Democracy and Ochlocracy in Thailand

Perhaps the most cogent and stringent critic of democracy was one of its earliest, Plato:

“For Plato, the demos is the intolerable existence of the great beast which occupies the stage of the political community without ever becoming a single subject. The name which accurately qualifies it is ochlos: the common rabble or, in other words, the infinite turbulence of collections of individuals who are always at odds with themselves, living rent by passion and at the mercy of desire. On the basis of this observation an original duplicity can be defined, a relationship between philosophy and the political which is both thoroughly immanent and radically transcendent, prohibiting the existence of any such thing as ‘political philosophy.'”*

This (rather less well expressed) is at the heart of the position of the PAD and its New Politics Party: the poor people are too uneducated and stupid and greedy to be allowed to vote.

However, Plato was wrong and wrong for several reasons: first, he did not take into account the impact of change and the ability of people to learn; second, the nature of democracy in a modern (and much larger) community does not depend on the ability of individuals to argue with rhetoric against others; third, the desire of the poor (the aporoi, those without means) to achieve liberty (eleutheria) is in fact the principal struggle of human society. Higher levels of goals to be achieved by democracy (i.e. the arete or virtue that is supposed to be desired by those with means (euporoi) may be considered later when people have the basic means of survival in their hands.

This leads to the modern definition of democracy:

“What we mean by democracy is not that we govern ourselves. When we speak or think of ourselves as living in a democracy, what we have in mind is something quite different. It is that our own state, and the government which does so much to organize our lives, draws its legitimacy from us, and that we have a reasonable chance of being able to compel each of them to continue to do so. They draw it, today, from holding regular elections, in which every adult citizen can vote freely and without fear, in which their votes have at least a reasonably equal weight, and in which any uncriminalized political opinion can compete freely for them.”**

In Thailand, of course, the legitimacy of the present government does not come from the mass of the people.

* Jacques Ranciere, On the Shores of Politics (London and New York: Verso, 2007), translated by Liz Heron, p.12.

** John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), pp.19-20.

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JW has been one of the first contributors to this blog before he gave up on it all in April 2010, during a time when Thai society got more and more polarized about political matters because of red-shirt protesters.

2 thoughts on “Democracy and Ochlocracy in Thailand”

  1. But he’s a philosopher for a semi-feudal society which depends on slavery… Oh, right. That’s a bit like here isn’t it?

  2. according to historical facts of Athenian democracy, layer of population which constituted “Demos”, those allowed to vote, or citizens, comprised max 10%, or less, of the whole population. citizens were only natively born males (thus women excluded of course) who has passed military service. half-blood, or even pure blood but born abroad, as well as who had not taken military service – were not allowed to be citizens.

    I think to get an idea – it would help to watch movie by Paul Verhoven called “Starship troopers” (also novel by Robert A. Heinlein) – where he somewhat parodies such a militaristic society, and includes theme of “citizens”.

    even in present day “democracies” there are certain hidden limitations and tricks, which practically preserve those similar things of Athenian democracy. and thus in reality hardly if at all ordinary people can even afford election campaign, what to speak successfully run for office of a senator or MP (as in Thailand) – what to speak of being elected as a head of state.

    therefore the whole concept of so called modern “democracy” is a false premise and sort of ideological trap : because it leads practically to nowhere. and this adds up to the political situation in Thailand: either some guy as Thaksin cleverly exploits those intrinsic flaws and loopholes of “democracy”, or others, as furious Thaksin’s opponents (as PAD, main of them), completely deny the democracy in order to prevent such exploitation. however all of them, including red-shirts, use word “democracy” or related terminology, to their own aims, for the sake of “political correctness”.

    but then, who doesn’t ? 😉
    Bush who brought “democracy” to Iraq, or Obomba ? 😀
    many shrewd people meanwhile describe Western political systems as “socialism for the rich” or even “corporate fascism”.

    personally I do not advocate communism (which is also a BS – actually a capitalism with state ownership of everything), or other kinds of political systems. I think that in the end, any political system is formed to serve best the dominating class / group of people.

    so, for the lack of a better (not to mention – perfect) alternative, people continue to be hooked to “democracy”.

    hopefully some day such alternative will emerge, which will suit all the groups of people, or at least which would enable equal opportunities for all (as supposedly “democracy” should have provided). till then, all the political mess (not only in Thailand) will continue.

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