Bangladesh as Kornhauser’s “Mass Society” or a “Dictatorial Democracy”!

Bangladesh as Kornhauser’s “Mass Society” or a “Dictatorial Democracy”! by Taj Hashmi 29 June 2019

“Civilizations as yet have only been created and directed by a small intellectual aristocracy, never by crowds. Crowds are only powerful for destruction.”

— Gustave Le Bon

“Mass politics occurs when large numbers of people engage in political activity outside of the procedures and rules instituted by a society to govern political action. Mass politics in democratic society therefore is anti-democratic, since it contravenes the constitutional order…. Bureaucracy poses the strongest threat to social pluralism and liberal democracy.”

— William Kornhauser

Elaborate studies of mass societies are very relevant to the understanding of post-Liberation Bangladesh state and society, where masses join the main stream of politics, in fact, the only stream, because mass societies eventually lead to one-party totalitarianism. In essence, we can agree with Kornhauser that “mass politics in democratic society therefore is anti-democratic…. the extreme case of mass politics is the totalitarian movement.” He also believes that although “elite” is a pejorative in the discourse of democracy, elites nevertheless ensure the existence of pluralism, while the so-called mass politics lead to the bureaucratization of the polity to the detriment of the “plurality of group interests and organizations”. Eventually, “the nihilism of masses tends to be a greater threat to liberal democracy than the antagonism between classes”.[1] Mass society is not something that ever disappears completely in poor and backward countries. Even post-World War I Germany and Italy, which were substantially industrialised and developed, were not immune to the rise of mass society. Initially, the masses had access and influences on Hitler and Mussolini. However, the would-be-dictators’ clever manipulations overpowered the delusional masses who had earlier thought of them as their own people.

In the case of Bangladesh, masses made Mujib and called him “Mujib Bhai” (“Brother Mujib”) up to late February 1969. Even after they decided to call him “Bangabandhu” (“Friend of Bengal”), they had unlimited access to him, and were virtually leading Mujib to say and do things, which he was unwilling or reluctant to say or do up to 25th March 1971, until the Pakistani military crackdown. In March 1969, Bengali masses coined the slogan, Jai Bangla (Victory to Bengal), which later became the battle cry, and later Mujib had to raise this slogan frequently despite his earlier strong reservations about it. The masses designed a new flag of Bangladesh, and forced Mujib to raise it on 2nd March 1971, the day after Pakistani military ruler Yahya Khan declared to prorogue the National Assembly session for some time. Last but not least, despite Mujib’s strong reservations against even informally declaring the independence of Bangladesh as his ultimate motive, he had to mention this in his now famous 7th March (1971) speech at a public rally in Dhaka. So, it is evident from the events that led to the separation of East Pakistan from Pakistan, as independent Bangladesh, that masses went ahead of Sheikh Mujib and were virtually telling Islamabad what they wanted through Mujib, who was less of a leader and more of a spokesman of the Bengali masses in East Bengal. Once Mujib and his party were well-entrenched after the Liberation, it was altogether a different situation. The masses were fast losing their access to Mujib, and they lost it completely once he declared Bangladesh a one-party dictatorship on 25 January 1975. It is noteworthy that the sequence of events from the rise of a mass society from early 1969 to its hibernation (not demise) in January 1975 – including mass proclivity to anarchy, cruelty, defiance of law and authorities, and terrorism in Bangladesh – validates the classical definitions and theories about mass society. Peasants, and rural and urban poor have been the main components of mass society in Bangladesh. We need a broad understanding of mass and peasant culture to study the problem of underdevelopment in the country.

