A Trend-Setting Book On Welfare And Political Economy, In Pakistan's National Language

Rana has raised a troubling question: under today's monopolistic and finance-driven capitalist global order, why there is increasing tension between welfare states and capitalism?

A Trend-Setting Book On Welfare And Political Economy, In Pakistan's National Language

In a multiplex world, where finance capitalism, free market and privatisation reign supreme, invoking Marx, critiquing Keynes, seeking insights from neo-Marxists, treading carefully on new structuralism and arguing that a welfare state in a capitalist system is an impractical proposition - perhaps even a herculean task. Yet Dr Ahsan Rana has accepted the challenge and produced a voluminous and meticulously researched treatise in Urdu, with credible data (480 plus pages which itself is an accomplishment). The title is Hain Kawakub Kuch: Capitalist Welfare System; Assumptions & Reality. For over three years Dr Rana has been conducting research on the book and it has undergone multiple academic reviews and revisions.

This book is a trend-setter in several ways. First, on the topic of political economy, this is perhaps the first academic research work in Pakistan's national language. The others that I can consider are either heavily ideological, such as the works of Sibte Hasan, Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Abbas Jalalpuri, and Hasan Jaffar Zaidi who has produced insightful research on Pakistan’s history from a Marxian perspective and one volume hovers around political economy - or is journalistic, such as the works of Dr Mubashir Hassan. Second, in this study Rana has raised a troubling question and that is: under the contemporary monopolistic and finance-driven capitalist global order, why there is an increasing tension between the formulation and functioning of welfare states and the prevalent capitalist order? And for me, his rigorous research gives an answer, crisply and concisely: that a welfare state under the contemporary capitalist order is an oxymoron to begin with. Third, he draws attention towards the paradox that despite tensions between the functioning of the welfare state under the capitalist order and limited success, various states continue to pour financial resources towards their welfare functions - and yet citizens’ conditions do not improve and poverty continues to linger. For example, analysing the case of BISP, he notes, it started in 2008-09 with a budget of US$ 0.22 billion and by 2022-23 the budget had increased to US$ 1.54 billion, which is an increase of seven times. Poverty numbers, however, remained stagnant at around 40% in this time period. Contestation between the coercive and welfare functions of the state consumes resources. Injustices persist and inequitable distribution of wealth continues to rise. This in turn adversely impacts the productive capacity of the working groups, labourer, peasants, agriculturists and other multiple producers and consumers. These workers lose control over means of production and their productive capacity is also diminished.

In English. one can cite several studies that have identified and critiqued these dilemmas but few come up with any meaningful solutions. In this context, a distinguishing feature of Rana’s research is that besides critical appraisals of scholarly works on the subject, he presents a framework for a labour- and worker-friendly welfare system. His research has a policy prescriptive dimension. He has analysed and recommended a number of concrete steps through which reform and rejuvenation is possible. This study could open up new vistas for reconstructing and revitalising the welfare of the people. Through a rigorous literature review and dwelling upon contending theories on how and why a welfare state is desirable, he provides insights from varying theoretical perspectives.

The book is divided into four parts and each part is laden with theory, critical appraisals of existing perspectives and credible data to support his arguments. Each part comprises of about 100 pages. The first part provides a detailed analysis and critical appraisal of the welfare state and financial crisis, touching upon such critical issues as over-production, unemployment, alienation, class struggles and education - and as to how these deepen financial crisis, increase wasteful state expenditures and in the process intensify income disparities (issues also addressed by Thomas Piketty). Thus, a complex interaction and multiplication of these factors produced the financial crisis in the advanced industrial states.

The second and third part offer data- and evidence-driven analysis of Pakistan’s economy, the role of the state, political system and societal responses. In these chapters, he has provided a detailed critique and analysis of Pakistan’s federal budget, sources of income and expenditures, subsidies, pensions, issues of labour productivity, the role of the private sector, poor skills and quality of manpower, concentration of productive resources, and policy priorities in social sectors. Rana’s detailed analysis of the educational system of Pakistan is insightful and provocative. For example, his analysis of the role and relationship of regional languages and how this also perpetuates class, income and regional inequalities is illuminating.

The fourth part, is most instructive, which reads like a reformer’s manifesto. The welfare system performs three functions: social investment, social consumption and social expenditures. Recognising these features, Rana provides a broad sketch for a Labour Friendly Welfare System (pp 413-81), and advocates ‘democratic control over the means of production.' Relying on theoretical insights and specifying credible evidence (he has used multiple data sets) the author contends that capitalist system is fundamentally anti-welfare, and many of the problems such as poverty, income inequality and environmental degradation are the natural consequence of the normal working of the system. He argues that production and consumption are intertwined, one cannot be separated from the other, therefore the producer not only produces the items but also “determines the right to consume.” Recognising that changing the production process and production relations is not easy and requires time and political education to bring about change; he adopts a pragmatic approach and contends that it is not intensified class struggle and revolutionary mechanisms that are needed, but that we need to focus on the day-to-day needs, consumption requirements and services, and the protection of rights that are obligatory for improving the quality of life for the ordinary citizens (416-17).

For the benefit of readers, let me touch upon a few of his reform proposals. For example, on land reform, Rana recommends imposing a maximum land holding ceiling of 25 acres. To support this, he provides ample data to argue that the cultivable land ownership is primarily in the hands of the state and the private sector. In both cases reform is needed, the state-owned and surplus private land should be distributed free among the landless and those who own less than 12.5 acres. He proposes similar limits on the ownership of urban property and capital.

There is a need to rationalise the salary/income ceiling: in the case of Pakistan, the lowest is defined while the highest is far away. Between the minimum and maximum wage, the difference is huge. He recommends capping the maximum wage.

Increasingly housing is a basic need in both urban and rural areas, therefore he is emphatic in arguing that space be created for small landholdings. Housing schemes must have a proportionately large number of smaller plots.

Analysing Pakistan’s pension burden and the rise in its scale (pp 176-180), he recommends pension for all and on an equal basis. In a country where political dissension and demographic acceleration is a way of life, arguing for structural reform may seem illusory, but making a case for it is a promising sign.

For an exhaustively researched multidisciplinary book in the national language, it is heartening to see that it fulfils all the requisites that we expect in an academic English publication; proper footnotes, acronyms and references.

Dr Rana’s book, Hain Kawakub Kuch is a must read for the politicians, labour leaders, lawyers, policy-makers, economists, journalists and, of course, the larger academic community and students.

The author is Professor at Forman Christian College (FCC), Lahore, and Founding Director at the Centre for Public Policy & Governance (CPPG)