When I was three or four years old, I saw a Bollywood movie named Badshah, whose lead actor was Shahrukh Khan, and every time it ran on TV, I used to wait particularly for one scene – the protagonist gambling in a casino and dominating every other player on the table, in a 'heroic' attitude with a pair of fancy sunglasses on. Ever since then, my child brain wanted to be like him, if not like the Casino Royale's James Bond, whom I came to know and admire when I was a bit older.
My childhood dream would have become a reality had I known that there were clandestine casinos in Dhaka. Though I came to know it only after the crackdown that began on 18 September 2019, but it was comforting to know that if I wanted to venture into the casino world, they were right around the corner. I also realised at that point of history that casinos of international standards were built in my own country! The jokes apart, this essay aspires to deal with the ABCs of casino culture and its socio-economic function in a society with a special eye on its peculiar positioning in the capitalis.
The root of the word "casino" comes from Latin and Italian "case" which means "cottage" and "house" respectively, and the suffix '-ino' is a diminutive. Thus, casino literally means a "small house". Originally, it was a summer house where people used to go for pleasurable activities and recreation.
Casino as we see now was first established in Venice in 1638 and was named Ridotto, though the culture of gambling was formed in ancient Rome in the sixth century BC – circus exhibitions were arranged and public visitors would gather there and bet money on different events and different performers. Perhaps this is why the proponents of casinos see it as a scope for mere entertainment just like amusement parks and theatres where people exchange money for recreation.
But, modern-day casinos have evolved into an ultimate epicentre of the consumerist culture of "late capitalism". They do offer gambling spaces, but they also offer hospitality. They serve the visitors with food and drink and music and even place to stay overnight.
By promoting capitalist excess, casino has become an enormous business. A study by the American Gaming Association (AGA) shows that American casinos earned a total of $60.1 billion in 2007, making it an extremely viable business that offers a huge success to its investors ranging from middle-class shareholders to billionaires such as President Trump himself. It has also brought unimaginable economic success to the native Americans, who had been struggling at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy.
Moreover, commercial casinos pay billions of dollars to the government in the form of application fees for licenses, regulatory fees and waging taxes. AGA notes that the commercial casinos have generated tax revenues of 5.2 billion USD in 2006 which increased to 5.8 billion USD in 2007. The casinos create employment opportunities too, extending from managers to dealers to security officers to technicians. According to AGA, commercial casinos recruited a number of 360,818 employees in 2008. Another 670,000 people were directly or indirectly employed in the "Capital Construction Projects" such as infrastructural development and marketing policies in the same year. Again, as Las Vegas shows, casinos can attract millions of tourists both from home and abroad. That's why the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority spent approximately 12 billion USD in the 1990s to refurbish almost every hotel and add entertainment options ranging from adult shows like the strip to magic shows for children to circus events and
carnival rides for families. The plan was to extend business from adult visitors to whole families so that it could incorporate more consumers.
Most importantly, casino itself has become a 'product' where its capital is the 'dream' of upward mobility in the economic and social ladder in case of the middle-class, and the reproduction and demonstration of social standing in case of the Elites. The capitalist motto of highest amount of production in the lowest possible amount of time materialises itself in the casino culture since people going there see it as an opportunity to become rich overnight. Economic upliftment strictly requires time and hard-work where the casinos offer a 'shortcut' to one's economic goals.
The rich, too, see it as an opportunity where they can satisfy their constant urges for consumption as well as can secure a strong stance on the social field. In this way, like most other cultural practices, the casino culture has also become an effective puppet at the apparently invisible but omnipresent hands of capitalism.
Now, as far as Bangladesh is concerned, the rise of casino culture, if it can be called a 'culture' at all in this context, is something entirely different.
Historically, gambling and such sorts were not a part of ancient or even medieval Indian culture. It was imported first by the Portuguese merchants. Then, in the Mughal period too, it was a popular practice among the royal elite who used to gamble on different sporting occasions as a form of entertainment.
In Bangladesh, different forms of gambling were, and still are, prevalent. The most popular of which is gambling in the village fairs. A significant portion of the visitors gamble on different events in the fair as a necessary part of their experience of visiting the fair. Then there is the game of housey. In fact, very often this game accommodates more people than a typical game of football and cricket do which testifies to its popularity in the country.
There are some other less visible forms of gambling like lottery and prize bonds. These are often state-sponsored and attract people from all economic classes. Lotteries frequently rely, for its publicity, on humanitarian enterprises like building hospitals and helping the helping the poor especially at the time of natural disasters like flood and cyclone and cold flux. There are IPL and BPL gambling too which run almost entirely out of control in the game season.
In Bangladesh, casino is only a manifestation of the unequal distribution of power which, with the misuse of political power, victimises the people of the country.
How does it victimise 'people' in general, rather than only the participants in the game? We have seen that all the casinos are run and nurtured under the supervision of some of the leaders of the leading political party and the huge amount of money used for buying necessary technological instruments and for running the casinos cannot be earned in a socially and legally acceptable way. It is a mere symptom of the all-pervading disease called 'corruption'.
When money is earned through illegal means, it is bound to lead to some kinds of fallouts, especially people will look for new forms and ways to spend it. And when this ill-earned money is circulated among a handful of politically powerful actors, a phenomenon like the rise of clandestine casino culture is quite inevitable.
This is the reason why only taking stands against the rise of casino and penalising the people involved did not interest the mass people. They just enjoyed the show of political bigwigs in handcuffs. They showed little or no interest in seeing the end to the ongoing circus, since the circus is part and parcel of capitalism.
Abdul Wahid Dippro is a Lecturer in Department of English, Jashore University of Science and Technology