Discovering the commons

by Nurul Kabir
March 26, 2012

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they are allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
Bob Dylan [b. 1941]
The Freewheelin’ – Bob Dylan

I am the people – the mob – the crowd – the mass.
Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?
Carl Sandburg [1878 -1967]
I am the people, the Mob

s44The whole idea of democracy had conceptually emerged on the conviction that the ordinary people, the masses of people that is, have enormous creative abilities to bring in positive changes in society and state. But the idea was not there from the beginning, it has rather evolved through thousands of heroic battles, political and otherwise, that the ordinary people have successfully fought against the powers of the kings and queens, monarchs and emperors, bishops and popes — the extraordinary ones that is. A little more than two thousand years ago, Marcus Tullius Cicero [106BC- 43BC], a leading Roman politician and writer, is said to have claimed in his Pro Planchio, ‘in the common people there is no wisdom, no penetration, no power of judgement.’ Two thousand years after Cicero’s aristocratic claim, Abraham Lincoln [1809-1865] asked in his inaugural address of the president of the United States of America in 1861, ‘Why should not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?’ Earlier, Thomas Jefferson [1743-1826], a leader of the world’s first democratic revolution and principal author of the American Declaration of Independence, wrote in 1787 to James Madison [1751 -1836], a political theorist and the fourth president of the United States, ‘People are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.’ By then, the world had already seen the French Revolution, taken place under the slogan of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, which upheld the ‘general will’ of the people as the only legitimate ‘sovereign’ in running the affairs of a democratic republic.
True that the American and French revolutions, despite the universal slogans of democratic equality of the citizens, failed to immediately place all their peoples — men and women, black and white — on the same political plane, let alone economic; but the great idea of democratic equality inspired millions of American and French, and many more millions beyond the borders of the two great countries — the black and brown men, and the black, brown and white women — to continue struggle against the undemocratic forces of racism and patriarchy, who have been able to reduce the concept of democracy to mere transfer of power through popular elections participated by all the citizens — men, women and transsexuals; black, white and brown. In the process, many populaces have gained partial victory, while still fighting for the rest of inalienable rights of human beings in democratic dispensations. Notably, mere constitutionally recognition of ‘political equality’ does not help achieve equality of the citizens, until it is practically translated into economic equality — a truly democratic proposition that ‘capital’, or the reign of capitalism in other words, is inherently deadly against. The Bolshevik Revolution of Russia in 1917 and Chinese Revolution in 1949 had promised a political process of dismantling ‘capital’ and ‘withering away’ of state, always a coercive tool of class repression, and thus strengthening of the process of materialising pervasive equalities — political, economic and cultural — among all citizens. It was the people’s political struggles, armed with revolutionary ideologies under the guidance of the communist parties concerned, that had inaugurated the new chapters of history in their respective countries, and created socialist hope among the toiling masses across the world. Recognising the inherent creative energies of the masses of the ordinary people, Mao Tse-Tung [1873 -1976], the prime leader of the Chinese Revolution, declared: ‘The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in making the world history’. But after the death of first generation revolutionary leaders, both the countries have changed their promised course, one in the name of ‘democratic reforms’ and the other in the name of introducing ‘red capitalism’ to expedite economic growth. Equitable, or even just, distribution of created wealth among people, does not appear to be on the agenda of the newly emerged Russian and Chinese ruling classes any more. The rich classes with organised political power, which are, again, equipped with ‘legalised’ arms and weapons capable of unleashing terror as and when necessary, have taken over the states in question. Today, the most of the states across the world are now completely taken over by the undemocratic rich. They have their own solidarity across the globe, and they rule the globe in union, without any consent of the millions of the ruled, under the apparently beautiful slogan of ‘globalisation’. This ‘globalisation’ is nothing more or less than the globalisation of the exploitation of ‘capital’ run by the oligarchies spread over the globe. Visible and not-that-visible resistances of the people are there against the reactionary capitalistic globalisation across the world. For a decisive victory, however, it is important to forge an effective solidarity of the forces of democratic resistances. The counter globalisation of the people’s movements for reclaiming the commons remains the only answer to the undemocratic globalisation of capital.
S47Not an isolated island in the global community of undemocratic states, Bangladesh’s predicament can be hardly any different. The ruling classes of Bangladesh, spread over different political camps ruling the country now for more than four decades, have become the small partner/s of the forces of capitalist globalisation, in clear violation of the ‘solemn’ promises of its independence. The state of Bangladesh that emerged on the politico-military victory of a ‘people’s war’ against the occupation army of neo-colonialist Pakistan in 1971, and that too followed by a series of mass-movements for materialising the right to self-determination, promised a democratic republic with an egalitarian economic order. In the politically charged emotional environment of the post-independence Bangladesh, when many freedom fighters were still holding arms that they had fought the war with, the constitution of the republic declared in its article 7(1) in 1972, ‘all the powers in the Republic belong to the people, and their exercise on behalf of the people shall be effected only under, and by the authority of, this Constitution’. Earlier, in the preamble of the constitution, the political authorities concerned ‘pledged’ that ‘a fundamental aim of the State to realize through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation — a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens.’ The constitution also enjoined upon the political with a ‘sacred duty’ to create and maintain an environment where the people ‘may prosper in freedom’. Article 11 of the constitution pledged that the ‘Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed’, so on and so forth.
