Translator’s Note: This is the second essay that Nidhi Eoseewong has written about Thai politics through an Arendtian lens. In late November 2012, in response to the protests of Pitak Siam, Nidhi drew on Hannah Arendt’s writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism to warn of growing atomisation in Thai society (read the essay in Thai here and in English here). Nidhi drew a sharp description between ordinary dictatorship and Arendtian totalitarian dictatorship. While Thais were well-acquainted with ordinary dictatorship, Nidhi commented that the difference with totalitarian dictatorship was the relationship to the mass. It was by and for the mass, it needed the mass and “endeavors to control the daily life of the people, or, actually, to control the brain or the thinking of the mass as well.” Today, writing about Suthep Thaugsuban and the movement of the “Great Mass of the People” (มวลมหาประชาชน), Nidhi instead argues that atomisation and totalitarianism politics have arrived, and warns of possible totalitarian dictatorship. The choice is stark and urgent, and the implications grave.
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 Nidhi Eoseewong’s and Hannah Arendt’s analyses stand as cautionary tales of the present and the 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.
Both in print and on television, I have warned that the (great) mass (of the people) has already been born in Thailand, and that the mass politics of the people could take two different paths. One path was the expansion of the democratic apparatus and political participation, if the apparatus and various institutions were prepared to adapt. Or the other possible path was the emergence of totalitarian politics. Without a (great) mass (of the people), totalitarian dictatorship cannot be born.
In saying this, I do not want to intimate that I am more brilliant or profound than other people. I also failed to foresee the swift appearance of totalitarian politics.
In the first article I wrote about totalitarianism, I drew on Hannah Arendt’s ideas. The political chaos of the last two weeks, and doubt and bewilderment as the movement of “The Great Mass of the People” of Khun Suthep unfolded, caused me to return to read her work once again. The puzzle which I am compelled by is not who is behind Khun Suthep, but why a large number of people (even if one does not count those who were brought from the south, it remains a significant number) joined the demonstrations against the government.
A totalitarian dictatorship can be born out of a political movement or it can emerge from the state, a state which transforms into a totalitarian state. But in Arendt’s view, a small state without a large population, such as Thailand, has no way of becoming a totalitarian state. However, this does not mean that a totalitarian-styled political movement cannot be born in a small state such as Thailand.
As I have already mentioned, the power base of a totalitarian dictatorship is the mass. This word does not refer to any given people, but to people who are free from all attachments that they once had, such as family, community, locality, religion, political parties, and even class (even slum dwellers can admire the royals and men of the Chuthathep family) [the Chuthathep family is a fictional family of minor royals who appeared first in a series of novels and then in the last year in a popular television soap opera—trans.] and have become singular individuals. Ajarn Kasian Tejapira argued with me and said that individuals can still think for themselves, and that to be correct, I should say that they were individuals who split off into separate atoms. Yes, absolutely. They are atoms who are unable to think anything aside from competing in the market in order to preserve their lives. They are the center of the universe. For this reason, at heart, their lives are bleak and desolate. They search for the meaning of life and find nothing.
Thai society is undergoing a transformation into an atomised one. The only attachment that remains in the lives of the atoms who comprise Thai society is the institution of the monarchy, for which there is “excessive” loyalty, especially among the middle-class. That the middle-class have become atomised more than others [classes] is an often-found phenomenon.
This makes it possible to surmise that the center of the totalitarian-styled political movement of Khun Suthep is in Bangkok.
Khun Suthep’s “Great Mass of the People” is comprised of atoms. If they were not atoms, they could not become the “human masses” (in Arendt’s terms). As they are atoms, they have been able to fuse into the “Great Mass of the People.” They were not fused together by Khun Suthep, no, they fused together on their own and included Khun Suthep as well. In this, they have found the purpose of their bleak and desolate lives: to be a part of the “Great Mass of the People.” This mass has a life and mind of its own, channeled through Khun Suthep. And, the “Great Mass of the People” speaks for all of the people.
So it is irrelevant to ask how many are in Khun Suthep's “Great Mass of the People.” Far from the number of 65 million, the population of Thailand. Totalitarian politics do not rely on numbers, but for whom one speaks. Where has there been a totalitarian regime that emerges from the voice of the majority? Even the Nazis, who obtained a majority in parliament, began as a gang of rogues in the streets and then included groups of people who failed in every aspect of life. Mussolini seized the state with a minority in parliament. The Bolsheviks were a minority, but were the representatives of the “Great Mass of the People.” The claim that Khun Suthep’s mob is a dictatorship of the minority is right on target and likely pleases the mob as well. The entire movement is because they want to be a dictatorship of the minority, the dictatorship of the “good people.” This desire to be a dictatorship of the minority is similar to that of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Aryan dictatorship.
