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25 July 2012

(1%) Divide and Rule (99%) Democracies

(a discourse with Beatriz’ editorial 21 November 2011)

For the Occupy Movement, democracy is in crisis as the elected ‘representatives’ are often beholden to the super-elite 1% and not the 99% majority - implying a direct conflict between democracy and capitalism as practiced in their ‘advanced’ forms. Utilizing Lefebve’s ‘social production of space’ to read the phenomenon, ‘real democracy’ has always been condemned in this elite (on the whole, authoritarian) production of capitalist space. However, it is only in the time of recessions (perceived failure of capitalism) that a sizable network of the 99% spatially and symbolically occupies the city’s public domain, attempting grassroots (re)production of democratic spaces. Yet in occupying capitalist produced ‘spatial practices’ of the city, the movement is inevitably set against their fellow (less enlightened?) 99%, inconveniencing/frustrating their (productive and consumptive cycles of) ‘lived spaces’ – hence finding themselves entrapped in this ‘divide and rule’ democracy. (Admittedly this is an unfairly reductive reading – but it frames/serves my usual convoluted thinking that follows)

On the other hand, ‘developing’ (pseudo) capitalist-democracies presents a contradictory phenomenon where, for example, the warm, uplifting triumph of Arab Spring now faces the harsh, ruthless winter of realpolitik(ing) with and against unelected power-brokers. One such society, Thailand, marks 80 years of democratic experiments this past June but has been inconspicuously absent (in its Red-Yellow color-coded conflict) in the globally viral Occupy Movement. Why? Arguably Thai society finds itself in-between the Arab 'apprentices' and Western 'alienated veterans' of democracy with parallels in Turkey’s experience in shaking off military interventions in politics while concurrently becoming increasingly enmeshed in capitalist representation and spatial practices that offers many odd paradoxes. One such paradox is how the former prime minister in-exile 0.0001% elite Thaksin can manipulate traditionally benign Thai social fault lines so devastatingly, through a 'serfs' (prai) versus 'aristocrats' (ammart) narrative that, in May 2010, sufficiently radicalized some of his Red Shirt followers to sacrifice their lives for "true democracy" (in his own words ). This ‘true democracy’, it is increasingly apparent, translate to Thaksin’s return from exile "in style" (again in his own words) white-washed of all convictions and ongoing court cases and the return of his seized assets (USD1.5billion that he recently lamented via Skype to a Red Shirt rally). For ‘true democracy’, he is willing to 'trade in' the 91 deaths (protesters, security forces, bystanders) from the 2010 riots against the military-backed (yet elected) government via a blanket amnesty for all sides as advocated in a draft Reconciliation Bill proposed to parliament (post 2011 elections, now run by Thaksin’s nominees) by a former army general (turned MP) who actually led the coup against Thaksin (in essence, a ‘reconciliation’ between sections of the military and capitalist elites – totally bypassing collateral damages on live, limb and property suffered by the ‘99%’)!

I’ll try to speculate explanation to this genre-bending, democratic phenomenon. In terms of economic wealth, there is a substantial class gap in Thailand – but not in the way misrepresented by the Thaksin/Red leadership. For one, socio-economic inequality is a known consequence of capitalism in a globalized economy and the level of inequality in Thailand is comparable to that in the US, for instance. However, unlike in many advanced economies (where middle-class income levels have stagnated for the past decade – one issue that arguably galvanized the Occupy Movement), the gap is not increasing. In fact being an aggressively industrializing/developing economy, the wealth gap in Thailand – omitting the richest and the poorest ends of the spectrum – has been decreasing over the past 3-4 decades with millions joining the ranks of the 'middle-class' (backed by the proliferation of new consumptive spaces over the past 2.5 decades amidst the countrywide urban sprawl).

Then why has Thaksin been so successful in perpetuating this class battle (and fortunately it has not progressed into a ‘war’ – just yet)? Many Thai commentators have already observed that this fabricated battle is not between the 'rural poor' against the 'urban middle-class/rich' but rather between the aspiring 'lower middle-class' against the 'middle-class' – perhaps with some parallel to the phenomenon in industrializing 19th Century Europe (viewed from this prism of democratic development, the logical evolution would be for the Red Shirt movement’s split from its capitalist puppet masters and form into a political party that represents the interests of rural and urban workers).

I endorse this analysis and have a few thoughts to add. I suggest that the rapid economic expansion of the past four decades has effectively dismantled the traditional Thai social patronage system that vertically linked the poorest to the richest - the farmer to the noblemen, the prai to the ammart so to say – a system that concurrently assuages, lubricates social class and ethnic relations yet perpetuates the hierarchical structure (while also allowing for a degree of social mobility). Industrialization has afforded more options (for a new ‘exploitation’) to the rural and urban poor – in its production of capitalist spaces – eroding a pre-existing common 'lived' social space. This severance of social bonds (and bondages) and increasingly monetized relationships may have led to the loss of understanding and empathy.

