Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Who Counts As Middle Class In Pakistan, Whether Or Not Pakistan Is On The Verge Of Collapse, And (Yet) Another Conspiracy Theory

So I was skimming the recently released IRI survey of Pakistani public opinion, and something caught my eye. Go to page 3 of the PDF report, and you'll see the following breakdown of monthly incomes:

Up to Rs. 3,000 10%
Rs. 3,001 - 10,000 57%
Rs. 10,001 - 15,000 16%
Rs. 15,001 - 25,000 9%
More than Rs. 25,000 2%

Presumably, the sample is something approximating an accurate representation of the population as a whole (that is, after all, the point of polls). Look at that last figure: just 2% of Pakistanis earn more than Rs. 25,000. For the sake of argument, even if we assume the survey methodology is somewhat flawed, and we more than double the proportion of Pakistanis who have a monthly income of more than Rs. 25,000 to 5%, it's still a pretty jarring number, especially when you consider rising costs of fuel and food.

However jarring it is to me, it should be more jarring to TMOTEWTTPOTMCs (or "those members of the elite who think they're part of the middle class"). I often run into or end up conversing these people - usually my parents' generation or older - and am quite often amused by their assessments of their positions on the socio-economic ladder. Obviously, no one likes to admit they're part of the "elite", because such an admission brings with it all sorts of questionable implications. Plus, it's kind of Reggie-from-Archie-comics to go around trumpeting one's self worth. Furthermore, it is almost noble to be part of the "middle class", that wide swathe of citizenry that means different things to different people, yet is almost always considered normatively desirable.

Nevertheless, it is quite strange to hear people with two cars and 1000 square-yard houses call themselves part of the middle class in a country where more than a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Two sedans and a two-story house may constitute the middle class in Western countries - where our elite either vacations, studies, works, or dreams about moving (or all of the above) - but it certainly constitutes elite status in a country like Pakistan. One may not like being part of the elite, or even be slightly ashamed or embarrassed about it (as I sometimes get), but that doesn't mean that facts on the ground change. If just 2% of the population makes more than Rs. 25,000 every month, and you make at least three or four times that, you're part of the elite. Accept it, even if you can't deal with it.

One of the academy's foremost South Asia experts, Sumit Ganguly, has an article in Newsweek in which his thesis is that Pakistan is "dangerously close" to collapse. Ganguly argues that the inflationary pressures on the economy, combined with the military-security threat from the Taliban and the breakdown of the provision of public goods like electricity, has made Pakistan a "powderkeg of popular disaffection".

I buy into all of the data points, but I disagree with the conclusion. First of all (and this may well be his editor or headline writer's fault), Ganguly actually seems to be arguing that Pakistan is on the brink of widespread social unrest, popular mobilization, or even a revolution; not that it is on the verge of collapse. I agree wholeheartedly that it doesn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination to see more riots and other manifestations of public anger (strikes, vandalism, violence etc) in the coming weeks and months. However, for a state to collapse means, at least for me, that it either disintegrates or functionally disappears (Poland in the 18th century, for example, which was partitioned out of existence). While I am more than willing to concede that the challenges Pakistan faces are immense, I don't think that Pakistan is near collapse, per se.

I am reminded of Adam Smith's great line on this. After a surrender to American, uh, freedom fighters at Saratoga, he was told that the British nation "faced ruin" if events did not change course. Smith replied, "Be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation." He's absolutely right. From an organizational perspective, the modern nation-state is an absolute behemoth. We really take it for granted sometimes, but take a couple of minutes and think about the sheer extent of nation-state-ness. Now think about how much it would take for a nation-state to collapse. I mean, even the German state didn't collapse in 1945, and they went through their fair share of trials, didn't they?

As some of you may know, Asif Zardari's bodyguard/"chief security officer" was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen yesterday. I told my mother the news when she came home yesterday. Her first reaction? "I bet he [Zardari] had it done himself." When her pronouncement was greeted with bemused silence by yours truly, she attempted to put some meat around the bones. "Look, people are tiring of him. They already think he's already exploited his wife's death too much. This way [i.e. by having his bodyguard killed], he will garner more sympathy and try to stay in power that way." Told that this was the most ridiculous thing I'd heard in a while, she promptly told me that I "don't understand politics". I asked her how plausible it is for the one political scientist in the family to not understand politics, but I didn't really get a response to that one.

Anyways, as I said earlier, I am going to believe every single conspiracy theory espoused in my house this summer. So from now on, it is my editorial position that Asif Zardari had both his wife and his bodyguard killed. I do have one question though: if you follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, isn't it likely that Asif Zardari is eventually going to have to kill himself for sympathy? I mean, eventually he's going to run out of people to murder from his inner circle, and once that happens, how the hell is he going to stay in power?


NB said...

Great post bro. Made me laugh out loud.

Ahsan said...

Yes, it clearly must be a great post, what with all the comments streaming in.

nikhil said...

bilawal should watch out! not to mention that girl on his arm in the facebook picture - she should probably be wary too.

