Pakistan: The threatening catastrophe and how to fight it

We are living in the first decade of the 21st Century, a time when the march of technology and science has achieved miracles. We can put a man on the moon and send out satellites to explore the furthest reaches of the solar system and beyond. And yet in the year 2010, millions of men and women are reduced to the most primitive level, bordering on barbarism. That was true in Pakistan even before the floods. Now millions of poor people are clinging onto life, and their grasp grows weaker by the moment.

As I write these lines, approximately 21 million people are facing slow death by starvation. The rice fields are destroyed. There is no food. Whole areas lie devastated. Villages are in ruins. At least two million houses have been destroyed. Ten million people depend on aid for survival. Poor people sell their few pitiful possessions to buy food at inflated prices, and when they have nothing left, they starve. Mothers carrying skeletal children are turned away from camps. They have no milk in their breast to feed their babies, many of whom are sick with malaria, diarrhoea and other life-threatening diseases.

The survivors are crowded into improvised camps, many of which have no food or tents to offer desperate people who have trudged long distances on foot seeking food and shelter. At least 100,000 children are expected to die within six months. As if this were not enough, the threat of an epidemic of cholera hangs like a heavy cloud over these people who have already suffered unbearable hardship. Pakistan is in no condition to withstand an epidemic. Many hospitals and clinics have been destroyed by the floods.

In such circumstances, it is normal practice to refer to “natural calamities”, or even “acts of God” (this category even exists legally and can be found in the small print of insurance policies). However, while disasters may be caused by natural phenomena, they also put to the test all parties, governments, programmes and policies, exposing all the internal weakness and rottenness of the existing social order.

The arrival of the flood waters may be blamed on Nature, Global Warming, the Wrath of God, and anything you like. But now that the waters have swept away the last pathetic remnants of a human existence that the masses possessed, it is no good asking Nature or God or the Climate to put things right. That depends not on Nature or the Almighty, or even the wonderful plans to tackle climate change sometime in the future. The needs of the people are not in the clouds or in the future. They are here and now.

What do these people want? They want only the most basic right: the right to live. What do they need? They need only the most basic necessities of life. Even before the floods the great majority of the people lacked these things. The cause of their problem is not the floods, but an unjust system of society that is not able to provide them with the basic necessities. A social system that is incapable of providing the basic requirements of existence to the people stands condemned before history.

Bourgeois alarmed

Pakistan is experiencing its gravest crisis since Partition in 1947. The serious representatives of Capital are watching the situation with growing alarm. For them, Pakistan is not just any country. It is of incalculable importance from the standpoint of the global strategies and interests of imperialism. It borders on India, Iran, Afghanistan and China. Its assistance in the little matter of the Afghan war is of fundamental importance to Washington.

The present government of Zardari may not be one hundred percent to its liking, but it is compliant, obedient and that is the main thing. Therefore, at least for the time being, US imperialism will try to shore up the weak and unpopular Zardari government, on the wise old principle: better the devil you know than the devil you do not know.

However, it is one thing to survey the situation from a comfortable air-conditioned office in Washington or Islamabad. It is quite another thing to look at it from the shattered ruins of a hut or a camp for displaced persons. “Life in a camp is like returning to medieval times,” says Saeed Khan, a 40-year-old farmer made homeless by the floods and staying outside the northern city of Peshawar. “There is no life here.”

The Financial Times of September 1 carried a one-page article, dealing with the floods in Pakistan and their effects on the future of that country. It contains a very accurate account of the situation. The article, by James Lamont and Farhan Bokhari, entitled Pakistan: A precarious position begins:

“Under a mango tree in the midst of flooded fields, not far from the Pakistani city of Muzaffargarh, Haji Nek Sain is counting his losses. Little more than a month ago, he was a farmer with a seven-acre cotton plantation, a decent living and big plans for his daughters’ weddings after the harvest.

“ ‘I truly believed we were going to have a bumper crop. I could see myself buying some jewellery [for my daughters],’ he reflects. ‘And then came the floods.

“Like legions of bedraggled farmers and shopkeepers across Pakistan, Mr Sain has seen his livelihood and his home washed away by the worst floods in the region since the late 1920s, two decades before his country even came into existence. A fifth of Pakistan is submerged.”

According to the latest reports, the waters are starting to recede. But this does not signify that the nightmare is over. For the millions of destitute and hungry people it is only the beginning. International donors have so far responded with aid pledges of $800m. But according to the estimates of aid agencies the potential cost of the crisis will be counted in billions, not millions of dollars.

