Shrinking space for freedom

by Monwarul Islam | Published: 01:27, Mar 26,2020 | Updated: 18:51, Mar 27,2020


WHEN the government acts against people, it becomes people’s duty, patriotic duty that is, to save democracy and the country from the government. The people, who are, keeping to the constitution, de facto owners of the state, must have their say and must find their way to hold the government responsible. But it hardly happens that people can enable themselves to save the country from the government even when the government goes miles away from representing people’s will and is unwilling to dispense its duties towards people. People, collectively and individually, become then duty-bound to push for their demands and to make the government discharge its duties for the benefits of all.

History, both ancient and contemporary, makes it clear that it has always been difficult for people to make the government listen to them, represent them and work for them. Such difficulty rises because every government, in whatever form, is always entrenched in and protected by state apparatuses that give them a sort of impunity with which it can do away with people’s rightful demands. With such entrenchment and impunity, the government and each part of it, everywhere, would behave in ways that gradually push people’s demands and rights to the margin and eventually ignore them. Be it democracies, republics, kingdoms, emirates or others, states and their governments manoeuvre ways, coercive or non-coercive, to not listen to people’s voices.

Corporate states — governed by rules of, and behave like, businesses — do that more shamelessly and blatantly. Corporate states might pose as democracies or republics to get a refined outer look, but they would always be in collusion with businesses and corporations and be dictated by the dictums of the capital.

Corporate states — most countries including Bangladesh are now in a headlong dash into being corporate — to maintain their sway over people and ignore their rights would design state structures in a way that represents and promotes corporate interest by either making or avoiding laws. A suppliant bureaucracy, enjoying generous perks and benefits, in a corporate state would work for corporate interest while the liberal class, known even a few decades ago to have worked as a safety valve between people and the government and to have pushed continuously for necessary reforms, though piecemeal, tries to fit shamelessly in with the corporate state structure.

The corporate state, which is by default loyal to businesses and their dictums, covertly or overtly, achieves an absolute hegemony when the liberal class — the university, the media, the arts, labour unions, religious institutions and other liberal organisations and parties — fails to act the way it is expected to and it traditionally did in the past. That is why corporate states always weaken and corner the liberal class either by allowing them a limited space and benefits so that it can live secluded and does not bother about the smooth run of the corporate state, or by frightening them, whenever needed, with whatever fears come handy.

In an effective democracy, the liberal class offers, writes Chris Hedges in his The Death of the Liberal Class, ‘hope for change and proposes steps towards greater equality. It endows the state and the mechanisms with virtue’. The liberal class, being what it is, at the same time also discredits radical social movements. This is why the class, a cornered and weakened version of it, is required and used as a tool by corporate states to present themselves as refined, sophisticated and even virtuous.

A corporate state allows and feeds a pet liberal class whose voice would be used, when and if necessary. In short, the class would be given some benefits and tolerated as long as its voice does not disturb the status quo of the corporate state, characterised by plutocracy and a slightly extended oligarchy. Any ‘disturbing voice’ from inside the liberal class is, however, not tolerated by the corporate state and such voice is drowned, left ignored, or stopped in one way or another.

When the corporate state is so designed and equipped that it has its mechanisms well in place to silence, or modify, the liberal class, the class itself, for being anaemic and capitualistic, prefers not to come out of its cushioned position. Even when some members of the class attempt to put a strong message to the state and the government, others keep away and safe attacking the ones who try to do what they, as a class, are supposed to do. In the context of Bangladesh and elsewhere, one does not need to make references to any one or two such incidents when the liberal class abandoned its own members, making them sort of pariah for being bold, people-friendly, or just.

The liberal class has now come to be a pliant pillar of the corporate state, shedding off its original cloak and character and distancing itself from the people at large and, thus, legitimising its power. A look into the class would reveal how it has reached a mutant growth serving the state even when the state is abnormally steeped in anti-people actions and decisions. It either helps to form discourses that support and fit comfortably in with the corporate state discourse or to remain busy with meaningless, ineffective, inane and arcane activities which can at best be termed boutique activism or scholarship.

To take universities as a case in point, they appear to have abandoned long ago training students how to think critically and question the ways of power when they go against people. Universities are mainly creating job applicants and would-be managers to serve corporate states. The corporate state, in turn and to its own benefits, allocates funds and allows the universities to produce would-be managers. It also allows the production of knowledge that does not criticise the power. As a result, mediocrity has taken hold of the academy. The academics, even the best of them, are mostly engaged in arcane research, published in a distanced and tortuous language, while the mediocre and the worst part of them are busy toeing the line of the power elite. Examples to establish the point in question in the academia of Bangladesh would certainly appear redundant.