Bangladesh is a pre-modern, post-colonial country with a tremendous colonial hangover in the realm of its culture. British colonial rulers also established a neo-feudal relationship in Bengal through the Permanent Settlement, popularly known as the Zamindari System of 1793. Since British rule in agrarian East Bengal did not establish capitalist relationship, the bulk of the people here still cling to pre-capitalist “neo-feudal” values that nurture vertical relationship between the elites and the ordinary people. Thus, the society at large here is a mirror image of mass society. Since it is diametrically opposite to plural societies, it is uncongenial to liberal democracy, freedom, and egalitarian social order. Mass society emerges in postcolonial or post-revolutionary countries, is another name for massive exploitation of the masses in the name of freedom and revolution by the same freedom fighters and revolutionary leaders who once led them. The Soviet Union, China since Mao, North Korea, Cambodia, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Uganda, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe, and last but not least, Bangladesh are examples in this regard.

Postcolonial and post-Liberation leaders in what is Bangladesh today directly or indirectly created extravagant expectations among the ordinary people before and after the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh. While Pakistan promised a never-ending period of “eternal Eid”[2] or extreme joy and happiness to the East Bengali Muslim masses – around eighty per cent of the population during the Partition – to the overwhelming majority of people in East Pakistan, Bangladesh meant the real land of prosperity and happiness, their Sonar Bangla or Golden Bengal. Although Pakistan was not a by-product of any revolutionary war of independence, nevertheless, the wild promises by Muslim League leaders who championed the Partition created some sort of mass society in East Bengal, which is all about the creation of a society where its members remain delusional, happy, and identify themselves with their leaders as one of them, albeit for a short while only. This happens to all mass societies who evolve in the wake of liberation under leaders who not-long-after the liberation or revolution abruptly distance themselves from the masses. However, they never stop identifying themselves as the masses’ “own people” in love with them. Kim Il Sung, Mugabe, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Sheikh Mujib – among others –were leaders of failed revolutions. Leaders in mass societies demonise some people within and some entities outside the national boundary as the enemies of their country, their freedom, and prosperity.

Mass society runs oligarchies controlling “the conditions of life of the many” who have no say in running of the state machinery.[3] We find Encyclopaedia Britannica’s definition of mass society useful to understand the post-Liberation Bangladesh, where people are more or less “homogenized but also disaggregated, because it is composed of atomized individuals”.[4] Paradoxically, masses do not run mass societies; they are not integrated to the state, and remain peripheral. Nevertheless, most totalitarian uprisings, including the Bolshevik, Fascist, and Nazi takeovers in Europe were “mass uprisings” in name only. As communist/socialist revolutions have so far installed party and military elites to power, Nazism was mostly about protecting the big non-Jewish business in Germany, the Bangladesh Revolution was no exception in this regard. William Kornhauser aptly elucidates the nature of mass society, which is neither synonymous with working class nor is it by design a promoter of totalitarian states, but mass societies are somehow inherently incapable of promoting democracy, and thus “vulnerable to capture by totalitarian elites”. The atomized pre-modern society “invites the totalitarian movement [which appears to be democratic, libertarian, and pro-people], which provides both pseudo-authority in the form of the charismatic leaders and pseudo-community in the form of the totalitarian party.”[5] One may read Hitler and  the Nazi Party, Mao and the Communist Party, Qaddafi and his Green Book, Mugabe and the ZANU Party, or Mujib and the Awami League as the pseudo charismatic leaders and parties, respectively, for understanding as to how mass societies evolve out of false promises, false hope, and in the name of pseudo- democracy, pseudo-liberation, and pseudo-revolution.

