PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan and US President Donald Trump presented quite a spectacle when they came together at the White House earlier this week. Much has been said and written about the chemistry, charisma and clarity on show, the absurdity of it all seemingly a side note. Pakistan, the US and the world at large appears to have got used to a new normal.
The Indian subcontinent was ruled by the British for almost 200 years. For much of that time, ordinary Indians — and this included large segments of the educated elite — thought it was perfectly normal for a few thousand white men to rule over hundreds of millions of Indians. We imbibed the colonial logic that British rule was necessary for otherwise backward Indian natives to be ushered into the modern age. To put it simply, we were convinced by Rudyard Kipling’s infamous myth of ‘the white man’s burden’.
Then came a political awakening, recognition that colonialism was in fact not a blessing, but a curse — our resources expropriated, our bodies and minds enslaved, the freedom movement struggled for a new normal to be established. The end of the British Raj heralded exactly that.
What followed was a country called Pakistan, in which sons and daughters of the soil would enjoy the right to self-determination and the excesses of colonialism would give way to peace and justice for all. This never happened, an emergent military establishment and a pliant coterie of political elites representing continuity rather than change. Yet, a new normal took root anyway: all Pakistanis were equal and free in name, but unequal and un-free in reality.
A similar parallel existed at the global level. The era of European colonialism had ended, all nations in principle equal and free. But in practice the dominance of Euro-American societies was intact, and the ex-colonies subject to the whims of an emergent informal empire, Washington its capital.
At different points over the past 70 years, what is considered normal has changed, both in Pakistan and around the world. Most notably, in the late 1960s and 1970s, ordinary working people believed firmly that they could come together and change the world, to fulfil the promise of national liberation movements and revolutionary struggles at their peak. Domestic ruling classes and imperialist powers could be upended by the wretched of the earth.
It was perfectly normal for ordinary people to believe that the world could be changed, and to dedicate themselves to doing so. This represented such a threat to entrenched elites everywhere that a new normal had to be forged yet again. From the 1980s onwards, ruling classes all over the world presided over a period of great repression. More importantly, a new normal was propagated through media, education and other means — that a world free of exploitation and injustice is an impossibility.
By the 1990s, younger generations had come to believe that There is No Alternative (TINA). Margaret Thatcher insisted that the idea that we share of collective interests is simply hogwash, a distraction from the imperative of individual advancement.
Today, we have seen the new normal pushed even further to the right of Thatcher, thanks to Trump, Khan, Modi, Duarte, Erdogan and the most recent member of the new populist club to acquire governmental power, Boris Johnson. Whether they admit it or not, these upstarts have little understanding of the deep contradictions of the global order, or their own conflict-ridden societies. They engage in a politics of name-calling and sensationalism, Trump’s boast that he could kill 10m Afghans a classic example. Herd behaviour is the result, large numbers of ordinary people poisoned into believing that the new normal of Trump, Khan, Modi, etc is actually an affront to the status quo, when in fact it is simply exacerbating inequality, injustice and un-freedom.
Mercifully, societies are not monoliths, so whenever a new draconian normal takes root, there are always forces who speak out for the oppressed. But it is clear that as more and more ordinary people become integrated into a digital political sphere in which melodrama rules, states and corporations will become more adept at manipulating ‘public opinion’ in ways that even European colonial rulers could never have imagined.
Pakistan is a perfect example. For most of the last two decades, the media, the political right and state institutions have stoked an anti-American narrative across society. Over the past few days, we have been convinced that all is well now that Trump likes Imran Khan. For his part, the prime minister insists that the whole country, including the armed forces, are with him. Apparently, those with a different point of view are troublemakers preventing Pakistan from attaining peace and prosperity. Sounds like something Trump would say, doesn’t it?
A new normal has indeed been unleashed, and we better not just get used to it.
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2019