A new social contract – by Dr Manzur Ejaz
The battle for an independent judiciary was the latest in this regard where emerging forces prevailed over the old ones. Many such battles are going to be fought to bring into force a new social contract
I knew a retired US general who was a decorated Vietnam War veteran. His wife had a long-term illness and his one unmarried daughter, living with him, had Down’s Syndrome. The general single-handedly took care of his sick wife and daughter. Whenever I visited him, he cooked a delicious meal for us. He died several years ago, leaving me with an agonising unanswered question: why did the general never use his connection with the army to obtain personal benefits like getting household help, which he genuinely needed?
My inquiries show that except for a very few who become politicians or go into business, my general friend represented the majority of retired US generals, some of whom had played extremely important roles in conflicts and/or policy making. While in service, they never thought of using that power to tinker with the domestic political, legal or social system.
However, in military intervention-prone countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, the armed forces really believe that power flows from the barrel of the gun. Officers in such countries believe that they deserve all the privileges and that they are above law. Although they do not command militaries as powerful as those of the United States, they gain more power and comforts than American or European military officials.
What is the basis for this behavioural difference?
To put it simply, officers in the Third World grow up in societies where everyone, capable of oppressing others is doing so. The ruling classes, whether feudal lords, industrialists or bureaucrats, suppress the common people. Even a petty Chaudhry or Numbardar of a village acts like a Pharaoh in his own little sphere. The lowest of the lowest in the class hierarchy does the same thing within his family. Therefore power is constantly wielded at every level of society.
American and European societies were much like the developing world for a long time. However, attitudes changed with commercialisation and industrialisation. The industrial north of the US was against slavery while the agrarian south wanted to hold on to it. The division is still there because the economic base has not changed.
What changes when the economic base changes?
Basically, every society, agrarian or industrial, has an unwritten social contract, which becomes the basis of the individual’s position, human rights in society and the legal system. In an agrarian society, social relations are based on layers of a power structure where the individual has no identity or rights. No one represents himself or herself: everyone is part of a family, tribe or community. Using power to better your narrow family, cast or group is considered legitimate behaviour. In this backdrop, the economically powerful, the bureaucrats and the military become coercive groups where common citizens have no effective rights.
In Europe and America, as society changes through commercialisation and industrialisation, the old social contract starts losing its effective force. The new social contract does not emerge for a long time and society remains in flux and transition. This was the situation in the 19th century, when it was said that the old social contract had lost its force. Since the new contract had not emerged, ethnic, nationalist, regionalist and religious ideologies filled the gap. Pakistan and many developing countries are passing through this stage right now, for which there is no quick fix.
Institutions in transitioning countries are in disarray and competing with each other to maintain their traditional position. The recent conflict between the military establishment and civilian political forces over the Kerry-Lugar Bill is just a continuation of the intense struggle that had started towards the end of 1970s and had resulted in the removal of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government in 1977 and the second Nawaz Sharif government in 1999.
Similarly, the religious side is trying to hold on to its privileged position in the midst of emerging secular institutions. One can trace a conflict between the old and the emerging institutions in every aspect of society.
Additionally, as the social contract based on commercialisation or industrialisation takes shape, how we define individuals or human rights is also changing. Unlike the feudal era, the new society guarantees certain basic rights to every individual the way we see it in the industrial societies of the US, Europe or even Japan. Pakistani society has been struggling since the 70s to reach that stage. Naturally the status quo forces have been fiercely resisting these changes.
The battle for an independent judiciary was the latest in this regard where emerging forces prevailed over the old ones. Many such battles are going to be fought to bring into force a new social contract. The process is going to be slow and difficult because the economic base is not changing very fast. Nevertheless, the emergence of a new social contract is inevitable, where it will be taboo for generals to intervene in the political process and gain unlimited power.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
October 20th, 2009