Juggling between two forces - \'wall\' versus \'web\' instincts

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Thursday, 29 September 2016

Three-times Pulitzer-winner Thomas L. Friedman (of The World is Flat, Lexus and the Olive Tree, and Longitudes and Attitudes fame) interprets the U.S. electoral divide as pitting the "wall people" against the "web people." As one might deduce, the former resists "winds of change that are now buffeting every family" (at least in his own country, the United States), whereas the latter wants to embrace "the accelerations in technology, globalisation and climate change, which are the forces transforming the workplace, geopolitics and the very planet." Clearly Donald J. Trump is leading the "wall" force and Hillary R. Clinton the "web" across the United States, but if we take elections out of the equation, does a country like Bangladesh have corresponding drives and a similarly stubbornly contrasting divide?
In a way, every country is juggling between these two forces, the 21st Century labels of very ancient human instincts, at once zero-sum and non-zero-sum. Intellectual pioneers of the 18th and 19th centuries dubbed those forces "protectionists" and "free-traders," respectively, but rechristened them "isolationists" and "liberalists" as the growth of sovereign countries altered the playground. For the United States we note the additional peculiarity of "wall people" remaining defiantly loyal to their label, that is, closeting themselves obtrusively from outside people, trade, investment, and full-fledged Internet accesses, than the "web people" wanting to open up on all sectors. Clinton's electoral positions, for instance, cordons off select arenas, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from fully free trade, but although Trump's unalloyed non-trade positions on certain issues have been slightly watered-down, for instance, the total Muslim-ban being reduced to "radicalised Muslims," commercially he seems to be as trenchant as ever.
Other countries also find themselves somewhere in the middle of these two forces: Great Britain's EU (European Union) vote conveys a "wall" preference, but the difficulties before Brexit suggests the "web" force is fairly strong. Against jihadist threats, almost all of West Europe finds countries nervously hugging the middle, as too a coup-catalysed Turkey, a recession-hit Japan trying to implement Abenomics, a veiled-Saudi Arabia given Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef's Vision 2030 reforms, an India fighting off RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) fundamentalism amid breathtaking Modi market reforms, an export-booming Australia against immigration constraints, and Brazil's economic retrenchment against all the BRIC-based hoopla beforehand (BRIC: Brazil-Russia-China-India, four emerging countries once believed to be knocking on the doors of becoming developed countries).
Such is Bangladesh's plight. We have yearned for our RMG (ready-made garment) success to spread to other sectors just as our emigrants have made so many border "walls" porous, such as through the remittances inflow using multiple channels (not to ignore the large amounts immigrants inside Bangladesh, including about 1.2 million illegal Indians, themselves remit abroad), the merchandise they manage to bring in (amplified no less in a booming border-smuggling industry), and the ideas they come back with (if from the Middle East, either the vision that the sky is the materialistic limit, judging by the luggage they haul back; or the battle-plan of a fundamentalist future, thus ramping up religiously-driven "walls"). We note the ambivalence in our own policies: the vision to take ICT (information and communications technologies) benefits to every homestead along the urban-rural divide, strategies to boost RMG export-income beyond $50 billion by our 50th anniversary, and the impetus to expand schooling, especially by breaking the gender "wall" and embracing more women in the literacy campaigns; yet, at the same time, we continue to shy from free trade agreements when there is a world to gain over the long haul to compensate for short-term hiccups and destabilised hormones, just as our investors have held on to their funds for far too long even as interest rates plummet faster than at any time in our recorded history.
By all reckonings, though, we are not doing too badly, especially when compared to all the countries just mentioned: unlike the yesteryear star, Brazil, our economy has been vibrant for a lot longer than Brazil's; India might have the "hottest" economy globally, but we are not only keeping pace with the growth rate, but also chipping in significantly to our neighbour's growth through facilitative agreements and arrangements; unlike Saudi Arabia, our key export-prices have held and buttressed, not the reform-initiation Saudi Arabia is undergoing, but reform-expansion on multiple fronts (such as infrastructural projects); we have a younger and equally dynamic population than Japan to immediately worry about future growth; unlike unfortunate Turkey, we do not have a war next-door dragging our growth downwards; our economic springboard promises more than the European Union's can presently; likewise for Britain: we share the jihadi Damoclean sword, but not any Brexit-type counterpart; and, finally, our own wall-web clash is miniscule compared to the U.S. counterpart.
Accounting of this type is not at all to put Bangladesh on a pedestal, especially comparatively: there are so many institutions those countries have polished that we have only just begun to construct (minimum wage, labour rights, pension benefits, health insurance, and so forth), not to mention instincts that have already been tested under adversities (against, for instance, a recession/depression, corruption, abiding by the law, for instance, in driving and obeying traffic regulations, et al), that we have not even placed on our Petri dish. The purpose is to simply remind ourselves, as on so many previous occasions, of which direction to head at our current crossroads: any "wall" holds the future as hostage, but for us right now, that future is so critical, since we have many more youngsters passionately yearning to reach out for the apples their parents did not quite reach in their own lifetimes, that spinning its materialisation must start immediately. Unhindered accesses to that future will alone deliver us from our ghosts, constraints, and misgivings. Fortunately for us, since our past has anchored us in many such hair-splitting pursuits, whether on the 1971 battlefields, in opening external markets when our golden fibre (jute) failed in the 1980s, or in returning to civil society through democratic elections in the 1990s, our future is not in a zero-sum trade-off with the past. In that an intelligently constructed pathway must be forged for us, we share an imperative with the rest of the world: future battles may be less among ourselves as between those who heed that message and those who do not.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
[email protected]