Not that the constitution adopted in the post-independence Bangladesh was the best of the ones available in the world those days. Still, the book contained many democratic aspirations of the people who had made enormous sacrifices during the country’s struggle for democratic rights between 1948 and 1970, which eventually culminated in the victorious liberation of war in 1971. But more than four decades after they had wrestled out independence at the cost of blood and fire, the people of this country now helplessly watch that ‘power’ does not ‘belong to the people’ anymore, ‘all the powers’ have rather been snatched away from them by a small coterie of the politically powerful rich organised under the banner of two political camps led by the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party; with the political camps in question pursuing an unbridled market economy, the constitutional pledge of ‘exploitation-free society’ has become a mockery. The successive governments of the ruling class have made a farce of the state’s original pledge of ensuring ‘political, economic and social justice’ for the citizens. For the toiling masses, social, political and economic injustice has rather become the order of the day. Income disparity between the rich and poor has reached a vulgar point. Inequality of men and women in terms of social and political power remains a perennial impediment towards democratization of the families. The ‘rule of law’ is completely illusive, and incidents of ‘human rights’ violations by the state actors have reached a scandalous proportion globally. With the dissenting voices constantly exposed to the fear of being intimidated, the ‘freedom’ has lost its meaning. Under these circumstances, the definition of democracy has been reduced to mere transfer of power from one political camp to the other by ‘popular votes’ every five year. Once, voted to power, the role of the people in running the affairs vanishes. Clearly, the ‘democracy’ of the ruling political camps of the day is nothing but an ‘organised hypocrisy’ in which the people, the masses of the people that is, have been deliberately made ‘politically immobilised’.
It was once the active political mobilisations of the people that made ‘national’ independence possible. Immobilisation of people is a serious retrogression. ‘Such retrograde steps with all the weaknesses and serious dangers that they entail’, writes revolutionary Algerian political philosopher Frantz Fanon [1925 -1961], ‘are the historical result of the incapacity of the national middle class to rationalize popular action.’ Fanon’s deeply analysed conclusion, therefore, remains: ‘In underdeveloped countries, the bourgeoisie should not be allowed to find the conditions necessary for its existence and its growth.’ He argued that ‘the combined effort of the masses led by a party and of intellectuals who are highly conscious and armed with revolutionary principles ought to bar the way to this useless and harmful middle class.’ It is essential to politically reclaim the commons, the ordinary people, for, as we have hinted earlier, it is only the people, who, when politically conscious and mobilised, are capable of changing the course of history, creating wealth and ensuring equitable distribution of the wealth and thus strengthening ‘national economy’ .
While all the victims of the country’s existing social, political and economic order — millions in number — are disgusted with the oligarchic attitude of both the mainstream political camps who have alternately been ruling the country for decades, the aspiration for the emergence of new democratic political force/s are there in every corner of the country. There are also visible symptoms among a section of the politicians, mostly disgruntled, but still belonging to the existing camps, of coming out of their old platforms to launch a new one to bring about positive changes. But none of these group/people are seen keen on putting in rigorous intellectual efforts to reconstruct a democratic polity with, what Fanon says, revolutionary principles to effectively bloc the path of the ‘organised hypocrisy’ of the dominant political organisations. Some of them may have genuine intention of democratising our otherwise undemocratic society and state, but no political process is going anywhere without a newly constructed democratic politics and a set of social, political and cultural programmes aimed at reclaiming the commons in the process. After all, the central idea of democracy remains the pervasive empowerment of people.
Besides, there is another elitist group of upper-class intellectuals, heading different pro-establishment organisations regularly/frequently supported by foreign organisations particularly of the corporate West, has also been busy campaigning for ‘change’ for quite some years now. They have been seen/heard making attempts to float their own political party of ‘educated people’ necessary for enforcing democratic changes in the society. They are said to have developed detestation for the ‘uneducated’ leadership of the existing political camps. This group of individuals, better known as Shusheel Samaj, on the other hand, hardly has any following among the ‘uneducated’ ordinary people. The group apparently find the overambitious military general, if there is any, and the powerful West as their source of strength, not the ‘uneducated’ commons — a dangerous proposition for democracy to begin with. On top of that all, the leadership of the traditional politics may be ‘uneducated,’ or ‘inadequately educated’ to understand the nuances of an ideal democratic system, but one may safely conclude that those who believe that a state is undemocratic primarily because the politicians running the affairs of the state are ‘uneducated’, not because the social, political, economic and cultural policies that they deliberately pursue is inherently undemocratic, have no sense of history. They are ‘badly educated’, and therefore not to be paid heed to.
However, Bangladesh, the people of Bangladesh in other words, can no longer afford the un-democracy and un-freedom, indignity and ill-treatment, poverty and regression, et cetera imposed on the by a politically impotent class of rulers to materialise the hopes and aspirations of the people who had successfully fought their war of liberation. For them to be liberated — socially, politically and economically, the inauguration of a new democratic politics, equipped with a set of intellectually sound democratic programmes aimed at reclaiming the energy and power of the commons, is a must. The future belongs to those who would be able to develop this new democratic politics and programmes and fight tooth and nail against the today’s tyrannical forces of un-democracy. It is true that the victory of the new democratic struggle will not be that easy, particularly in this age of imperialist corporate globalisation where the powerful corporate interest of the West and the local vested interest operate in unison, hand in hand. Thomas Paine [1737-1809], one has reason to believe, rightly said, ‘Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered’. ‘Yet we have this consolation with us’, Paine also said in the same breath, ‘the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph’. History awaits a hard conflict with the forces of regression and a glorious triumph of the progressive commons in Bangladesh and beyond.

Nurul Kabir is editor of New Age.

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