Ji on theories of democratization

10 08 2014

As we often do, here is a reproduction of Ji Ungpakorn’s most recent post:

Thailand’s Crisis and Shattered Political Theories

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

The present political crisis in Thailand has shattered a number of “democratisation” myths created over the years by mainstream political science academics.

The first myth is about “civil society”, as defined by the middle-class or the “chattering classes” and Non-Government Organisations. After the end of the Cold War we were told that a well-developed civil society and a large middle class was the key to a free and democratic society. Yet we have seen the middle-classes and the NGOs take part in many anti-democratic protests and we have seen them welcome two military coups. The middle classes have organised to protect their privileges and prevent the urban workers and rural farmers from having a say in politics. The NGOs have also behaved in a similar manner for slightly different reasons.

Middle-class academics, lawyers and doctors have joined the whistle blowing anti-democrats led by Sutep Tueksuban and his henchmen.

Marxists have always seen the middle classes as being a potential base for fascism and dictatorship. We saw this in the 1930s. They can also join pro-democracy movements at other times and support working class demands. But the middle classes are too fragmented and weak to set their own class agenda. They flip flop between the interests of the business and bureaucratic elites and the interests of the working class.

Perhaps what we can recue from the “civil society” theory of democratisation is the importance of “social movements”, but not the so-called “new social movements” which were widely touted by right-wing academics after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. We were told then that social movements were no longer class based and were about life-style politics and single issues, not about challenging state power. In Thailand the largest social movement in history is the red shirt movement. The red shirts are more or less classed based and have wide political aims involving democratisation and challenging the old state.

The second myth is about “independent bodies” and the need to create political structures which act as “checks and balances” on elected governments as part of the “democratic” process. This is very fashionable among Western liberals, who favour non-elected Central Banks and a non-elected, supposedly neutral, judiciary. In Thailand we have seen these so-called independent bodies, such as the Election Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission and the courts, subverted and used by the conservative elites in order to destroy freedom and the democratic process. These bodies have place anti-democratic fetters upon elected governments. In the European Union the European Central Bank has also played a key role in trying to place restrictions on government policies in countries like Greece.

Marxists have always maintained that no group of people in society is ever neutral or independent of class interests. It is not so-called independent bodies which check and balance elected governments. It is opposition political parties, social movements, trade unions and opposition or alternative media which perform this function.

The third myth is that democracy can only become stable and well-developed if there is a political culture of democracy among the people and if political parties and political structures are mature. But what we have seen in Thailand is that the vast majority of the population have a democratic political culture while the conservative elites do not. The army is then used by the elites to frustrate the wish for democracy. We have also seen a long established political party; the Democrat Party, stand clearly against the democratic process along with various state structures and bodies.

The fourth myth is that developing globalised capitalism and the free-market somehow encourage the growth of democracy. This has not happened at all. The globalised Thai big businesses have supported the conservative elites and the junta and its friends are extreme advocates of neo-liberal free-market policies. So is the King with his “sufficiency economy” ideology. They all have a laissez faire mind-set. In contrast, it is Taksin Shinawat and his various parties which have used a mixture of state funded development and welfare (grass-roots Keynesianism) alongside neo-liberal market forces. The conservatives have attacked this as “dangerous populism”.

The bottom line in reality is that the present crisis is a result of increased political empowerment of workers and small farmers, a phenomenon that was seized upon and encouraged by Taksin and his allies for their own interests. It is a crisis of class society with the conservative elites and middle-classes resenting the rise of the working class and the small farmers.

And what this crisis clearly shows is that strong social movements from below are the critical key to building and fighting for democracy. Every inch of the democratic space will have to be fought for and taken from the elites in this struggle. Democracy will not be crafted by committees of “wise men”, lawyers and academics who are appointed by the junta.

It is a fair bet that despite all this, Thai academics at universities and in the Prachatipok Institute will still carry on spouting these shattered and discredited democratisation theories and in a climate where the questioning of authority is discouraged, they will mainly go unchallenged.



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