Socialism can still work







Fifty years after independence, the furrows on the head are still visible among day laborers. Better paid than they are and having given up farming to seek an elusive better life, their angst continues. The silent abandonment of socialism, even in a truncated form, has taken its toll. Macroeconomic numbers look good, but the wealth gap has widened rather than narrowed. Socialism was a much sought after concept in the 1970s. It sounded good and resonated with the masses. Pro-Moscow or pro-Chinese supporters have struggled to stray from basic concepts even as Russia and China have created a new definition that can be described as capitalist communism. Bangladesh was a state torn by inequality and in need of a reshuffle. Communism and socialism rivaled democracy, the world was a rift between the two and the former was a popular theme. The darker side, that of the repression of dissent, has been swept under the carpet. Bangladesh’s choice of socialism has been propagated and supported by politicians and economists, some steadfast in ideals, others eager to adapt theories.

Tajuddin Ahmed was one of them, personally living a life true to the concept. Economists scratched their heads but hit a brick wall. Socialism was in conflict with a particular aspect of democracy, that of personal wealth and the ownership of capital. The reality of wealth generation and distribution fairness has been envisioned but effectively sabotaged by those seeking personal wealth. Poorly managed nationalization has led to corruption with creaky oversight. Subsequently, there was an effective surrender.

Globalization, the market economy and capitalism have become the main sources of investment and export earnings. The village-level cooperative system has been ignored and with it farmers’ rights at fair prices. Socialism began to erode to such an extent that it devoured the economies of the states that married it. There were exceptions, notably the UK which was purely capitalist and yet embraced as a social welfare state. Indeed, it allowed them to use the positive sides ofism and mix it with democracy. Political sagacity has never been reflected so well as in the handling of the pandemic through the National Health Service (NHS). There is also the benefit for farmers who are encouraged not to cultivate on all available farmland to balance prices to consumers. The pull factor that also works for farmers in the United States is subsidies.

Less well-off countries like Bangladesh must provide post-harvest subsidies that result in the purchase of crops at minimum prices. Pre-cultivation comes in the form of subsidized prices of fertilizers and other inputs. The tragedy has been mismanagement, with farmers not finding the minimum prices offered viable. Consumers are affected by the high prices stimulated by the middleman’s and miller’s unions who amass crops that can be saved. Unfortunately, perishable crops are rotting and the government has no choice but to import grain. To this list are added products such as sugar, edible oil, onions and ginger. The last three at much higher prices than more traditional import sources. The other tragedy is that imported onions are cheaper than those produced locally. This puts additional pressure on the import bill while forcing the reduction of import taxes.

Social safety nets, one of the government’s most credible policies, require greater investment and microscopic surveillance to ensure they serve to protect those who deserve them. The population that has been pushed into the ranks of poverty in recent times must also be identified and supported.

The government is unable to provide sufficient financial support indefinitely to all families in need. A start has been made. More can be done if unspent Annual Development Program funds can be misappropriated. Social protection funds can also benefit if waste, abuse and corruption can be brought under control. The media are doing their part by highlighting the areas in which such crimes are taking place. Government agencies can follow these leads to stifle such practices. What is needed is the will and the numbers of such agencies with proven resources. Fortunately, they are still available. They are waiting for opportunity and empowerment. This, combined with specially constituted courts, can provide swift action, including extending the sentence to seizure of property, where appropriate. The concept of fair price stores has declined rather than wax. There have been new calls for a rationing system for day laborers and garment workers, although the spread is expected to be wider.

China has shown the way to combine capitalism with socialism. So much so that we need axis after axis to try to prevent them from becoming world leaders. In strategic planning, they have been a wonder to watch. With a huge chunk of European debt, a healthy process for getting into more debt and challenging the world with its products, China has forced an overhaul of the Western world to focus more on tackling the country’s influence. Xi Jin Peng has consolidated his position so firmly that his forward-looking policies are now also influenced inward. Aware of the upcoming sanctions, he set long-term goals to further reduce China’s dependence on Western products. Economic policies that have a strong geopolitical orientation make them a formidable force to manage.

It is this introspection which was lacking in Bangladesh and which, without tinkering, could well come back to bite us. Clothing exports were encouraging. But for how long ? Diversification into smaller industries can help provided the will is there.

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