The Elites, the Masses, and Their Donors
Relations of Domination
It helps to think of the political economy of development in Bangladesh as resting on the maintenance of a specific form of social contract: that political authority and legitimacy are earned and reproduced, minimally, by protecting the masses against crises of subsistence and barest survival, and lost or weakened with the failure, or appearance of weak will, to do so. The anthropologist Jahangir summarizes the political quid pro quo crisply: '[i]n the rural areas of Bangladesh the perception of a good government depends on: whether a government is able/unable to feed its people in times of crisis' (Jahangir 1995, 93). Governments may do many other things, and they may fail to do many other important things, but at the moment of crisis, subsistence and survival are to be safeguarded at all cost. The Bhola cyclone politicized the need for such protection for a people and a place so thoroughly exposed to global economic volatility and highly destructive environmental events. The subsistence crisis contract was arguably part of the rationale for sovereignty, but the political settlement (or balance of power between elites) needed to meet its terms was not achieved in the immediate aftermath of independence; instead, it emerged out of a painful process of learning. The loss of political legitimacy at a time of (and as a result of) acute subsistence crisis confirmed that the ruling elite—any ruling elite, regardless of who they were and where from—needed the commitment and the capacity to provide that protection if it was to assure the legitimacy and authority it needed to rule.
It is true that the idea of a social contract has been applied to so wide a range of empirical, theoretical, and normative concerns as to be capable of meaning almost anything to almost anyone (Boucher and Kelly 1994). But it is a helpful device, both in the 'thick' sense of helping to describe the empirical facts and in the thinner, as a narrative device for theorizing the story of Bangladesh's development (Pateman and Mills 2007). Certainly the struggle for sovereign rule in Bangladesh (as in other post-colonial states) resembles the emergence of a social contract in Rousseau's sense as the 'institution of civil or political society in a social compact... designed to secure pre-existing moral rights and duties' (Boucher and Kelly 1994, 4). In the case of the state that emerged to govern the Bengal Delta, there was a Lockean sense of protecting society against the 'inconveniences of nature' (Boucher and Kelly 1994, 6). This primeval language fits with the idea that the wild destructiveness of the Bhola cyclone triggered the independence struggle by mandating sovereignty for the people so affected.
Social contract thinking also makes sense of the relationships underpinning development as a 'relationship between the ruler and the ruled that is... contractual, explicitly or implicitly, and which specifies or implies the respective rights and duties of the contractees' (Boucher and Kelly 1994, 10). As we will see, both elites and masses see their relationship in terms of rights and duties, and of a somewhat vague notion of its enforceability through the threat of non-support. 'Constitutional contractarianism' of the kind at work here draws attention to the costs of broken contracts, namely the loss of political legitimacy for rulers and of protected rights for the ruled. In relation to the politics of development at least, a social contract has come to be thought of as 'a good thing', implying
more legitimate, peaceful and consensual forms of political authority [and] stronger commitment to social justice that can help relocate public policy within the
realm of rights rather than patronage. (Hickey 2011, 427)
In other words, in development thinking, the social contract has appeared as a liberal ideal, loosely inspired by Rawlsian conceptions of justice (Hickey 2011; Pateman and Mills 2007). But the idea of a social contract need not suggest freely consenting people participating in a development project of their choosing (in the case here). The survivors of Bhola or the Pakistani army crackdown of 1971 may have been enthusiastic nationalists, but they could not consent to being ruled in the sense of free choice on a footing of equal power. Their 'consent' must be treated as constrained by their personal physical, economic, and political vulnerability, as the assent of people with the most limited of alternatives. Nevertheless, they had much to gain from an agreement to be protected against crises of survival and subsistence in return for either their enthusiastic democratic support or their passive acceptance of elite rule. And so an agreement could be reached between grossly unequal parties who stood to gain, or not to lose, from the agreement. We can read this through signs within popular political culture that even the relatively powerless can make it costly to break the agreement, if only through the passive acts of non-compliance that make it difficult to govern—the classic 'weapons of the weak' (Scott 1987).
That the weak have some weapons in a political society so thoroughly dependent on popular legitimacy is not the only reason to retain the idea of the social contract. Mills' idea of the 'domination contract' is helpful in explaining how the elite and the masses come to be in a relationship that works, despite its inequities, to deliver adequate legitimacy for rule for one side and enough protection to survive and to advance for the other (Pateman and Mills 2007). The domination contract also characterizes the relationship between the ruling elite and the aid donors on whom they came to depend in the early post-war years. Again, the notion of consent is one of form for a ruling class facing the destruction of its developmental ambitions at the first hurdle, within a couple of years of assuming office. Agreement to take what turned out to be the first steps towards liberalizing economic reform was forged, or forced, upon a governing elite that had lost its legitimacy early on, and was soon to learn the violent costs of that loss. But what to the political elite of a developing nation was an (unfamiliar) experience of domination may to aid donors have been the rightful authority to influence policy in a client country in the interests of its population. In a discussion of the application of social contract theory to the political economy of development it is relevant to note that in his discussion of how to extend the principles of liberal justice to the 'society of peoples', the great liberal theorist Rawls identifies policy influence, not distributive justice, as the means under conditions that are likely to include 'oppressive government, corrupt elites and the subjection of women abetted by unreasonable religion... with overpopulation' (Rawls 1993, 64). The ultimate goal is that 'each society now burdened by unfavorable conditions is to be raised to, or assisted towards, conditions that make a well-ordered society possible' (Rawls 1993, 62). A clearer statement of the moral philosophy of the liberal motivations of Western aid cannot be imagined.
We turn now to look more closely at the relationships of domination and compliance that underpin the subsistence crisis contract. We focus on why the identity of that elite and their position within Bangladeshi society and with respect to the international community was so critical to the formation and defence of that particular contract. And we look at how those relationships have changed, in key respects, towards less blatant forms of domination, more diffuse exercises of power, and more complex modes of interdependence.