On class and political struggle

16 10 2010

Readers might remember a bit of a kerfuffle around the time of the red shirt demonstrations in March-May over “class warfare” in Thailand. Former leftist and now Democrat Party deputy leader, Kraisak Choonhavan, famously argued against the red shirts having anything to do with class. Writing in May, he was ticked off that the “international media has largely portrayed the protracted protests in Bangkok this past month as a class struggle between rich urban elites and a poor, neglected rural mass.” That perspective was taken up by several in government.

However, it is interesting that government actions betray a view that corruption (double standards?), inequality and difficult rural conditions play a major role in political mobilization. Most recently, The Nation has this conclusion by a government investigation: “In its report, the working group led by PM’s Office Minister Satit Wongnongtaey concluded that the government should focus on solving social and economic inequality, corruption and shortage of land for agricultural and residential purposes, in addition to unfair income levels and high cost of living of poorer people.”





Korn on class

19 08 2010

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij was recently interviewed in Newsweek. Pretty mundane stuff, but two selections caught PPT’s eye.

Towards the end of the interview, Korn is asked: “How will your government address the underlying social and economic problems brought to light by the so-called red-shirt protesters?”

He responds, stating inter alia: “A second approach is addressing the issues that were raised: social inequality and poverty, issues that the government takes very seriously. For instance, we are working to refinance all loan-shark debt, which has been a cancer in our system. We’ve refinanced over 400,000 individual accounts. We need to do more of this and make people realize the government makes them a priority. They don’t need to protest.”

He seems to be saying that people protested because of economic issues – poverty, inequality, loan sharking. But then the interviewer asks: “The Western narrative of the protests this spring was that it was a class struggle between urban and rural Thais. Is this accurate?” Confusing given Korn’s statement above, he answers this racist question by saying: “I don’t believe the Western narrative is correct. There is a genuine income-distribution gap. There are genuine differences in people’s access to resources. All of these need to be addressed as quickly as we can. Arguably this government has done more for the poor than any recent government [sic.]. The big truth is these inequalities do exist, but the big lie was that this was what the conflict was about. It wasn’t. The conflict was really [deposed prime minister] Thaksin Shinawatra and his supporters wanting to regain power, wanting to overturn the corruption conviction against him, and wanting to get back his ill-gotten assets.”

So why did Korn initially say that inequality, poverty and so on were economic issues “that were raised” by the red shirt protests? He seems to have is argument confused. But he gets back on the royalist track when when he adds: “What we’re really facing is a small group of instigators trying to overthrow the core pillars of Thailand.” PPT presumes he means the monarchy. Or does the Democrat Party now rank as a “core pillar”?

Racism: PPT calls this a racist question because there’s nothing peculiarly Western about the discussion of class struggle in Thailand. Making it a “Western” construction is demeaning of Thais (amongst others). Worse, Korn unambiguously accepts the racist construction when he knows that many Thais, including some close to his government, have had the same narrative. He says it himself, before backtracking.





Fighting the working class

26 06 2010

Patrick Winn in the Global Post has a useful take on recent events in Thailand. He notes that the Abhisit Vejjajiva government is “now struggling — and failing — to find common ground with a mobilized, largely working-class faction that detests them.”

That government has worked hard to argue that there has been no class basis to recent political events, not least because the huge demonstration of working class support for the red shirt protesters scared the pants off the capitalist and middle class supporters of the government. Those classes are more used to ordering the working class about and exploiting their labor than facing rebellion.

The organization of the working class has been prevented, smashed and demeaned by a string of governments for decades. Whenever the working class shows any militancy, the ruling class moves quickly to squash it, and they have done it again in 2010.

Journalist Winn has been talking with Peter Warr, an economics professor at the Australian National University. Warr is a pretty much straight up and down neoclassical economist with an interest in poverty reduction. He’s done considerable work for the World Bank on Thailand, including studies of incomes and poverty. A recent publication by Warr on poverty in Asia can be downloaded here.

Winn says that Warr believes the Thai government and its opponents have “overlooked” the impact of the “U.S.-born global economic crisis has played … in prodding disaffected Thais to join anti-government demonstrations…”.

Warr argues that the Thai economy is remarkably reliant on exports. Most of these are now manufactured goods, and “in recent years these have been hit “by dwindling foreign demand.” This has resulted in “waves of layoffs and slashed hours” for the country’s workers. He believes that it is the workers in export-oriented industries who are mostly “unskilled and semi-skilled people from the north and northeast,” who are the “very people who are the support base for the ‘Red Shirts’.”

Government data confirms this general assessment, with economists showing that there has been a sharp deterioration for workers and a shift of income to capital. All of the productivity gains made by workers have essentially gone to business owners through very high rates of profit. The share of income now accruing to workers is at an unprecedented low rate.

The red shirt rhetoric was attractive to the workers who see, feel and know that they are worse off. The call to join a fight against the “governing ‘aristocrats’ who’ve long shafted ‘the commoners’,” was eagerly taken up.

Warr sees the protests as “… attractive to those wounded by the economy and seeking a vehicle for their frustration…”. Under the Abhisit government, Warr asserts, “they’ve lost out. And they’re right…. They don’t know why. But it’s easy to portray their deteriorating circumstances as being caused by the government.”

Winn observes that: “Many among the Red Shirts faithful claim grievances that run deeper than electoral or economic cycles. They insist they’re shut out of a hierarchy of strings and connections that keeps nearly 70 percent of Thailand’s assets in the hands of its wealthiest 20 percent.” His article cites several examples of grim tales from the laid-off in a faltering export and consumer economy.

In fact, inequality is worse than this, for wealth, income, assets and property are all highly skewed to the richest.

Economist Warr is no fan of Thaksin and tends to view him as a populist who came to power in an expanding economy – albeit slower than before the economic crisis of 1997-98 – and discounts the political aspects of Thaksin’s economic policies targeting the poor.

Poor rich boy and finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, makes the now well-rehearsed Democrat Party lament that claims the red shirts “have distorted economic facts to rile up followers.” He says the current regime has advanced “Thailand’s largest-ever stimulus package, a $44-billion bundle of infrastructure and social welfare projects aimed in large part at Thailand’s poor.” He claims that the government “hasn’t received enough credit…”. In the northeast, the Democrat Party has “very little popularity, very little understanding…”.

Like most in his party, born of privilege and wealth, Korn finds it impossible to conceive that Thaksin somehow found and released a political groundswell of support that relies more on political opportunity than on money spent. There’s an ideological block, because yellow shirts like Korn believe that Thaksin’s support is all bought.

While Korn might have been educated in the elite schools and universities of the U.K., it is unlikely that he understands the full historical and contemporary significance of the comparison he makes to relatively poorer Scotland and voting patterns in the U.K.

Arguments by the government that portray the red shirt uprising as anything but a class struggle are seriously misguided. But that’s what one would expect of the government of those who benefit most from the current ownership of the country. Despite everything, in relative terms, they are doing better than ever. The rich exploiters can continue while their government, backed by the military, remains in power. All they have to do is to continue to come up with ways to keep it in office.








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