How Thailand’s Middle Class Rage Threatens Democracy

Marc Saxer, middle class

Marc Saxer

No matter how the elite power struggle ends, the future of Thai democracy will depend on the political orientation of the middle classes. Will political entrepreneurs continue to mobilize mass protests for elite interests, or will the middle classes settle for a social compromise to safeguard their own interests? In order to bring the Bangkok middle class back into the democratic flock, it is important to understand the root causes for its rage. Middle class rage is driven by fear and anger. If Thai society wants social peace, middle class fear and anger must be addressed. 

Two Games In Town

The protracted political conflict in Thailand plays out on two different, yet deeply interwoven levels. The elites fight over the control of the country for the next generation while society at large demands clean (‘yellow’) and responsive (‘red’) governance.

In the most recent escalation, much attention has been given to the whistle mob on the streets, while the power struggle behind the scenes has mostly been left unmentioned. Much is at stake here; aware of the dramatic shift in the balance of power, the old elites are making one last stand to bend the rules in their favor. In the short run, the political conflict will be decided by which elite faction manages to win the upper hand.

This does not mean the street protests are irrelevant. Their role is to put pressure on both the government and the military. This does also not mean that the grievances of hundreds of thousands of protesters over corruption, clientelism and nepotism are unfounded or illegitimate; on the very contrary, holding those in power accountable is a key factor for the consolidation of democracy. Unaware of the power struggle behind the scenes, however, the majority of whistle blowers seems to genuinely believe to be on a crusade to purge Thailand from the scourge of corruption. In the bigger picture, however, the role of the protests is to lend legitimacy to an illegitimate power grab.

This leads to a key player in the greater transformation crisis, the middle class. In the long run, the political conflict will be decided by the ability (or lack thereof) of elite factions to mobilize the middle classes to safeguard their interests. At this critical juncture between a democratic and an autocratic path, Thailand’s future will depend on the sway of the middle class. Hence, it is of utmost importance to understand what causes middle class rage.

Middle Class Rage From Bangkok To Istanbul

Middle classes from Bangkok to Istanbul, from Cairo to Kiev seek to overthrow elected governments outside of the electoral cycle. Wary of majority rule, the middle class in the capital is ready to form alliances with traditional elites to disenfranchise ordinary citizens and even overthrow electoral democracy. Like their Egyptian peers, well-heeled Bangkokian protesters called for military intervention to deal with the rural masses and their “populist” masters. This anti-democratic behavior seems to contradict liberal notions of the middle class. In Seymour Martin Lipset’s modernization theory, the equation was straightforward: the more middle class, the more democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville should,however, serve as a reminder that the middle classes have always been wary of “the tyranny of the majority”.

What grievances drive the middle classes to the streets by the hundreds of thousands? What causes the contempt for the majority population, or the fierce resistance and sometimes even hatred of elected governments?

Well, obviously first and foremost the missteps and wrongdoings of these elected governments. Drunk with the power of the electoral mandate, governments tend to display arrogance of power and blatantly disregard constitutional checks and balances. Endemic corruption, nepotism and cronyism act as the lightning rod for middle class outrage.

But why do some protesters march for more democracy, while others demand less? Grievances over incompetence, lack of responsiveness of those in power and fears over social decline have driven the middle classes to the streets from Spain to Greece. Even in sleepy Stuttgart, outrage over the arrogance of power triggered clashes between riot police and Swabian housewives. However, while there is a vibrant debate about the decline in substance and quality of democracy, these middle classes demand more democracy, not less.

The Political Economy Of Development: The Uncomfortable Sandwich Position

Political economists point to the sandwich position of the middle class in the capital between abusive elites on the one side, and emancipating peripheral middle classes, urbanized villagers and rural poor on the other side. The Bangkok middle class called for democratization and specifically the liberalization of the state with the political rights to protect themselves from the abuse of power by the elites. However once democracy was institutionalized, they found themselves to be the structural minority. Mobilized by clever political entrepreneurs, it was now the periphery who handily won every election. Ignorant to the rise of a rural middle class demanding full participation in social and political life, the middle class in the center interpreted demands for equal rights and public goods as “the poor getting greedy”. In the wake of the euro crisis, majority rule was equated with unsustainable welfare expenses, which would eventually lead to bankruptcy.

In Thailand, such a perception is surprising: tax levels as well as state debt are rather low by international standards. Both in direct and indirect taxes, the middle class does not bear a disproportionate burden. In fact, research shows that it is the poor who pay the lion share of overall state income.

