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Is Bangladesh transforming into a corporate state?

  • Published at 12:07 am September 2nd, 2019
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MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

The alignment of the corporation and the state is driving inequality and market manipulation

Bangladesh was founded on four basic principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism. However, manifestations of our diversions from these principles are evident in everyday affairs. Bangladesh turned itself into a heaven for capitalist ventures and turned its wings for the few instead of the masses. There are ominous signs of Bangladesh being transformed into a corporate state.

We have a state structure -- as in many countries -- that challenge broadly accepted Weberian definition of the state as authority with the legitimate monopoly of violence over defined territory. This also indicates a shift from Rousseauian or Hobbesian idea of the state as mediator of its population to form a society based on a social contract. In the present context, sovereign power is diluted.

Fundamental changes that corporatization of state entails are the relinquishment of the social welfare programs and corporations taking over regulative authority of the nation-state. Corporations gain the command of institutions necessary for the reproduction of society and espouse a new style of social ordering. Thus, state becomes a subordinate functionary of corporate economic power manifesting a shift of state from political-economic to an economic-political form.

Recent events, such as the dengue epidemic, banning of sub-standard food products, and land-grabbing across the country, manifest the ways economic power is assuming powers of the state. First, we find business syndicates that state authorities could not govern. Second, state agencies are taking sides of the business corporations who produced and distributed substandard foods. Third, business ventures are using sovereign authorities of the state in terrorizing people for profit. 

Collusions between business corporations and state agencies contributed to the recent epidemic of dengue fever. It is clear that DNCC and DSCC could not control Aedes due to the use of ineffective insecticides. Undoubtedly, city corporations failed due to the syndicate of insecticide suppliers and unethical irregularities of involved agencies.

The aligning of business corporations and state agencies became clearer when the Biomedical Research Centre found presence of harmful antibiotics in five major packaged milk products. Startlingly, concerned government officials rejected the findings and as per BSTI, traces of antibiotics were within an acceptable margin.

Moreover, the attorney general appeared in the Supreme Court as an individual lawyer for two companies and received a stay order on banning the distribution of products imposed by the High Court.

Several news reports recently revealed that the brother of an incumbent MP had illegally grabbed 60 acres of land to build a five-star hotel and resort in Bandarban district causing near extinction of three villages.

Corporatization of the state has been a gradual process and business corporations have been benefitting immensely by influencing the state policies and controlling the state apparatuses. 

We can revisit some other instances, in 2018 the government had reduced the cash reserve requirement or CPR for private banks by one percentage point to 5.5% while doubling the government deposits to 50%.

These changes came after the government earlier that year had permitted private banks to have four directors from a family instead of two. The amendments were unprecedented as Bangladesh Bank used to be the sole authority for restructuring CPR. The government had compromised for corporate interests but in the guise of enhancing the economy as the finance minister initiating the deviations had claimed.

The outcome of the compromises in favour of the corporations has not been, and won’t ever be, beneficial for the masses. It can be readily understood considering only three economic indicators:

First, the latest forecast by the Asian Development Bank ranks Bangladesh at the top among the South Asian countries. Bangladesh is set to achieve a growth of 8% in GDP in the current financial year.

Second, High Net Worth Handbook 2019 has predicted that Bangladesh will experience third quickest growth in the high net-worth individuals during the next five years at a compound annual rate of 11.4%.

Third, and contrarily, the recent Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) of Bangladesh 2016 identified that the Gini coefficient is 0.482 which significantly increased from 0.458 in 2010.

The increasing inequality parallel to the economic growth is worrying; indicating an economic trend far from being inclusive. Above and beyond, mass disasters like Rana Plaza in 2013 and the massacre at Phulbari in 2006 are epitomes of the human cost that corporatisation of the state entails. 

Central features of the scenarios described, as also seen in many other countries, are the seizure of state institutions by closely cooperating groups and exclusive control of resources that are vital to the people.

Many similar instances are found relating to stock market, commercial banks, mining and power plants, public and private industries, price fixing of rawhide and other essentials, provisions of whitening black money, etc. Transformation into a corporate state is intensified as majority (61.07%) of the current elected lawmakers are businessmen.

Steering of politics is gradually captured by the business corporations hence could largely influence policies of the country. Contrariwise, many politicians have gained shares in different companies and politics has become business for the politicians. The main concern for us are the effects of the growing independence of corporations from state control. We should take notice of the current predicaments as despite growth in many socio-economic indicators manifesting progress people have always been the victim and corporations are progressively assuming state like potencies but without the obligations of the state. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.