Big Capital in an Unequal World explores Pakistan’s wealth and power dynamic. The book focuses on the lives of a small group of wealthy individuals in Pakistan and how their wealth and influence affect the lives of those around them. Armytage argues that the accumulation of wealth and power by these small elite has created an unequal society in Pakistan, where most people struggle to make ends meet. In contrast, a small minority lives in luxury. She also explores how this inequality is perpetuated through networks of privilege and corruption.
The book draws on interviews with members of the wealthy elite and politicians, bureaucrats, and other influential figures in Pakistan. It provides a nuanced and detailed look at the micro-politics of wealth in Pakistan and how it shapes ordinary people’s lives.
Armytage’s ethnography of the Pakistani elite is divided into two sections. The first section indicates the methodology used by the author. Armytage conducted interviews over about fourteen months, primarily in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. The author articulates how she gained access via several gatekeepers and key informants and developed a rapport through peer observation at social events; she addresses many methodological issues. She was, therefore, able to conduct more official interviews. Her account of her conflicted experience as a foreign woman researcher conducting fieldwork on a subject nearly entirely dominated by men is particularly noteworthy. Unsurprisingly, she had to cope with the ‘hustling’ and sexual advances that female academics frequently experience when conducting fieldwork. However, she was given access to male informants, which would have been much more challenging for a local female researcher due to cultural norms because she was a foreign researcher and an obvious outsider.
The book proceeds by laying out the history of the emergence of Pakistani business, which serves as crucial background information. The loss of East Pakistan and discontinuity in democratic transitions were significant moments of crisis and instability in the relationships between the ruling classes and the state that, surprisingly, gave the elite new opportunities to prosper. This is where the author introduces an intriguing perspective. But these splits in Pakistan’s political history also meant that the elite’s makeup changed as new groups entered, particularly the military and political organizations. The most fascinating aspect of this research is how Armytage describes the uncomfortable compromises that various elite groups make to advance their collective goals through the partial takeover of the state.
Through swaying the democratic structure and the rule of law by supporting and influencing military coups, suppressing dissent, delaying legal proceedings, manipulating the electoral process, and also compromising social justice, done so by opposing progressive policies that contributed to the persistence of inequality in the country.
The ethnographic detail commences to set the analysis apart in the book’s second half. Beginning with the development of the nouveau riche (Navay Raje) and their inability to integrate into the existing traditional elite circles, Armytage explores several important themes. The struggle between the old and new is exemplified by the nouveau riches’ attempts to gain entry to the exclusive clubs and academic institutions that were the domain of the old elite. Armytage analyses the contentious modifications to the admissions process at Lahore’s esteemed Aitchison College to support her argument. The second gist explores the significance of marriage as a tool for alliance-building and assimilation between the many elite groups, including toes at the helm, bureaucrats, and entities with old and new money. Some people can increase their capital and prestige due to the mutual advantage that results. The newly wealthy are incredibly wealthy, but they are less well-off socially. The older, more established elite have status but do not have the enormous monetary gains that the Navay Raje has made. But over time, each group gains more influence over the government. Additionally, examining how marriage is used to consolidate power into the broader family circle is made possible by evaluating the functional role of marriage, but even more intriguingly, how the extended family selects suitable marriage partners (endogamous, exogamous alliances, and love marriages).
Armytage employs ethnographic accounts to emphasize the networking, unwritten mores and customs of the elite circle, signs of wealth that indicate a person’s membership in this class, and how they are cultivated and strictly policed. And even while the use of drugs, alcohol, and showy lives is hinted at, the portrayal is never explicit. While the value of patronage networks in Pakistan cannot be disputed, it is also important to acknowledge their influence on Western politics and economies. Armytage overlooks the angle. While there are significant distinctions, there are also glaring similarities in how patronage operates in American politics and economy. Significant Capital in an Unequal World is a thought-provoking and insightful read for anyone interested in understanding Pakistan’s wealth and power dynamics.
The book discusses how the wealthy use their power and influence to maintain their privileged position in society, such as through political connections, nepotism, and labor exploitation.
Armytage suggests that this has perpetuated a profoundly unequal culture, where a small elite enjoys immense wealth while most of the population struggles to make ends meet. In an uncertain and frequently chaotic political and economic climate, the book persuasively argues that the power of the built networks and the interchange between individuals and groups provide their members such an edge. Armytage does stress the significance of social networks and family in Pakistani companies. Still, she also emphasizes how this distinguishes Pakistani businesses from the impersonal and speedy transactions connected to global finance and capitalism.