Lumps in the proletariat

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The discourse on labour in Bangladesh relegates the proletariat to the lumpenproletariat as a means of control by justified oppression. Breaking this illusion in order to emancipate and empower the disenfranchised, should be a priority for nation-building.


Constructing Bangladesh’s Socio-Political Landscape: A Neoliberal Potemkin Village

Bangladesh is a carefully constructed neoliberal Potemkin village, built to serve a Leviathan, the product of the seamless inbreeding of the ruling and upper classes. The many fangs surgically inserted into the once toothless grin of the Leviathan come from the success of the concerted, decades-long efforts to defang the socio-political and socio-economic discourses. Social wellbeing, let alone social welfare, has never been on an agenda fuelled by unbridled greed and corruption, leaving generations of the labour class to be mercilessly exploited by an upper class that exudes a facade of benevolence, courtesy of its pet intelligentsia and sycophantic media.

There is an unresolved irony at the heart of Bangladesh’s independence, which speaks to the permanent status of its lower classes being consigned to exploitation. In Cold War terms, opposing the US meant eschewing capitalism for a full embrace of communism. Bangladesh took a sledgehammer to the intellectual deficit inherent to this reductive binary. It became independent despite the US’s best efforts, yet threw itself fully into the developing capitalist proposition of neoliberalism, made international law by the imperial decree of neoconservative evangelists Reagan and Thatcher, in the country’s second decade of existence.

Nation-building, therefore, was never more than a secondary concern, forever surpassed by the amassing of wealth. This is what happens when a country is born of the ideologically and intellectually bankrupt politics of opportunism and autocracy — as were evident in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League, a legacy kept firmly alive by the various manifestations of the BNP and currently, proudly, by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League. The original sinner concealed his intentions by appropriating the legitimate movement for self-determination. His brazen progeny has had a shortage of wool, but with the Leviathan at her service, there is scarcely any need for pulling any over the country’s eyes. Digital Bangladesh metamorphoses to Smart Bangladesh, failing upwards with impunity, and the lower classes who comprise the vast majority of the population remain leashed and divided.


The Role of Class in Bangladeshi Politics: Exploitation and Division

When confronted with the friction of a progressive, egalitarian left and a regressive, self-aggrandising right at the opportune moment of independence, the selfish, self-serving and, therefore, only decision was always going to be destroying the former and staking one’s claim at the head of the latter. Once Bangladeshi politics was safely delivered to the right, the ruling and upper classes could commit to growing together in a co-dependent marriage solidified by the threat of mutually assured destruction.

In an overpopulated, undereducated country ravaged by war, natural disasters, poverty, and a lack of infrastructure and robust socio-political structures, this could only ever lead to dividing the people in two, the Leviathan and the masses, and to exploiting the masses to benefit the ruling and upper classes, passed off as development. Their vows were sworn on the gospel of neoliberalism, signalling the beginning of a complete dismantling of the proletariat as a political relevance.


Labour and Oppression: The Plight of the Working Class in Bangladesh

Therein lies yet another irony of Bangladesh: despite being class conscious, the thorough disenfranchisement of the proletariat via obscenely blatant oppression has rendered it the lumpenproletariat. Its psyche is not permitted to venture beyond gratitude to the magnanimous lords above for superficial improvements to the lives of its members within the acceptable parameters of materialism. To this day, this lumpenproletariat, the single-largest electoral bloc, poses no threat to the government.

In return for its political compliance, the government ensures that it poses no threat to the elites, neither from the perspective of having meaningful rights and dignity nor from that of supplanting them. Supplication is its lot in life. Detraction and defiance cannot even be conceived, let alone be thoughts put into action. It is precisely in this extreme environment, where the state has absolved itself of any responsibility towards its citizens, that predatory, pseudo-intellectual practices such as microcredit and so-called social business are erroneously, arrogantly paraded as altruistic genius when their only ingenuity lies in lending a well-polished veneer of selflessly serving society, whose shine is so bright as to fully eclipse the perpetual entrapment of the masses in economically deficient enslavement.

Politics, especially the established politics of monarchy, has to be the starting point in the conversation about labour in Bangladesh due to its oversized impact on the working class. In the over fifty years of its existence, the overriding political desire has been to make the country’s economy synonymous with cheap labour. The sluggish move from agriculture to manufacturing has been driven more by larger profits for the upper class as in the neoliberal bastions of the US, the UK and India, than well-planned, successful economic evolution as seen in parts of East and Southeast Asia. The manner in which manufacturing has been centralised in Dhaka, outliers such as port-necessitated growth in Chittagong and expatriate-driven growth in Sylhet notwithstanding, and how industrialisation mushroomed sans urban planning and vision, is further proof of this.

Capital, people and even the sprawl of land flows towards Dhaka because that is where the moneyed elites have their palaces, which they refuse to leave. The ruling class has appeased this where politics ought to have provided innovative and revolutionary economic thinking. Hence, the economy is built and dependent on the two pillars of readymade garment manufacturing and migrant labour. Diversification comes in the shape of farming, chiefly rice, tea and fish, shipbreaking and imported waste management — in other words, industries that are, like the twin peaks, reliant on cheap labour.

