“Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animal and molluscs. Human Stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of Stupidity.”
– Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44
Pakistan has experienced years of distress, anxiety, and political chaos with no end in sight. Currently, the country is experiencing so many major issues that are not being addressed or resolved. The era of leadership that rose up to the challenges has long been over. In recent years, the political parties have been redoubling their efforts to sink even deeper into the vile stuff with singular gimmickry and dangerous success which is leading toward a political and economic dead end. All this is part of a process that is ruthlessly eroding governance. One of the most serious phenomena is the gradual acceptance by the people of this situation that not too long ago would have been inconceivable.
It is horrifying to realize that we have, for years, heard little or even nothing from political leaders and ministers who sounded authentically human and totally honest. Too often their pronouncements are either contradictions of other official statements, or absurdities; one is bewildered in the face of routinized rampant mediocrity, incompetence, deceit, dishonesty, and evasion of accountability and responsibility in the political sphere.
The national interest has become a concept without referent reality which is manipulated and trifled with according to opportunity for partisan political advantage; So many in positions of political power and influence have come to resemble, in Albert Camus’ description, “hollow clowns”; Mainstream politics all too often appears as a banal squabble over the distribution of largesse pilfered from the national treasury.
If any country is repeatedly in the thrall of this type of governance, kakistocracy is the best word to describe it.
Kakistocracy is the government of a state by its most stupid, ignorant, least qualified, and unprincipled citizens in power.
The first recorded use of kakistocracy was in a sermon, delivered in 1644 by Paul Gosnold. The term lay silent for 200 years to reappear in recent history in 1829 in a book titled “The Misfortunes of Elphin,” written by the English novelist and poet Thomas Love Peacock. In The Misfortunes of Elfin, he mocks the “agrestic kakistocracy” of his time, which treated “treading on old foot-paths, picking up dead wood, and moving on the face of the earth within sound of the whirr of a partridge” as “heinous sins”.
The word soon found fertile soil in the United States, where in 1838, William Harper, a US senator, and defender of slavery, claimed that anarchy was a kind of kakistocracy. Decades later, in 1876, the American poet James Russell Lowell asked: “Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people,’ or a Kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?” Kakistocracy as a term then tapers off only to make a modest rise around 2008, when eight years of Bush implied the word might be of some significance. However, since Donald Trump became President, this word has thrived.
In her book, Stupidity, Ronell finds in the history of nation-states the recurring image of a country that “resembles a ship of fools” tossed about enough that collective stupidity “breaks and enters the political body.” After years of real and perceived oppression, they “offer stupor in lieu of responsiveness,” and “the capital gains of the ruling classes.” It is a forced condition, not an innate limitation or in other words Kakistocracy. Yet given the prevalence of the problem it describes, the word is strangely not appreciated and is underused in the present day. In a world where stupidity penetrates multiple levels of government, policies, and personalities; it is strange that the term coined to best describe it has actually ended up in the endangered and forgotten words books. Stupidity in governance needs to be treated as a political problem, and kakistocracy can best capture this problem.
It is, however, not correct to assume that kakistocracies only occur in the poorest and most underdeveloped corners of the globe. It is also a mistake to think that it is only in countries with weak institutions and immature political systems that thieves and goons can reach the most important positions. What we saw in the United States and in many European countries that have long democratic traditions simply demonstrates that no nation is immune to the rise of kakistocracy.
Before the era of citizens exhibiting internet-induced, seriously diminished attention spans, such behavior had a chance of being recognized and dealt with on more occasions than now. But such is that reduction that the trajectory towards kakistocracy, though discernible and its consequences predictable, proceeds without arrest. A political calculus exists in place of anything resembling a process by which the true needs of the people and their regions are given appropriate procedural and ethical consideration.
At the heart of this new political arrangement, Kakistocracy is a constellation of political black holes from which probity and integrity cannot escape: favor exchanges, obligations based on private benefits, clientelism, power brokers, perception management consultants, polling advisers, lobbyists, transactional loyalties, policy by the think tank, sleaze, moral bankruptcy, and the absence of independent oversight. To belabor the point, it is not difficult to understand why and how kakistocracies repel the talented and attract the inept and most debased; over time, and without a revolution in integrity, they exist as realms that are systemic, strategic, and seemingly permanent.
Pakistan is no stranger to this phenomenon. Pakistan is not only a democratic but also a severely politically polarised kakistocracy. Not to name any particular government that we have had, say in the last 50 years or so, but governments of the past have been kakistocracies as well.
Pakistani kakistocracy assumes and relies upon a passive citizenry, a collective that is not only sufficiently ignorant and inattentive to challenge it but also possessed of a sense of fatalism regarding the status of its members as walk-on players whenever elections are called.
The shrinking space for dialogue over issues has given rise to detestable sentiment. Politicians increasingly engage in an otherization approach and call each other traitors, thieves, and immoral. This political polarisation has soiled the political atmosphere and forced the electorate to gradually detest not only politicians but the entire political system.
Those in charge are aware of the challenges faced by the common man. Those in opposition are also aware of the existential problems facing the country but no one is in a position to offer any workable proposals for overcoming the challenges of the economy, inflation, unemployment, stagnant growth, climate change emergencies, alternate energy sources, population growth, teeming millions of unqualified and untrained youth and the list goes on.
