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on October 23 | in Political Economy | by | with No Comments

It is not the rebellious highlights of left history and thought but the paradoxes and conundrums that have most to say to us today. The need for reflective engagement being most pressing in the case of terrorism as well as privatisation of higher education
By Sarah Humayun

Should a ‘new’ left try to cater to expectations that it will take distinctive positions on some of the issues of the moment? To some extent this is a reasonable expectation from a political tendency that feels that its enfeebled presence in the political and public space has resulted in its degradation. It would be a welcome development to see forceful left-wing perspectives on issues such as the power crisis, privatisation, health, education and urban planning, among other things. With a perspective that privileges the collective over the individual, and looks at the aggregated force of social processes before the singular action, the left can surely provide persuasive arguments and examples against moving these concerns from the realm of the public to that of the ‘market’.

‘Public’ here indicates a collective but not mathematically or sociologically defined category which does not map on to the state, for one of the things the left now needs to do is find models of solidarity and collectivism that do not wish to coincide exactly with the state, but also refrain from uncritically rejecting the state form, with all the opportunities and limitations inherent in it.

It needs to do this because both the opportunities and the limitations of the state need to be continually rethought and restated in their relation ‘equality, solidarity and participation’, which political thinker Benjamin Arditi describes as ‘operators of difference imprinted in the cultural and affective jurisprudence of the left’ but which have ‘no relevant political existence outside efforts to singularize them in cases’.

To take one of the questions that came up in a conversation with a student activist: privatisation of higher education. There is considerable overlap between left and right stances on this issue, as historian Humera Iqtidar has pointed out. The Jamaat –e-Islami has opposed privatisation of education on the same ground – equality of access – as the left.

It would be interesting to know whether there has been significant recruitment in the left-wing National Student Federation from public sector universities, and, if so, to what extent is it happening in parallel with the educational reforms begun by the Musharraf regime. In the last few years it is private universities and lawyers’ movement activism that have served up some of the key younger members of the left. Public universities are still riper recruitment grounds for the right-wing IJT.

At first glance it might seem that the student left, in advocating state ownership, would merely stick to a traditional pro-public-sector position, and perhaps be able to make a bid to re-enter university politics with an agenda that appeals to lower-middle class and working class students. But this ignores that control by the state was also one of the reasons for the right’s exclusive ascendency in public universities; it was achieved on the back of not only martial law but also of the heavily-bureaucratised machinery of state-run universities, for which no single regime can be held responsible.

The right in the university as elsewhere has then learnt both from the left and from the state. From the first, it has learnt how to politicise religion by translating it into a platform for some demands usually associated with the egalitarian ideals. From the second, it has learnt to depoliticise religion by removing it from the context of debate and dissent; to use monopolistic violence as the basis for overriding the educational autonomy and modes of critical reflection proper to the university. Given similar circumstances, there is in principle nothing to stop this situation being replicated in private-sector universities except their defence of the same autonomy and their cautiousness with respect to the power they invest in administrations vis a vis the university community.

To support the state’s role as it presently exists in public education may or may not translate into a progressive political position. Debate on this is crucial. There can be no simple choices when it comes to the question of privatisation or state ownership. The particular form that state or private ownership takes and its suitability for the university, then becomes a question to be considered along with that of access. An intelligent student politics will concern itself with the autonomy and character of the university as well as with affordability of access.

It is questionable, therefore, whether any constructive politics of the left can assume that one social or institutional form can advance the interests of everyone.           Indeed, it is not for nothing that post-cold-war writing about the left has stressed antagonism, dispute, contingency, and the transformation of political identity in the process of articulating and linking it with other identities in alliances that can effect change. Instead of universality, it has stressed hegemony. But hegemony, whether ‘organic’ (as with Gramsci) or contingent and reversible (as with Laclau and Mouffe), still remains aspiration for domination that is relevant to only a section of the political field.

It is possible to discuss this difficulty in the modernist-inspired language of fragmentation, and consequently to look for answers in the revival of pure forms of Marxian politics and in the search for hegemonic ‘alternative’ narratives that will seek to displace the dominance of existing ones. That’s one way to go. Another path is to recognise that there can be more than one left politics at the same time.  ndeed, there has always been more than one: the putschist vanguard, the secessionist movement, the parliamentary party, the trade-union movement, the guild, the educational association, Christian socialism, ecological movements, etc. They have had different trajectories and not all have taken the overthrow of capitalist world-domination by the proletariat as their express object. In just-made history, spontaneous protests against sexual violence in India have arguably made a significant social impact. This considerable success has not interested anyone as much as the ambiguous Arab ‘revolutions’ or even the fortunes of the Maoist insurgency in India. Why not? Is it because its impact and its still-evolving meanings are hard to discuss in the orthodox vocabulary of left politics?

From the (sadly few) writings and interventions that one sees by left-wingers in mainstream public fora, it seems that most failures of left-wing politics can be explained away by state repression and the global ascendancy of capitalism, which have blurred class boundaries and so reduced the space for effective class struggles based on strong identities. Another familiar storyline recounts a history of the urban, cultural left of the intelligentsia and the conditions of its interactions with the state, with progressive loss of traction and space. More interestingly, it sometimes sheds light on how the left itself was shaped by hierarchical class or sectional interests, or had differences of opinion on critical questions that have not become irrelevant (as in the work of historian Kamran Asdar Ali).

These ways of making sense of left history are all relevant and illuminating; and perhaps one could do worse than live with the belief that given the right conditions, which are more or less identifiable, left political activity could have taken a different turn: that is, it could have stayed as once it was, more robust and promising. But there should be room to think, as Michael Freeden says, that ‘unintended consequences, ineffective intentions, and misinterpretations of the message are equally valuable insights … they are part of the continuous metamorphoses that ideologies experience’.