Populism Deconstructed: Anger Over Being Robbed

However, such a numeric perspective overlooks the political basis of the social contract: a social compromise between all stakeholders. Never has any social contract been signed which obligates that the middle class foots the tax bill in exchange for quality public services, political stability and social peace. This is why middle classes feel like they are “being robbed” by corrupt politicians, who use their tax revenues to “buy votes” from the “greedy poor”. Or, in a more subtle language, the “uneducated rural masses are easy prey for politicians who promise them everything in an effort to get a hold of power”. From this perspective, policies delivering to local constituencies are nothing but “populism”, or another form of “vote buying” by power hungry politicians. The Thai Constitutional Court, in a seminal ruling, thus equated the very principle of elections with corruption. Consequently, time and again, the ‘yellow’ alliance of feudal elites along with the Bangkok middle class called for the disenfranchisement of the “uneducated poor” or, even more bluntly, the suspension of electoral democracy.

In other words: middle class rage in Thailand cannot only be explained by numbers alone. At the root of this middle class anger lies the fear of being crushed by an alliance between the elites and the poor.

Anger over “being robbed by corrupt politicians buying off the greedy poor” is the incentivizing factor which has brought hundreds of thousands to the streets. Corruption is the number one grievance of both sides, with slight differences: the ‘yellows’ demand clean governance, while the ‘reds’ demand responsive governance. To be very clear: endemic corruption is indeed a serious problem which hinders social and economic development. To protest against corruption, or even better for good governance, is not only legitimate, but a key driver for the consolidation of democracy.

The Political Economy Of Corruption: Capitalism Undermines The Patronage System

However, in order to effectively decrease the social practice coined “corruption”, we must understand its functional logic in a social order. In a feudalistic regime based on personal relationships between patron and client, resource distribution and patronage of networks are not only vital, but embody the very functional logic of the system. Without the distribution of resources, the patronage system behind the democratic facades, the regime which matters would often collapse. In other words, corruption, nepotism, patronage are not illnesses to be cured, but are the very DNA of the patrimonial system. In a modern order, based on impersonal exchanges between much bigger groups of people over long distances, this social practice to prefer kin over strangers undermines the trust necessary for economic development. Modern polities therefore replace personal relationship based institutions with rules and merit-based institutions. This fundamentally changes the limit of authority of those in power: where the feudal lord had a birthright to “the fat of the land” (but would be wise to distribute it to buy the loyalty of his clients), the modern official can be sanctioned for the use of public funds for anything but the common good.

Corruption Deconstructed: Rooting Out The Enemy Within

To understand the politics of corruption, however, it is important to deconstruct how corruption is framed.

In the progressive discourse, the social practice of distributing resources into a private network is framed as a misappropriation of public funds. In other words, the corrupt official takes something which belongs to the public and uses it for his own personal gain. This is rooted in a deep feeling of social injustice, as the official owes his position either to his professional merit or the public who elected him.

As it is the raison d’être of conservatism to uphold the traditional system, conservatives fail to see or acknowledge that the system is inherently flawed. Hence, in conservative discourse it must be immoral individuals who ‘corrupt’ society. Consequently, “bad people” must be “rooted out” and replaced with “good people”; “good people” meaning the traditional feudal and technocratic elites, who cannot be corrupted as they are not elected. In Thailand, this belief is rooted in a discursive justification built upon Theravada Buddhist culture, which attributes moral integrity to high social status as this status reflects the good karma collected in a former life. Consequently, to “root out” a corrupt politician, the yellow alliance seeks to suspend the very mechanism which elevated these immoral usurpers into their (not rightful) place: elections.

In The Vertigo Of Change: Angst Of Identity Loss

Middle class anger is fueled by more than moral outrage and economic fear. It is rooted in the fear of losing one’s identity in the vertigo of change. Rapid economic modernization has deeply transformed societies and led to the pluralization of lifestyles, identities and values. Traditional roles between genders, in families and in the workplace are being questioned. Those who seek change challenge traditional authorities and attack the symbols of the traditional order.

In Thailand, the symbolic struggle over the role of the monarchy threatens those who base their identities in the traditional order. Conservatives interpret challenges to the traditional order not as calls to build a better society, but as threats to their way of life. Mistakenly or not, these fears seemed to have been validated when several shopping malls in the center of Bangkok were torched during the course of the crackdown against the red shirt demonstrations in May 2010. Located near “Siam Square”, in the eyes of Bangkokians the center of the country, conservatives’ worst nightmares seemed to come true: “the buffalos have burned down the City of Angels”. This traumatic event was interpreted as another ominous sign that “Thai society is in decay”.

