The feudal as a role model – by Irfan Husain

I have a vague recollection that when I was a child in the 1950s, my mother would often say of me to her friends:

“Mera beta bara hokay afsar banayga.” (“My son will become an officer when he grows up.”)

Perhaps this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, for I duly took the civil service exam and became an officer. However, my mother was not alone in this aspiration for her son: apart from wanting their sons (not daughters in those benighted days) to become doctors or engineers, parents urged their male offspring to become either military or civil officers. Journalism, teaching, business and the arts were poor second choices.

Why this subcontinental predilection for the officer class? True, most young people now would rather join a multinational than the government, but many parents would still relish the reflected glory of having their child rise up the bureaucratic ladder.

One reason is that the older generation still recalls the power wielded by colonial civil servants in pre-independence days. In Pakistan, of course, such authority now vests only with army officers, civilians having been eclipsed years ago by successive rounds of military rule.

Why would anybody want to spend a whole career throwing his weight around and ordering people about? And how does such an attitude shape a personality? Mikhail Bakunin, the 19th-century Russian anarchist, put it best: “A very grave danger to a person’s moral life is the habit of giving orders.”

In most countries, feudalism has either died a natural death, or been legislated out of existence. While its vestiges might survive, the formal structure and power of the feudal class are now things of the past. In Pakistan, however, feudalism continues to flourish, and large hereditary landowners wield power totally out of proportion with their numbers.

Far from being marginal figures, feudals have become role models in our society. Civil servants and military officers have traditionally reinforced the image of arrogant, bullying figures who are convinced they are always right. But now, businessmen and professionals often ape the mannerisms and conduct of feudals: witness the swagger of a corporate boss as he sends flunkeys scurrying around to do the smallest task. (In the spirit of complete disclosure, let me confess — with great embarrassment — that I am guilty of allowing minions to carry my briefcase on occasion when I was a civil servant).

The other side of the coin is the reluctance such an attitude causes among subordinates to freely express their own views, especially if they run counter to the boss’s opinions. This one-sided flow inhibits any meaningful exchange from which a more creative solution might emerge. In my experience, junior officers at a meeting are content to agree passively with the person in the chair even if they might privately think he’s spouting nonsense. Thus, when a decision is taken, supposedly unanimously, it often does not have the enthusiastic support of the participants.

Even after I left the civil service to head an educational institution, I found my colleagues reluctant to question any suggestion I put forward. It took a lot of persuasion to get them to disagree with me and generate a proper discussion. I fear the habit of subservience is as deeply ingrained in our society as the desire to give orders. The negative effects of this mindset on corporate and state organisations cannot be overstated. We are losing the benefit of the views and experience of many highly qualified people, thereby weakening the entire decision-making process.

In closed, autocratic models like the military or the bureaucracy, such an approach is understandable because at the end of the day, it is the state that picks up the tab for the inevitable mistakes that result. But one would have expected that businessmen and captains of industry would wish to maximise profits, and make the best use of the people they have hired. Unfortunately for our economy, this is not the case.

During much of my professional interaction with industrialists, I have found that the seth mentality continues to hold sway in the corporate sector. The owner, or seth, cannot bring himself to delegate to an outsider, no matter how experienced or qualified he might be. He insists on taking all the decisions, micro-managing all aspects of his operation. Real authority is wielded only by family members, even when they are unqualified and incompetent.

The result of this family-based management approach is that industrial productivity has stagnated, and few seth-run businesses have grown beyond a certain level. Unlike India, where family businesses have expanded into huge, multinational empires, most Pakistani business groups retain familial ties rather than qualifications and experience as the basis for promotion.

Understandably, professionals soon become demoralised after a few years in such an environment. When they are unappreciated and their advice often ignored, there is little to command their loyalty. Turnover is high as employees often walk out if they are made a better offer elsewhere.

Many management studies have shown that praise is often as strong an incentive as monetary awards. But when did you ever hear a feudal praise an underling? And since he is the role model for our seths, it is easy to see why industrial development in Pakistan has not been as rapid as we might have expected. It appears that to grow beyond a certain size, a business entity needs to have trained, professional management, and not the inbred family leadership that commands our corporate heights.

I had expected that as the older generation of seths faded away, their better-educated sons would change the system they had inherited in a bid to improve their products, increase sales and maximise profits. Oddly, such a shift has not taken place, with the younger generation still reluctant to delegate meaningful decision-making to paid professionals, no matter how competent.

The essence of the feudal ethos is the conviction that he is always right and that he has a God-given right to lord it over his tenants. This attitude has seeped into much of our society to such an extent that when somebody is promoted to head a state organisation, he immediately flexes his authority and reminds everybody who’s boss, quickly forgetting his own days as an unappreciated subordinate.

Among the many insights Bakunin has left us with, here is a gem I have come to hold at the centre of my personal belief system: “To govern is to exploit.”

Source: Dawn, 08 May, 2010



Latest Comments
  1. Sarah Khan