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Dhaka Tribune

What kind of a state are we anyway?

An interpretation of Bangladesh’s political sociology

Update : 08 Mar 2024, 04:32 PM

Discussing political sociology in Bangladesh requires significant meditation by our contemporary scholars. I think this imperative needs to be considered more elaborately. Nevertheless, scholars see no practical implications of their research and findings, which demotivates them from concentrating on the study area.  

As a neoliberal state, Bangladesh has followed an unparalleled model in regulating and managing its social and political institutions, including the domestic political system. Despite this, political ideology and sociology have yet to gain academic attention, inspiring me to write and find correlations between state functions and political sociological theory in Bangladesh.

Political sociology explores how social structures, institutions, and processes influence political behaviour, power dynamics, and policy outcomes. In Bangladesh, political sociology encompasses various themes and dynamics which shape the country's political landscape. It is perhaps not straightforward to generalize, or de-generalize, the absolute phenomenon of a neo-liberal state like Bangladesh.

However, in this article, I will aim to delineate the contemporary political culture and explore some of its root causes to see why some institutions are non-functional from some theoretical underpinnings.

A bit of history

Max Weber (1864-1920), a prominent German sociologist, made significant contributions to political sociology by analyzing power, authority, and bureaucracy. Overall, Weber's political sociology provides valuable insights into the nature of power, authority, and social organization in modern society. His ideas and theories continue to influence sociological research and the analysis of political and organizational phenomena.

According to Weber, there are three types of authority: (a) Traditional authority, based on long-established customs and traditions; (b) charismatic authority, derived from the personal charisma or extraordinary qualities of an individual leader; and (c) rational-legal authority, grounded in rules, regulations, and legal procedures. 

Charismatic leadership or authority prevails in Bangladesh rather than traditional, rational, and legally-bounded authority. The reason for claiming this is that authority and power are influential in Weber's view, as authority explores power as the ability to impose on others, often through coercion or persuasion. He distinguished between power and authority, with authority being a legitimate form of power accepted by society. Now, the question is whether there is any undemocratic regime in Bangladesh, whether there is legitimacy, and whether it is supported by society.

According to Weber, the emergence of bureaucratic organization has been a dominant form of social organization in modern society. He describes bureaucracy as a rational legal system characterized by a hierarchical structure, division of labour, formal rules and procedures, and impersonal relationships. Bangladesh's bureaucracy faces numerous challenges and shortcomings, contributing to its perceived inefficiency and inadequacy, which is the opposite of Weber’s bureaucratic theory. 

Weber used idealistic methods to analyze social phenomena by abstracting models or concepts that capture essential features. For example, he developed ideals of authority, bureaucracy, and social action to understand and explain complex social phenomena.

An ideal Bangladesh

However, an ideal society does not exist in Bangladesh -- scholars have mainly emphasized political bureaucracy, which is becoming more harmful in Bangladesh. 

For example, the bureaucracy in Bangladesh is often subject to political interference and influence. Political leaders can use their power to hire or replace bureaucrats based on loyalty rather than merit, undermining the effectiveness and impartiality of the civil service. On the other hand, corruption within the bureaucracy is widespread, with reports of bribery, extortion, and embezzlement. Bureaucrats may demand illegal payments to provide services or expedite processes, leading to delays, inefficiencies, and unequal access to public services.

Most importantly, bureaucracies often lack accountability, with few mechanisms to hold civil servants accountable for their actions. Bureaucrats can act with impunity, knowing they are unlikely to face consequences for misconduct or negligence. Bureaucratic procedures in Bangladesh can be complex, cumbersome, and time-consuming, leading to delays and inefficiencies in service delivery. Excessive paperwork, bureaucratic hurdles and administrative hurdles can hamper the work of government agencies and frustrate citizens seeking help.

Therefore, Weber’s postulation regarding the process of rationalization in modern societies -- whereby traditional, religious, and magical ways of thinking and acting are replaced by rational, scientific, and bureaucratic modes of organization -- has been missing in Bangladesh. He described this as the "disenchantment" of the world, where traditional forms of meaning and authority lose their influence, which we can see in Bangladesh. 

Again, the classical view of politics developed in the writings and theories of German politico-economic philosophers and sociologists Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), who emphasized the role of politics in the larger context of capitalist society. 

Bangladesh symbolizes a neo-liberal capitalist society where class division is a very persuasive factor. For example, Marx's view of history is driven by the conflict between social classes, particularly the bourgeoisie (capitalist class) and the proletariat (working class). According to historical materialism, the economic base of society, including the means of production and relations of production, forms the political and ideological superstructure. 

The superstructure of society is very precarious. When a particularly interested group of people in society, with the support of the ruling class, dominates and re-establishes a new culture, norms, and identities in which people live, there might be a conflict of interests among the group or groups of people in the society. Additionally, it refers to social institutions, political structures and the governing apparatus of the state or society. Hence, Marx argued that the superstructure grows from the base and reflects the ruling class's interests, which is apparent in Bangladesh.


