Thursday, November 30, 2006

Globalisation Gone Mad, or Why Marx is Still Right

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.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bengali Culture at The British Museum

The British Museum is currently running and exhibition called 'The Myths of Bengal'. To see a little about Bangladesh and the culture I am working in, go along and have a look. Amartya Sen (Bengali economist and Nobel Prize winner) will be speaking on Friday (1st December). I do not really agree with him but he could be interesting, and is looking at culture and identity in Bengal.
At the very least, try to see to the exhibition.
For tickets call 020-7323 8181 or visit Thebritishmuseum.ac.uk

Sunday, November 19, 2006

My Day

I thought it may be a good time to tell a little about my day, now that I have finally started work and have developed some sort of routine. I usually get up sometime between 6 and 6.30, and then go for a run. It is impossible to run in this city if you leave any later than 7.30: there are too many kids and dogs that decide to run with you, too much traffic determined to run you over and the heat and noise starts to get unbearable.

My run takes me up through Lalmatia to Mohammadpur. I run past the Mohammadpur market where I get some of my vegetables and fruit. Two or three times a week trucks bring in massive coups stuffed with chickens, all stacked atop one another. Locals unload these chickens and begin to start slaughtering them. By the time I return with half an hour, there is usually a pile of chicken heads and innards rapidly growing by the roadside.

I continue along Asan road before heading up Mirpur Road, a major thoroughfare. I go past the national graveyard (which doubles as the toilet for many of the area’s homeless) and then into the Parliament complex. I run up to the Zia monument (for a former general and leader assassinated in the 1980s) and then turn to go back. Around the Zia monument a fair number of Bangladeshis also come to exercise. But as seems to be their way, it is their tongues that are moving most as people sit on walls talking to others. A few are walking – sometimes vigorously – and others do the most bizarre stretches and other static exercises. Some of these are really very violent and look like they will leave long-term bone damage. Very occasionally, I will see someone who is actually running. I am the only person in shorts.

I get back to the flat at 7.15 or so and then have banana and toast before going off to work. I get to work at 9 – by 9.30 or 9.45 someone else arrives. Given tha the ED lives in the office there are few excuses for his tardiness. I usually endure the newspaper reading session, then a gossiping session before I can check the Internet to see some real news. Then at 10 there is a tea break (I know not what from they are breaking) and at 11 another break for a samosa. Lunch is always ridiculously late – 2.30, 3, and even 4 in the afternoon. By this time I am starving. The day passes quite fast and I leave at 5, avoiding any need to have a gossip. I can be back at our flat by 5.30 and so have quite some time in the evening to do read as well as cook some dinner and play a it of guitar. I have also started writing one of my books.

And so is my day, every day, with the exception of Friday when I can get some time off and go for a swim at the Bagha club, and Thursday evenings when sometimes I can go and have a beer or two, also at the Bagha. Although I have now created a lot of work for myself, and for my work colleagues, who suddenly realise that taking 25 days to input the results of 100 questionnaires (with 10 questions each) into the computer is a little lazy. So they will find their own routines a little busier very soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Tim's Blog

Tim - as I have mentioned before - is another YfD volunteer in Bangladesh. His blog is funnier than mine so some of you might wish to switch.

Here is the link, and it will be on the side bar too...

www.deepinthedesh.wordpress.com

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Office

After weeks of induction and inaction, I have finally been able to start work, and a minor shock it has been. Firstly, my VSO focal point is the only Bangladeshi who does not like cricket, but lists his hobbies as wrestling (watching), chess (playing) and gossiping. A thrilling collection of interests and hobbies I am sure you would agree.

Whilst other VSO volunteers around the country and the world are going into large, dynamic organisations, mine has but 4 employers, who do less work than I thought humanly possible. On my first day, I entered the office and my focal point said ‘here is the office, now I must work’, and disappeared, leaving me a little bemused by his scuttling away. After 2 or 3 hours, and having read all the English language material in the office, I was able to have lunch, and meet the other three employees: the Executive Director (ED), another researcher and the administrator. After lunch, one erstwhile employee told me that ‘when we finish, we will have a gossip or maybe a sleep’. Lunch started at 12.30, and no one returned to work afterwards.

