Not all transactions are based on money
We usually think of our economic system as something based on instantaneous and autonomous exchanges. We pay money, get our desired services, and the cycle of exchange/business supposedly ends. Besides, recent on-demand digital services have furthered even a sort of anonymous interaction.
Nevertheless, some intersections of economic actions indicate otherwise, and we find evidence of what is sometimes called the “economy of favour.” Some scholars have used “favour” to refer to corruption and clientelism. Nonetheless, doing “favour” is a distinct mode of economic activity that is dynamically involved with socio-political life.
For instance, a few months back, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Rajshahi had appointed as many as 141 individuals in different ad-hoc posts on his last day at the office. This was done overruling the University Grants Commission’s and the Ministry of Education’s embargo over new recruitment until further notice.
Not delving into the ministry’s directive and whether an autonomous public university should adhere to it or not, if we analyze the much-criticized recruitment spree in Rajshahi University, it becomes clear that some were in approval of it while the rest were against it.
If we look at the events of the infamous last day of Professor Sobhan’s tenure, we know that there was a clash between different segments of the Bangladesh Chhatra League. Before that, when some teachers protested against holding a syndicate meeting that would formalize the new appointments, a segment of student wing wanted the recruitments to be finalized. Some news reports asserted they threatened the protesting teachers, stating that they will not hesitate to shoot them (the protesting teachers) if needed. Now, if we investigate who were recruited and their alleged relationships with the VC as revealed in subsequent news reports, it becomes even more interesting.
The list of new appointees included relatives of other teachers and officials, current and ex-leaders of the Bangladesh Chhatra League, and even his family barber, gardener, and carpenters or their relatives. In total, nine teachers, 23 officials, 85 third-class, and 24 fourth-class employees were recruited.
One may argue, Professor Sobhan did some favours to repay the support he received during his tenure and also to be able to receive help and favour in future. Thus, it reflects a circle of continuous transactions. However, this kind of favour is nothing new.
During my research into garment factories, I have witnessed that supervisors and production managers recruit workers through layers of personal connections that create a pyramid of power relations. Even before the so-called industrial works became available, a similar patron-client relation was common in rural Bangladesh.
Prior to the mass intermediation of rural social relations by instantaneous, autonomous exchanges modelled on neoliberal capitalistic ideology -- where individuals are considered rational decision-makers or free workers/agents and able to buy or sell products or services as needed -- the poor section of the population felt a claim on the wealth of the rich because they were in a patron-client relationship across generations.
In exchange, the rural rich would make claims on the free labour and adherence of the poor. Isolated, autonomous, or single transactions were rare. Because of the transformation of our economy -- as some of us have started to expect discrete economic exchanges -- we see a different schema of power-relations and exchanges of favour at present. If one favours, they expect to get returns, even if not at once but on several future occasions. It happens across socio-economic classes. Even in the corporate world, the phenomenon of award for the best employee has a similar function. Or during elections, we hear that “the dedicated workers will be awarded nominations.” All these have subtle cultural nuances that resonate, which is why this sort of thing -- favouring someone while depriving more suitable candidates -- happens.
Even in corruption, people from different positions of power are usually involved in and exchange favours of some sort. For example, very recently, in the national dailies, it was reported that 2,600 doses of Covid-19 vaccines were illegally sold to the public in Patia, Chittagong. As news reports have revealed, the accused person who directly coordinated has close ties with a person holding political power. In addition, another person in the administration helped the misappropriation for some benefits.
We find a similar structure of agents and actions in the recent infamous events -- from coronavirus tests or vaccination mismanagement to other government or non-government misconducts. Moreover, we ought to always praise our superiors and support those who once favoured us. And we, those who favour each other, are expected to see each other’s back.
I believe Marcel Mauss’s claims in his classic book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies are genuinely relevant for us. From the Maussian point of view: The exchange of objects or services between groups is fundamental in building human society. It creates relationships between humans and enables social hierarchies.
The situation in our country makes a case where the economic transformations have not entirely erased the patron-client relationship. The advent of neoliberal capitalism is expected to create an aura where modern bureaucratic institutions/individuals will operate/act impartially. People, especially in positions of power, are expected to act responsibly. Besides, as individuals, we are supposed to make rational decisions.
However, in a country like ours -- individualism though flourishing -- we have not become autonomous entities making independent/impartial decisions. On the contrary, every one of us is bound to the myriad social relations that have moral, religious, and political implications.
In this regard, David Graeber argues: Our society in different historical stages are not established based on opposed principles; instead, somewhat opposing forms of exchanges -- “gifts, commodities, patronage, exploitation” -- exist simultaneously. The essential differences lie in the articulation of these forces and values.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.