Kakistocracy, being ruled by the worst of the worse is fast spreading its roots and corrupting not only our institution but also our polity, society, and nation as a whole. Pakistan has had a tumultuous relationship with effective and successful democratic governance right from its inception. If there were to be another term for politics in Pakistan it would undoubtedly be Kakistocracy. The problem cannot be blamed only on the actions of shrewd, conspiring, conniving, dishonest and corrupt politicians but is built into the very fabric of our representative system which promotes systemic corruption and falsehood.
This tendency towards decay of the political culture in Pakistan is nurtured by the presence of a large uneducated electorate, huge youth bulge aimlessly wondering the streets without direction and hope for a better and constructive future, living and surviving on the edge of poverty, ethnic and religious tensions, and parochial differences threatening the delicately and carefully woven fabric of society, institutions vying for and competing for greater influence irrespective of the constitutional limitations and sphere of activity and responsibility, where it is nearly impossible to break the shackles of elite capture dictating all aspects of state at the cost of the disempowered teeming millions – the common man and unfortunately where the very ills that plague governance and society as a whole, have been normalized and generally accepted norms. All this has only enabled but emboldened the politicians and other contenders for state and political power to fully indulge in and promote kakistocracy.
“God has given us a grand opportunity to show our worth as architects of a new State; let it not be said that we did not prove equal to the task.” Quaid’s address to Civil, Military, and Air Force Officers, 11 October 1947. The Quaid’s vision and expectations for the development of Pakistan were clear from the beginning that is from the time Pakistan Resolution was passed in Lahore on 23rd March 1940. “There are millions and millions of our people who hardly get one meal a day. Is this civilization? Is this the aim of Pakistan? Do you visualize that millions have been exploited and cannot get one meal a day! If that is the idea of Pakistan. I would not have it.” Presidential Address Delivered at the Thirtieth Session of All-India Muslim League, 24 April 1943.
The fall of Dhaka, the pathetic state of national unity, the disastrous state of the economy, shrinking socio-economic development, rising poverty, weak institutions, and the current abhorrent political circus in the country all demand a serious introspection and larger national consensus both on the future political orientation and economic development if we are to survive the shenanigans we have subjected our beloved Pakistan our identity to.
There is no denying the fact that Pakistan has come a long way, but what is tragic is that were not up to the task of making a great nation of Pakistan as directed by the Quaid. We squandered the gift given to us by the sacrifices and struggles of million. There is still time to put our beloved country back on track by following the vision and laid down principles and instructions of the Quaid. The country still has the potential to reach great heights and make astronomical achievements if we come out of the siloes of our narrow sectarian and parochial mindset, abandon our greed for political power and control, abide strictly by the constitution, respect the distribution of responsibilities and areas of jurisdiction, put the welfare of the common people at the front and center of development strategy, root out corruption and nepotism, embrace transparency, meritocracy, and accountability, do away with hereditary politics, make political parties truly democratic and abandon parochialism and sectarianism as direct by the Quaid.
It is therefore, time for deep introspection to understand the political, governance, economic and social mistakes made in the last 76 years of independence by the successive leaders, bureaucracy, and other stakeholders that have created a sense of deprivation and betrayal in the masses.
In the 21st century, where some nations are reaching out to the moon, stars, and beyond, discovering new worlds and perfecting Artificial Intelligence to develop and enhance their societies, here in Pakistan, the seventh nuclear power, we are still embroiled in mundane controversies about sighting Eid Moon, polio vaccinations being halal or haram, coeducation and hundreds of other such issues while our society as a whole is continuously regressing.
In this depressing scenario, the media has a great responsibility in any society and particularly in a society like ours where illiteracy is high and knowledge is limited, where democracy has yet to take root and the people still have to learn how to exercise their rights. TV has a major role in educating and developing the abilities of its audience. In the era of social media and ratings race the quality and content of many channels and their anchors are becoming untouchable stars who can do no wrong. Some are blatantly spreading fake news and divisive, sensational, misleading, and inflammatory content that is further destroying the ethos of society.
In the face of overwhelming and complex challenges, we need to move away from a culture of mediocrity and towards a society that champions that values, and cherishes excellence. Treading this path and reorienting our policies would require overcoming massive apathy. It entails absolute commitment, courage, and a persistent drive by the political system to lift expectations of society, particularly the youth.; to raise standards and deliver excellence itself to set high standards against which others can judge their performance; cleanse the system of corruption and safaris; raise the standard of academic institutions and not pull it down; re-establish meritocracy and accountability; initiate a deep civil and judicial service reform plan which promotes excellence and breaks the pervasive hold of mediocrity. Failure is not an option if we want to save our nation and society from falling into the bottomless pit of mediocrity.
the Author is a retired diplomat with over 37 years of distinguished service in the Foreign Service of Pakistan. During her career, she held key positions, including Ambassador to China, the European Union, Ireland. She also served as Deputy Head of Mission to China and Denmark. With expertise in various areas, she held significant roles at the Foreign Office, including Additional Foreign Secretary for America’s and Director General Policy Planning.
In addition to her diplomatic career, she is actively engaged as Vice Chair of the Council on Global Policy and a member of the Board of Directors of First Women Bank. She serves as an advisor to the China Study Center at ISSI and Kestral International. Furthermore, she is a prolific writer, contributing regularly to esteemed magazines and newspapers. As an accomplished author, she has published several books, including “Magnificent Pakistan” and “Pakistan-China-All Weather Friendship.” Her dedication and expertise continue to impact the field of international relations. She tweets @AmbNaghmanaHash.