We have accepted unequal power relations as the natural human condition
In the recent past, we experienced several mass protests demanding socio-political reforms. Issues that sparked these protests were diverse in nature, but we can discern a common tendency.
The protesters demanded “new laws” to be formulated by the government -- restructuring the quotas in government jobs, eliminating imposed VAT on tuition fees, enacting new traffic laws, etc. Recently, politics on the Buet campus was banned following student protests after the tragic killing of a student by fellow students who were allies of the ruling political party.
In hindsight, these demands that supposedly aimed for an enhanced “humane condition” contrarily curved our “human potentials” of cooperation and agency, imposing more regulatory procedures and governance that might lead to authoritarianism.
If examined critically, it appears that we want more laws governing us rather than eliminating restrictive laws that would free us from possible coercion. Recently, fines for violation of traffic rules were hiked and many people believe it will make drivers follow traffic rules diligently. Conversely, it is also predicted by some sceptics that it will only increase the bribery to avoid fines and legal action.
From our fascination with creating new rules and laws, it can be assumed that we want regulations to be imposed upon us. When we are certain that rules will be enforced by an authority, we try to behave “humane.” The essence of these issues hints at our failure to change the authoritarian socio-political system to create a better democracy, enabling a more equal and just society. Regrettably, we do not consider being anarchists and maintaining our everyday affairs spontaneously.
Many people relate anarchism with violence, disorder, and destruction. Anarchists are perceived as people who are against any form of order and structured organization. But from a philosophical point of view, as David Graeber argues, anarchists are people who think that human beings are capable of reasoning and are able to perform the “art of living” without being subjected to any coercive force.
Even from the Rousseauian perspective from the book Discourse on Inequality, anarchism would be a very simple proposition which stands as opposed to the formal social structures or institutions designed for governance. As formal governing structures engender all sorts of prevailing socio-political inequalities, the economic, and political elites always find the idea of anarchism extremely dangerous.
Perplexingly, what we aim to achieve through mass protests is more governance. We want to be governed and prefer not to become anarchists. If asked why, the answer could be found through an analysis of our cultural ideals. We, as a group of people, have developed an “authoritarian cultural orientation” in our approach towards life. We are more inclined to venerate “authorities,” which in turn have created power-distance between the governors and the governed.
Public servants, ie people who work for the state, are placed at the peak of the hierarchical power structure, and the public is placed at the bottom. The outcome of this cultural orientation is readily visible in everyday practices at all public service offices where officials are referred to as “sir” -- someone with the power to grant “favour” to the public.
Whereas, what public servants do ordinarily should be considered job responsibilities. It is not striking to us, as we have accepted such unequal power relations as the natural human condition.
Acceptance of hierarchical authority is one of the most important social values in Bangladesh. The hierarchical culture implies unquestioning obedience of people towards authorities, such as the government or state officials, political leaders, teachers, elders -- that is, anyone with a higher social rank in Bangali culture. Everyone is likely to accept their judgement and not question their actions.
As a result, whenever we suffer from corrupt practices or disorder, we seek more state rules to be imposed on us that contrarily handicap us from applying our humane nature of co-operation.
Because of the authoritarian cultural orientation in Bangladesh, Hasan M Baniamin, Istiaq Jamil, and Steiner Askvik in a 2019 article argued, trust in public institutions is very high, despite widespread and repeated disclosure of inefficiency, corruption, and practices of discrimination by the public servants.
Institutional performances impart little effect on how people evaluate public offices. We must be aware of the “inflated institutional trust” in any administrative and political regime as this might advance a political culture of negligence, corruption, and nepotism. Few such cases of venality were unearthed recently with the government’s drive against corruption.
Despite economic development and reduced land-based elitism in rural areas, a new form of elitism, that of public office bearers, has taken over the country. Thus, notwithstanding administrative reforms, the idea of “hierarchy” is still a stronghold feature of our public service system. The resultant of this phenomenon is less pressure for accountability on the ruling elites. Even though we recently witnessed many mass protests demanding administrative reforms for social change, the outcome has always increased administrative power, creating opportunities for authoritarianism and corruption, and eventually poor governance.
What we need in order to change socio-political authoritarianism is to become anarchists, guided by the principles of “common good” that we all will follow without being told by any authority, as concentrated power will always corrupt.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.