It is not only the flood waters that are receding, but also America’s expectations of what Pakistan can achieve as an ally in south Asia. Washington hoped to use it as a convenient base to counter “terror” – especially when the Americans and their NATO allies begin to pull out of Afghanistan, as sooner or later they must. But now these hopes are clouded with doubts and pessimism about Pakistan. The FT writes:

“The worst case scenario of Pakistan imploding is an extremely dangerous [one],” says one Washington-based western diplomat. “You could potentially see spill-over effects in areas surrounding Pakistan, notably Afghanistan. Without stability in Pakistan, stability in the surrounding region gets thrown into question.”

It frequently happens that the serious strategists of Capital come to the same conclusions as the Marxists, though from the opposite class standpoint. Hopes of improvements in economic performance have dissipated. A string of natural, political and economic crises in the past five years has exposed fatal weaknesses in Pakistan’s economy, society, political life and state that place a large question mark over its future – and its usefulness to the United States. The FT article continues:

“The floods have affected more than 17m people – killing more than 1,600 – besides severely damaging the farm sector central to the country’s economy and the already weak infrastructure. They have also set back by months, possibly years, government plans to bring prosperity and peace to the nuclear-armed country.

“But most of all, they have upset a finely balanced equilibrium. For the past three years, leaders of the civilian government and the powerful military have struggled to balance a combination of demands – each in its own right considerable – made by their own people and the outside world.”

Thus, far from a stabilizing influence, Pakistan is itself threatened with a destabilization so complete and social disorders so tremendous that social revolution may be on the order of the day.

“According to Aninda Mitra, vice-president of Moody’s ratings agency, the floods have inflicted a ‘large supply-side shock’ that has seriously set back Pakistan’s ability to achieve sustainably strong growth. Displacement and damage to the agricultural sector have imperilled economic recovery; strains in the banking system and among the country’s leading companies are forecast for the months ahead.

“Worse still, the number of people living below the poverty line has risen from 33 per cent of the population prior to the floods to 40 per cent, he says.

“ ‘The danger is that if these people are not quickly resettled back, their long-term presence in the cities will cause great stress,’ says Islamuddin Shaikh, a senator from the ruling secular Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and former mayor of Sukkur. The southern city’s population has swelled by a third to more than 800,000 in the past three weeks. ‘This situation will not be easy to resolve,’ he says.

“Hafeez Pasha is a former commerce minister and head of the Lahore-based Institute of Public Policy: In common with other economists, he predicts that economic indicators will ‘significantly deteriorate’ in the coming months, leading to a nightmare for Pakistan”.

Quoting Mr. Hafeez Pasha, the Financial Times paints a dire picture of economic collapse:

“Growth could sink from about 4 per cent this year to zero or a little above next year. Inflation, spurred by food shortages, could shoot over the government’s target of 9.5 per cent to 18-20 per cent. The fiscal deficit could reach almost double the target of 4 per cent of GDP as public spending rises.

“The largely agrarian and textile-producing economy has deteriorated considerably over the past two decades. Despite the liberalisation that helped it outperform its bigger southern neighbour India with average growth rates of 5.5 per cent between 1947 and 1990, Pakistan today trails badly.”

But it is not sufficient merely to produce lists of statistics and make economic projections. When we go to the doctor with a complaint we are not satisfied if the doctor merely reads us a list of the symptoms and informs us we are ill. What we expect is a prescription that will cure the illness. The question is: what are the most likely perspectives that flow from this bleak economic analysis? And what is to be done about it?

Crisis of the regime

Like wars, earthquakes, floods and famines put the existing society and state to the test. In the last analysis, the viability of any society must be judged by its ability to provide people with the most basic conditions of human existence. This fact is very well expressed in the old slogan of the workers and peasants of Pakistan: Roti, Kapra aur Makan! – Bread, Food and Shelter!

Photo by Vicki Francis / UKaid / Department for International Development.Photo by Vicki Francis / UKaid / Department for International Development. During the terrible famine that swept through Russia in 1891-92, the Marxist Plekhanov wrote an article with the title All-Russian Ruin, which was a blazing indictment of the tsarist autocracy that had shown itself to be utterly incapable of dealing with the plight of millions of starving people. This crisis had a profound effect on all classes. It radicalised a whole generation of young revolutionaries and prepared the way for the first Russian Revolution of 1905-6. The present crisis in Pakistan will have similarly far-reaching consequences.

