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.

Thais Follow Plato; Westerners Follow Aristotle

For a while I have been a little mystified by the importance so many Thai people place on the concept of unity and on the meaning they place on the concept of ‘unity.’ As a westerner, we are much more comfortable with the concepts of individuality and diverse sets of the population rubbing along together in one way or another. Then, a chance remark on the radio made it clear: Thai society is informed by a Platonic understanding of the world.

Here is what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say about Plato’s Republic  (in part):

“Plato’s work has been criticized as static and class bound, reflecting the moral and aesthetic assumptions of an elite in a slave-owning civilization and bound by the narrow limits of the city-state. The work is indeed a classic example of a philosopher’s vivisection of society, imposing by relatively humane means the rule of a high-minded minority.

Plato is thus indirectly the pioneer of modern beliefs that only a party organization, inspired by correct and “scientific” doctrines, formulated by the written word and interpreted by authority, can rightly guide the state. His rulers would form an elite, not responsible to the mass of the people. Thus, in spite of his high moral purpose, he has been called an enemy of the open society and the father of totalitarian lies. But he is also an anatomist of the evils of unbridled appetite and political corruption and insists on the need to use public power to moral ends.”

This is a very apt description of the conservative Thai approach to society. Plato is said to have been influenced by Indian thought and, presumably, that has been transmitted to Thai society via Buddhist thought and Sanskrit (or Pali) texts.

By contrast, we of the west are more commonly Aristotelians in thought, being more concerned with issues of reason, logic and the potentialities of individuals. No doubt this distinction has been obvious to many all along but it did just suddenly strike me.

Congratulations to the Cambodian people on their celebration of 55 years of autonomy.