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.