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Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micropolitics of Wealth in Pakistan-Book review

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In her splendid work ‘Big Capital in an Unequal World: The Micropolitics of Wealth in Pakistan’, Rosita Armytage, an anthropologist and political scientist, explores the elites of Pakistan in a detailed manner. She conducted numerous in-depth interviews of elites to produce this extraordinary and comprehensive book. The author has also substantiated her ideas by providing a plethora of references of sociologists and political scientists.

Introducing her work, the writer briefly explains the perspective of elites regarding their own selves and also sheds some light on the division present in the elites themselves. Those, who accumulated wealth in the post-partition era, call themselves the established elites, while those, who have gotten rich in the recent times, are referred as the Navaye Raje or the new rich.

She terms volatility of political system, presence of deregulated markets, porousness of the legal system, and religion as the factors which contribute in the formation of an elite class. Writer’s thesis that the will of market is not the will of the market at all – but the shifting desires of the nation’s most powerful struck me the most in the introductory chapter.

Explaining the elite culture in the first chapter of the book, the author focuses on the dressing and demeanour. For instance, if you are wearing shalwar kameez, the traditional dress of the country, you are considered as a member of a lower class. Participating in the elites’ parties and gatherings require a certain dress code: colonial styled suits are preferred for men and western jeans and tops are preferred for women.

The second chapter provides an historical analysis of the rise of elites in the country. After partition, Quaid-e-Azam brought several of his friends, settled businessmen from Bengal and India, to Karachi. On their arrival, these wealthy men invested greatly on industrialization and setting of businesses in the country. To support her point, she mentions the case study of Dawood Habib, the founder of HBL, and the Isphani brothers, the founders of Orient air. In the beginning phase of the country, most of the elites were settled in Karachi, but with Ayub’s coup d’état, the equation changed significantly.

Ayub incentivized the people to invest on the Upper Punjab region. This resulted in the creation of a class of Punjabi elite industrialists. It also inculcated confidence of the business community in the Military. This new settled elite also served as the political support for the military in the next seven decades. This is the reason why Punjab never rose against military. Ayub’s coup d’état and relocation of investment from Karachi to Upper Punjab resulted in the creation of a new Punjabi Elite Industrialist society.

The next important era, which created a new class of elites, was of Musharraf. He fuelled the real estate industry, creating a strong connection between landowners and military officers. Overall, the economy was growing, but this growth was extractive in nature, with negative consequences that are still felt today.

In chapter 3, she tries to find the root of the elite culture in Pakistan. She concludes that the established elites have their lineage to the colonial elites. This is the main reason why this class always is in a state of nostalgia of the past. They also seek to redress the status differential that existed under the colonial heads by appropriating the colonial institutions and styles of the group that dominated them. Explaining the rise of the new elite, she focuses on the nexus between the families of the new elite with bureaucracy and the military.

In the next two chapters, she describes the whole formula of maintaining the elite strand through endogamous and consanguineous marriages, and gives a brief on the socialization of the elites. She opines that in elite marriages, age difference does not matter a lot. The prerequisites are endogamy in some cases of conservative families, husband must be rich, girl should be beautiful and, most importantly, both the contenders of the marriage should be elites, settled ones or Navaye Raje.

Exploring the socialization of elites, she mentions that to broker various deals, target guests are included in the guest lists of various parties. Moreover, facilitating them with their favourite whiskeys and providing them entertainment are some of the luring tactics of some people who serve as a mediator in connecting elites with each other.

Chapter six of the book demonstrates the extractive methods of elites through which they use state for their own purposes. This back-to-back usage of the state apparatuses for their own gains has led to formation of a prevalent belief in the populace: corruption is state backed entity. As elites have internalized the act of extra-legality, and they do not consider it as castigation rather it has become a normal day-to-day activity, the masses considers law as a political tool of elites.

Capitalistic culture gives rise to a robust middle class, whereas, the elitist culture of Pakistan is an anomalous one, where the accumulation of wealth revolves around a certain faction and the chances of creation of a rich middle class are bleak.

Consequently, legal writ of the state has lost its prestige in the eyes of the citizens. To corroborate this thesis, she gives example of the National Accountability Bureau and the case of Muhammad Ashraf Tiwana vs. Pakistan etc.

In the last chapter, comparing the elite culture of Pakistan with the capitalistic culture of the world, the author concludes that the global, mainly western, capitalistic culture gives rise to a robust middle class, whereas, the elitist culture of Pakistan is an anomalous one, where the accumulation of wealth revolves around a certain faction and the chances of creation of a rich middle class are bleak. There is no proper presence of a free market system in the country rather the money revolves in the system through the control of a faction of elites supported by the military and bureaucracy.

Undoubtedly, this book is perfect for curious readers who want to get clear knowledge of the extractive elitist culture of Pakistan. I would recommend every reader to read ‘Siyasat Ke Firoon’ by Wakeel Anjum and ‘Pakistan: the Economy of an Elitist State’ by Ishrat Hussain along with this book to deeply understand the extractive elite capture controlling the whole functioning of the economy of the state. Sadly, it can be said that Pakistan is a country of the elites, by the elites and for the elites. To rephrase George Orwell, all Pakistanis are equal but some Pakistanis are more equal than others.

Sherdil Khaga

The writer graduated from the School of Law, Quaid-i-Azam university. He is currently practising law with a special interest in socio-economic and political developments of Pakistan.

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