In short, mass societies change and destroy old orders without creating any better alternatives. Interestingly, post-revolutionary/post-liberation elites remain divided on having mass societies. French aristocratic elites who abhorred the post-Revolutionary anarchy and the Reign of Terror welcomed Napoleon as the alternative for order.[6] In Bangladesh, we witnessed old elites – many of whom had soft corner for Pakistan even during the Liberation War – supporting the coup leaders who killed Mujib and toppled his one-party dictatorship in 1975. We also witnessed that the changes of guards in Bangladesh after 1975 did not restore democracy and equal opportunities either. Unless true democracy and libertarian philosophy of governance are well-entrenched, mass societies go on producing one monster after another. Ironically, without adhering to the philosophy or culture of democracy and justice, societies remain vulnerable to the mass society syndrome, which establishes the “sovereignty of the unqualified”. At the very beginning, mass opinion dominates the government, which symbolizes the “incompetence of the many”. The government loves to use popular but hollow rhetoric, promising democracy, freedom, socialism, and whatever the masses want to hear.[7] This is what we witnessed for few months following the ascendancy of Mujib as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, up to 1974. However, his switching over to one-party dictatorship in early 1975 did not resonate well with the masses. No wonder, they were in a state of euphoria at the killing of Mujib and the overthrow of the regime. Thus, following the August 1975 coup that overthrew Mujib, disorganized masses wanted to dictate terms to the government. And, we know “crowds are only powerful for destruction” and possibly, only “a small intellectual aristocracy” can protect civilizations, as Le Bon has suggested.[8]

It is very pertinent to understand the inherent contradictions in a mass society. Mass societies start functioning with “accessible elites”, whom they consider as their “own people”, but totalitarian societies require “inaccessible” elites and “available” non-elites. Although initially the unruly masses call the shots, dominate almost every sphere of society and government machinery, but eventually as the tables turn, “the threat posed by mass society is less how elites may be protected from the masses and more how non-elites may be shielded from domination by elites”. In mass societies, “there is high availability of a population for mobilization by elites [italics in original].[9] This is what exactly happened in Bangladesh during and in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Mujib regime. The faction-ridden fractured peasant community, which cannot live without non-peasant patrons, eventually surrendered to their patrons. And, the latter is running the show in the name of ideologies their clients hear to listen most. Then again, there are multiple ideologies and symbols of justice and order for the people, Mujib’s Bengali Nationalism, Zia’s Bangladeshi Nationalism, and various brands of Islam! So far, the masses have hovered between the first two ideologies – which are nothing but red herrings, absolutely hollow and meaningless – while the proponents of political Islam have remained divided, and some bear the stigma of collaborating with the Pakistan occupation army in 1971. In sum, the tragedy of all mass society is that both aristocratic and democratic elites dislike democracy, egalitarianism, and individual freedom; and they draw a synonymy between “popular democracy” and “popular dictatorship”. The upshot being mass societies’ “vulnerability to totalitarianism, rather than traditional forms of dictatorship”, as Kornhauser argues, democracy and the rule of law remain elusive. He also attributes the rise of mass societies to rapid rural to urban migration; sudden rise in poverty or prosperity among sections of the population, and growing unemployment. The overall socio-political and economic crises also draw large numbers of unemployed youths in the 18-40-yaer-old age group, unattached intellectuals, anarchists, fascists, and even religious extremists to millennial revolutionary movements or liberation wars. And, they all provide the building blocks of mass societies, while the middle class and middle-class values, and working-class people remain marginalized, isolated, and irrelevant.[10]

In view of the above, mass society and the inherent existential threat it poses to Bangladesh entails the following:

  1. Discarding elitism as a step toward democratization is one thing, and promoting the masses and their culture is something very different! Bangladesh cannot afford to see the continuation of the rule by “peasants in business suit”. Le Bon’s glorification of a small number of intellectual aristocrats as the creator and director of civilization, and his rejection of the crowds as powerful agents of destruction of civilization are very pertinent to this study. Bangladeshi policymakers must pay heed to what Le Bon thought of intellectual elites and the unruly crowds. They must understand civilization has always been urban, which is a refined upward-mobility of the people by discarding rural/peasant rusticity.
  • Bangladeshi policymakers need to address the problem of the well-entrenched mass society in the country. What Kornhauser has argued against the rise of mass society and politics is very relevant today: “Mass politics occurs when large numbers of people engage in political activity outside of the procedures and rules instituted by a society to govern political action. Mass politics in democratic society therefore is anti-democratic, since it contravenes the constitutional order.”[11]
  • However, the process is reversible with concerted efforts by a small number of selfless intellectual elites can weed out the roots of mass society and sow the seeds of liberal democracy in Bangladesh. People must be told that the ongoing mass politics in the country could lead to totalitarianism. Sheikh Hasina and her associates are already praising the virtue of one-party rule that her father introduced under the Bangladesh Peasants’ and Workers’ Party (BAKSAL) in 1975, which was a re-enactment of the Soviet-style one-party socialist dictatorship, where bureaucrats, generals, police, and even teachers, journalists, professionals, and intellectuals swell the ranks of the party.
  • In the backdrop of Bangladesh’s transformation into a one-party dictatorship since the first round of rigged/doctored parliamentary elections in December 2008 that installed Sheikh Hasina to power as the Prime Minister for the second time – the subsequent two rounds of elections in January 2014 and December 2018 were far more massively rigged and farcical than the ones held in 2008 – the country has also literally turned into a police state. While the police, which is absolutely corrupt, cruel, and unaccountable to the people, not only makes arbitrary arrests of political dissidents and outspoken critics of the Hasina regime (and in the process many victims get killed in trumped up “encounters” or “cross-fire” with law-enforcers, and many just “disappear” forever), it also publicly beat up people with the help of armed ruling-party goons in broad daylight, and enthusiastically helps the ruling Awami League party to rig the elections. Since 2014, the Deep Sate is so well-entrenched that one is not sure who calls the shot, Sheikh Hasina or the bureaucrat-police-military network! Bangladeshi policymakers must address the problem of bureaucratization of administration. Although Max Weber believes bureaucratization, not the class struggle, provides the central dynamic of the modern world, it is time to point out bureaucracy poses the “strongest threat to social pluralism and liberal democracy”.[12] Thanks to colonial hangover, very similar to most post-colonial societies in the Third World, Bangladeshis in general consider the public servants or bureaucrats as their overlords. And, in most cases, people’s elected representatives – local and national – being less educated (some being practically illiterate) than upper echelons of the bureaucracy allow the latter more power, and influence in running the administration.
  • While Bangladesh having a corrupt, unaccountable and powerful bureaucracy – seemingly more powerful than the ruling party, which is integral to mass society, a precursor to totalitarianism – the poor, backward, and overpopulated country has no easy way out of the grip of “mass politics”. Peasant culture is not only pre-modern – hence unamenable to liberal democracy, secularism, and the concept of human rights and dignity – it also promotes factionalism, patron-client-relationship, lack of mutual trust and respect that perpetuate elite hegemony, intolerance, and everything that could divide and fracture a country. In sum, the combination of mass and peasant cultures is a deadly combination. Policymakers and development practitioners in Bangladesh (and those abroad having interests in the development of the country) must pay heed to the dynamics of mass-peasant culture and their likely disastrous outcome for the country. The above hypotheses drawn mainly in the light of historical sociology and cultural anthropology of Bangladesh since the Battle of Plassey need a brief historical narrative to understand the what-went-wrong syndrome of the country.

[1] William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, pp.227-237

[2] Ahmed Kamal, “‘A Land of Eternal Eid’ – Independence, People and Politics in East Bengal”, Dhaka University Studies, Part A, Vol 46, No. 1, June 1989

[3] Denis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory (fifth edition), Sage, London 2005, p.449; William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, p.5

[4] https://www.britannica.com/topic/mass-society

[5] William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, p.16

[6] Ibid, pp 22-23

[7] Ibid, pp.26-27

[8] Gustave Le Bon, The Crowd, Ernest Bonn Ltd., London 1947, p.18

[9] William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society, The Free Press, Third Edition, New York 1963, pp.30-33,41

[10] Ibid, pp. 119-121; 145-165; 174-222

[11] Ibid, p. 227

[12] Ibid, p. 232

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