places its focus on Islamism, radicalization, and state-collapse, society in some parts of the country is humming along, forging a unique relationship with modernity in the process. And that, as Arif Hasan puts it, is the real unplanned revolution.
Originally published in Pakistan Today on 16/04/2012