Day two and I was the first in the office by at least half an hour. I also met another trustee (the ED is one), who is usually teaching at Dhaka University – which my focal point told me was once the Oxford of the East but is now ‘about 37th ranking in Asia – it looks it. I also found out three minutes before that I was to go to a meeting with Plan International – aha I thought, a time to mobilise the supposedly extensive networking skills for which I apparently am sought - but alas I sat through a 2 hour meeting in Bangla. I asked for a summary afterwards, and this lasted 30 seconds.

Days 3 and 4 and 5 were very uneventful, with no work to do. I did do my introductory workshop with the office, a shambolic event in which the ED sat with his hands over his eyes for the whole time. I noticed he did not look at any of the pictures of home I handed round (note: Max, Andy, Michelle, Ania and Paddy, consider yourself introduced to my colleagues). He is incredibly difficult to talk to, because he starts playing with his computer, or reading something, or singing whilst I speak. Yet whilst some have complained, I don't remember being this boring, and I am certain he has not heard any of the stories before…

However, the good thing is that there seems to be a lot that I can do to make some tangible difference. My terms of reference for my placement are to help build participatory research capacity, to build external networks and communications with multilateral and bilateral donors, INGOs and the UN, and to develop literature reviews, research proposals, seek academic and policy publication and some filing. Seeing as they do very little of this at the moment it seems that even a little change could take place, and there are two people who I think I can work with so that they can take over the jobs for when I leave. My hardest task right now is convince the ED that I am not simply a human cheque book upon which DFID will write, and that tee shirts for the team are not priority.

I have managed today to draw up a work plan and will spend the next few days attempting to get the ED to read it and understand what I think I can do and why I am there.

The office itself is quite airy and bright, and just of Panta Path, a major thoroughfare in the city. The political situation is deteriorating again today and I had to cross two barricades to get to work. Tomorrow I may not be able to get there, and 20,000 Rapid Action Battalion soldiers are in place, with the remit to keep order at any cost. On the way home tonight I saw two policemen give a rickshawala a rather unpleasant beating, with a stick and a rifle, and shouted at me for looking. But at least a bedeshi meant that they stopped.

The Awami League opposition has started a blockade of Dhaka, restarting the ‘Dhaka-Seize Programme’. There is serious talk of the army imposing martial law and taking control at the moment. Amazingly this is openly discussed! As I write the water cannon is being set up on the main Mirpur Road (which I walk along to work).

But despite my frustrating, tiring and very difficult working conditions, and the violence, there is some good news: Bangladesh is no longer rated as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International – it is now third from bottom. I like to think that I might have had a small hand in that…

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Zizou

Tuesday was Revolution Day and meant a public holiday. What better way to spend it than with Zinedine Zidane and 40,000 mad Bangladeshi football supporters. They love him here, apparently because the rest of the world loves Beckham more and the Bangladeshis always want to be different. I can certainly think of many ways in which they are different that are far more dramatic. But nonetheless, his visit was an experience.
Zidane was here at the invitation of Professor Mohammed Yunus, founder of Grameen Microcredit Bank and recent winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Grameen and Danone were opening a joint venture high nutrition yoghurt plant in order to allieviate some of the worse impacts of malnutrition. Zidane was the official ribbon cutter.
At the national stadium, a dilapidated and crumbling relic, we packed into cramped plastic chairs to watch hours of disorganisation. Firstly, a massive group of girls in PE kit and scarves came out on to the pitch and sat around for two hours, occassionally making shapes on the grass. The pitch was checked and rechecked and checked again, seemingly by anyone who felt the need to have a look. They need not have bothered for from our distant vantage point it was still obvious that the pitch was pretty rubbish. Eventually, some players arrived (the under 16 squads of Bangladeshis two best teams) and a horse and cart was parked at the far end of the stadium. Accompanied by a massive roar, Zidane headed into the stadium with Yunus and some other dignatries, and then did a lap in the chariot whilst being chased by paparazzi (the 'filthy paparazzi' as the paper called them), two teams of under 6s and anyone else who happened to be filling the stadium, including one or two riot police. This procession, somewhere between a state visit and a circus, eventually halted and he sat down to view the school girls in their kit give a choregraphed show that would force Kim Jong Il to have then immediately shot were they to perform like that in Pyongyang.
Finally, we were ready for kickoff, late as always, and the two teams lined up as though it were the world cup final, with the FIFA fair play flag and proper referees. But strewn out along the end of the lines were tens of supporters who were able to freely walk on to the pitch and join in! The highlight of the event was undoubtably the sight of riot police clearing the pitch for a under-16 game, as the invaders were heckled. I wonder if FIFA will issue a fine?
Zidane played for about twenty minutes, ten minutes of each team, stopping only one to put on some fluorescent orange shorts. I do not know why. He mainly did a great deal of standing around and occassional falling over (once induced by a phenomenal tackle by the white team's star defender), but it was fun to see. His unceremonial leaving was a wave and a dash of the pitch to the waiting car that swiftly left. In the post Zidane confusion the match continued as everyone left, and eventually the referee halted proceedings in a rapidly emptying stadium.
The newspapers made a lot of the fact that the VIP areas were full of the 'upper class the shun the national stadium and football' and a strange analysis that he is not as popular as Brazilian or Argentinian players, judged by the predominance of young people in the crowd. But all this aside, at least I can say I saw Zizou play, if it was on a dodgy pitch in Dhaka and with him in trainers, jeans and day-glow orange shorts.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Nordic Nights

