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Totalitarian Dictatorship

Regarding Pitak Siam, Khun Nattawut Saikua opined that there is no clear signal that anti-democratic movements can function in a coordinated fashion. Consequently, it is unlikely they will upend the political field. But they cannot be underestimated.

I agree with Khun Nattawut in every respect, particularly on this issue of not underestimating anti-democratic forces. But I do not accord any significance to the movement of these clowns, at all. What should not be underestimated is bigger than Pitak Siam. It is the tenor in Thai society throughout the last decade, which may lead us into a new form of dictatorship which is nearly totalitarian.

Let me first explain that ordinary dictatorship, which Thai people have been familiar with for many centuries, and totalitarian dictatorship are different. In an ordinary dictatorship, an individual or a group of individuals seize state power and categorically close off all space to their political opponents. They conduct the country’s dealings either for their own interest, the common interest, or a combination of the two. Ordinary dictatorships are backed by various power groups.  As for totalitarian dictatorship, it has to be supported by the mass. Totalitarian dictatorship endeavors to control the daily life of the people, or, actually, to control the brain, or the thinking of the mass as well (it caused the German aristocratic generals to  obsequiously  listen to the orders of Sgt. Hitler).

There has not yet been a totalitarian dictatorship, and many conditions make it difficult for there to be one, in Thailand. To put it simply:  it is that we are unable to “liquidate” a large number of people in the way that Hitler did with the Jewish people (and others). Or as Stalin did with  millions of people in Siberia. This is for the simple reason that we are not populous enough to be depopulated, or for the population to be reduced by that degree. Even Hitler was only able to devastate the Jewish people after he expanded and extended the territory of the Reich.

Therefore, the chance of Thailand becoming a totalitarian dictatorship is slim (even more so than Thailand becoming a full-fledged democracy).  But there are some notable characteristics of potential totalitarian dictatorship in Thailand.

I employ the work of Hannah Arendt, a political thinker, in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (and my own personal experience, which has not aided in making me much shrewder) to explain the unsettling direction emergent in politics over the last decade in Thailand. The trend is not limited only to the movement of the yellow shirts, but also includes the red shirts, the multi-colored shirts, and the clowns of Pitak Siam as well. This, in fact,  also includes Khun Thaksin Shinawatra, or even the political tenor preceding him as well.

Khun Arendt’s theory of the origin of totalitarian dictatorship is very exciting to me.  Totalitarian dictatorship begins from the loss of class as the basis of belonging in the nation-state. In Europe, World War I caused states built on class to wholly disintegrate. People who no longer felt class belonging became the “mass” or unattached individuals who were no longer connected to anything at all.

Socioeconomic changes over the past several decades have undermined traditional forms of belonging in Thailand. Families have changed from belonging within the broad kinship of the extended family to the limited belonging of the nuclear family. And even  the relationships within a nuclear family  are not very strong, as has always been mentioned by many about the weakness of the Thai family in various aspects. So, there is no need to speak of the belonging that Thai people used to have  with the temple (preceptors), with their friends, (If we have to move to make a living, how can we maintain  our belonging until death as we used to do before?), with their teachers, with their village, with their alma mater, etc.

If we are going to belong to anything at all, it seems as though it is to something as far from ourselves as possible. Such as nation, religion, king, or King Naresuan, Ya Mo, or Preah Vihear temple, etc.

The “mass” is being born or has already been born in Thailand.

Being an individual in the vast mass makes life bleak,  desolate and meaningless.  So individuals have to grasp those distant things  to hold on to. More importantly, these desolate individuals long to be politically organized, because being politically organized provides them with a clear meaning for their life. For example, they must go join the protest. They must wear a color shirt and feel unified with people who wear the same color shirt. Life comes to be lived to struggle for things they hold to be of the highest worth, whether it is nation, religion, king, or justice and democracy, etc.  

Many people have offered the observation that both yellow and red protestors yearn for community. I agree with this observation. But this is not community in its traditional meaning.  This is a new kind of community that clings together via “ideology.” This is not a community held together by kinship and the use of common resources as in the past.

When there is a mass starving for political organization, just like this, a movement in the style of a totalitarian dictatorship can emerge. This yearning does not emerge without cause. Khun Arendt explains that the mass that comes together as a “mob” (from Khun Arendt’s perspective, this is a group of people who were agitated to become the leaders of the masses) or that actually, the majority of the mass have never been interested in politics beforehand. They are people who earn a living from day to day, and are surrounded by feelings of desolation, a lack of worth, and being abandoned.

They feel abandoned by politicians, by bureaucrats, by the media, by everything that comprises their existence. Khun Arendt states clearly that when the classes in Europe collapsed, political parties collapsed as well. This is because political parties could no longer be the representative of a given group. In Thailand, political parties have never been the representatives of any given group of people. Bureaucrats have never recognized the mass. Both of these entities issue edicts which affect the mass, who have never had a negotiating voice.