NB said...

The number of comments usually relates to how controversial the post is (either for its apparent islam bashing, its outright smuttiness, or its general AKSian offensiveness).

Basically our little readership only engage us when they are annoyed or intrigued. Useless lot they are i tell you.

Anonymous said...

PML-Q Secretary General Mushahid Hussain said that Shahenshah’s murder is important with regard to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, as he was an eyewitness to the December 27 incident.\07\24\story_24-7-2008_pg12_5

Weren't Sherry Rehman and Amin Fahim also in the car??? I guess they'll be killed by zardari too. haha

$100m !!! qureshi cant be serious

anas imtiaz said...

If people earning more than 25,000 a month are not middle class, and taken as elites then what is the status of those feudal lords and politicians?? There are more classes in Pakistan!! I don't think a person earning 50k will be vacationing in Switzerland or London but the extreme elites of the country (politicians) do!

Ahsan said...


You think you're kidding, but I promise you, if somehow, some way, Bilawal is killed, EVERYONE is going to think it was Asif Zardari.


Yes, I agree. I suggest we each begin all of our posts with "I hate Islam and Muslims and love America and alcohol".


I'm quite glad, to be honest. It's not like we're facing serious economic difficulties or our foreign exchange reserves are in serious trouble with the rising import bill or anything. This way, we won't have to think of productive ways to spend taxpayers' money. Think of how much time, energy, and thinking will be saved!

Anas Imtiaz:

Of course there will be standard-of-living cleavages within each class. The only point I was making is that one cannot be middle class if one is the 98th percentile (or higher) of average income. Yes some are more elite than others. But they are all elites, by Pakistani standards anyway.

goc said...

hmmmm ... this one is more of a mental thought exercise to keep me from falling asleep at work.

How applicable do you think the low-middle-upper class model (with the inevitable hyphenations (lower-middle, upper-lower)is to Pakistani society. Is it really usefull to talk in those terms when only 2% of the population makes more than 25,000 a month? I mean, according to these numbers if you make between 10,000 and 15,000 rupees a month you would technically be considered middle-class since you are in the top 16% earning bracket.

If you do a highly academically valid search on wikkipedia, you will quickly learn that the middle-class is usually equated with economic independence but not much social or political power/influence. I would like to propose that the state of the Pakistani economy as it is, 10 - 15 grand a month hardly qualifies you for economic independence. In fact, by this criteria my masi and her family would be considered middle class since both her and her husband work for us, they have only 2 kids and a combined income of 15+ grand a month.

I guess what I am proposing is that either:
1) determination of class based on percentile scores is an invalid method of determining class status. In fact, we should judge class status by lifestyle. This does not invalidate your thesis that people with 1,000 acre houses and 2 cars are part of the upper class. What it does is allow for a family with an income of say 50,000 a month to be considered middle eventhough they might place in the top 98 percentile income bracket.


2) The thought of someone in the 98% income bracket beign considered middle class is totally ridiculous. In this case, I propose we come up with a new model suited to the particularities of Pakistani and many other 3rd world (or 2/3rds world depending on how PC you're feeling today) countries. After all, this class model has it origins in european societies during a period of industrial and economic revolution, hardly a comparable situation in paki-land today.

nb: hows that for a non-annoyed comment?

Ahsan said...

Oh, snap! Someone put out the fire! NB just got burned!

Goc, I agree with much of what you say especially your point (1).

One additional consideration might be to differentiate between the bourgeoisie and the middle class. I think most people (at least trained on European style politics or history) would conflate the two, but as you say, in Pakistan, that model doesn't apply (for a number of reasons that would constitute an entire post on its own). The person earning 20,000 is middle class (in a purely economic sense of the term) but certainly not part of the bourgeoisie, a term which encompasses socio-political considerations.

goc said...

"in Pakistan, that model doesn't apply (for a number of reasons that would constitute an entire post on its own)."

I would also propose that you consider writing such a post (or a series of posts given the subject matter) in the near future. I can only imagine the kind of amusement that can be gotten out of trying to make logical sense out of the pakistani urban bourgeoisie. Bloggers paradise!

Other possibly related post: Why in Pakistan, education and socio-economic status are not linked in any way shape or form. Here's where you get to take shots at Wadera's and their pajero driving sons.

Ahsan said...


I'd like to, but such a post (if I wanted to do it right, which I do) would require some research. It's definitely on the mental white board. My back-of-the-envelope answer, or rather suspicion, is that is has something to do with the relationship between our feudal class/landowners and our industrial elite. But putting the meat around the bones would require extensive thought, which I don't have time for right now.

Like I said, it's definitely on the mental white board. Maybe in a few weeks or months.

Fatima said...

i love your reasoning at the end :)

Fatima said...

and yes beware bilawal!

smokesignal said...

That was an awesome read!
Very Inspiring!

PS. I was searching for average income in Pakistan and hopefuly I came across your blog:)