Socialized in a static cosmological order, many perceive change in itself as a threat. Unaccustomed to the idea of constant change challenges to the only true, virtuous and natural order of things are perceived as immoral rot. Those who seek “unity in harmony” are therefore traumatized by the chaotic and often violent politics of transformation. Different lifestyles, identities and values seem to undermine national unity, and corrupt “The Good Order of Things”. The permanent conflict and “moral decay” of pluralistic societies are interpreted as existential threats. Again, it is the fear of the “collapse of civilisation” which motivates “holy rage” and “crusades to root out evil”.

First As A Tragedy, Then As A farce?

If European history is any lesson, middle class angst and anger can be fertile breeding grounds for fascism. Against the vertigo of change, fascism promises to restore unity and order. The “disease of plurality” must be healed by uniformity. “The Other” outside and inside must be “rooted out” to heal the societal body. Those who are framed as “The Enemy Within” were being dehumanized, threatened to be thrown out of the country, verbally attacked and physically destroyed. Internal conflicts were exported by constantly blaming and attacking outsiders. As this cannot be done without violence, fascism idealizes the use of force and glorifies the purification through war.

Contrasting the “decay” of the present against an imagined golden past, fascist movements aim to turn back the wheel of history. The fascist utopia is basically the anti-thesis to the modern, pluralist and capitalist society. Fascism seeks to overcome the divisions of a fragmented society and the noise of a pluralist culture by melting all differences into a homogeneous, “people’s community”. The trinity of “One Nation, One People, One Leader” aims to purge the chaotic plurality of the industrial society and return to the mythical unity and simplicity of the “agricultural community”.

Given its objective to purge all diversity from the body politic, fascism sees no need in representing social groups in the political regime. The fascist political regime does not need elections because the will of the (singular) people is identical with and personalized in the Great Leader. The will of the (singular) people is, by definition, already symbolized in the Great Leader. All state authorities have to pledge allegiance directly to the leader. All obstacles to the execution of the will of the people symbolized in the Great Leader – such as checks and balances and indeed the rule of law –  must be removed. Hence the aggressive, violent and authoritarian tendencies of fascism are directly rooted in its ideology of fear.

The historical context, conflict dynamics and actors of today’s Thailand are different from Germany and Italy of the 1920s and 1930s. However, in the famous dictum of Karl Marx, history repeats itself first as a tragedy then as a farce. Fascism is thriving on the soil of fear and anger. In Thailand’s supercharged political conflict, with uncompromising elites, increasingly aggravated protesters and violence-prone groups on both sides, Europe’s tragic history should be seen as a warning not to repeat its mistakes.

Bringing The Middle Class Back Into The Flock

With Thai society inching ever closer towards a politically motivated violent conflict, the consolidation of democracy seems all but a distant dream. However, the middle class may not be the main driver of democratization, as previously thought, and without a solid foundation in the middle class democracy cannot survive. This outlines the need to bring the middle class back into the fold. To undermine the ability of political entrepreneurs and the allure of fascism, the fear and anger of the middle class must be addressed.

Thailand needs to find a new balance between the legitimate demands of emerging classes for equal political and social rights and the fears of old elites and the Bangkok middle class to be crushed by majority rule. Governments must understand that electoral mandates are not a free ticket to ram through their agenda. In a mass democracy, the acceptance of the middle class is imperative for successful governance. Winner-takes-all attitudes are not appreciated by this key constituency. Institutional arrangements to check the abuse of power and safeguard minority rights are plenty to be found in constitutions around the world. However, these anti-majoritarian institutions are unacceptable to the majority if they act in a partisan way outside the rule of law. In sum: social peace cannot be restored by institutional engineering alone, but must be founded upon a new social contract.

Thailand Needs To Re-negotiate Its Social Contract

The social contract cannot be imposed by one side, but must be a negotiated compromise. It is this universally accepted social compromise where the difference between a facade democracy and a real democracy lies. When the middle class realizes that their interests are best guarded by social justice, the doors to new social development will open.

However, the re-negotiation of the social contract will not be easy to achieve. Threatened by majority rule and mass politics, elites seek to safeguard their interests outside the constitutional framework. Given their financial, ideological and coercive power, these elites have the muscle to take any democratization process hostage.

Hence, building a democratic polity requires the political muscle. Unfortunately, genuinely democratic movements are marginal in Thailand. Protest movements are time and again abused by political entrepreneurs to advance their vested interest. Hopefully, those being abused will eventually understand that change needs more than protest and criticism. What is needed is a broad societal coalition where pro-democratic actors can join forces to struggle together for a democratic polity.

