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Dhaka Tribune

THINKING ALOUD

What is success?

When we glorify economic development, we also justify the unreasonable destruction of not only resources, but the collective good

Update : 18 Apr 2022, 10:53 AM

Recently, the LGRD minister argued that the worsening traffic on the roads of Dhaka was representative of the country’s economic development. The minister’s reasoning pointed out that since the incumbent government came to power in 2009, the country has thrived. As a result, privately owned vehicles increased by manifolds. And if the current government stays in power for another five years, we will start seeing queues of cars even in upazilas.

Facing criticism for the government’s failure in reducing traffic congestion, the minister later explained that he did not mean to justify the situation but pointed out a fact: Due to economic growth, traffic is expected to increase. He also claimed that the government never avoids its responsibility.

The minister also used some references and argued that everyone is migrating to Dhaka as they are becoming economically solvent. And this trend was seen in cities like London, Tokyo, and Kolkata. So, we need not worry about the traffic condition in the city as the government has taken initiatives in building new infrastructures to ease traffic on the capital’s roads. 

Nonetheless, the statement and its reasoning have dark sides: Traffic congestion is considered an indicator of economic development. This perspective normalizes traffic jams and its socio-economic cost as the by-product of a growing economy. This is not surprising, as previously, some ministers claimed that the inflation and price-hike of essentials result from increased per capita income. 

The invasion of our psyche

More importantly, these comments are parts of an ideological framework that invade our psyche about what we consider as development, progress, or success. 

We must be aware that economic growth leads to urbanization and industrialization. But there are also some perils, such as reduced agricultural lands, natural water bodies, and increased vehicles. Hence, environmental pollution is also inevitable. Therefore, when we glorify economic development, we also justify the unreasonable destruction of resources. As economic growth is equated with development, governments worldwide try to address social and environmental issues with improved technology. We turn to technology to enable economic growth, reduce inequality, and simultaneously halt environmental degradation. 

However, the existing economic growth model cannot reduce inequality; wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of the few. Furthermore, climate change is threatening the existence of planet Earth. Unfortunately, governments do not pursue alternatives to a growth-oriented development model, and then try to justify their cause through rhetoric and propaganda. 

Thereby, we experience the invasion of our psyche on many fronts.

It will be partial if we only consider policymakers’ reactions and the propaganda centring development projects; instead, if we investigate how our everyday lives are structured -- the overall informational eco-system we live in -- the invasion of our psyche becomes apparent. For example, the picture of a successful life that we all imagine involves owning a house and a car, having a stable job and income, and living a lifestyle that society deems successful. 


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These ideas are coherent with the growth-oriented development model. However, from where has this image of a successful life come from?

We are the victims of ideological apparatuses of the state that function with the logic of economic growth, ie, capitalism. French Philosopher Louis Althusser has claimed that the idea of the state could only operate if it could establish an ideology that supports its existence and roles. So, in the modern capitalist states, dominant ideologies legitimize the operation of capital and sustain the class division.

The ideal life

If we think, we will realize that we are bombarded with a particular form of life as ideal -- by policymakers, movies, advertisements, novels, etc -- everything that portrays human life. For example, the apparent radical film Three Idiots, which critiqued the conventional education system that pushes everyone towards societal aspirations, ironically fell into the same tunnel. At the end of the movie, the film’s protagonist, who did not just memorize like others to get higher grades in exams but learned for pleasure, became a world-famous scientist with many patents attached to his name.

Thus, he was successful with the same achievements that others were also searching for. Nevertheless, he had reached that goal -- a successful career -- taking a different path. Similarly, we all seek success, to enjoy a life that we have come to accept as “successful.” Hence, we are becoming indebted, overworked, stressed, and afraid to leave the race to success and seek our common good.

This promotion of the specific idea of a successful life has widespread implications. It keeps the pervasive capitalist system, and its class divides, valid and intact. To succeed in life, we learn to obey, work hard, and be thankful. We believe our roles in society are best served if we do our part and not disrupt the existing system. 

Hence, we become workers who continue to toil; we become agents of exploitation -- who continue to operate the means of exploitation, and eventually become agents of repression. We become professional ideologists -- who idealize the existing systems.

Seeking success, we become competitors rather than being cooperative. We always go after the next milestone. This competitive mindset is conducive to the capitalist system as it helps the system grow exponentially. In our effort to outperform others, we become pawns of the system that thrives on the exploitation of the masses and the destruction of nature.

We must stop normalizing our hunger for more wealth. We must stop believing in the myth of achieving success or equality via material growth. We must deter from our destructive approach towards nature in the name of development. 

If we could let go of such attitudes, our society would have been based on cooperative human exchanges -- making the planet a calm and peaceful place to live in.

It is not that we are doomed; humans could overturn the system, but to critique our existing system, we must first, to quote Slavoj Zizek, “take off our glasses” and question the concepts and ideologies that govern our thought process.

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

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