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Pilgrimage to nowhere

A year on from Benazir Bhutto's assassination, Fatima Bhutto visits the family mausoleum and reflect

The old Bhutto mazaar, or graveyard, is in a small town called Garhi Khuda Bux. It is not fair to call it a town; it’s a hamlet really, nestled between swaths of fertile agricultural land and small town centres that cater to travelling traders and produce distributors. When I was younger, I used to know we were close to the mazaar as we drove by the old paan wallah. He was a geriatric who sold betel-leaf paans, conical beedi cigarettes and a pack or two of Gold Leaf extra-strong smokes from the table he sat on. The mazaaritself was hundreds of years old and is where the Bhuttos have been buried since they settled in Sind. Wooden pillars, carved with lattice designs, marked the absence of the four walls that would have enclosed the open-air burial site. It was a sombre resting place: four corners of Sind lay open around you, and the dusty smell of the air in Garhi Khuda Bux’s desert climate surrounded mourners who came to mark death anniversaries and birthdays.

It's all gone now.

It was torn down by the last member of the family to be buried there, Benazir Bhutto, and rebuilt as a mausoleum. In a country where politics has always orbited around personalities, she was determined that hers would be the largest and the grandest. Benazir rebuilt the old family mazaar in the manner of an Aladdin-style castle. The structure has a domed roof, four minaret-like points facing in different directions, a grand driveway so that no one need bother to walk, and elaborate staircases which lead nowhere. It's revolting. It looks like the Disney version of the Taj Mahal.

A visiting journalist once asked me what was going to be built on a second storey of the grandiose mausoleum, the one the staircases presumably were erected for. "A gift store, probably," I answered. I was joking. But there is one now - actually, there are plenty, they're just not on the second floor.

Outside the mausoleum there are juice sellers, men with portable pakora and popcorn machines, stalls selling pictures of all the dead Bhuttos and more stalls selling posters and tapes of the dead Bhuttos' speeches. It's macabre, but this is the shrine that Benazir built for herself; this is the afterbirth of her death.

Now her posters, in the manner of those at Sufi shrines, hang inside the mausoleum, over the graves even. There is no space for the sacred, there is no space for grief, only space for advertising and political grandstanding of "Look whom I'm related to"-type posters, "Vote for my children, they're next!" warnings, and so on.

One year after Benazir's assassination, this is what her legacy has come down to. And it is fitting that in her death, like in her life, there is no talk of principles or ideology, only of personality and genealogy.

There is, however, a small matter to contend with: the larger legacy, so to speak. Two months after her violent death, the party she headed as chairperson for life (an actual title) - the Pakistan Peoples Party - came to power on a sympathy vote. The people voted for a ghost and they ended up with her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, and her cronies in power. Pakistan is, to date, the only nuclear-armed country in the world led by two former criminals. And as the new PPP's first year in power comes to a close, coinciding with the death of its chairperson, I feel compelled, as a Pakistani, to recap what all this means and to ask, "What legacy have we been left with?"

Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of the poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live

Clearly, it is a legacy with no sense of irony. In the United States the Pakistani diplomatic mission to Texas is hard at work raising funds for a Charlie Wilson Chair of Pakistan Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. Out of all the people in the universe who should have a chair in Pakistani studies named after them, the American congressman who funded the mujahedin (now Taliban) through Pakistan’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, is the stupidest person to choose. Remember how well Wilson’s efforts turned out? Well, right here in Pakistan we have daily reminders. In the last week of December, a branch of the Peshawar Model School was attacked. The school, which offers private education to 12,000 of the poorest children in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban – thanks, Charlie Wilson – because it teaches girls and boys together. Two buses were burned to a crisp and ten others were quite seriously torched. A parcel of dynamite that exploded in the principal’s office maimed several staff and groundskeepers.

US drones continue to breach Pakistani sovereignty, with the blessing of President Zardari, who proclaimed to those being anonymously killed that "the air strikes will go on". Somebody told him that was a bad PR move, so he quickly rescinded the proclamation.

The front page of a leading English-language daily last month carried a statement by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, chief of army staff, in large, bold letters, "Kayani pledges matching response to India strike in no time". The story directly opposite read, in a con siderably smaller font, "US missiles kill seven in South Waziristan". This referred to civilians killed on 22 December, but, in fact, the unmanned drones have been killing since the autumn.

While it remains acceptable for Americans to come and kill our citizens, Pakistan's government has issued bombastic and seemingly harsh statements to counter the threat of a possible Indian air strike following the fallout of the Mumbai massacres. It's nice to be distracted from an actual daily death toll, after all.

There's more, lots more legacy to contend with. At a mid-December Asia Society panel in New York, grave charges were placed against Pakistan. Salman Rushdie, no fan of Pakistan (and why would he be, when the country's parliament pledged its continued desire to prolong his fatwa and allowed several members publicly to offer to kill him after he was knighted in 2007), summed up the way people are now looking at Pakistan: "The headquarters of al-Qaeda, the headquarters of the Taliban, the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba, the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammad is in the world centre of terrorism - Pakistan." For emphasis, he added, "All the roads of world terrorism lead to Pakistan."

For those Rushdie bashers who would be quick to fatwa him for that statement, it is worth remembering that he is as Pakistani as he is Indian, his family having moved to Karachi and lived and died there.

But it is not just Rushdie who lacks faith in this new Pakistan. A poll conducted in the country in October by the International Republican Institute showed that 88 per cent of Pakistanis think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Fifty-nine per cent said they felt their economic situation would worsen in the coming year and the PPP received a rating so unfavourable that the pollsters compared it to former President Pervez Musharraf's figures last January. Why should Pakistanis have any confidence in their government? Recently it was made known that the puppet prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, had spent 50 million rupees on five foreign trips over the pre vious four months. That's something close to £450,000 - for one man (and his very large entourage, apparently). I smell corruption. You'd have no sense of smell if you didn't.

Legacies aren't enough in Pakistan. They never were, but now we have ample proof why. Personalities and dynasties are meaningless in a country where, every day, gastrointestinal disease kills children because they have no access to potable water. Legacies are insulting in the face of mass suicides, carried out by members of Pakistan's poorer classes because they simply can no longer afford to live.

Mohammad Azam Khan worked for a private cable channel. He killed himself in early December, having not received a salary for five months. His colleagues held protest rallies around the country, but no one - especially not the media - wants us to remember his name or why he felt he had no choice but to take his own life.

Pakistanis have bigger problems to contend with, bigger causes to grieve for than Benazir Bhutto. And yet, a year on from her death, we are still at the mercy of our ghosts.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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