There is a reason why agents of conservatism are often called ‘reactionaries’. More often than not, their opposition to progress and reform does not come from a position of strength and is instead rooted in deep insecurities and fears about change. When religious extremists threaten their opponents with death and hellfire, and trolls on social media cry treason every time their nationalist narrative is challenged, they resort to vituperation and violence precisely because they sense the ground is shifting beneath their feet. Those with unquestioned dominance can afford to ignore and dismiss their opponents; it is the fearful and the uncertain who lash out at the smallest provocation, desperately clinging to last vestiges of their power.

There are subtle changes happening in Pakistan, many of which continue to fly under the radar but which may, over time, have tectonic implications for society in this country. Take, for example, the emerging consensus that, after years of inertia, poverty levels in Pakistan are finally starting to drop. There are numerous indicators that point towards this development, such as rising incomes and increased use of household appliances, and while poverty and inequality are still widespread (and social indicators related to health and education remain dismal), progress seems to be being made. Perhaps more significantly, Pakistan’s mythical middle class also appears to be growing, fuelling increases in consumption across the countries towns and cities.

How and why this is being achieved remains a mystery. While Pakistan has experienced moderate levels of economic growth over the past decade, the mechanisms through which this has translated into poverty reduction are not immediately clear given the often anarchic and confused approach taken to policy formulation and implementation in the country. Putting this question aside however, it is clear that these economic changes have the potential to fundamentally alter Pakistan’s social landscape. Rising incomes will inevitably mean higher levels of education, a diversification of skills and occupations, greater social and geographical mobility, and the cultivation of wider tastes and interests. At a time when the Internet and media are facilitating ever greater exposure to the world, it can no longer be assumed that the values and traditions of the past will be unquestioningly carried forward by the young.

That these changes are taking place can arguably be demonstrated by looking at developments in marketing. Take any mass-market product targeting young people, such as soft drinks or packages for mobile phones. What you quickly discover is that, almost without exception, these goods project an aura that is radically divergent from the mainstream narrative that suggests Pakistani society is inherently conservative; on billboards and television screens, there is a constant deluge of young people partying, with men and women mixing and having fun, wearing Western clothes and shattering society’s traditional boundaries. Advertising has always had an aspirational element, but the very fact that millions of rupees are spent on selling this particular lifestyle suggests it has an appeal that is not entirely manufactured. Unless these marketing campaigns are entirely wrongheaded and misguided, it seems clear that there are lots of young people who desire to lead lives vastly different from those society expects them to adhere to.

There is obviously some cognitive dissonance at work here. Many of the young people who yearn to emulate what they see on television might, at the same time, take to social media to castigate women who refuse to conform to traditional gender roles. Some might even find the entire discourse to be repellant, turning towards religion and tradition as a means through which to make sense of an increasingly fragmented and chaotic world. But it is precisely these contradictions, this emergent clash between the old and the new, that have the potential to generate new ideas and ways of life. Far from being moribund and stagnant, Pakistan may be entering a new phase of social ferment.

It would be a mistake to fall into the trap of uncritically endorsing the ‘modernisation’ thesis, which has long assumed that economic development and material progress are inextricably linked to social and political changes including democratisation, secularisation, a decline in societal conflict, and the spread of more moderate political views. After all, modernisation is often accompanied by tremendous costs – ranging from social and economic dislocation to environmental degradation – and the upsurge in support for populist demagogues and unabashed fascists parading as anti-establishment insurgents should demonstrate how the correlation between ‘development’, moderation, and enlightenment is fragile at best. As is always the case, it is the mix of institutional interventions and policy changes that matters more than the outcomes that are generated; economic growth can be achieved in a variety of ways, but a type that promotes inequality will obviously have effects that are different from a variant that emphasizes inclusion and redistribution.

Nonetheless, there is something to be said for how these large-scale processes of economic and social change cause all that is solid to melt into air (to borrow a phrase from Marx). It would be extremely naïve, and perhaps even dangerous, to blithely assume Pakistan is a society in which the custodians of parochial tradition have no power, but it would also be misleading to suggest their position is uncontested. It would also be inaccurate to believe that Pakistan’s little bubbles of elite, ‘liberal’ privilege are the only carriers of progressive change in the country. As more and more women enter the public sphere to learn and to work, as the number of protestors coming together to demand freedom of expression grows, as the transgender community becomes more assertive in its demands for rights and recognition, as students and activists come together to hold seminars and study groups, as retail outlets crop up selling increasingly ‘modern’ fashions and products, and as received truths are increasingly upended by alternative ideas and viewpoints, it is only a matter of time before these incremental changes aggregate into broader processes of social transformation. Pakistan’s conservative reactionaries have good reason to be worried; they may continue to win their battles today, but triumph in the longer war is far from guaranteed.