This... Is... Capitalism!: Some Orientalist Views of Bangladesh

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Orientalism: a term used by Edward Said to describe the ways in which the West (US, Europe, etc.) characterizes the East (now also called the global South) as backward/subordinate in order to position itself as modern/ideal. Alternatively, the term can refer to an academic group that focused on the so-called "golden age" of certain Eastern cultures, thus rendering their current states as a fall from that age. Both of these definitions will be in play in the following piece.

I like to use examples when I explore challenging academic concepts - and if Orientalism is the term that I want to find examples for, I've come to the right place. Being in Bangladesh has given me many a ripe experience about how this concept, partnered with global capitalism, has affected society here.

I come myself with a Western view. I look at the markets, the poverty, the social norms with a viewpoint of "Yes, this is what the East is/has/does in comparison with the West." It takes a bit of time to shift my position and unlearn some of those constructs: the West has created my perception in order to point a finger and say "See? We're different than them!" and prop up/take pride in its own amenities. Allow me to explain.

Common Bangladeshi views of American and Europe are that it is clean, has a lot of opportunity and easy living, and marks the next "evolution" of society - things to be desired and aspired to for Bangladesh. Some of these things may be true, but they are half-truths at best. And thus, by extension, what is the East (specifically Bangladesh)? Dirty, backward, a place of hard living, etc. Again, these are part true and part false. All of them, however, are constructed.

But why, you may ask. Enter: capitalism. The supposed driving force to bring the East on par with the West is framed as capitalism. But so many sacrifices (and, indeed, the tacit affirmation that these half-truths are wholly accurate) are made in its pursuit. Monetary growth is valued over culture, over social policy, over personal satisfaction. And, in the end, that is why this place embodies all of those negative qualities it is reported to possess - if you're told you need to "catch up," you must believe that you are behind in the first place.

Hence, another source of disenchantment. No one wants to live this way. Wealth disparity and the hearkening for a rural past, I believe, are all inter-related to the view that one's country can "catch up" based on a set of goals that were arbitrarily set so that more products can be sold. Do we really need more skyscrapers here, built right next to one another? Or so many advertisements? Meanwhile, cheap labor and resources feed into the global market and our own living conditions worsen, and everyone wishes in vain that things would get better. But where will change come from?

I sometimes feel at a loss because I agree that there are clean streets models that work well in the US and Europe. There are methods of architecture and building codes that make living less cramped and allow for greenery. But does it mean that we're giving up some good features of our country also by just modelling yet another set of objectives set by the West? Throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater? I sometimes feel myself like an Orientalist, wanting things for this group of people that they may not want for themselves in order to preserve what I see as "their culture." It's complicated - too complicated for one blog post to ascertain an answer. My question for now is this:

How do we progress without oppressing?

Check out more of my posts about social critiques, such as The Social Observance of Purdah.