So far, over a month after the floods, there is a superabundance of talk, but there is neither food, nor clothing nor shelter for the starving millions left behind by the floodwaters. Instead we have another flood: a flood of crocodile tears by politicians and NGOs. Ah! If only sympathy could fill empty bellies, then nobody would go hungry in Pakistan – or anywhere else!

What we have in Pakistan is not merely an economic crisis or a government crisis. It is a deep crisis of the regime itself. The widespread feelings of anger and disgust find its expression at all levels. Its effects are finding an expression at the topmost levels of government and the state. Revolutions always begin at the top, with crises and splits in the ruling class. The leaders feel the ground shaking beneath their feet and are seized by dread. With astonishing frankness the Financial Times article describes the fear that grips the leading circles in Pakistan:

“Some see a country already facing enormous challenges edging towards the apocalyptic, especially for the fearful city-dwelling middle classes. One Islamabad-based western diplomat warns that the leadership is deeply fearful of the political consequences of this natural disaster. ‘Never before have Pakistan’s elite been similarly haunted,’ he says.”

The prevailing degeneration that exists at all levels of society is reflected even in the national sport that is followed with fanatical dedication by many Pakistanis: cricket. The successes of the national team during its tour of England might have provided some element of solace to a traumatised people. But even this small crumb of comfort was snatched away from them when a corruption scandal struck over illegal match-fixing.

In a country so accustomed to the systematic rigging of elections and the shameless buying and selling of public office, the rigging of a cricket match for the sake of multi-million gambling deals may not seem a very significant affair. But coming in the wake of all the other disasters, it shook the morale of the nation, including the ruling class:

“Their morale, already low, has been further sapped by allegations of spot-betting activities by some members of the national cricket team touring the UK, a global embarrassment seen as reflecting the erosion of the country’s values and international standing.”

When an entire nation is plunged into an abyss of despair, even the last shred of national pride is taken from them. The people are forced to the realisation that here everything is for sale: the profiteers who steal bread from the mouths of starving children; the sportsmen who sell their professional skills to the highest bidder and then stupidly boast about it to mercenary journalists, the politicians who sell the entire nation at bargain-basement prices. Is there no end to the corruption that has penetrated every pore of society and rotted its soul?

Fundamental change needed

Drastic illnesses require drastic surgery. But the authorities are paralysed and impotent. All attempts to impose stability and discipline are sliding away. The bourgeois economist Hafeez Pasha issues a stern warning:” Pakistan is on the brink of economic collapse. Unless there are radical measures to deal with the [current] situation, you will have 20m people attacking cities when they start [getting desperate]. What is required is a fundamental restructuring of the way Pakistan is being run.” [our emphasis]

That is a demand with which we completely concur. The seriousness of the crisis is such that nothing short of a fundamental restructuring will suffice. The question, however, is: which are the forces in Pakistan that can achieve such a fundamental change? Can anyone in their right mind imagine that any of the political parties or leaders is remotely interested in fundamental change?

The question answers itself. None of the existing leaders have any interest in change of any sort. The only “change” they are interested in is a change of ministry, that is, no change at all. Their political perspective goes no further than the perspective of furthering their own career. Their political principles are reduced to pushing their rivals aside so that they can enjoy what are known as “the fruits of office”.

The floods have triggered rumours that the PPP government is about to fall. Asif Ali Zardari, the president, aroused fierce criticism for embarking on an international tour as the heavens opened. His trip to visit leaders in London and Paris, which also included dropping into a French chateau with his children, was an insult to the millions of people struggling to find a piece of dry land and some grains of rice to feed their families.

The leaders of the PPP are unspeakably bad. But it cannot be maintained that the leaders of the Muslim League are any better. The workers and peasants of Pakistan compare their sufferings and hardship to the extravagant lifestyle of those at the top and turn away in disgust. They look upon the entire political class with a justified feeling of disgust and loathing.

What other forces can bring about a fundamental change in Pakistan? What if the army takes over? Would things be any better if corrupt civilian politicians were replaced by corrupt generals? Altaf Hussain, leader of the quasi-fascist Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), is calling upon “patriotic generals” to take action against “corrupt politicians” – which is thinly veiled code for a military take­over.

Another MQM leader called for Ashfaq Kayani, head of the army, to take on the “role of a 20th-century De Gaulle to oversee Pakistan’s new unity and to hold the country together to overcome the worst period of instability since 1947”. These reactionary politicians are banging the drum for a military dictatorship, which they hope will serve their sinister purposes.

