Thai Paris Debates: Gramsci and building political consensus

Giles Ji Ungpakorn

During the recent Paris seminar on Thai politics, held on the tenth anniversary of the 19th September military coup, there were many interesting debates. I shall comment on the discussion around consensus and divisions in Thai society.

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Somsak Jeamteerasakul explained that in the 20 years up to the 2006 military coup, there was a “royalist” consensus or hegemony among the population, with little divisions in society. Yet since the 2006 coup, Thai society has been deeply divided. This, Somsak believes, is something that does not exist in Western democracies where he claims there is a democratic consensus.

This is obviously a broad view which ignores the continuous discontent among the Malay Muslims in Patani. But in my opinion what appeared as a “quiet period” with little political divisions among the Thai population was merely a shallow surface view. In every society there are divisions based on competing class interests. A brief look at Western Europe or the United States today reveals serious conflicts around the issues of austerity, defending the welfare state, labour rights, support or opposition to the European Union, the issue of war or the attitude to migrants and refugees. This has resulted in growing support for Socialists but also for the Fascists.

The supposed Thai consensus for 20 years before the 2006 coup was a result of economic growth but also the defeat of the Communist Party of Thailand and the weakening of political dissent. Even so, class struggle continued to bubble under the surface with strikes and protests by workers and small farmers.

The point to keep in mind here is that there is no real consensus in any capitalist society and periods of apparent class peace soon end in explosions of discontent. An important factor which ended the quiet period in Thailand was the 1997 economic crisis and the choices made in response to this by various political actors, especially Taksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party. [See http://bit.ly/2d9UUAu , http://bit.ly/2bSpoF2   or http://bit.ly/2cmZkAa  ]

Somsak is now trying to find a way to build political peace in Thai society by seeking a “democratic consensus” between red shirts, other pro-democracy activists, and the middle class. Remember that the middle class has a recent history of outright opposition to democracy and to associated measures which improve the economic status of workers and small farmers, which Taksin’s political parties tried to push forward.

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Somsak, who I regard as a friend, seems to view Marxists like myself as figures of fun who are hopelessly deluded, but he also tries to legitimise his views by quoting Gramsci on the issue of hegemony.

Now this reminds me of the mis-use of Gramsci by the leaders of the Spanish left-wing party Podemos. They claim to be attempting to build political hegemony in Spanish society by moving beyond the concept of “Left” and “Right”. They also wish to ignore the issue of class and class struggle.

Yet Gramsci was a Marxist, who did not in anyway, believe that you could move beyond or ignore class struggle. His ideas about hegemony were about how to counter the prevailing ideas of the ruling capitalist class with ideas which were in the interests of workers and small farmers. This was with the aim of moving towards a socialist revolution. It was not about building cross-class unity.

Instead, Somsak wants to distort the ideas of Gramsci in order to achieve a compromise and political peace between the reactionary middle-classes and the workers and small farmers in Thailand. It would be a pseudo-peace based on giving up the ideals of equality, human rights and democracy. The explanation for Somsak’s views lies with his rejection of the possibility of building mass movements from below. He regards the red shirts as mere foot soldiers of Taksin and can see no way forward in terms of social movements.

Another pro-democracy activist, Rangsiman Rome, from the student NDM, also expressed a desire to “talk to the other side” in a recent BBC interview. Again, this arises from the rejection of a need to build mass social movements. [See  http://bit.ly/2dizkuE %5D and http://bit.ly/2a0A4TK   ]

Yet there is a real potential for building a new mass movement for democracy, independent of Taksin, out of the remnants of the redshirts, from the 10 million people who voted against the military’s constitution, and from the progressive students. This needs determined political and organisational work and also the creation of a left-wing political party. If such a movement became strong in the future it could pull many elements of the fractured middle-classes to support its agenda, rather than capitulating to the current reactionary agenda of the right-wing core of the middle-classes. In the past the Thai middle-classes have been pulled in the direction of supporting democracy or dictatorship, depending on the balance of class forces. This is the same for other countries. [See http://bit.ly/2aDzest ]

The sad fact that the pro-democracy movement is currently weak means that it is highly unlikely that Thai society is “waiting to explode”, as claimed by pro-democracy academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun, who also spoke at the Paris seminar.

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Somsak and Pavin’s “top-down” view of society means that they believe in the political power of the king, which is something with which I disagree. I believe that the king is a puppet of the military. But for Somsak the king’s power comes from the fact that no one can criticise him while he does not necessarily have to give out obvious orders to the military. My answer to this is to say that God can also not be criticised in many societies, yet God, despite not existing in reality, can be used as a puppet by many ruling classes! [See http://bit.ly/2cBnidg ]

Finally, one further interesting point came out of Somsak’s talk about consensus and military coups. He pointed out that a number of military coups in the past have been directed against military governments by their rivals. In other words the military has been highly fractured. For me this is another nail in the coffin of the theory of a “Deep State” opposing Taksin. [See http://bit.ly/29H0FC9 ]

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