The media are interested only in the politicians and the bureaucrats. Or individuals who do unusual things, such as rape and murder, or climb electrical poles.

It is always said that that people who come to join the red shirt protests are people who are politically naive.  In one sense, this is true. These are people who have not been interested in politics enough to join demonstrations with others in the past. But think about it again -- the dames and ladies who join the yellow shirts are the same.  Each is a demonstration of those who have been similarly abandoned. In contrast, the Assembly of the Poor, the anti-power plant group in Prachuab, the land reform groups, etc., were all uninterested. They did not join with any color at all. This is because these are people who were already interested in politics and already politically organized. They could not be agitated.

Think way back, those who tied cloths around the bellies of General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, Khun Banharn Silpa-archa, Khun Chuan Leekpai, and Khun Thaksin Shinawatra were also abandoned. Except they did not join demonstrations to demonstrate against those who abandoned them then. However, what is notable about this group is that they surrender themselves to the “leaders.” They did not politically organize themselves. They did not bring pressure to bear on political parties. They did not create media of their own to negotiate, etc. “Leaders” are their representatives. Khun Sonthi Limthongkul, Khun Chamlong Srimuang, Khun Jatuporn Prompan, and Khun Nattawut Saikua are representatives who can reach inside their desolate hearts.

If the only change in a society is from a society of groups or classes to one of individuals, it may not become totalitarian. Individuals in the society must first go through the process of becoming atoms (atomization). That is, they become separate units lacking relationships to each other or anything else. They cannot decide on anything. They spin without any intention of their own. They depend on the “mob” and the mob leaders to push them to revolve.

The desolate individuals, who themselves feel that they have been abandoned, are uninterested in the collective (such as politics). What is  important is their grave discomfort with the conditions of their being. This is a group ready to be transformed into atoms.  During Stalinist times in the Soviet Union, relationships within the family or with friends could become dangerous. Those accused by the state of being a class enemy did not have any friends or family who came to their aid. They immediately leapt to deny having had any relationship (with the accused). In 1984, even love was dangerous to the state. This is because love created a bond between two atoms, unrelated to their bond with the state. Atoms began to become individuals.
I have heard of many instances of husbands and wives, fathers and children, mothers and children, brothers and sisters, etc., in severe spats because one side is red and one side is yellow. This has actually happened to many people in Thailand. Color is often pulled out to be the basis of the relationship among friends. This demonstrates the atomization of a not insignificant number of Thai people.

The purpose of “Freeze Thailand” was to cut and reduce the connections with anything that seemed to be universal and diverse.

We arrive at the ideological aspect of totalitarianism.  There is none, or it lacks substance altogether, so to speak. This is because it is not the power of ideology that pulls the atoms into a “mob.” However, the majority of totalitarian ideology comes from ideas that thrive in such times.  These are ideas that can be simplified (and are simultaneously stupid), such as: anti-Semitism, the reduction of Marxist-Leninist theory to a theoretical remnant comprised only class struggle, nationalist sentiment for Preah Vihear temple, Thai politics cannot develop because politicians are bad, or “We Love the King,” which is not any kind of way out for the institution of the monarchy in the present-day world.   

The totalitarian mob does not imagine that it will come to hold political power (like the mob leaders of every color proclaim directly -- whether it is true or not is unimportant because they are representatives of a mob that truly feels that way). They are the people who were never interested in politics before. A large number of them are middle-class, from lower-middle-class to upper-middle-class. The mob is bored with politics. They deem politics to simply be a series of arguments. Politics is a waste of time from their work earning a living, as well as something that destroys their livelihood. Therefore, if they were able to arrange the purge and elimination of the politicians, the mob would like to return home to earn a living.  The totalitarian mob would permit the “good people” to administer the country, without being involved as well.

I think that all sorts of things in the past decade in Thailand could perhaps lead us into democracy, could perhaps lead us into totalitarian dictatorship. But there is no way that it could be full in either way. There are certainly many obstacles to both.  But to keep going in this fashion? That is perhaps impossible.

This is why I think they cannot be underestimated.

Source: นิธิ เอียวศรีวงศ์: เผด็จการเบ็ดเสร็จ, มติชนสุดสัปดาห์ 23-29 พ.ย. 2555.


Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn

Translator’s note:  Hannah Arendt (14 October 1906 -- 4 December 1975) was a German Jewish philosopher.  In 1933, Hitler’s rise necessitated her flight from Germany, and by 1941, she had resettled in the United States. Until her death, she wrote widely on totalitarianism, freedom, and political responsibility, among other topics. In addition to Hannah Arendt’s insightful assessment of the role of the mass in the rise of totalitarianism in interwar Europe, her chapters on propaganda and dispossession of law in The Origins of Totalitarianism also resonate in present-day Thailand. Here, both Ajarn Nidhi and Hannah Arendt’s analyses stand as cautionary tales of a possible future. The University of California-based Internet Archive has placed The Origins of Totalitarianism online in various freely-accessible formats to read or download. See here for links.


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