Working Class Culture and the Treason of the Liberals

One of the reasons underlying the formation of the PAD and the willingness of so many supposed liberals, professionals and academics (both Thai and foreign) to applaud the 2006 military coup is the abandonment of the working class and working class culture. This is not unique to Thailand – indeed, it is a common phenomenon in Europe and many parts of the world. From the end of the Second World War until the 1960s and 1970s, the nature of society was much more appreciative of what are now considered left-wing ideas: solidarity with the poor, strong labour union movements, increasing social mobility and decreasing income inequality and so forth. In most countries, these ideas have become deeply unfashionable and unpopular – as typified by the Thatcher/Reagan/Kohl political revolution (although systemic change was much longer in appearance than these totemic figures). Since then, working class interests have been abandoned and working class culture denigrated by those who were once its friends.

Consider the role of NGOs in Thailand: many members, especially in management, of NGOs come from the bourgeois classes, often from urban areas. At first, the NGO people were in tune with the local communities with which they were working in partnership, learning from each other and so forth. Over the course of time, the NGO people began to feel that they were the source of knowledge and wisdom and the local people began to disappoint them because they were more interested in acquiring consumer goods and enjoying their lives rather than abiding by traditional methods of production which were quaint but inefficient. For example, Thai farmers embrace technology such as chemical fertilizers if it increased yield and hence income; the NGOs tended to deplore this for environmental reasons and, crucially, for moral reasons. The poor became blamed for failing to live up to the standards invented for them by the NGOs. The latter, then, started to blame the poor for being greedy, stupid, wicked and so forth and, from there, it is a short journey to joining the fascist organisation that tries to have the poor disenfranchised.

Holiday in Honour of King Rama V Chulalongkorn

It is a holiday today in honour of King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, who is one of five Thai kings to be accorded the sobriquet ‘great.’ It was King Rama V who is credited with most of the modernization that took place to convert Siam (as it was then known) from what had been a rural, very undeveloped nation into one which was able, at least to some extent, to compete with the European colonialists. He worked in the wake of the Bowring Treaty of 1848 signed between Britain and Siam – and which was one of numerous treaties signed by colonial powers and Asian rulers aimed at opening the markets of the latter to the commercial giants of the former.

The Siamese rulers (his father King Mongkut, Rama IV, was also influential in the process and was on the throne when the Treaty was signed) were acutely aware of what was happening to China in the north, where unequal treaties forced the sale of opium to the Chinese people and granted foreigners the right of extraterritoriality (from which US military forces can generally benefit even today in their various overseas bases). Siam was threatened by the British to the west, where India had been divided and conquered and the Burmese throne in turn overthrown; to the east, France was to colonise Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Siam was, alone in Southeast Asia, able to avoid colonisation by virtue of its position as a buffer zone and because of the Siamese ability to use ‘bamboo diplomacy’ (bend but not break) to play off the European powers.

At the same time, Siam modernized: a royal school was opened (now it has become Chulalongkorn University), Chinese were invited to Bangkok to create an artisan, urban working class, foreign investors were invited to create domestic industries in strategic sectors (e.g. Siam Cement) and a bureaucratic government created. The steps that were taken eventually led to the 1932 Revolution against the Absolute Monarchy, which occurred during the time of King Chilalongkorn’s successors and which created the Constitutional Monarchic system we have today, more or less.