Marx again portrayed the state as an instrument of class rule. Therefore, Marxists see the state as a tool of the ruling class, which maintains the dominance and interests of the bourgeoisie (capitalists) over the proletariat. The state apparatus, including government institutions, the legal system, and the military, protects private property, maintains capitalist relations of production, and suppresses working-class dissent. Surprisingly, the theories developed centuries ago by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are still prevalent in developing and developed countries. In a neo-capitalist society like Bangladesh, we can find the correlation between Marx and Engels's class division and exploitation of the proletariat.

Even neo-Marxist literature, as an addition to Marx’s existing theory, offers a nuanced view of state and politics, mainly through hegemony. Neo-Marxists build on the classical Marxist analysis of the state as an instrument of class hegemony and emphasize the role of ideology, culture, and hegemony in maintaining the capitalist power structure. The classical Marxist view of politics criticizes capitalist society, highlighting the role of class conflict, state, ideology, and revolutionary struggle in shaping political dynamics and social change. Although some aspects of classical Marxist theory have been challenged and revised over time, its insights continue to inform contemporary debates on politics, inequality, and social justice.

A newly independent state

Understanding the political sociology of Bangladesh is possible only by exploring its ancient phases. Several dynasties ruled Ancient Bengal. However, to understand the current dimensions of Bangladesh's socio-economic and political environment, it is essential to examine its colonial past, independence struggle and post-independence political developments. From broad concepts to specific analysis, to find the root of the legacy of the current socio-economic, cultural and policy context, the British colonial rule, the partition of British India and the Liberation War of 1971 profoundly impacted the country's political identity and social structure.

The impact of British colonial rule on the development of the Indian subcontinent is a complex and multifaceted issue with both positive and negative outcomes. Although the British introduced some modernization reforms and infrastructure projects, their overall impact on economic, social, and political development may have been more beneficial. British colonial policies promoted discrimination and extracted resources from the Indian subcontinent.

Imposing exploitative economic policies, such as heavy taxes, land revenue systems, and trade monopolies, drained resources from local economies and inhibited domestic industries. On the other hand, with our taxes and wealth, the British colonial government developed a heavy sector in England. There is no positive legacy of British colonialism in Bangladesh or elsewhere in the Indian sub-continent. The political, economic, and social systems were destroyed under British rule due to segregated economic and political policies, leading to the demise of our property for centuries. 

After the Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh also needed to formulate and implement adequate state policies for the socio-economic development of millions of citizens of newly independent Bangladesh. Abrupt policies of nationalization and denationalization were adopted without considering the long-term consequences. The period between 1971 and 1980 was very short and challenging for Bangladesh. There needs to be a proper guideline for state policies and operations. As a result, the impact of economic changes in the world through globalization and neo-liberalism fell on Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, as a newly independent state, had no choice but to adopt the policy of neo-liberalism, and the open market economic system was imposed on the state's central policy. 

The results of neo-liberalism at the central level of the state were good and bad. Millions of rural men and women found work in less-regulated and lower-paying industries, such as RMG. On the other hand, a clique of wealthy families was prominent with the state government's direct support and external capitalists' help. As I said earlier, Bangladesh did not have enough opportunities to learn how to build institutions and formulate adequate state policies after the 1971 war. As a result, crony capitalists took advantage of the state-regulated institutions.

In the long run, those state institutions were transformed into political institutions instead of public service institutions. On the contrary, while democracy is the cry of millions of people in Bangladesh, a group of people have taken advantage of the weak institutional stalemate, leading millions of citizens to compromise the essential services of a small state.

My analysis suggests that the political economy of Bangladesh covers topics such as class struggle, economic inequality, and development policy. The relationship between state and society is complex in Bangladesh, characterized by a history of authoritarianism, military rule, and democratic transition to an undemocratic phase. Civil-military relations, state-led development initiatives and non-state actors' governance roles influence power dynamics within Bangladeshi society.

Bangladesh has a long history of social movements and protests, including labor movements, student protests, and movements for social justice and human rights. These movements often respond to perceived injustice, inequality or rights violations, which shape the country's political agenda and policy priorities.

Political sociology in Bangladesh is also influenced by globalization and transnational dynamics. Economic globalization, migration, and the influence of international organizations and donors shape Bangladesh's domestic politics, policy decisions, and social change.

Understanding the political sociology of Bangladesh requires analyzing the interrelationships between social structures, political institutions, and cultural dynamics. By examining these issues, scholars and policymakers can gain insight into the complexities of Bangladesh's politics and society and address the country's key challenges. 

ASM Anam Ullah is an Australian academic, human rights activist and OHS expert.

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