Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Hamza Alavi can lead you out of crisis

by Hassan Zaib Abbasi

Hamza Alavi (1921 - 2003) Photo Credit:

Commentators in electronic and print media churn out analysis after analysis: dissecting events, building their theses, and offering speculative explanations of political happenings. One need only catch a glimpse of a television channel and it becomes clear that Pakistan is in crisis. Not because the state faces imminent danger of collapse but because of the frequency of seemingly unexplainable events whose true meaning always remains just slightly out of grasp despite, or perhaps because of, the efforts of numerous “analysts”.

Populist rhetoric promoted by many of these “analysts” sees most political problems as emanating from a class of corrupt politicians or ambitious generals which is hurling the country from one crisis to the next. The inability to move beyond such broad strokes of generalizations betrays the lack of analytical reasoning.  There is hardly any appreciation of the work of deeper thinkers who might provide more durable analysis – minds like that of Hamza Alavi who had a way of placing fast-moving events in their proper historical and theoretical contexts. Alavi’s greatest gift, perhaps, lay in his ability to connect theory with current events and provide a deeper structural understanding of not only the actions but the actors.

One of Alavi’s major contributions to political science in Pakistan was discussing the post-colonial state of Pakistan and its “overdeveloped” institutions. His argument focuses on the relative “over” development of the two arms of the state the military and the civil bureaucracy. He cites colonial policy and requirement as the reasons why these two arms of the state were overdeveloped and operated as “means of social and political control and regulation in metropolitan interests rather than the development of the colonized”.[1] The constant tension between institutions of representative politics and the military-civil bureaucracy can be traced back to this historical legacy. The theory is rich enough to explain, also, how India and Pakistan differed despite common historical roots.

While it is easy enough to explain political developments through events and personalities, such analyses rarely last.  Instances of corruption on the part of politicians are magnified, for example, to fuel the narrative about a corrupt political elite which has no interest other than plundering state resources. When generals seize power they use this very narrative. The military’s overbearing presence in politics is explained by referring to the ambitions of individual generals.  The historical legacy, on which present-day politicians or generals had no influence, but which shapes the situation that they find themselves in, is not considered.  No wonder “analyses” have a short shelf life, and “theses” keep changing, adding to the sense of crisis.  A brave general of yesterday becomes the despot of today, and a heroic politician of today will be branded a kleptomaniac tomorrow to be restored again the day after.

Alavi encourages us to look beyond these daily events, and to analyse them by building theory and paying attention to history. Take the longer view while using emerging facts to update theory - that might have been his advice to anyone disoriented by lurching from “crisis” to “crisis”.

The Hamza Alavi Foundation is celebrating the 94th anniversary of birth by holding a seminar at the Institute of Chartered Accountants, Teen Talwar, Clifton, Karachi, between 5 and 7pm on 18 April 2015.

1. Shaheed, Z. (2013), Hamza Alavi: Third World Thinker and Activist. Development and Change, 44: 753–768