The inverse relationship between cheap labour and education has allowed the latter to actively be politically deprioritised for decades to such an extent that the rot has set in. Worse still, the direct correlation between cheap labour and healthcare has seen a decades-long onslaught on the latter. This is a lethal combination, one that makes it easier for the working class to be dehumanised and disenfranchised as being dispensable. When the lowest common denominator of semi-able body becomes commonplace and the only job requirement, a broken or old body can be replaced cost-free and a thinking mind has no place.

The master-servant dynamics of classism inherited from the colonial era ensure that the Leviathan keeps the production line of cheap labour running in the deliberate absence of any evolved socio-political thought or will. This is none more so pronounced than in the practice of household help — a euphemism for a group of the cheapest of labour in indentured servitude. Collective organisation is beyond their imagination since they are disenfranchised to the extreme extent of technically not qualifying for any form of legal protection under Bangladeshi employment laws.

Class traitors who have weaselled their way into the Leviathan’s propaganda machinery, including civil society functionaries, local and national journalists and domestic bureau apparatchiks of foreign media organisations, village elders and an urbanised white collar working class, protect the illusion of a better life with their conservatism by emphasising on the mobile phones, televisions, new clothes and health-hazard mass market poultry that they can now afford, in order to guarantee obedience and preserve the classist status quo.

Burnished by an elite and elitist civil society whose sustained efforts to turn the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh into a pseudo-feminist anti-struggle for the upper class have become successful to the point of being irreversible, garment factory owners have laundered their exploitation as female empowerment, and themselves and their rich friends as feminist activists. The business of migrant labour is similarly lauded in the media: the labourers are patriotic soldiers, the businesses profiting off them humanitarians. Where there is no possibility of the lumpenproletariat from these two sectors causing any socio-political earthquakes, that from the household help sector can scarcely think of causing a tremor.

Laws are designed to indemnify the rich and villainise the poor, whereby law enforcement becomes legalisation of the Leviathan’s brutalisation and slaughter in the rare instances of the lumpenproletariat daring to do an impression of the disgruntled proletariat. Any form of collective action taken by workers requires the permission of employers to make it legal, leaving workers a Hobson’s choice between meaningless tokenism and meaningful illegality.

The former serves and protects the status quo, the latter comes not only with the threat of job loss, but also broken bones, incarceration, and death. The thousands returning from foreign soil in body bags are not entitled to autopsies or restitution, and their families are left feeling grateful that their broken bodies could at least return home. When rights do not exist for those sent abroad, they cannot exist for those servicing the same industries at home. The few grumblings that do occur have a one-point agenda: improved wages.

A readymade rehearsed script dispenses with these with ease. Disunited workers are angry with their rich employers — a confrontation devoid of and removed from politics. The ruling class rides in to save them by forcing the employers to pay a little more — never anywhere near what the workers ask for or are owed, nor what inflation demands the real wage ought to be for it to qualify as a minimum living wage, and almost always less than what the employers would have begrudgingly acquiesced to — thereby restricting it to a wage dispute without the potential to become a political movement for rights and franchise. Half-baked entrepreneurs of technology start-ups, and pseudo-scientific, anti-intellectual rent-seeking gurus of the future thoroughly disregard the lumpenproletariat in their thinking, instead promising riches to those who already have it and teasing those who almost have it with the possibility of perhaps having it. Exploitation of workers, therefore, is divine law.


Reversing Forced Classifications for Nation-building

Even when workers’ protests happen at times when they have a bearing on politics — such as before or after shamelessly anti-democratic elections, as happened in relation to the last two general elections, undoubtedly since workers understand the possible benefits of that timing — no political opposition engages with the workers enough to emancipate, enfranchise and empower them. Stuck in the mindset of the Leviathan versus the masses, all opposition see themselves as one day ruling, and, therefore, have no desire to elevate the proletariat to its rightful place and awaken its political spirit.

The only group that has an ongoing dialogue with the lumpenproletariat, which can some day be leveraged into a supply and confidence arrangement or revolution, is the Islamists, veiling their ulterior motives with piety, charity, pseudo-humanitarianism, and revisionist traditions that simultaneously appeal to the conscience of the workers and satisfy the needs that are overlooked, if not created by state failure and the Leviathan’s oppression.

Nearly fifty-three years since defying the US to gain independence, Bangladesh has become the model child of American capitalistic ideology, dreaming of replacing workers with robots before wasting a second thinking about giving workers rights. For there to be any hope for nation-building and a proletarian struggle — inexorably linked despite the protestations to the contrary of the ruling and upper classes — the lumpenproletariat’s forced classification has to be reversed. The masters’ tools will never dismantle the masters’ house, but when the reality of the masters’ having houses but no tools is recognised, their houses can be taken and rebuilt.


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