Book Review – The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan

By Joe Gill

For two decades after the US invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was seen as an unreliable but essential partner in the West’s “war on terror”, a war that spread to Pakistan as the military turned on its homegrown Taliban movement, despite its long-time support for the extremist group in Afghanistan. 

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, Pakistan did not reap any benefits. Its economic crisis has worsened with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and former prime minister Imran Khan’s embrace of IMF austerity. Khan tried to reverse course and cut fuel prices, but lost support in parliament and was toppled in what he said was a US-inspired plot.

With inflation and poverty increasing, the traditional military elite and political classes have faced a growing crisis of legitimacy, as Khan mobilised millions of his supporters to demand fresh elections. Pakistan’s traditional political model, one managed by the military and intelligence services with a facade of democracy, faces an escalating crisis of control.

A brutal crackdown and mass arrests, including the arrest and then release of Khan, followed last year’s assassination attempt against the former cricketer turned politician.

In The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan, Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons, writer Aasim Sajjad Akhtar seeks to explain the country’s crisis within a broader analysis of uneven post-colonial development, and Pakistan’s place within the global capitalist economy. In a short 130 pages he sketches the society, economy, class and ethnic structure of the state, while seeking to develop a “theory of politics” that can lead to a hegemonic alternative to the current neoliberal order.

The writer is a lecturer at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, a self-professed activist as well as a newspaper columnist. The Struggle for Hegemony was written while Akhtar was researching at SOAS in London, and in Oxford, during the pandemic. While focused on Pakistan, the author seeks to offer a relevant theoretical framework for postcolonial regions in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Akhtar contrasts the dominant ideology of the current neoliberal era with that of earlier generations who, at least in part, perceived themselves to be revolutionaries, forged in a time of mass struggle against the colonial powers, with a horizon of freedom and socialism. Such a revolutionary idea or project is now “conspicuous by its absence”.

Akhtar is no fan of Khan and his conservative-populist PTI party, one that was nurtured at first by the military as an alternative to the traditional elite parties. Khan opposed the war on terror and built a following among the conservative middle class and the urban and rural poor; later he and the military fell out, and now the former protege has become the greatest threat to General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. 

“Pakistan’s youth are imbued with a hegemonic middle class aspiration,” writes Akhtar. And the youth are the majority of the country: 150 million out of 230 million are under the age of 30. 

Akhtar sees Khan as embodying this middle class hegemony, with a similar cult-like status to India’s Narendra Modi, enhanced through social media networks.

Ahktar takes Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the “national-popular will” as a necessary starting point for left and progressive forces in South Asia today. In the 21st century, the emergence of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have created what he describes as a “digital lifeworld” that has profoundly shaped activism and progressive politics, not just in Pakistan, but across the world.

The “new middle class” of South Asia is for Akhtar the idealised mirror of the 19th century bourgeoisie in Europe, a rising social power that has been mythologised by the breathless hyperbole of western media reports on India (Pakistan is not usually feted in this way). In reality millions who are included in this social group in both India and Pakistan are barely able to maintain their living standards given the rising cost of living, rents and property prices.

Neoliberalism’s promise of “depoliticised free markets and fast-track individual mobility” became dominant in the years of the Musharraf dictatorship when cheap consumer goods became widely available. But this new consumerism was undermined by the weakness of Pakistan’s economy, rising inflation and chronic power shortages. 

Meanwhile the working masses have borne the brunt of repression during the war on terror and the fallout of periodic financial crises. “Victims of war, indigenous communities, women and girls, and the urban and rural poor” are all criminalised by the “colonial logics of difference” within neoliberalism in Pakistan.

One of Akhtar’s key insights is that the working masses of Pakistan are not homogenous, and in fact are riven by ethnic, caste, gender and religion divisions; the vast majority work in the informal sector, making class organisation and solidarity very hard to achieve. 

Intense state repression against left-wing activism – even under the centre-left PPP government in the 1970s – made the job of building mass movements among peasants and workers all the harder. As a result of this and other failures of the progressive forces, a popular hegemonic project to overturn the authoritarian model of colonial statecraft inherited from empire could not be realised.

The author is steeped in the works of Aime Cesaire, Frantz Fanon, as well as Marxist geographer David Harvey and sociologist Michael Levien, bringing theoretical richness to the understanding of a system of “accumulation by dispossession”. Pakistan is a key node on China’s Belt and Road project, but Akhtar shows how this does not benefit local communities. 

Chapters explore the rise of the huge Bahria Town gated community in Karachi, and the River Ravi project in Lahore; the ongoing expropriation of common and indigenous land for property development; the land grab around the construction of the Gwadar deep sea port; and China’s mining of coal fields in Thar, Sindh, where locals lack access to drinking water. 

Elsewhere, in Gilgit-Baltistan, on China’s border, Chinese companies link up with military-controlled entities to mine gold, copper, bauxite, and marble in a “liminal zone’ where the war on terror is replaced with a war on nature. This is uneven development writ large in the post-colonial state’s border zones.

Moreover, Pakistan is a “confessional state’, rather like Israel, where the ethnic peripheries outside the Punjab are treated as colonial subjects by the military state, living under discriminatory, emergency rule.

Invoking Fanon and his call for a ‘new man’ among honest intellectuals in the anti-colonial struggle, Akhtar asks if the revolutionary humanism of the mid 20th century can be found once more in the postcolonial “middle class”. In this sense he breaks with classical Marxism in seeing a loosely defined “classless subject” as the potential revolutionary force in society, rather than the traditionally defined working class or landless peasantry.

In Pakistan, he sees new struggles for “recognition” – such as the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which campaigns against human rights abuses and discrimination toward the Pashtun community – as potentially evolving into an inter-ethnic mass movement for justice. The same applies to new feminist movements. 

This search for new kinds of universalist politics is a reflection of the absence of a significant organised working class (a kind of labour aristocracy exists), as per Karl Marx’s workers as a “class for itself, in itself”. Organised rickshaw drivers were, for example, decimated by Careem-Uber apps. 

Regardless of the outcome of the current crisis, Akhtar sees the youthful majority as still “spellbound to a dialectic of fear and desire” – the false dream of individual empowerment and commodity fetishism. The hard task of progressives is to create new “hegemonic forms” that break free of the networks of patronage, sectarianism, gender oppression and ethnic discrimination that continue to govern Pakistan society.

Akhtar raises profound questions about liberation politics in the post-colonial majority world, and if the answers are tentative, this still makes the book essential reading.

The Struggle for Hegemony in Pakistan: Fear, Desire and Revolutionary Horizons by Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, Pluto Press

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