Non-local disruption in Greece and Karachi

Greece is going through a very rough time. After years of enjoying the low fiscal cost, high welfare quality lifestyle, the Greek state has had to endure something known as austerity. Of course, austerity is not endured by states because, let’s face it, states don’t have stomachs, or dignity, or skin. They don’t growl when they are hungry, they don’t bleed when they are cut, and they don’t shiver when it is cold.

Austerity is endured by pensioners; old people with no source of income other than the promise of their lives’ savings. Austerity is endured by children; young people whose futures are compromised by society’s failure to provide them the opportunities to be the maximum portion of what they could be. Austerity is endured by the already austere, the poor and vulnerable of a society that already have trouble making ends meet.

The IMF and big European powers, particularly Germany, want Greece to sign up to even more austerity. Quite understandably in the case of the Germans, the feeling is that German taxpayers should not have pay for the sins of the Greek elite. Quite understandably for the Greek people, they would much rather that they did.

Instead of buckling under the pressure of the IMF and the European guarantors to whom Greece is wedded through the Eurozone, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras decided to put the ball in the court of the people through a referendum. In other words, PM Tsipras pulled a Nawaz Sharif. He put a difficult decision at the feet of democracy (the way PM Sharif did with the Yemen-Saudi Arabia situation, or the talks with the TTP back in 2013).

Greece may be one of the greatest neoliberal catastrophes of all time. It only takes a cursory glance at the long and distinguished list of neoliberal disasters to realise that this isn’t an easy title to earn. Greece is doing something that has not been attempted since at least 1998. It is staring straight into the face of the Washington Consensus and telling it to take a walk. A number of irresponsible left-leaning romantics will see this as a glorious ode to freedom, socialism or some sort of counter-imperialist tradition. A number of irresponsible neocons, from Ahmedabad to Kansas, will be rubbing their hands with glee, awaiting the visuals of Greek social and economic implosion – the cost that a nation will pay, for daring to buck the conventional claptrap about ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘growth’.

The choice before the Greek people is now whether to sign up to the big bailout, or austerity plan, as dictated by the IMF and the EU, or to say no, and essentially default on a big repayment to the IMF and take a path hitherto unthinkable for a modern, developed European nation. For Pakistanis this story is worth following closely. Not so much because we face the same economic risks that Greece faces (we are not even close – lots of shiny countries, much richer than Pakistan, will fall long before Pakistan does). More so because the politics in and around Greece offers a number of fascinating lessons for us.

The most important lesson is also the oldest and simplest. All politics is local. The most generous thing one can say about the convention-overturning PM Tsipras and his thirteen-party Coalition of the Radical Left, named Syriza is that they are bold. The fairest thing we can say about Syriza? That they are driving in the dark of night on an unfinished road with the headlights turned off. There is literally no way we can know how this will end up – but if The Economist and the Financial Times are worried, it may not only be because of a neoliberal conspiracy. It may actually be because common sense suggests that a country default in the 1980s by Argentina is a very different animal than a country default inside the Eurozone by Greece in 2015.

How then is it possible for the Greek government to shut down the banks, a la Great Depression, and continue to poke the IMF beast in the eye? Simple. Desperation, and good politics, respectively. This strategy has worked so far. None of the conventional wisdom would have predicted a far left government inside the European Union even five years ago. Tsipras’ sudden rise and rise has been driven by being radical and poking big beasts in the eye. A good politician knows that if the politics works, keep working it.

This lesson is vital for Pakistanis. Why does Karachi keep electing the MQM over and over again? Doesn’t the average MQM voter realise that Karachi is a cluster fudge of a city at a scale that has perhaps no equal in the modern world? Sure they do. But the MQM doesn’t campaign on promises to make Karachi feel like Dubai, or Stockholm. The MQM, as friend Cyril Almeida points out this week, campaigns on protecting Mohajir identity. This formula worked for the APMSO and MQM in 1983 and it has been working ever since. A good politician knows that if the politics works, keep working it. Ditto for the PPP.

Why does PM Sharif keep churning out expensive hardware like motorways and metros? Doesn’t he realise that investing in health and education is necessary to give Pakistan the real infrastructure it needs for success in the twenty first century? Sure he does. Only problem? He’s been elected PM three times doing it his way. He isn’t going to stop.

Why does the ANP keep acting like an angry cousin to the Pakistani mainstream? Isn’t it a bit dated and trite to keep citing Pakhtun nationalism in an era when Pakhtuns have become more deeply embedded in the Pakistani state fabric than at any time in history? Maybe. But the ANP keeps coming back to life, and voters keep trusting its credentials as uncompromising Pakhtun nationalists, over and over and over again. Why would a party built to win with a robust ethnic brand try to adopt a new strategy when the existing one works?

We can continue through the list of each and every political actor. In the last few weeks, many of us have had tortured and tortuous discussions in public and in private about the cancerous incompetence and callousness on display in Sindh. Our frustrations boil over when we see over a thousand people die of heat and an absence of responsible government that cares for its people. Our history shows that we have a coup-prone military, and our future seems defined by a Twitter-happy military.

Which means many of us that genuinely want all the dysfunction to stop, sometimes lose patience and start to dream of solutions outside the constitutional box – no matter their illegality, and no matter their long record of failure.

The problem that responsible Pakistanis have is the same problem that our Greek and German brothers and sisters have. All politics is local.

Angela Merkel has to talk tough on Greece because German taxpayers are sick of bailing out the (really) sick men of Europe. Alexis Tsipras has to talk tough on the IMF because Greeks are tired of an externally imposed austerity. The whole range of Pakistan’s politicians keep falling back on least common denominators, because that’s what politics is: the art of gracefully (or disgracefully) retreating to the safe place where you know you will always win.

How then do we break out of this toxic cycle? First, we have to identify the cycle correctly. In Sindh, the cycle is not unchallenged loot and plunder by the MQM and PPP. The cycle is unchallenged loot and plunder by the MQM and PPP, disrupted at regular intervals by the military establishment, which, at each interval end up laundering the sins of the sinners and giving them a free pass for the next time they pass ‘Go’.

Breaking this cycle requires the cessation of disruption. If all politics is local, then all non-local interventions into a politics probably only serve to consolidate and mobilise what is local, rather than defeat it. This is the lesson from a half decade in Greece, and over three decades in Karachi. It is worth learning.

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