Edward Abbey may have been one of the most important American essayist of the 70s, and possibly the most underrated. It is difficult to imagine the post-Regan United States – the flag-bearer of neoliberalism – having a past dripping in socialist literature. One may speculate that a writer as prolific as Abbey, although the recipient of much national fame, did not attain the height he truly deserved because of his unapologetic and radical leftist leanings.
An anarcho-socialist American; a term almost as nonsensical as ‘liberal fascism’, one may argue.
Consider the fate of illustrious American screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo – a proud communist who was imprisoned and persecuted for his thought crimes. Abbey, of course, had the advantage of having his political views aired after the end of the McCarthy era, even though the effects of McCarthyism were still more than palpable.
Abbey was a fiery critic of the government’s public land policies, and is best known for a novel that may well be accused of promoting ‘eco-terrorism’. Concerning capitalist greed – euphemistically known as the ‘profit motive’ – he famously said the following:
“Growth for the sake of growth, is the ideology of cancer!”
As a doctor and a socialist, I find this saying strikingly true. A cancer cell has no concern for the impact of its unrestrained spread through an organism. It may serve some function (like a well-differentiated hormone-producing tumour, for instance), but that function is never its primary goal. The goal is to get bigger; creeping into its neighbouring tissue, disrupting its blood supply, or causing cell death by direct invasion.
In the past several years, we have noticed an exponential expansion of elite residential schemes and gated communities. Driving through these schemes – with their pristine six-lane roads, lined by lush gardens, magnificent sculptures, and well-maintained gazebos – one may almost forget being in a third-world country.
The average upper-middle class Pakistani, driving his Corolla through Bahria Town, smiles and nods his approval almost reflexively. Such development! Such progress!
In truth, the rise of these glorious residential and commercial schemes signify the inflation of the elite Pakistani bubble, while the vast majority of the population is pushed out further to the edge of oblivion. To us, ‘development’ entails the opening of McDonalds and Burger King within two kilo-metres of our home, and a luxury mall within four. We’ve always had Gloria Jeans, but can we have Starbucks too? That is progress.
Improved buses – or any other mass-transit system teeming with blue-collar men – mean nothing to us. We have cars. Build us highways, underpasses, and overpasses worthy of our vehicles. That is progress.
Bahria Town and the government of Sindh received much criticism recently, over a deal to handover the iconic Karachi Park – Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim – to Bahria Town. It was a deal that challenged the public’s expectations of what the government is even allowed to do. After all, if the Punjab government “handed over” national assets like Minar-e-Pakistan to Nestle, and the Lahore Fort to Huawei, eyebrows could be raised.
This is not unprecedented behaviour on part of the government and the private real-estate moguls with whom its high-ranking officials are allied. When Malik Riaz boasts about giving massive bribes, it goes without saying that the bribes are offered to circumvent federal and provincial regulations – not to enforce them. After all, you don’t bribe a police officer to make him fine you for over-speeding. A financial incentive is offered to prevent him from carrying out his duty.
Consequently, what might have happened with Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim but stopped dead in the tracks by public outrage, has been happening to far-fling villages and its impoverished residents for years.
A damning report published by Dawn in April 2014, featured hair-raising details of the villages – like Jumo Morio – devastated by Bahria Town Karachi in its pursuit for expansion. There are strong-arm tactics involved which are so Machiavellian, one could mistake it for the filming of an 80s Bollywood film depicting a battle between bereaved peasants and their ruthless landlords.
But those tactics are merely the tip of the iceberg. Explained in the same report, are shady business strategies and legal loophole exploitations that enable massive land-grab, without which these upper-class havens wouldn’t exist. These include unethical, or even illegal ‘land consolidation’ manoeuvres, and the harassment and blackmailing of local residents and petitioners.
Much outrage reasonably followed Bilawal Bhutto’s cultural event in Mohenjodaro, as the experts expressed their concern about its detrimental effect on the ruins. Few are aware of the fact that the toilets of Bahria Town Karachi’s Grand Mosque, are standing over what was once the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. The ecological and environmental threats posed by the scheme’s expansion, may have inspired Edward Abbey to pen more than a few acerbic essays.
The “development” for the top 5% of this country, occurs at the expense of everyone else. It entails the devastation of settlements and goths you’ve never heard of; the displacement of farmers you’ll never meet; the obliteration of heritage sites you never knew existed; and the disruptions of rivers, streams, and canals you never realized were important.
If Pakistan were a human body, what better words would you find to describe this expansion, beside those of Edward Abbey himself?