Struggle for democracy in the era of demon-cracy

by Anu Muhammad

08During the last four decades since independence, we have experienced different forms of governments: civil and military, parliamentary and presidential, elected and selected. Emergency was declared three times (1974, 1987, and 2007) and martial law was promulgated twice (1975 and 1982). During the period, two presidents were killed (1975 and 1981). A form of non-party caretaker government was introduced in 1991 to run elections; it was abandoned later following the 15th amendment of the constitution.
Since 1973 Bangladesh constitution has gone through many amendments, become more undemocratic and communal through these changes. In the latest amendment, the existence of national minorities has been denied by declaring all citizens as Bengalis. If we look into the amendments, three important points of concern can be identified. Those are: (1) no major amendments to the constitution (eg one-party system, indemnity law, the legalisation of martial law and religion-based politics, allowing war criminals to do politics, the introduction of state religion) were made because of popular demand or popular movement; (2) most of the changes were done by non-elected governments, who came to power by force, and were legitimised later; and (3) no repressive and discriminatory amendments were repealed by later governments.
After the downfall of autocratic regime, ‘elected’ governments have been ruling the country since 1991. Nevertheless, election could never be free from muscle and money power; the parliament was never allowed to function as a body of people’s representatives; the ‘elected’ body was never allowed to formulate, not even discuss, crucial policies that determine the fate of the country.
Commitments of the constitution, in the process, were being systematically turned into mere rhetoric. For example, while constitutional commitment states that ‘the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth’,  discriminating laws remain in place and more of them were added to the convenience of the ruling class. The country has gone far from the constitution’s commitment that could ensure basic human rights for all citizens. The real policies — economic, legal and political — contradict, defeat and put the commitments in cold-storage.
During the same period, both the size and the proportion of illegal, underground, unreported and criminal economic activities have been increased on an unprecedented scale. This particular economy encompasses bribery, crime, arms trade, corruption, grabbing, women and child trafficking, illegal commissions to approve projects harmful for the country and leakage from different government projects.
The quickly-formed super-rich class of the country is mostly a product of this economy and members of the class also happen to dominate the political arena. The rise of the quick-rich and mafia and their domination over policy-makers cripple institutions, make the zamindari style rule obvious. Electoral process becomes farce; elected bodies, if any, become ineffective.
This scenario also gives ample opportunities for global grabbers to promote their agenda. In the present world under neo-liberal global capitalism, we find two models of imperial grabbing and occupation. One is the Iraq model, the other is the Bangladesh model. Iraq, since 1991, has been indicating a model where global militarised capitalism led by the United States does behave like the old colonial power. The United Nations or international rules and regulations exist only in paper. So that brings the Iraq model, where the US alliance occupied Iraq, destroyed the country, killed millions of people in the name of ‘war on terror’. Effectively this war of terror is the lifeline of global capitalist system, pushing the world into permanent fears, suffering and uncertainty.
In Bangladesh, they did not occupy the country with military power, but did it by signing treaties and agreements and by pushing different policy frameworks. The global capital feels comfortable to extend its domination by creating a strong support base among major political parties, intelligentsia, the media and business houses. One may call it a civilised way of capturing, occupying or grabbing one country.
‘World Capitalism (Bangladesh) Ltd’ — this was the title of an article that I wrote 25 years ago to theorise the location of Bangladesh in the world capitalist system drawing a parallel with the structural setting of multinationals around the world. Multinational corporations are the institutional face of the international monopoly capital and do their business around the world with their subsidiaries. Subsidiaries may have autonomy but they do work under the global plan and strategy of the corporate centre or the principal. What I wanted to show that the status of peripheral countries such as Bangladesh was  gradually turning into mere subsidiaries in the global capitalist system.
This formulation should not be misunderstood as indicating a scenario where the peripheral ruling class/es are passive and helpless. In reality, the relationship is organic and based on mutual interest. The local ruling class considers global muscles as their shelter against people; they also seek benefits by weakening public institutions and state responsibility towards people, by privatising everything they can.
Development strategies aimed at profit and plunder for a few at the cost of lives of many and environment resulted in growing resources but increased deprivation, made dazzling cities with increasing slums and created high rises and projects by destroying ecological balances. The neo-liberal model has actually been playing as a theoretical tool to rationalise the aggressive mode of capital accumulation in the phase of globalised capitalism. This model pushes for privatising and corporatising education, health care, water, rivers, forests making everything for market and bringing everything under corporate greed. Public services, state responsibility for health care, education, child and mother care, pure drinking water, public transport and security are not recognised as people’s right in this model. Here lie sources of people’s deprivation and alienation, hence the defeat of democracy.
The very foundation of peripheral capitalism is fragile despite an organised system of the accumulation of wealth. This accumulation process has brought in a mad race amongst the ruling groups, making electoral process vulnerable and holding it hostage. On the other hand, the peripheral status of the country gives an immense authority to global agencies and big local corporate groups to shape economy and polity. All major economic policies have been formulated and all major deals have been signed with multinationals without any knowledge or consent of the people.
Therefore, people enjoying power supersede institutions and the law of the land. The state power and neo-liberal policies give them an immense opportunity. It creates conditions to raise godfathers or mafia that obstruct democratic exercises in every spheres of society. While the nation state is reduced to an implementing agency of the policies formulated elsewhere, the state exercises an increasing coercive power against people in favour of looters and grabbers. Demon-cracy defeats democracy.
Globally, there are conflict of ideas, politics and economics, among others, on five issues: (a) whether people and the country should own and have authority over their own lives and resources or corporates should be allowed to take over; (b) whether natural resources should be used or preserved for the maximum utilisation for the development of the country or to be extracted in a massive way to maximise profit of big foreign companies; (c) whether resources will remain common property or be turned into private property of a few; (d) whether public interest will be in the centre of development vision or corporate interest will dominate that; and (e) whether the state takes the responsibility to ensure people’s right to food, shelter, education, health care, security or the state continues to be the repressive machine in favour of capital.
People who care about real democracy cannot ignore any of them; they must take position in favour of people’s rights over their lives, resources and their authority over their country. People’s struggle against corporate hegemony is in fact a struggle for democracy. In other words, any struggle for democracy must be a struggle against the existing demon-cracy, local and global.
Anu Muhammad is member secretary of the national committee to protect oil, gas, mineral resources, power and ports.

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