Unfortunately for the MQM, the Pakistan army is not in very good shape to take the reins of power into its hands at this time. The army is split and in disarray, with different cliques pulling in different directions. One wing is prepared to subordinate itself to US imperialism, while another is actively supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. All are corrupt and none have the slightest idea of how to tackle an economic crisis that is fast spiralling out of control. Suddenly the prospect of taking power does not seem as inviting as it did in the past.

The whole history of Pakistan since its inception as a state has consisted of a monotonous game in which power has passed at regular intervals from civilians to military men and back again. And in the end the masses were never any better off than before. In reality, despite all these apparent changes of regime, life for the great majority remained just as hard, brutal and short as ever. Nothing fundamental ever changed for the mass of the people.

The spectre of 1968

The days of the present government are clearly numbered. But what will take its place? Even if the military were to take over (which is a possibility), what could they do? They would very quickly be exposed as just as impotent, inept and corrupt as the present government. And in conditions of extreme social volatility, a military regime could not control the situation for long. A military regime in such conditions would exacerbate all the tensions in society without solving any of the fundamental issues. You cannot shoot inflation or arrest unemployment.

Napoleon once said: you can do many things with bayonets, but you cannot sit on them. Lacking a serious social base, a military regime would not be long-lasting. Like the dictatorship of Ayub Khan in 1968, it would prepare the way for a social explosion. For decades, whatever government was in power in Islamabad, the real power always remained in the hands of a handful of wealthy families, feudal landowners, bankers and capitalists who constitute a solid bloc opposed to change and progress. Unless and until the power of this reactionary oligarchy is broken, nothing can ever really change in Pakistan.

Only once in the course of its 63-year history was there a real prospect of change. That was in 1968-9, when the workers and peasants of Pakistan took the road of revolution. At that time power was in the hands of the working class. The only thing that prevented the victory of the revolution was the absence of a revolutionary party and leadership like the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky in Russia in 1917.

Now we have bourgeois commentators warning of the need for fundamental restructuring. Translated into plain English, “fundamental restructuring” means revolution. And the only class that is capable of carrying out this revolution is the workers and peasants. They are the only revolutionary force in Pakistan. And they constitute the overwhelming majority of the country’s 170 million-strong population. Once this immense force is organised, united and mobilised to change society, no state or army can stop it. That is precisely the lesson of 1968-9.

The ruling class and the imperialists are haunted by the spectre of 1968. Their fears are given voice, once again, in the Financial Times:

“Always a barometer of Pakistan’s febrile political condition, foreboding has intensified over the prospect of an impending military coup, a bloody revolution and parts of the country spinning out of control.

“For their part, western diplomats are worried that the disaster could fire up popular discontent and militant extremism. They fear that prolonged trauma in the countryside and mass migration to cities could undermine the civilian government in Islamabad.”

These lines convey the real state of mind of the bourgeois in Pakistan and internationally. They feel that the situation in Pakistan is already “spinning out of control”. They see that the government is powerless to solve the pressing problems of the masses. They fear that the present mood of despair will turn into a fury of discontent that will sweep all before it, just as the flood waters did. And they fear that this will “undermine the civilian government in Islamabad.”

What the ruling class really fears is revolution. Let us recall the words of Hafeez Pasha: “Unless there are radical measures to deal with the [current] situation, you will have 20m people attacking cities when they start [getting desperate].” These words precisely convey the fears of the landlords and capitalists of Pakistan, who, forty years later, are still haunted by the spectre of 1968.

What is required?

The magnificent revolutionary movement of 1968-9 could have led to the taking of power by the workers and peasants. It only failed because of the lack of a genuine revolutionary leadership. The workers and peasants did everything in their power to overthrow capitalism but they lacked a coherent programme and strategy. In order that history should not repeat itself, it is necessary to work out a programme and policy that is adequate to the task at hand.

What is required? The prior condition of a solution to Pakistan’s problems is the expropriation of the landlords and capitalists. The first step must be the nationalisation of the land and confiscation of all the big estates of the landowners, together with the nationalisation of the banks and insurance companies and all large-scale industry under the democratic control of the working people.

Such a programme can only be carried out by a workers’ and peasants’ government. While fighting for such a government, it is necessary to work out a series of transitional demands that, setting out from the most pressing needs of the people, point the way towards the conquest of power.

