"Tough Decisions" Are Class War Against Poor

The current economic crisis, the latest in Pakistan’s “boom and bust cycle,” has again spurred the government to start cutting costs by reducing subsidies and raising taxes. Last weekend, the government increased the price of petrol by 35 rupees amid the failure of its attempts to peg the rupee against the dollar. It is being speculated that this price will further increase as the government plans to implement a substantial petroleum levy to satisfy the IMF. Furthermore, gas prices were also increased by 74% at the start of January by the government.

These policies, and other austerity measures like them, are being marketed by the PDM government as “tough decisions.” They are likely to have huge impacts on the prices of everyday goods and services. They will also worsen inflation while reducing the ordinary consumer’s purchasing power.

One has to ask, though, are the subsidies on petroleum and natural gas the expenses that have brought Pakistan to the brink of default? Or was it the $17.4 billion that are consumed by elite privileges every year? Or the billions of dollars we spend on perks for the country’s colonial civilian and military bureaucracy? Or, more broadly, because we are a rentier state that is following a fundamentally flawed model of development due to which we are prematurely deindustrializing.

Moreover, even if we are not going to address all of those problems, taxes on goods of everyday use are still a horrible strategy for increasing revenue. This is because they are regressive, impacting poor consumers more than richer ones. The government wants to increase its revenue to reduce the budget deficit. That deficit can be reduced without further impoverishing the already poor and downtrodden if we reduce the aforementioned spurious expenditures that facilitate the country’s rich and privileged, or if we implement progressive taxes on income, property, and wealth.

But none of that will actually be done because the purpose of the government’s policies is not to make efficient economic decisions that work for the majority of Pakistanis; it is to maintain the privileges of the top 1% of the country while impoverishing the bottom 99%. This is true not just for the current PDM government but for every government in the history of this country – military and civilian.

This is class war, pure and simple, being waged by the rich against the poor. Pakistan’s elites – the feudal lords, the bourgeoise industrialists, the bureaucrats, the Generals, the real estate moguls, and the mainstream politicians – are making the working classes pay the price for a crisis that they have created as a direct result of all the privileges that they enjoy.

The latest attack in the ongoing one-sided class war will only worsen the situation of Pakistan’s poor. Still recovering from last year's floods and the massive loss of life and property caused by them, they will be more desperate than ever for employment and any way to escape their miserable conditions. This will make them more willing to be exploited by their employers, which will enable their employers – the same 1% which have caused the current crisis – to increase their profits. This is why it’s a one-sided class war in which the rich stay winning.

This a one-sided war because there has so far been little to no resistance from the working classes to this unbridled aggression of the ruling class. There have been no major protests, strikes, shutdowns, or calls for a reversal of these economic policies in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, or any other major city. Last month, Awami Workers Party and other leftist parties protested in Aabpara under the banner of the Left Democratic Front.

AWP’s Deputy General Secretary Aasim Sajjad Akhtar speaking to the protest in Aabpara

During our demonstration, we attracted a considerable mass of onlookers. As I was distributing pamphlets among them, most of them expressed support for the cause and talked about how bad inflation has gotten. Yet, when I invited them to join our march, they weren’t ready to do so.

What this suggests is considerable inertia among the populace that is hindering them from coming out on the streets and demanding an end to their exploitation and mass economic murder. The causes of this inertia are unclear, but one component could be the lack of a major people-led movement in recent history – at least in the context of the Punjabi heartland –or the lack of awareness about alternative economic models.

The Pashtun periphery has been set ablaze by the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, due to which the region has seen huge protests, albeit not for primarily economic reasons. Gilgit and Gwadar, similarly, have seen the rise of spontaneous people’s movements. But they have faced clampdown, repression, and blackout in mainstream media that the average citizen in the heartland is likely completely unaware of them.

Outside of the peripheries, neoliberal hegemony is so strong that despite crushing inflation and rising taxes that have destroyed the purchasing power of the working classes, there is no indication of unrest from the majority of the population. This allows the ruling class’s war on the rest of us to go on unresisted.

The nexus of the economic, bureaucratic, political, and media elite ensures that the public is kept docile if unhappy. Furthermore, if a movement does arise in the peripheries, it can be blacked out, repressed, and stamped out. Thus, with the involvement of the aforementioned elites, the current system continues to work for the people it is designed to work for. The class war continues. And the poor, and the rest of us, keep losing.

The writer is a student of International Relations at NUML Islamabad and a student activist with Progressive Students Federation.