Apr 212008

It is an anthropological commonplace that the highest and lowest classes in a society develop similar attitudes because they have grown up together in this familiar, server-and-served way; and that it is the middle classes who develop new habits and attitudes
This week, a step away from politics. I have not been keeping up; instead, recovering from a complicated house move, I have been digesting more social matters.

Servants — staff, helpers, or whatever my awkward English discomfort with the idea of (whisper it) the lower classes wants to call them — are alien additions to my life. I am very grateful to the man who sweeps the terrace and takes away my rubbish every day, and to my landlady’s cook who will buy groceries in the market for us; but this is the minimum I have been able to get away with.

As two British girls desperate for some privacy, we have had to graciously refuse suggestions from all quarters that we hire a cleaner, cook, etc etc.

It’s not so much someone doing things for me that I object to — I got over that aged eight when my mother first hired a ‘cleaning lady’ (the preferred euphemism the British use to avoid all connotations of hierarchy). There are two other things about servants which rankle me: the consequent inability to do anything for oneself; and the lack of privacy.

Reliance on your staff seems to me the easiest route to not having a clue how your household works. In Pakistan I have experienced processes of ‘getting things done’ which mostly involve waiting for the right member of staff to take us to the appropriate place/bring and operate the appropriate equipment/ provide the appropriate information.

Could this be another reason why so many endeavours are delayed? I’m also fundamentally — possibly pathologically — opposed to ‘people’ letting themselves into my house and undertaking activities I am not witness to.

Is such a ‘privacy mindset’ a luxury of rich countries? This seems at odds — more people paying servants in poorer places — but actually makes wider economic sense. Poorer countries have a larger manual and unskilled workforce who will work for tiny wages and have little choice but to devote their entire lives to someone else’s family and homes; a glut of families poor enough to see the permanent dispatch of a member or two to a richer household supports the culture of live-in staff.

I’m not condemning here, simply drawing contrasts; to be honest I feel that it is my own attitudes, not those of Pakistani ‘masters’, which are faintly ridiculous. Besides, a ‘servant culture’ may have surprising social ramifications.

In the UK, manual staff even in work places is largely absent or invisible. No one makes your tea for you — you do it yourself — and the famed sandwich lady coming round the office at lunchtime is now a rarity. In many offices, especially the larger ones, even the cleaners work during the night, so that office workers may never encounter any of the people who service their environment for them.

It’s the same effect as that inculcated by the development of effective public services such as rubbish collection and water drainage: the provision of these becomes ‘invisible’ and anonymous, carried out by people one has never met on behalf of the impersonal ‘state’, and merged seamlessly into the very fabric of one’s home.

This is so pronounced that it has become a major slogan of the anti-climate change campaign in the UK: adverts warn a public utterly ignorant of the inflows and outflows from their houses that they should be more careful in throwing things away, as “there is no ‘away’”. Such a message could only be novel in a country where there are no street-side piles of rubbish or open drains.

In a way British citizens are ignorant of how their households work just as Pakistanis are; but in Britain, the effect is to isolate people, at home and at work, from those who run the services that keep buildings going.

In Pakistan, manual workers and ‘those who serve’ are ever present, and in my own office many people have very friendly and familiar relationships with them. There is a blurring of the line between ‘office workers’ and ‘menial staff’ which is constructed in titanium in most UK offices.

It is an anthropological commonplace that the highest and lowest classes in a society develop similar attitudes because they have grown up together in this familiar, server-and-served way; and that it is the middle classes who develop new habits and attitudes, who develop a distaste for and become alienated from the use of servants whom they cannot afford and therefore don’t understand.

In Pakistan, the cheapness of labour means that the middle classes do have servants; income that might be spent on a washing machine or other ‘labour-saving device’ is spent, more economically in some cases, on a cleaner and a cook. There doesn’t seem to be as much of the middle class nose-upturning at the idea of servants that has marked UK society since at least the 1950s. Pakistan may have more social inequality and less opportunity for social mobility than the UK, but I am inclined to suggest that it may have more social integration, or at least interaction.

What are the consequences of this? Will these easy patterns hamper the sorts of social change which produce more ‘developed’ societies? After all, middle class insecurities and uncertainties have produced new ways of working and new agitations in the histories of ‘developed’ nations. The French Revolution was hardly a popular uprising by the masses, who had been getting on with being oppressed by the ancien regime for centuries — it was the new middle classes who revolted.

Not that I am advocating a model that compares ‘less developed’ countries to the pasts of ‘developed’ countries in a linear idea of progress, something that is still the unspoken basis of far too much ‘development’ activity.

In fact, I think that Pakistan may do something new. Having not lost this sort of social interaction may mean that the country’s transition to greater economic development could be smoother than that in the UK. Let’s not forget the horrific squalor of industrialising British cities of the past; the fierce agitations and social upheavals; the vast amounts of colonial resources Britain required to undergo its messy and nasty industrialisation. Pakistan is a context where many stumbling blocks such as universal suffrage, free healthcare, and trade unions have been introduced from the start; notwithstanding periodic political suspensions, Pakistan is in a much better position than the Britain of 150 years ago.

Pakistan of course faces additional problems — terrorism, hard to govern and remote areas, ethnic strife — but the Indian ‘non-aligned’ rhetoric, espoused since independence, that western legal and operational standards are not appropriate to the subcontinent might hold sway here. It was even invoked by Musharraf on a recent visit abroad; whatever his momentary political aims in telling the west to let Pakistan solve its problems on its own terms, he was tapping into a much longer and more solid narrative of the special and unique nature of sub-continental ‘development’ first articulated by Jinnah and Nehru. Pakistan could indeed — if its leaders are looking beyond immediate political point-scoring in expressing such sentiments — take what it has and do something new and different with it.

The writer is a Daily Times staff member

Courtesy: Daily Times, 21/4/2008

 Posted by at 3:56 pm

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