In his recent bestselling book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, Thomas Piketty argues that inequality is an inevitable result of capitalism. Given that the rate of return on capital generally tends to be higher than economic growth rates, Piketty provides compelling evidence to show that the gap between the rich and the poor is likely to grow over time; those who have inherited wealth, or possess capital to invest, will claim an increasingly disproportionate share of a society’s wealth, while the poor, lacking savings or capital, will remain structurally disadvantaged and unable to ameliorate their economic position within the framework of capitalism.  It is an argument that echoes the critique of capitalism made by Karl Marx a hundred and fifty years ago, and Piketty’s conclusions are clear; absent intervention from the state to address the inequality induced by capitalism, the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands will undermine democratic governance.

Piketty’s argument is important because it points towards the role played by inherited wealth in perpetuating privilege. Contrary to the myth that the rich are wealthy by virtue of their hard work and talent, it is clear that more often than not, the circumstances of a person’s birth are perhaps the most important factors determining their subsequent life chances. It should be axiomatic that those who are born into wealth are likely to have access to opportunities and benefits that those born into poverty may never experience. Yet, despite this fact, it is not uncommon to find members of the elite decrying the possibility that this might be the case, insisting instead on emphasizing how their success is a result of meritocratic selection rather than the possession of an unfair advantage.  

When looking at inequality and poverty in Pakistan, it is self-evident that this is a country defined by extremes, with a small but powerful economic elite amassing increasing amounts of wealth even as a destitute majority continues to eke out an existence characterized by deprivation and hardship.  This state of affairs is also reflected in Pakistan’s political structure, whereby the legislature, the major political parties, and the upper echelons of the government are all controlled by a class of individuals who, for all their differences, are nonetheless united by their possession of tremendous personal wealth.  The fusion of economic and political power in Pakistan allows the elite to make use of the state to pursue their own interests and maintain their position of authority.

The overt inequality that can be witnessed in the economy and in politics is accompanied by more subtle mechanisms through which power is reproduced and reinforced. Schooling is a good example of this. Across the world, it has repeatedly been shown that educational attainment and performance are strongly linked to a student’s class background; children from wealthier families are more likely to attend better schools, will have the resources to take full advantage of the facilities at their disposal, and will also benefit from home environments that are more supportive and conducive to learning. The same holds true in Pakistan. The public/private divide in the country’s education system is well-known, with it generally being agreed that private schools are generally better than their public counterparts. However, in addition to the fact that private schools generally tend to be expensive, thereby ensuring that only middle and upper class families can afford them, it is also the case that there is a hierarchy within the private school system. In Pakistan’s major cities, certain prestigious private schools charging exorbitant fees attract students belonging to the country’s wealthiest and most powerful families. More often than not, the rationale for sending a child to such schools has little to do with the institution’s academic merits. Instead, the point is to acquire the symbolic status associated with attending these schools, with the assumption being that this confers a certain authority and prestige that distinguishes the elite from the rest of society. Similarly, attending such schools also lays the basis for the formation of networks of influence and patronage that can yield very concrete, material benefits for their members. The interconnectedness that characterizes the economic and political elite is reproduced when their children attend the same schools and interact in similar social milieus.

Privilege is also associated with other symbolic markers that are consciously and unconsciously deployed by the elite to reinforce their position. The way people dress, the accents they speak with, the food they eat, the cultural products they consume, the spaces they inhabit, and the jobs they do, all play a role in establishing social hierarchies.  A person’s class background clings to them in a variety of different ways, and imbues them with advantages that they may not even recognize. For example, a young, privately educated professional with a foreign degree and a wealthy familial background might believe that by visiting a government office in Pakistan without a ‘contact’, they are no different from the teeming masses who directly interface with the state on a daily basis. Chances are, however, that nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that they might be extended the courtesy of a chair, or that the bureaucrat they speak to might address them politely, or even that they might possess the confidence to address the government official as an equal or even as a subordinate, all can be attributed to their economic background and the symbolic manifestations of their privilege. Indeed, in the event that their visit to this government office fails to yield any results, the person in question could probably rest assured that if necessary, they could potentially draw upon their networks and wealth to get the job done. The security and comfort that comes from possessing power, even when it is not used, is one of the main things that differentiates the experiences of the elite from those of the majority.

Power operates at a number of different levels, and its manifestations are not always obvious or discernible. In Pakistan, the political discourse is one that highlights the failings of the political elite with an almost single-minded focus on corruption that fails to engage in a more systematic critique of the way in which capitalism, as well as entrenched social hierarchies and forms of symbolic power, play a key role in perpetuating elite power. Those who have an interest in a better future for Pakistan  would do well to recognize how the entire system of elite privilege would have to be radically transformed in order to create a more egalitarian and participatory society. Similarly, members of the elite who identify with these goals also need to engage in some introspection and reflect not only on the benefits accorded to them by their status, but also on the costs they would have to bear for meaningful change to take place.

 The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

Email:hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk