Political Crisis, Gramsci, and Social Transition in Contemporary Thailand


A review of The Old is Dying and the New Cannot be Born: Organic Crisis, Social Forces, and the Thai State, 1997–2010, by Watcharabon Buddharaksa.

During the last decade, Thailand has been dominated by political conflicts broadly between the ‘Yellow Shirt’ (anti-Thaksin) and ‘Red Shirt’ (pro-Thaksin) movements. Amidst this political conflict, many have analyzed the crisis happening in Thailand. Watcharabon, the dissertation author, found many of these conventional social science approaches insufficient in at least three aspects which he outlines in chapter 1.

Firstly, others did not comprehensively integrate social, economic, political, and ideological elements of the Thai political economy to take into consideration the complexity of contemporary Thai politics. Secondly, most existing works could not cope sufficiently with the crisis and transition of the Thai state because they did not consider historical aspects – human interactions that constitute social change – in their political analysis. Watcharabon suggests that historical perspectives of human interactions and social class struggle should be provided in order to cope with the crisis and transition of the Thai state more comprehensively. Lastly, most existing works did not analyze the configuration of social powers among social forces. According to Watcharabon, grasping dialectical relationships among social actors might crucially portray the picture of crisis and transition of the Thai state in a more comprehensive way.

To overcome the limitations of these earlier works, Watcharabons’ dissertation turns to a Gramscian analysis. As the first piece of work to employ a Gramscian framework in the analysis of politics and social transition of the Thai state, the dissertation manages to overcome determinist explanation of social change and reveals the complicated interrelations of social forces in both the political economy and ideological terrain of Thai history. Therefore, his work offers an alternative to understanding the development of Thai politics over the last decade and offers answers to the question of how we can grasp the complexities of the politics of transition of the Thai state. Furthermore, it addresses questions such as how we can construct an understanding of the antagonistic relationships among social forces, their material connections, socio-ideological cohesion, and their contributions towards the crisis and the transition of the Thai historical bloc.

In response to these questions, he argues that the political conflict in Thailand during the last decade is far deeper than the battle between the Thaksin government and its social antagonists, and the simple colour-coded conflicts between ‘Yellow Shirt’ (anti-Thaksin) and ‘Red Shirt’ (pro-Thaksin) forces. Instead, it was a crisis of the Thai historical bloc brought about by the clash between the two distinct ‘social relations’ – old and new – and the clash is still on-going. Through a Gramscian analysis, Watcharabon looks at the balance of social forces during periods of historical stability (historical bloc) and violent restructuring (struggle for hegemony) to analyze the turmoil of Thai society. According to this Gramscian perspective, the economic crisis of 1997 was a crisis of the historical bloc. While it undermined the old governing regime and elite networks, it could not give birth to a new regime capable of integrating Thai society on the basis of a new political consensus. And the developments since 1997 form part of the still unresolved restructuring of a new historical bloc. The overthrow of the Thaksin government by a military coup in September 2006 was a political reaction against the reform attempts of the new emerging elite and classes by the forces of the old regime that had lost its political force as a consequence of the economic crisis of 1997. The battle between the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts appeared as a struggle of hegemony to create a new historical bloc. Also, the clashes of 2010 were a manifestation of the still ‘unfinished business’ and unresolved crisis of the old Thai historical bloc which had declined since the crisis of 1997; the old is dying and the new cannot be born.

In unfolding this analysis Watcharabon applies the ‘interpretive approach’ as a method to focus on critique and unraveling of the complexities of the politics of social transition in contemporary Thailand. Also, he adapts methodologies related to ontological anti-foundationalism and epistemological interpretivism. He employs these methods to examine the ruling/dominant social forces including the monarchy and its network, the military, and the capitalists, and the ‘subaltern’ or dominated social forces including the middle class, the working class, and the peasantry.

In the next chapters, he continues to develop his analysis through examination of the four main themes: history, crisis, transition and recurring crisis of the Thai state between the 1997 Asian economic crisis and the government crackdown on the Red Shirt movement in 2010. Also, he focuses on interrelations and interconnections among social forces that constitute the formation, crisis, and transition of the Thai historical bloc. He unfolds his analysis by exploring the history of the old historical bloc which dominated Thailand until its decline in the 1997 economic crisis. The changing conditions of political economy from the 1932 revolution to the pre-1997 economic crisis consolidated social forces in the old historical bloc as well as created social disparities. The economic nationalist project employed between 1932 and 1957 attempted to battle with Chinese and Western merchants rising from the early 1900s and empowered the ruling social classes led by Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and some military cliques. The economic modernization influenced by American hegemony which transformed the mode of production in Thailand from agricultural production into a capitalist economy from the Sarit era in the late 1950s until the 1990s, benefitted an elite block including the big domestic industrial capital groups, the banking, financial and industrial sectors that were largely controlled by citizens of Chinese origin, the military-dominated state enterprises, monarchical capital, and provincial-local capital and agro capital gradually governed by new local influences (Jao Pho) and also brought about the establishment and domination of a strong bureaucratic state both in military and civil administration.

In chapter 4, he analyzes how the old historical bloc established the ‘royalist-nationalist’ ideology as a cohesive factor to maintain control over classes and social relations. This ideology successfully tied all classes to a similar political ideology that centered on the king and a nationalistic hegemony. The royalist-nationalist projects were comprised of three major ‘common senses’ – monarchy as a sacred institution, as a popular institution for all, and as a democratic institution – which operated through the monarchy’s network. These projects were operated through the network monarchy and major state apparatuses including constitutional protection and the lèse majesté law.

The changing political economic conditions since the late 1950s also caused rising social-economic disparities and changes in social classes including peasants, urban workers and the middle class, as discussed in chapter 5. Industrial development led to the ‘polarization’ of society into distinct social groups, with capitalist class relations between capital and labor and also between city and countryside. With little protection of rights of the working class, there were proliferations of labor, student and other movements against the dictatorship between 1973 and 1976. From the 1980s onward, even though the military still held much political power, they were no longer a dominant ruling group. The new capitalists – including the monarchy – became more dominant and functioned as the ‘middleman’ between the old ruling class, the bureaucrats, and politicians whilst the subaltern social forces, labor and the peasantry, became more and more aware of their living conditions.

After decades of domination, the economic crisis of 1997 demolished the economic power of the old historical bloc and its dominant power over other social forces. This paved the way for new political actors. Economic devastation overturned the Sino-Thai financial-banking capitalists – who had dominated Thailand’s economy for decades – and other banks supported by the Thai army and the monarchy. The crisis also hindered numerous investments by both domestic and international industrial capitalists. The crisis urged social forces to seek support from an alternative political force and access to ensure their economic interests. Provincial/local capitalist factions who had been less affected by the crisis than national ones directly joined the electoral process rather than their earlier secret support for politicians and the military. The subaltern social classes like working and middle class and peasants in both urban and rural areas who had faced economic difficulties and unemployment, strongly demanded a ‘strong state’ as soon as possible in order to secure and guarantee their class interests. This eventually paved the way for the rise of the ‘new, innovative’ TRT party in the late 1990s.

In chapter 6, Watcharabon discusses the ‘transition of the historical bloc’ from old social relations to an alternative historical bloc between 1997 and 2006, particularly under the Thaksin government. Both changes in political institutions and a self-made process created the strong government led by Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT). The 1997 reformist constitution created a strong government to solve the pre-1997 crisis of weak and ineffective governance. In addition, the TRT government successfully implemented many innovative and ground-breaking social policies which created ‘concrete benefits’ to Thai people; especially those who had for a long time been neglected by the old elite.

Pro-poor social policies like the SML (small, medium, and large) scheme of village loan funds, the ‘war on drugs’, and many other ‘krongkan uea athon’ (‘projects provided with kindness’) including state-provided housing for the poor and homeless and taxis and motorcycle taxis for rent, brought about unprecedented popularity for the government. Also, Thaksin Shinawatra triumphed in leadership management. The personal charisma of Prime Minister plus the right political strategies were vital conditions for the success of the administration. Its slogan of ‘Think new, act new for every Thai’ clearly stated that the ‘old style’ of politics—patron-client system, corruption, instability, and coups d’état—should be replaced.

According to a Gramscian perspective, changing any element of the relationship between social, political, and ideological forces could lead to the transformation of other elements as well. The strong state in politics and wide acceptance of political economic aspects paved the way for the TRT party to further transform social relations of the Thai historical bloc through a number of hegemonic apparatuses. Thaksin’s projects functioned to facilitate the free market and boost the economy rather than the abstract economic self-sufficiency concept proposed by the royal institution which seemed irrelevant to the capitalist economic reality. Many social policies created a new consciousness of the ‘concrete reality’ created by the Thaksin government. And that constructed a ‘new critical consciousness’ towards social forces. The interests of subaltern or the ordinary people were important to this government. During the uncertainty after the 1997 crisis, many social classes were confused and looked for a strong hand to reconfigure social relations in both political economy and social-ideological terms. Thaksin’s government not only took the leading role as a ‘catalyst of social and political change’ beyond the old historical bloc. It was also supported by a coalition of various social forces calling for change, including an alliance of capitalists, the salaried middle classes, labor, and peasantry, forming a broad configuration of power.

Through a Gramscian examination, Watcharabon analyzes the political conflict during the end of the Thaksin government and particularly from the military coup of 2006 to the uprising of the Red Shirts in 2010 as a crisis within transition and a ‘passive revolution’ in chapter 7. Although Thaksinism reached its peak in terms of popularity in 2003 and held very strong power in parliament, there were several political difficulties that paved the way to its fall, including three crucial controversies; corruption, the failure to solve the violence in the Southern provinces, and the threat to royal hegemony. The ‘old’ ruling social groups of royalists and military forces, which had dominated modern Thai politics for decades, were excluded from the Thaksin-led coalition. These excluded social forces eventually organised the reaction against the Thaksin coalition. At the same time, a new relationship successfully constructed under the Thaksin government created a new historical bloc or historical social relationship which could be seen as a direct challenge to the old alliance of forces that centered on the King and royalty. They were aided by several groups including the working class, the middle class, the old social elites, and the capitalist factions that had originally supported the Thaksin government, which for them did not meet their political and economic interests. This alignment was organized into the Yellow Shirt movement under the official name of the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).

The formation of counter-Thaksinism social forces emerged both from political economy incentives and an ideological struggle to survive. Aside from fighting Thaksin to recover the elite’s economic losses since the 1997 economic collapse, political ideology was also crucial as a cohesive tool to gain high levels of support from social forces ranged against the Thaksin regime. The PAD also paid attention to the ideological war against Thaksinism by constructing a politics of ‘common sense’ in the sphere of civil society as if Thaksinism was a threat to the monarchy, in order to secure the ruling class interests and control subaltern world views. Watcharabon illustrates this with the process by which the PAD revived the ‘royalist-nationalist’ ideology, after it had subsided under Thaksinism.

The Yellow social forces in collaboration with the old social elites such as the Democrat Party and the army, created the conditions for what Gramsci calls ‘passive revolution’, which eventually occurred with the military coup overthrowing the Thaksin government in September 2006. At the same time, they supported the so-called ‘judicialization’ of Thai politics – the engagement of judges in politics to provide morals and justice to society – which eventually led to the disbanding of the TRT party and its later successor parties. In spite of the efforts to suppress Thaksinism, the military government failed. The People’s Power Party (PPP) – a new version of the TRT – overwhelmingly won the December 2007 general election. Nevertheless, there was a new round of efforts by the elite to use judicialization again to disband the People’s Power Party.