The media too in many cases have become a major pillar supporting and catering to the demands of the corporate state. They often comfortably hide the misery, poverty and grievances of the majority which should have been their prime focus. The media, supposed and required to check the dangerous assimilation of corporate interest into and by state apparatuses, have in reality helped corporate interests to define and design the state in a way that enriches a small elite by letting them plunder the nation. A scope for true journalism committed to and biased towards people and not afraid of risking to be controversial has shockingly dwindled. Pet journalists, with their smiling faces at occasional dinner parties or short tours, sponsored by the corporate state oligarchy, are what largely constitute the media today. Voices of courage and dissent in the media are mostly either silenced or done away with. Examples here too would look redundant. Many in the media, or even in the know, know this.

Similarly meaningless have become the arts and arts institutions, the clergy and the religious institutions, the labour unions and other liberal organisations and parties or they have been so made. The liberal class falling into such a meaningless, weakened and cornered state entails a host of dangerous consequences. It means that the state, corporate state, gets an absolute upper hand to make all democratic institutions servile to its will and interest. The reality in Bangladesh, after 49 years of its independence, is not very dissimilar. A corporate state in the making, Bangladesh appears to have a small elite, composed of business-political-bureaucratic oligarchy, amalgamating wealth — one should not forget Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous statement that wealth (property) is theft — and making the theft look legal while the liberal class helps them or just stays timid and ineffectual.

Losing its fortitude and positive resilience for a seemingly sheltered enclaves with perks and benefits, the liberal class has lost its power to influence and has helped through its inaction and cowardice to transform the democratic system into a corporate system. Political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls such a political coming of age of corporate power ‘inverted totalitarianism’. Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin writes in Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, ‘is a politics largely untempered by the political. Party squabbles are occasionally on public display and there is a frantic and continuous politics among factions of the party, interest groups, competing corporate powers and rival media concern… What is absent is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organised, single-minded interests [corporate interests] rabidly seeking governmental favours and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.’

When the corridors of democratic institutions are taken over by corporate interest, influencing everything and every decision, representative governments begin representing the corporate interest sweeping their promises to the people under the carpet of rhetoric. Similarly, public administration begins assuming a new and dangerous character that is as distanced from people as it can be.

Corporate state, however, is never short of a lip service to pressing political, social and economic issues, but in reality it is governed by the corporate rule of unchecked capitalism, the money mantra. It was expected that the liberal class, being a strong voice of people’s aspirations, would continuously press the government to be more representative and the public administration to be more public, but the class has, to borrow Hedges’ words once again, ‘conceded too much to the power elite… succumbed to opportunism and finally to fear.’

What forced the liberal class into such a sorry and, eventually, ineffectual state is the failure of the class itself to resist corporate ideology and its failure to stick to and promote the tenets of liberalism. Once it has given in to corporate ideology, it has become a subscriber to the corporate mantra and has allowed the state to take a corporate character, leaving the people insecure. The liberal class seems to have comfortably accepted its decay and loss in character and fortitude. Taking benefits from the corporate state and cosying up to power, it now promotes corporate interest and speaks in an anaemic language that no longer corresponds to people’s reality. The liberals’ anaemic language, one should not confuse, is just a disguised presentation of the corporate rhetoric that hides the harsh reality of how the corporate state extracts money from people promising them better lives and then ignoring the promises with a criminal impunity. Being an extension of corporations, corporate state is never concerned about the common good although some of its works may look or sound so; it make money like corporations and feed a distanced and well-protected elite.

Bangladesh, stepping into its 50th year of independence, seems to have forgotten its birth-time promises of equality, social justice and human dignity and has followed in footsteps of a corporate state, whose advance means a rapidly growing, desperate and permanent underclass. We must not forget that democracy ceases to be when corporate and private powers get an upper hand. It is upsetting to see that the government has become increasingly unresponsive to popular needs and has begun playing to the tunes of corporate capitalism. A titular, dumbed-down, ineffectual, reduced-to-unmeaning-election democracy is what we now have which cannot stop the republic from turning into an aggressive corporate state.

Signs of a failing democracy — shrinking space for freedom, a declining involvement of ordinary people in politics and political processes, timid and turned-off liberal class, unresponsive democratic institutions, the normalisation of a political culture based on lying, misrepresentation and deception — are growingly characterising Bangladesh, whose modus operandi has already become anti-democratic and, therefore, anti-people. When a functioning democracy frames its policies and directs its resources to better people’s lives, a failed democracy behaves as if all it can do is incentivise businesses pinning people’s hopes on the gravely misleading rhetoric of growth and development.

In such a state of things, recovering democracy is certainly a task that runs counter to the dominant, corporate political dynamics. But it is people’s patriotic duty to save democracy and the country.


Monwarul Islam is an editorial assistant at New Age.

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