The Financial Express

Socialism can still work

Socialism can still work

Fifty years on from independence the furrows on the head are still evident among day labourers. Better paid as they are and having given up on agriculture to seek the elusive better life, their anguish continues. The silent abandonment of socialism, even in truncated form, has taken its toll. Macro figures look good but the divide in wealth has widened rather than narrowed. Socialism was a much sought after concept in the 70s. It sounded good and resonated with the masses. The pro-Moscow or pro-Chinese advocates struggled to depart from the basic concepts even as Russia and China created a new definition that can best be described as capitalistic communism. Bangladesh was a state ripped apart by inequality and required a shake-up. Communism and socialism vied with democracy, the world was a divide between the two and the former was a popular theme. The darker side, that of repression of dissent was brushed under the carpet. Bangladesh's choice of socialism was propagated and supported by politicians and economists, some firm to the 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 came up against a brick wall. Socialism was in conflict with one particular aspect of democracy, that of personal wealth and capital ownership. The reality of generating wealth and distribution equity was envisioned but effectively sabotaged by those seeking personal wealth. Badly managed nationalisation led to corruption with creaky oversight. Thereafter, there was an effective surrender.

Globalisation, free-market economy and capitalism became the main sources of investment and export earnings. The village level cooperative system was ignored and with it the rights of farmers to fair prices. Socialism began to be eroded, so much so that it ate into the economies of states that espoused it. There were exceptions, notably United Kingdom that was purely capitalistic and yet embraced being a social welfare state. In effect this allowed them to utilise the positive sides of the ism and blend it with democracy. The political sagacity has never been as aptly reflected as in the handling of the pandemic through the National Health Service (NHS). There is also the benefit to farmers that are encouraged not to cultivate crops on all farmland available to balance prices to consumers. The luring factor that also works for farmers in the United States is subsidies.

Less well-off nations such as Bangladesh have to provide subsidies post-cropping that come by way of procuring crops at minimum prices. Pre-cropping it comes in the form of subsidised prices of fertiliser and other inputs. The tragedy of this has been mismanagement whereby farmers don't find the minimum prices offered viable. Consumers are affected by high prices spurred by the syndicates of middle-men and millers that hoard crops that can be held on to. Perishable crops regrettably rot and the government has no alternative but to import grains. Added to that list has been products such as sugar, edible oil, onions and ginger. The last three at far more expensive prices than the more traditional import sources. The other tragedy is that imported onions are cheaper than locally produced ones. This puts extra pressure on the import bill while forcing reduction in import taxes.

Social safety nets, one of the most credible policies of the government requires greater investment and microscopic oversight to ensure they net those that deserve it. The population that have been pushed into the poverty ranks of late have to be identified and supported as well.

The government isn't in a position to provide enough financial support to all families in dire need indefinitely. A beginning has been made. More can be done if unspent Annual Development Programme funds can be diverted. Social welfare funds can also benefit if wastage, misuse and corruption can be reined in. The media is doing its bit by highlighting the areas where such misdemeanours are taking place. Government agencies can follow up such leads to snuff out such practices. What is required is the will and manning of such agencies with proven resources. Happily, they are still available. They wait for the opportunity and empowerment. This combined with specially constituted courts can provide rapid action including extending punishment to seizing of assets wherever applicable. The concept of fair-priced shops has waned rather than wax. There have been renewed calls for rationing system for day labourers and garments workers though the spread should be wider.

China has shown the way to combine capitalism with socialism. So much so that it requires axis after axis to try and prevent them from becoming world leaders. In strategic planning they have been a marvel to watch. With a huge chunk of European debt, healthy process of putting more in debt and challenging the world with their products, China has forced a relook of the western world to focus more on countering the country's influence. Xi Jin Peng has consolidated his position so firmly that his future oriented policies are now inward influenced as well. Aware of sanctions coming its way, he has crafted long-term goals to further reduce China's dependence on Western products. Economic policies that have a strong geo-political thrust to them makes it a formidable force to deal with.

It's this inward focus that Bangladesh has been lacking in and that, without tinkering, may well come back to bite us. Garments exports have been encouraging. But for how long? Diversification through smaller industries can help provided the will is there.


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