Anyone who has travelled to the so-called West will appreciate the love of order and rule of law there – how lovely that everyone queues and waits their turn, and how wondrous that the traffic flows so smoothly. But no one is looking closely at such social structures, inequality and power that are hidden in them.

You don’t see people breaking queues in the west not because society is egalitarian there but because those who have money and clout do not need to queue at all. The elite bankers and investors have concierge services that provide them tickets to whatever they need at premium prices while the middle class queues. The legacy of centuries of aristocratic power has not vanished in the UK: more than a third of English and Welsh land – and more than 50% of rural land – remains in the hands of just 36,000 aristocrats.

The poor and middle class in the US and the UK has been fed the spiel of civility since the industrial revolution and cannot conceive that they have the agency to cut a line, to attempt a bribe and just get by on sheer willpower and cleverness, not relying on “the system”. The system in places like Pakistan has not been able to conduct its social programming successfully, leading to its manipulation by official and citizen alike. But to suggest that the poor in Pakistan are powerless and inert masses would understate the agency they have. While they have always been sheep when it comes to following politicians and religious fire brands, the fact that they can come out in great numbers and make a city stand still is remarkable. We are a country that has survived without having the boon of the industrial revolution like in the West that was based on the wealth that was created through colonisation and slavery; nor have we struck oil like the Middle East and made our fortunes within a day. Sure, things can get really bad at home, but it is time to stop seeing the Dubais, Londons and New Yorks of the world as certain utopias without bloody pasts.

If you think that the “huqmaraan” in Pakistan are the worst and the bane of all our problems, and those in power in the UK or US are any better, you may be mistaken. Conservative statesman Lord Salisbury told the British parliament in 1866 not to give working-class people the vote as it would tempt them to pass: “laws with respect to taxation and property especially favourable to them, and therefore dangerous to all other classes.” This mentality survives today, where politicians pilfer expenses, businesses avoid taxes, and bankers demand ever greater bonuses while plunging the world into economic disaster. All of these things are facilitated by laws that are geared to cracking down on the smallest of misdemeanours committed by those at the bottom – for example, benefit fraud in the UK and drug laws in the US, while the top ten percent can commit massive corruption with a mere smack on the wrist. Sure the major chunk of population in these countries is better off than the major chunk of Pakistan population, but had these countries had to deal with population of the size of India or Pakistan, they would have never had their industrial revolution or reform. Even the more egalitarian welfare democracies like Sweden of Finland benefitted from small populations. Reform of laws in Britain was at snail’s pace and started with the 1215 Manga Carta. Every law that was passed was passed when the aristocracy was forced to give a little to avoid having to give a lot. This is basically how Britain avoided a revolution, while France took decades (even centuries) after its revolution to really recover into a republic.

The UK monarchy is a striking example of a traditional pillar of power that has had to adapt to survive. This was evident right from the origins of a power-sharing arrangement between crown and parliament struck in the aftermath of revolution and foreign invasion in the 17th century, and which continues to exist today. Many of the monarchy’s arbitrary powers, such as the ability to wage war, ended up in the hands of the Prime Minister. Even today, the monarchy’s role is not entirely symbolic. The Prime Minister appoints and sacks government ministers without needing to consult the legislature or electorate because he is using the Queen’s powers: these are the Crown’s ministers, not the people’s, and we inherited this system. In practice, too, members of the royal family have a powerful platform from which to intervene in democratic decisions. Prince Charles, the designated successor to the throne, has met with ministers at least three dozen times since the 2010 general election and is known to have strong opinions on issues such as the environment, the hunting ban, “alternative” medicine and heritage.

Over the last 30 years, wage inequality in the United States has increased substantially, with the overall level of inequality now approaching the extreme level that prevailed prior to the Great Depression. In the UK 2011-12 three prestigious private schools and two elite colleges produced as many entrants to Oxford and Cambridge as 1800 state schools and colleges. In the western word, Transparency International lists these European countries as the most corrupt: France, Poland, Isreal, Spain, Chech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Italy, and Turkey (most corrupt within Europe).

We are quick to judge our country, looking at the clean streets and happy transport systems of European states. It is hidden from us the sheer level of homeless people in the US, and the mind-bendingly elitist system of the UK democracy. While self-criticism is necessary, it has to be better directed. People don’t queue and won’t follow traffic signs in Pakistan because they know no one else will do it either. You cannot expect people to have a communal consciousness, when they do not see it in practice anywhere. Why should the man on a motorcycle give way to the man in a big shiny car? Western systems have been able to mask these inequalities through powerful policing systems and education systems that burn civility into one.

 

The writer is studying South Asian history and politics at the Oxford University and is the former Op-Ed Editor of The Nation.

@saadiagardezi