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  • Foreign Confidential

    Thank you for the fascinating, provocative analysis. After reading it, one can’t help but fear that globalized financial capitalism is creating a situation in which people are increasingly faced with a choice of, well, fascisms. Junta or Islamism (Islamic clerical fascism) in Egypt … Islamism or Baathism in Syria … and so on and so forth.

    More than ever, social democracy … global social democracy … seems humanity’s only solution, assuming a sincere determination to avoid repeating history’s horrors, and, given the spread of nuclear weapons and the threat of climate change, catastrophes that could indeed make the idiotic notion of “The End of History” (remember that idea?) a reality.

  • Shayn McCallum

    A very good, well-written analysis and I thank you for it. Just a minor point though- you mention Istanbul together with Bangkok as examples of the middle-class rage you are analysing, however I would say there is quite a fundamental difference between the situation here just a few months ago in İstanbul and the current situation in Bangkok. The uprisings here were not confined to the middle-class by any means and were a very clear example of a broad movement demanding greater democracy from a stifling, repressive regime. In Bangkok it appears that middle-class populism is rather driving a movement to do away with democracy altogether in the name of “clean government”. In fact, it seems like almost the absolute reverse of what we experienced in İstanbul in June.
    Your ultimate conclusion for Thailand is, however, probably as valid for Turkey as it is for anywhere else. I can only second the sentiment of the comment below by “Foreign Confidential” that we increasingly need a global social democracy to address the general malaise that has accompanied the globalisation of economics and the de-democratisation and functionalisation of politics.

  • milesinnz

    Excellent article… the issues are clearly put…

  • 220VOLTS

    An intelligent post from the Guardian …
    You’re simplifying a great deal. Having been out for a month in Thailand over November/December, and engaging in plenty of back and forth with Thais on the issue, there was a clear theme that emerged from those protesting: people who vote Thaksin are not intelligent enough to know what they’re voting for. An elitist attitude espoused by what is simply an energetic, ascendant middle class with one eye on their own interests being challenged. The rationale was weak and the passion high. Always a terrible mix.

    It’s very odd that you fail to mention the political instability of Thailand’s previous governments, and how Thaksin was an exception, and not the rule for serving our a full term.

    You also omit the work of Thaksin in attempting to spread wealth throughout the poorer northern parts of the country, and how the uprising IS a predominantly middle to upper class cohort championing an alternative that will serve their interests. These protests are a disaster for Thailand.

    Was there corruption with Thaksin? Tell me a government that doesn’t possess backhanders and shaky deals – the western governments are simply better at hiding it. Do these people seriously believe an unelected “People’s Council” will be magically less corrupt, when you consider the platform upon which they may gain control? Their flimsy logic is that an election can’t be fair – blithely dismissing the reality that the majority of voters have selected a government. Instead of appealing to those voters with their alternatives and their reason, they wish to run roughshod over the democratic process to impose a government on a majority that didn’t vote for it. Disgusting. And your comment here, Dave, “But the truth is more complex, with the protesters being arguably – and paradoxically – more democratically minded than the elected government they oppose” is laughable.

    Yingluck won an election fair and square, and the protests calling for a non-elected government is a move this newspaper should be standing against. It stands against every principle I think the left should be standing for. You, Dave, are openly championing the disenfranchisement of the majority that voted for a government in an open and free election.

    It’s baffling.

    • purplelibraryguy

      I agree completely. I notice this willingness to dismiss the agency of the lower classes both in this article, the responses to it, and in many other articles on the topic. Apparently the important thing here is that elites–the people who have everything–and the “middle class”–still a relatively small upper crust–don’t have their feelings hurt or feel like they’re not in control.
      So the majority, the people who are actually poor, the people enduring real hardship, the people whose daughters and sons end up feeding the predatory international sex trade . . . they should be saying “Oh, well, we won the election but we should just live with hunger and destitution a while longer until the rich can feel more comfortable with us getting some crumbs.” What on earth?!

      Sorry, but the rich and middle class should feel like they’re not in control. Why? Because they shouldn’t be in control, the majority should be.
      You never see elites hesitating to enact draconian policies causing massive misery on the basis of the slimmest of pluralities. And you rarely see anything in the press suggesting that banksters should be moderating the policies they’ve bought just because the majority is against it, if they have some kind of apparently legitimate authority in a position to push their agenda. In such situations, protesters are seen as softheaded idealistic fools at best, dangerous thugs at worst, and in any case as to be ignored. But if the disruption is on the elites’ behalf against the poorer majority who won the election fair and square . . . oh, that’s different, the majority need to pay attention and moderate their demands. Rubbish!