The existing state has shown itself to be completely unable to deal with the problems of the people. The state bureaucracy is so corrupt, so rotten and incapable that what aid there is rarely reaches the people most in need. Large amounts of money donated to the homeless and starving people end up in the private bank accounts of corrupt officials and politicians. No confidence whatsoever can be placed in the existing state apparatus. The workers and peasants must develop their own democratically elected organisations to take the running of society into their hands.

In place of the reactionary-bureaucratic methods of combating the catastrophe, which are confined to petty reforms, we must put revolutionary-democratic methods, which correspond to the needs of the people. What we need are action committees in every factory and village, in every street, at every level of society. These popular committees must mercilessly push out the bureaucrats, thieves and speculators and assume control of the situation.

Immediate steps must be taken to feed the people and punish the speculators who are enriching themselves through the misery of the poor. There must be an immediate freeze on the prices of food, clothing and all basic necessities of life. People’s tribunals must be formed to arrest, try and punish the corrupt officials, speculators and profiteers. Let them feel the wrath of the people they have cheated and robbed!

In the name of democratic openness, we demand the complete abolition of business secrets. All big companies and banks must be compelled to publish details of their profits. Let the people see how the rich are extracting the life blood of Pakistan and profiting from the super-exploitation of the working people. Let them see the extent of the fortunes of the rich and the corruption of the politicians who shed crocodile tears over the suffering of the masses while filling their pockets with money robbed from the public finances.

The protection of commercial secrecy means, in practice, the protection of the privileges and profits of literally a handful of people against the interest of the whole people. Let us open the eyes of the people and allow it to know the whole truth about the shady operations and profiteering of the rich minority who run the country.

While the press talks of shortages and hunger in Pakistan, everybody knows that while millions go hungry, others live a life of luxury. In the midst of famine, the smart restaurants of Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore are full of wealthy clients who have no worries about helping themselves to every imaginable delicacy. The same state that calls for sacrifice in the “national interest” does not lift a finger to control the scandalous luxuries and wasteful and extravagant lifestyle of the rich. As always, the full burden of the crisis is placed on the shoulders of the poor people who are least able to bear it.

In time of war it is normal to introduce rationing. But the present emergency is just as serious as any war. A strict system of rationing must be introduced immediately to control the distribution of food and all other necessities of life. Access to these necessities must be on the basis of proven need only. The rich must not have any privileged access to rice, flour and other items. Together with the trade unions and other popular organisations, the action committees must control the ration cards and make sure that nobody enjoys a surfeit of food while others are hungry.

Instead of empty promises and hypocritical talk about “sacrifices for the good of the people" and about "exerting every effort", the people must demand action to solve their most urgent problems. In order to control speculation and profiteering, the action committees must strictly control prices. In order to solve the problem of homelessness, the committees must draw up a list of all empty and under-occupied dwellings, including the large houses and palaces of the rich, which should be requisitioned and used for housing those who have no shelter.

“But these measures are too drastic! This is extremism, communism!” Yes, we can imagine the outcry from the rich and their friends in the National Assembly. To such arguments we reply with the words of the Spanish socialist Largo Caballero: “You cannot cure cancer with an aspirin.” Without such revolutionary measures, no progress will be made, chaos will spreading irresistibly, and a catastrophe is being prepared on an unimaginable scale.

The PPP was set up to defend the interests of the workers and peasants. But Zardari and Co. are only a screen for the defence of the interests of the landowners and capitalists. The people voted for the PPP in order that there would be a government that would act in their interests. But the present government is controlled by the right-wing clique of Zardari, who is one of the richest men in Pakistan. The Zardari clique is remote from the people in whose name it speaks.

In their eagerness to please the capitalists, the PPP right wing has left intact the power and privileges of the rich. The PPP right wing is unable to take any action against the landlords and capitalists because it is thoroughly infected and thoroughly enmeshed by its dependence on the bourgeoisie, its “coalition” with the bourgeoisie, and its fear to encroach on their real privileges. It has completely renounced the socialist programme upon which the PPP was founded. It does not want to take any really serious steps in a revolutionary-democratic direction, let alone in the direction of socialism.

The measures to combat catastrophe and hunger depend exclusively on the efforts of the great majority of the population, the oppressed classes, the workers and peasants, especially the poor peasants. And this is only the path which offers salvation and a way to avoid the threatening catastrophe.

London, September 22, 2010