I have yet to upload any historical-geographical materialist analysis of Bangladesh and its place in the world, but perhaps now is a good time to do it. This is mainly because I am sitting in the office alone save for a gecko crawling the wall and trying to hide from me by standing very still. Most of the office is researching the field in North Bengal.
Bangladesh is a country of contrasts, but two small things that I have been involved with have thrown up some remarkable insights. The first was a meeting with a Dutch guy working for the embassy, who told me some interesting wealth statistics for Bangladesh. Around 8-10% of the population are in a situation of immense wealth (relative not to Bangladesh, but to the whole world). Their financial situation is such that there are more rich people in Bangladesh than in the Netherlands, Greece, Portugal, Ireland, most of Eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Austria, and large parts of Southeast Asia. Their wealth is a result of business and politics mixed together in an unhealthy class alliance, ensuring that any moves to ensure substantial redistribution of wealth do not take place. This is not a poor country – it is self sufficient in food and has a large industrial sector – but the social relations of Bangladeshi capitalism are extraordinarily unequal.
The second event was a walk through one of the huge clothing markets selling seconds and overruns of made-to-wear garments exported to the West: this is where the extra jeans and jumpers end up, dumped on crowded market stalls squashed into tiny spaces. Piled at the top of one table were dark blue jeans, clearly marked with a ‘George at Asda’ label, and a 4 pounds (no pound sign) label. Intrigued, I asked how much these would be, receiving an answer of 800 Taka, about 6.50! This is globalisation gone mad, I thought, before remembering the Bangladeshi tendency to try it on with bedeshis to see what they can get away with. Yet despite some hard bargaining (harder for him given that I had no intention of buying), I could not get the price down to below 550Tk, or about 4.50. Yet the whole episode made his cries of ‘a good price, very cheap’ but a mockery – I could have stayed at home and got cheaper in Chelmsford. And in an environment not too dissimilar!
This little vignette, however, should be striking. The processes of globalisation (or rather, the current round of the spatial expansion of the capitalist means of production) are such that consumers in Europe pay less than working class consumers for the same product (with a little poetic license with regard to the scientific value of my evidence). Global systems of finance, transportation, logistical support and labour suppression are now so efficient that despite the distance in time and space between the factory floor and the two sites of consumption (Dhaka and Chelmsford), the latter is cheaper! At the same time, Bangladesh sustains a wealthy elite that is greater in number than the population of all but the largest European countries.
Bangladesh has had two bourgeois revolutions that have established the rule of the interests of property and capital. Firstly, as part of India, the Bengali elite removed the external British ruling class to replace it with an internal Indian one. Following partition, Bangladesh then removed the external (discursively at least) Pakistani ruling class and the Bengali bourgeoisie – today an alliance of political, business, industrial and intellectual elites – has ruled ever since. Parties have come and gone, and indeed political systems have come and gone and come again, but the class with power has remained more or less constant (despite the competition between different fractions of capital, such as landed versus industrial capital, or the Army versus business interests that have given the uniqueness to the manifestation of the social relations of capitalism in the Bangladeshi context).
This cemented ruling class have ensured their own position by facilitating the exploitation of the Bangladeshi working class at an alarming rate. This is such that garment workers earn around 2000 Taka (14 pounds) a month on average, though some can make almost 6000 Taka (45 pounds). Labour laws are poor and poorly enforced, and unions are regularly crushed by police and paramilitary units: control of the legitimate use of violence remains tight, however, illegitimate it’s exercising may be.
All this means that the elite are firmly inserted into the functioning and managing of global capitalism, not as powerfully as others certainly, but with their interests firmly lying in ensuring that the social relations of production remain as extreme as they now stand. In the enormous extraction of surplus value that Western and now Chinese corporations undertake in the country, shifting billions of dollars of capital from Bangladesh and recirculating it developed economies, Bangladeshi and other developing world elites get an ample share in order to ensure that their interests lie within keeping things the way they are. In order to maintain social control, small concessions are made towards democratic choice (but with no real choice or franchise), violence is enacted upon the activist marginalized working class, and the concepts of nationalism and religion are excessively mobilised to maintain rhetorical allegiance to the idea of ‘Bangladesh and Islam’, no matter how much these are failing people. As Brendan Behan said: ‘the rabbis and priests go on about how great heaven is, but I don’t see any of them in a hurry to get there’.
In the West, we all benefit hugely from this misfortune of the Bangladeshi poor – we spend less on jeans than them and the host of other items we readily consume at an accelerating rate. It is now in our interest to maintain capitalism in this way. Radical politics has died and instead we fight along the lines of ‘Make Poverty History’: we object to the outcome of the system but not the system itself.
However, a proletariat exists in the West: it is in McDonalds and Tesco, in banks and law firms, in buses and on trains. Marx again: ‘workers by hand or by brain’. We are all working class who do not own means of production - we all sell our labour in order to live – it is just that some of us have more of a stake in the system. Yet we do have the opportunity to change it positively and democratically. This requires global action from all those at the bottom. If there more people in Bangladesh with a certain level of wealth than most of the Dutch, and if India has more wealthy people than half of Europe, and if the poor in the USA would be also be poor in 50 countries less wealthy than America, then nationalisms, religions and races should not be a barrier. Only class politics, infused with cultural realities, is a viable check to the onslaught of globalising capitalism. The capitalists – the global bourgeois – are already acting globally, and are getting more and more refined in their methods. If we are buying the same clothes at the same prices, then surely we too can act globally: we simply must open our eyes.