Aside from the efforts of the old historical bloc, Watcharabon also analyzes the formation and development of the new subaltern groups. The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD) or the so-called Red Shirt movement was a collaboration of different social groups of varying socio-economic status. Although they had different political economic objectives, the Red Shirts shared one vital point which was to stand against undemocratic means or the coup d’état in 2006. Initially, it was a protest against the Yellow Shirts and the Democrat government aiming to dissolve parliament and trigger fresh elections. It comprised a coalition consisting mainly of elements drawn from the middle class, large sections of the urban working class, and rural peasants that had benefitted from policies implemented by the Thaksin government. Apart from Thaksin supporters, the second social group insisted on fighting for democratic discipline and denying the coup d’état of 2006. The last social grouping of the Red Shirts, and the least numerous, is the social group known as Red Siam, ex-radical activists and members of student movements of the 1970s. Their position toward Thaksin was unclear. Nevertheless, they strongly campaigned for a republican regime rather than the existing social relations that are closely attached to the monarchy. The Red Shirts were a crucial subaltern force that attempted to balance the old social relations and confirmed the existence of ‘subalternity’ or the condition that ordinary social groups have been oppressed for a long period. To do this, the new subaltern groups employed two major political strategies: the struggle against double standards in Thai society and the introduction of the Phrai-Ammat metaphor. (The term ‘Phrai’ means ‘commoners’ or ‘subjects’ in English and ‘Ammat’ means ‘the elite’ or ‘aristocrats’). Watcharabon argues that these two major strategies became significant perceptions that subaltern social forces could feasibly challenge the dominant social class and could balance class forces, thus overcoming them in the long run.

In chapter 8, it is discussed how the political conflict reached its peak with the severe government repression of April-May 2010 under the Democrat Party against the Red Shirts, and remains unfinished. At this point, Watcharabon illustrates the phenomenon through Gramsci’s point of an organic crisis where ‘the old is dying but the new cannot be born.’ This incomplete transition is manifested in the forms of the ‘three’ underlying troubles of the Thai state in terms of political economy, political ideology, and juridico-political features. In terms of political economy, while capitalist development in the transition of the old historical bloc reveals an increase in ‘social disparity,’ Thaksinism becomes an alternative offering benefits to earlier neglected social groups. Regarding political ideology, the dominant ‘royalist-nationalist’ ideology in Thai politics was challenged. Lastly, the old historical bloc has advocated harsh application of the lèse majesté laws and the Computer Crime Act. The juridico-political apparatus has employed this law and acted against the freedom of speech of Thai social forces. These problems illustrates Gramsci’s idea of the old is dying. Nonetheless, the unfinished transition still continues because the new still cannot be born. Watcharabon points out that the three major factors – the monarchy, the military, and the rightist Democrat Party – of the old historical bloc still exist. However, the fact that ‘the new cannot be born’ reflects the still insufficient strength of the more progressive social forces or the Red Shirts themselves to deal with problems of old social relations and to create a more critical consciousness towards social groups in the country.

Amidst the political conflict and transition in Thailand, Watcharabon’s comprehensive work offers an explanation and analysis of this phenomenon. Portraying the picture of the failure to step aside and efforts to revive the old elite hegemonic project points clearly out how the old refuses to die. While illustrating the formation and the suppression of the new social and political forces since the Thaksin regime provide us with an understanding why the new cannot be born. Through this he cleverly crafts an academic narrative that illustrates the continuing conflict and battle among these opposing forces.

Kanokrat Lertchoosakul
Department of Government, Faculty of Political Science,
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Primary Sources
WikiLeaks cable
Additional sources from JB Morrell Library (University of York), King’s Manor Library (University of York and the British Library (Boston Spa, West Yorkshire)

Dissertation information
University of York. 2014. 268 pp. Primary advisor: Werner Bonefeld.

Image: Books by Antonio Gramsci. Photograph by author.

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