Yesterday, it being Thursday - the beginning of Bangladesh’s weekend – and payday, seemed a good opportunity to investigate some of the other clubs in the Gulshan area before we all headed off to start work. Having now secured our Bagha club cards despite VSO’s and others best efforts to prevent this simple task, we were able to go to the Nordic club for the evening, which happened to be holding a James Bond themed party. Another opportunity to find out how thrilling expat life can be.

The Nordic Club, as its name suggests, is the second home of Swedes, Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Icelandics. The general clientele did definitely look as such, with lots of silly beards and blonde hair, surrounded by a d├ęcor somewhere between a ship and a sauna. However, they had made some effort with lighting up their outside area (no doubt at the expense of domestic power in slums elsewhere in the city), and one or two had come in elaborate costume – or at least we can assume it was costume – parading cats, capes and black tie around the swimming pool in hope of winning a night at the Nordic Club. Needless to say, we did not take part.

However, it certainly made a change to get out of Lalmatia and see a little more of ‘respectable’ Dhaka. Drinks were quite expensive, at 150 Taka for a 330ml can of (naturally) Carlsberg, but it was worth to hear the Swedish DJ playing endless rounds of Abba but staying clear of The Cardigans. It also seems to be that events like this most of the contacts are made between people: VSO volunteers looking for money tend to go along to capture people off guard. We did meet a number of interesting characters: Tim has secured the contact details of a guy working with DFID who came as a Bond villain whilst wearing a Rapid Action Battalion (RAB – Bangladesh’s finest police thugs) T-shirt. Georgia instead got a home-made card by some Danish joker calling himself Dr Love, and also that of the deputy chief of mission at the Egyptian Embassy, a pretty useless collection.

However the night did wear on and it remained rather bizarre and further evidence that expat life is just strange. We thought it prudent to borrow some Vodka and Champagne as it would go to a good cause, and having lost Georgia (a clothed shower in the changing room and a swift but wet rickshaw ride home accounted for her night), Tim and I were able to go back out into Dhaka. Outside the club at what was about 2 or 3 in the morning, crowds of rickshawalas fought with crowds of prostitutes for our business, but one guy that seemed set on a ten Taka fare all the way back to Lalmatia (an hour by bike) was the one for us. It quickly dawned as to why he was so keen for the cheap fare: our bottle of Vodka was his desired prize, and he soon was asking for a bit. We obliged, and then continued along the road with a wala on one hand smoking something pungent, and on the other taking swigs of Vodka as though it were water. There is something about Dhaka that makes drink-driving seem ok, but by the end of the journey we were going very slowly, getting long drunken lectures on the Awami League and his wife. In all he had half a litre of the stuff, and kept refusing the fare (which was to be at least 100 Taka) in exchange for Vodka. We did manage to pay him, and left him contemplating how he was to manoeuvre his large rickshaw, and singing to himself.