In my view what a revived conversation about the left should foreground is the more nuanced thinking that suggests not only that identity politics within the Marxian framework is improbable now but, furthermore, instances of it that are invoked are not easily decipherable in terms of the polemical claims made for them. Left polemic invested in the Marxian orthodoxies often appears to turn a face of brave defiance to those whom it feels it needs to educate in history and theory before they can grasp its ‘logic’.

This may well be worth doing. But it leaves out what appears to some observers to be a critically important promise of the political left: not just to attach the notion of alternative, negativity, resistance, to a particular theoretical elaboration of a dominant economic or social system, but also to offer a site from which it is possible to think alternatives to the ‘alternative’.


Nowhere is the need for reflective engagement as pressing as in the case of terrorism, to which, I think, the left has largely avoided giving facile answers. But it has also avoided advancing the debate.

This is a thorny issue. The All Parties Conference of the AWP put out a statement on what to do about terrorism in February: the state and religion should be separate. The state should not have a religion. Intelligence and armed forced should be under civilian control; support for extremist organisations should cease and they should be disbanded. Only those negotiations are acceptable which can lead to the achievement of democratic goals; negotiations that weaken constitution, democratic goals or democratic state are unacceptable. On Balochistan, its public statements have stressed that the Baloch have been denied basic human rights and access to resources, and that no solution can be found without ending the illegal abductions, torture and killings carried out by the agencies.

Despite this clear stance, from time to time, concerns are voiced about the left’s position on terrorism and insurgency. There is unease that the sections of the left are pro-talks, that they choose to avoid the problem of fundamentalism by talking about class, or by seeing it as a consequence of American involvement in the region and the related use of proxies by the military. On Balochistan, too, the left has been criticised for going beyond support for Baloch rights to endorse the case for Baloch nationalism.

I do not want to enter a discussion on whether these positions are held by a significant number of leftists or none at all or whether they are tenable. In the polarisation or talks or operations, what is evident is a rift between those who demand a position on terrorism to address the present moment, and those who want to begin with the context which has created the space for terrorism. The argument is partly about immediacy.

The criticism of those who are in favour of negotiations, however qualified, targets their  unwillingness to endorse solutions to terrorism understood as immediate threat; it argues that successful coercive action can create the space for addressing the context. Each side in the argument is prepared to pay a certain price: those who favour immediacy are willing to chance the deployment of the same war machine against nebulously-defined terrorist outfits that (they agree) inspired their formation; and those who favour addressing the context are presumably willing to maintain a stance of endurance on the immediate threats of attack.

I’m not sure that this division can be mapped on to the political left or the political right. But one thing that perhaps the left can contribute in thinking about terrorism and insurgency is to look beyond ‘what the state can do’, which is no doubt critical, to engage in reflection about what will in general lead to a reduction of violence, through deployment of state forces and apart from it. It can think about ways of reimagining the state in from the insights gleaned from Balochistan’s militant nationalism and the Taliban’s supra-state terrorism that treats the state as a shadow of an idea embodied in a yet-to-be-determined Islamic constitution.

The left is eminently placed to have this conversation because it shares the enlightenment legacy that understands freedom as autonomy and self-determination, and which it has also done much to complicate. At various times, it has sought out such figures of autonomy in nationalist movements, in the working class, as well as in the authoritarian state. Interesting work is now being done on climate of thought in the years preceding Pakistan and the philosophical lineages of some of the ideas that went into the imagining of the Islamic state. Kamran Asdar Ali has written a series of articles focusing on pre-partition left debate about Muslim nationalism and separatism in India (which documents opposing voices in the debate), the debates among left intellectuals about the nature of the Pakistani state and about the lessons of the 1972 Karachi strikes in Karachi.

Faisal Devji, who also counts the communism as a strand in the intellectual genealogy of Pakistan, has recently talked about how ‘religion was not a supplement to geography but its alternative’, in the ‘politics of radical non-coincidence between nation and state’ that envisaged its creation. These and other contributions tell us, not so much that Pakistan would have been a different place had everyone’s politics been better, but that there has always been a radical indeterminacy in the ways that states and nations are imagined that opens a door to violence.

In an interview after the events of September 11, Jacques Derrida, the French-Algerian philosopher, talked about ‘on the one hand, the positive and salutary role played by the “state” form (the sovereignty of the nation-state) and, thus, by democratic citizenship in providing protection against certain kinds of international violence (the market, the concentration of world capital, as well as “terrorist” violence and the proliferation of weapons) and, on the other hand, the negative or limiting effects of a state whose sovereignty remains a theological legacy, a state that closes its borders to noncitizens, monopolizes violence, controls its borders, excludes or represses noncitizens, and so forth?’ ‘The worst’, he continued, ‘it seems, is also the best. That is… the ultimate resource of all terrorisms.’

The ‘state’ — the ultimate figure of the free self-determining individual as imagined by liberalism — allows for divergent possibilities in the same time and place and the tension between them can be a fraught one. Each political intervention that bears the name of the state will produce an ensemble of effects, some of which will be more and some less conducive to violence. To operate on this territory of ‘less’ and ‘more’ will require considerably dexterity.

It is not the rebellious highlights of left history and thought but the paradoxes and conundrums, I think, that have most to say to us today. Does this mean that the left’s politics can give few easy answers and unequivocal positions? Is this a challenge it is ready to accept? Whatever the answer, perhaps it should be kept in mind that for every easy answer the left offers, there will be others willing to offer an easier one.


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