Yet this change is, overall, a positive phenomenon in terms of improved socio-economic condition and life opportunities (but with a high social and environmental price). Critically, what Thaksin and the Red Shirt leadership have exploited may have been the ‘lack of recognition’ from the middle-class of this significant shift in Thai society. In a habitually hierarchized society, the upper and even the emerging middle-classes have hung on to the out-dated, judgmental stereotypes such as of the 'uneducated, lazy, rural poor' to be patronized (in a negative sense – as in Thai social relations, patronizing can also be perceived as positive) and looked down upon. The new 'lower middle-class' – the taxi-drivers, factory-workers, technicians, street-vendors etc., major beneficiaries of many of Thaksin's populist policies (and, to be fair, many have been good policies), have pride in abundance and aspirations for 'equality' (certainly a deserved pride - as their labour has been fundamental to the country's economic growth whether in the manufacturing, construction, agriculture and service sectors). Arguably, it is this ignorance, gap in perceptions that Thaksin exploited (through sophisticated, well-funded media campaigns) to 'divide and rule' Thailand up to the present. The irony is that the socio-economic gap is being bridged anyway – providing that the economy continues to expand (and Brazil is a great example of a country with many progressive pro-poor policies that has often been unravelled by extreme economic growth and recession cycles). Another irony is that the socially mobile 'lower middle-class' increasingly share the productive/consumptive spaces with the 'middle-class', perhaps laying groundwork of conflicting political orientations in the process of becoming a more ‘advanced’ democracy.

This brings us back to the Occupy Movement and why it is almost impossible to achieve some form of broader solidarity “clarity, strategy, and purpose” (Beatriz’s AFP November 2011 editorial), amongst the 99%. The modern democratic socio-spatial spaces are conceived and produced by capitalism and Beatriz hit the nail in stating that “…we are a product of the system we oppose”. There are also the difficulties in defining/determining who/what is accountable in the ambiguous spectrum between the 1% as individuals and as institutions (e.g. the controversial notion of Corporate Personhood). Moreover operating beyond/above governments, one rarely get to see ‘their’ operation in the public, political arena – even while there are occasional revealing glimpses in Silvio Berlusconi’s career as Italy’s prime minister; Rupert Murdoch’s “'I have never asked a prime minister for anything” moment at the British parliament Leveson inquiry; the recent (deliberate) media prominence of Australian mining magnates etc.. Arguably, the Thai case furnishes concrete evidences and Thaksin can be seen as a blunt manifestation/expression/representation of the 1% agenda and how they conceive ‘democracy’ – merely “as a means to an end” (again, in Thaksin’s own words). Critically, while “we are the 99%” is a powerful narrative, it is merely a statistical manipulation – as both the 1% and 99% are highly heterogeneous groups that can claim/assume multiple identities (and certainly there are the philanthropic many in the 1% sympathetic to the plights of the 99%). This fluidity of identity, assisted by effective media campaigns, can make poor working-class Thais identify with (populist, tax-evading) Thaksin as ‘one of us’ as it can make the American working-class, white male without health insurance vote for tax-cut-for-the-rich, trickle-down economy Republican Party.

Occupy Bangkok? Red Shirts in Bangkok April-May 2010 
Day job: Day job: Building high-end condominiums for the ‘elites’; after hours: join protests against ‘them’ and then (violent elements in the Red Shirt or the convenient ‘third-hand’ scapegoats?) burn the elites’ temple of worship in Southeast Asia’s biggest mall (while the Red Shirts have naturally denied the burning – it is consistent with incitements of the Red leaders). I must stress that I see the overwhelming majority of the Red Shirt protestors as truly peaceful and non-violent – however their leaders have layered, ulterior motives in strategically choreographing tactical provocations, such as through armed elements camouflaged amongst protestors, which inevitably and tragically led to the disproportionate response from the security forces. The earlier refusal by the Red leadership to the government’s offer of an early election – which was the Red Shirt’s fundamental demand in the first place – supports this reading of events. This Thai episode problematizes Gene Sharp’s advocating of planned non-violent changes (quoted by Beatriz) – especially in very large protests with the involvement of multiple ‘stake-holders’ with often competing agendas. The Thai case is also consistent with the pattern of capitalist tactical utilization of violence from a local (e.g. evictions) to global (e.g. wars for resources) levels to serve business objectives. (For further discussions of the Red Shirt occupation, see Nasongkhla’s paper in http://www.e-jts.asia/documents/article3Vol1Iss1.pdf)

As usual, I seem to be writing myself into a decidedly pessimistic hole. Looking for a more positive turn to finish with, I again refer to Beatriz for inspiration “…we are a product of the system we oppose—a condition whereby we feel unable or unwilling to judge, decide and most importantly, to take responsibility. I suggest that in order to achieve change we need to step out of the state we are in.” That last phrase caught my eye as did my own juxtaposed image above. Significant existential difficulties remain on how to oppose the capitalism that produced us. A less problematic path is to ‘re-localize’, hyper-localize, advocate for local-responsive capitalism such as in the ‘informal economy’ (also with its many implicit problems) manifesting in, ‘occupying’ Bangkok’s streets that provides a degree of insulation from the global whims of the 1% (and food vendors are often tied to small-scale local producers offering a degree of food security)? That said, I am certainly not for protectionism and/or seal-the-borders sentiments. Globalization and capitalism are givens (and even Facebook that socially and ‘democratically’ connects many of us together is a 1% run USD100 billion business, the ‘market price’ for our rights to global expression and our privacy) – and the critical challenge for the 99% may be how to catalyse strategic/tactical, ‘peaceful’ individual+collective/coordinated+incremental transformations of capitalism in the multi-layered spaces of the city-suburb-rural-natural-virtual to benefit local species (including humans) everywhere...

Sidh Sintusingha
Architects For Peace, July 2012



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