ON JULY 29, a common Bangladesh occurrence — speeding buses jockeying for position — led to another everyday event: road deaths. The careening bus that killed two pedestrians set off over a week of student protests. The students’ righteous anger in taking to the streets and demanding more just structures and practices was a sweet, cool breeze of glimmering hope blowing across the swelteringly fetid political and moral landscape. Yet, the slate of recriminations, demands, and accompanying analysis were shallow and largely misguided in their particulars. An opinion piece less than two weeks ago in a national English daily newspaper was prescient in its distortions, mistaking cogs in the machine and symptoms of the disease for the heart of the problem as it lay road dangers at the corrupt feet of extortionist workers, worker federation leaders, and the police.
But ‘corruption’ is at once careless and politically loaded. As the boogeyman of terrorism has only been applied to violence of certain people — those deemed enemies by western states — corruption is applied only to extra-systemic rents, not to systemic, legalised perversions that like a mad centrifuge spin the toil of populations into the dew of wealth and power dripping from the fingers of the power and capital class. So deeply embedded are the ‘rights’ of capital and property to extract rent that questions of their legitimacy haven’t been broached in the aftermath of the deaths and protests. A system that pays bus drivers per passenger incentivises reckless driving. To address this on paper, the law has been changed, putting drivers on regular salaries. But so flouted are Bangladesh’s laws that were they to be followed, Bangladesh would be transformed into some heretofore unrecognisable form. In a state where the true laws are repression and unfettered accumulation, even well intentioned laws go the way of the depraved, so hope in the announced new laws should remain dismissed unless buses and bus companies actually behave differently.
The Asian Floor Wage Alliance places Bangladesh’s living wage at Tk 37,661 a month — a ludicrously out-of-reach sum for the working class. Issues of corruption and salary are complicated, clear demarcations elusive, and drawing lines a fool’s errand. This is a country where so many are paid poverty wages and lack liveable pensions, that what are commonly called extortion, could well be understood as means to those fair wages and pensions. And though recriminations ring truer against the higher ups in the worker federations, portrayals of organised labour and its leaders are fraught. After the Ashulia strikes in December 2016, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association beat the drum of strike illegality; the commerce minister attributed the strikes to a ‘conspiracy of invisible forces’ and cast aspersions at union leaders collecting dues; and the home minister claimed the strikes sprung from a conspiracy against the garment industry. Bald-faced denials that the strikes were rooted in some wages still not meeting even the paltry minimum of 5,300tk/month set by the government three years ago and in overall stagnant wages in the face of 100 per cent price increase of goods and 50 per cent increase in house rent.
All the while, playing in the background for longer than most of us have been alive, the seeping white noise of the US mass media’s marriage of unions to corruption. Throwaway lines and subplots place the hands of crime bosses in union pockets a la Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone. The emblazoned name of Jimmy Hoffa — a one man symphony of ‘union,’ ‘corruption,’ and ‘cement shoes,’ — still the face of unions, over 40 years since he was last seen. Characterisations and tropes which feel as local as shaplas, mangoes, and jackfruit given the global reach of American cultural phenomena. And so the punchlines, the head shaking, the vilifications pile on, delegitimising unions in the public mind, aided by decades of donor funded neoliberal policy prescriptions pushing their own anti-union drivel. But against the opposite side, blind eyes are turned to the body and soul crushing and murderous ramifications of handing further power and control to the capital class. So no surprise should come that the Road Transport Bill approved in August to assuage the students set its sights on drivers, not on the bus company owners who control the game.
The sure result of the uproar over the student deaths will be an exponential more of the same — arbitrary pullovers that line police pockets. The police may be drawn from the working class, but they are far better understood as class traitors, the frontline muscle of power, property, and rentiers in the class war and repression waged under the cloak of law and order. Some police behaviour can be fairly understood as wresting fair wages for themselves; for, despite increased government salaries, inflation continues to outstrip the increases. But modest raises in salaries and pensions have little to no meaning here. For in a land so absent a conception of a commons, where rage permeates every turn, where ‘no amount is enough’ unfettered accumulation reigns, the police and the capitalists step hand in hand as expert practitioners of the lived laws.
The student demonstrations have, for now, ended. It is not clear if the demonstrations will lead to substantive political organising. The ruling party seems to have turned to the familiar police state bag of tricks, unleashing its unofficial street soldiers on the student demonstrators, a continuation of the government’s harassment, disappearances, police raids and crackdowns on labour, queer, indigenous, and environmental activists and organisers. Shahidul Alam remains in jail for speaking. The August 5 assaulters of journalists remain at large. The repression has effectively, to this point, quashed the better angels of politics — opposition to the colossal and intractable accumulation of power and wealth of the few and the struggle for rights both of the many and of minorities — leaving little but pageantry cheered by a chorus hired for a pittance and sucked into the jeering maw of the beast.
George Smith is a writer and editor. Parsa Sanjana Sajid is a writer, editor and researcher.
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