There is a Punjabi word, now creeping into Pakistani Urdu as well – hudharam. It is reserved for the toiling workers both in rural and urban areas and invoked to keep them in line
‘The rag to riches phenomenon is not a common or normal occurrence. The very fascination with these cases is due to their rarity’, says Hassan Gardezi. Professor Emeritus of sociology, a previous chair of sociology department, Punjab University, Lahore, Hassan Gardezi now lives in Canada. He writes regularly on Pakistan and South Asian affairs.
In an interview with Viewpoint, he deconstructs some of the rampant myths about becoming rich through ‘hard work’. Read on:
One often hears that if one works hard, one becomes successful. It also implies one may become rich through sheer hard work. In almost every society certain individuals are pointed out in this regard. Is it possible in your opinion to become rich through hard work?
It is true that for most people hard work is the only way to achieve their life goals and meet their basic needs. But when a public statement is made to the effect that “one can always make it if one works hard,” it invariably implies that the society one is living in is completely fair, a level playing ground; that everyone has equal opportunity to become successful, rich or whatever, irrespective of class, caste, creed, gender etc. This is not true.
There is hardly any society which is completely fair in the social sense. The interesting thing is that more a society is ridden with caste, class, racial, religious and gender prejudices and discriminations, the more frequently and loudly one can hear public claims that, anyone who works hard can make it. The corollary being that, “those who do not make it are lazy,” or have to be afflicted with some personal problem such as low IQ etc.
If you have ever lived in the United States, as I did, you would not escape noticing this phenomenon. The right wing media, particularly the 24 hour radio stations which are a vast networks, constantly harp on this theme: “America is the land of (equal) opportunity. If anyone who has not made it in this land, has to be lazy or deficient in some personal way.” All kinds of diatribes and anecdotes are spewed out of these radio stations 24 hours a day to brainwash people into believing that their society is an absolutely open society where it is your own fault if you happen to be poor. The Blacks are the main targets of these stereotypes as explained in books like Gunner Myrdal’s American Dilemma.
There are cases of rags-to-riches. From the Swedish owner of Ikea to the American owner of McDonalds, we know so many such stories. Why some individuals become so rich but many others do not? Are these successful individuals more intelligent, more hardworking, special in some way?
The rag to riches phenomenon is not a common or normal occurrence. The very fascination with these cases is due to their rarity. Therefore, I would say that they do not prove anything, no general logical conclusion or inference can be drawn from such cases. Yet it is true that rag to riches stories are popular stuff for anecdotal reasoning, and anecdotal reasoning can be scientifically very unreliable and sheer dangerous in motivated social discourse.
All we can conclude from the stories of people who are known to have moved from rags to riches is that each case is unique. Any human ability or social circumstance, a skill, a disposition such as kindness, ruthlessness or hard work, lucky break or social connection that makes little difference in the life of an average person can in a unique combination or certain circumstance produce unpredictable and extra-ordinary results, rags to riches being only one of them. That is why their use in anecdotal reasoning can be very misleading.
Balzac says, ‘Behind every big fortune, there is a big crime.’ But in Pakistan and many other countries of the South perhaps, we believe that the West is not corrupt. Tax evasion or kickbacks are mere exceptions. Given this clean culture of business practices, is it possible to become as rich as, for instance, Bill Gates?
Balzac may have made that comment about the amassing of fortunes rather cynically during the evolving capitalism of his times when the legalism of the system was not so well developed. Since his times extraordinary fortunes can be amassed quite legally under capitalism’s highly developed laws governing corporate activities, taxation, banking, off-shore transfers of money and so on. There are no such entities as “clean cultures” under capitalism. There are laws that can make dirty cultures clean in fully developed capitalist societies. Where capitalism is not fully developed, the amassing of fortunes can be tricky and more likely to be detected as corruption.
There are the cases when we hear that somebody introduced a new idea, new method and became rich. Is it possible that one becomes rich mere because one is innovative? Is there a link between wealth and intellectual brilliance?
I do not think there is a link between wealth and brilliance as such. Much depends on the social context of innovative behaviour. In special purpose organizations such as business firms, educational institutions, hospitals etc innovation, if we can call it that, is rewarded when it contributes to achieve the existing objectives of the organization and poses no threat to the entrenched power structure.
On the societal level innovators get a mixed response, they are tolerated in liberal and progressive societies which are receptive to change (rarely rewarded until their ideas catch on so to say on their own). In conservative societies like Pakistan they are more likely to be shunned and even punished for disturbing the status quo (spreading bidat).
Working class people, both in towns and on the countryside, keep working hard generation after generation. Often peasants or factory workers also come up with novel ideas to enhance productivity and efficiency. But they never become rich. It is always individuals who turn to business earning phenomenal sums of money. So what indeed is ‘hard work’ and ‘innovation’?
This is a very important question which leads to the summing up the issue under discussion.
In a class society the most powerful class, whether defined as the owners of the means of production or the owners of most wealth, decides in the final analysis what is hard work or what is acceptable as innovation, and how both are to be rewarded.
In a class society both hard work and innovative behaviour are defined in terms of contributions they make in the reproduction of the existing relations or power. The physical hard work done by peasants and workers to provide food or shelter to all and the items of convenience and luxury to the rich is not considered hard work. It is considered their duty. There are no rewards for this hard work, but sanctions to enforce it. There is a Punjabi word, now creeping into Pakistani Urdu as well – hudharam. It is reserved for the toiling workers both in rural and urban areas and invoked to keep them in line. If they do something innovative to promote their class interests or make life tolerable for themselves, it is considered subversive behaviour and punished. The history of labour unions is littered with anti-union laws and punitive actions.
Adnan Farooq has worked with daily The Nation, Lahore and daily Jang, Lahore. He has also volunteered for Milieudefensie, Amsterdam. Friends of the earth, Europe, on environmental issues. He has been working with ON FILE, an Amsterdam-based publication run by journalists from all around the world. He studied Conflict Resolution at University of Amsterdam. He is the editor.