SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

The Politics of Common Sense: Everyday life in contemporary Pakistan

Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

Date: 9 February 2018Time: 6:30 PM

Finishes: 9 February 2018Time: 8:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B102

Type of Event: Seminar


Viewed almost exclusively though an imperial gaze, Pakistan is renowned in the western world for its never-ending ‘failures’ – to be a functioning state, to protect its weakest citizens, to abide by the (purportedly universal) norms of membership in the comity of nations. The tropes of‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamism’, in particular, have inhibited attempts to understand contemporary Pakistan in its proper historical context.

The talk will seek to explode some of the myths about Pakistan and demonstrate the clear systemic logic that undergirds what otherwise seems to be a dysfunctional public sphere. Rapid processes of change triggered by the spread of capital into the nooks and crannies of society have generated a dense political order featuring small-time state functionaries, commercial segments and religio-political organisations, with the poorest and politically weakest segments of society reliant on patronage networks to survive the daily whims of both state and market. Old and new elites certainly employ coercive power to maintain their privilege, but sophisticated strategies of consent-production are arguably just as, if not more important, than the use of force.

In many ways, Pakistan is not unique – a society of immense disparities in wealth and power in which a hegemonic ‘common sense’ guides social and political practice across the class spectrum. Yet at the same time, Pakistan’s particular brand of capitalist modernity  can only be understood with reference to the structures of power fashioned under colonial rule that have, particularly over the past 3-4 decades, given rise to a ‘politics of common sense’ that inhibits counter-hegemonic political imaginaries and practices. Notwithstanding the sensationalism ofmainstream discourse, the rise of right-wing populist movements has been largely consistent with the ‘politics of common sense’.

As the contradictions of both old and new contenders for power intensify, and the rhetoric of populism is laid bare, otherwise latent potentialities for genuine transformation erupt spectacularly into the public eye. Most recently, Nawaz Sharif, one-time blue eyed boy of General Zia ul Haq – whose regime fashioned today’s ‘politics of common sense’ – has taken to biting the hand that once fed him. Is this what a counter-hegemonic politics looks like? 


Aasim Sajjad Akhtar is Assistant Professor of Political Economy at the National Institute of Pakistan Studies (NIPS), Quaid-i-Azam University. He is the author of numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Peasant Studies, Critical Asian Studies and the Journal of Contemporary Asia, and a syndicated columnist in Pakistan's newspaper-of-record, DAWN. He is also contributing editor with the journal Socialism & Democracy. Aside from his academic commitments, ASA has been closely involved with working people's movements in Pakistan for a period of almost two decades. He is affiliated with the left-wing Awami Workers Party. ​

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