Totalitarian dictatorship, no matter where it arises, destroys the principle of the democratic majority entirely. A majority that holds that every person is politically equal is the very problem. Everyone should not be politically equal — not when they have different levels of education, hold different shares in the country, and view the collective differently. Those who have allowed themselves to be swallowed into the “Great Mass of the People” will be equal with others who are solely concerned with the interests of themselves, their spouses, and children.
This is why you should not ask about the number of people involved. The “Great Mass of the People” will not know what you are talking about.
When the principle of the majority is destroyed, it dissolves the legitimacy of the institutions of the majority as well. The government that came from the approval of the majority in parliament is null and void. Even the parliament or assembly that gave the approval is null and void. The state offices that are under the direction of those who have become null and void inevitably are as well.
Everything is completely null and void. Or everything has been cleared out for the “Great Mass of the People” to create anew, or for a “good person” prime minister selected by the “good people” to be royally appointed.
The objection that all of this is unconstitutional is irrelevant because the “Great Mass of the People,” which claims to be the voice of the entire mass of the people does not intend to give legitimacy to the constitution, which has provided an opportunity for scoundrels to hold power. This has not yet been explicitly announced because the time is not right to do so.
Why has the political plan of the “Great Mass of the People” not been announced clearly yet? Arendt’s explanation is very penetrating. Any given project or plan turns the atoms into individuals, because they have to have one or another firm principle. If the atoms begin to hold principles, and have to think either to support or oppose [a given idea], they cease to be atoms. Then, the (great) mass (of the people) dissolves and simply becomes a mob in which each person has a different purpose. The fusing into the “Great Mass of the People” cannot occur.
This is why the movement of the “Great Mass of the People” is only planned from hour-to-hour and must slowly advance day-by-day. The goal or the plan is to destroy the “Great Mass of the People” itself. Do not forget that if there is a plan, when it succeeds or fails, then what next? The policies of the parties of Stalin and Mao changed every year, in order to make the “Great Mass of the People” always strong, alert, and engaged in battle.
Things must be found for the mob to do. Don’t simply demonstrate. This is the explanation in terms of tactics. But there is a deeper explanation at the level of strategy.
Khun Suthep’s “Great Mass of the People” has been criticised for violating the law in staging an insurrection. Sometimes they may have also been criticised for violating morals in provoking violence. Some people have dug up and “revealed” Khun Suthep’s past in order to lessen the legitimacy of the “Great Mass of the People.”
Extraordinarily, Arendt points out that this violation of the law and morals is one charm that causes the (great) mass (of the people) to collide and fuse with the leaders. Many leaders of totalitarian movements talk about their violent pasts with pride. Khun Sonthi Limthongkul admitted on stage how he had been a “villain” (his word) and now he had turned to dharmic practice until he was one step away from Angulimala. My simple explanation for this phenomenon is that the (great) mass (of the people) actively abhor the society that does not bring them happiness. The laws and morals of this society should be violated. This causes them to rise up to join together as the (great) mass (of the people). The violation of laws and morals strengthens their belief that the movement will lead to something new and better than their old lives.
A large number of those who have joined in Khun Suthep’s “Great Mass of the People” (discounting the mob that was hired and the people who were brought from his election district) did not join due to Khun Suthep’s rhetoric. They did not join for personal benefit. But you cannot say that they share an ideology with Khun Suthep, because ideology comes from pondering ideas and from significant argument and contestation. If they participate out of conviction of emotion and feeling, that is a reaction to being dissatisfied with their experience living in a society lacking any belonging, and it is also a state in which they cannot see any other exit. Khun Yingluck, the Pheu Thai Party, and Khun Thaksin are the concrete victims of this conviction of emotion and feeling. One day in the future, the concrete victims of this conviction will may change. I am confident that they will, and they may be the army or other institutions, such as the judiciary, or religion, or many other possible things.
This is because totalitarian mass politics inevitably and constantly needs to create enemies to function as the objects of hatred.
I may be able to refer to Arendt in order to understand Khun Suthep’s (great) mass (of the people) far more extensively. But let me stop with simply this, in order to say with certainty that Khun Suthep is clearly leading the “Great Mass of the People” in the direction of totalitarian dictatorship. Khun Suthep is not the first person to do so. But it has never been as clear as it is this time.
How can we move away from mass politics that are proceeding towards dictatorship? I think that elucidating the illegitimacy and illegality of this movement is something that must be swiftly done. Not in order to accuse those who have joined the demonstrations, because the (great) mass (of the people) will not hear us. But we must create greater understanding for those outside the movement, a not insignificant number of whom also live in the atomised society, so that they will believe that there is still a democratic option, if we give it a chance.
There is a mob like the “Great Mass of the People” in every atomised society, but it does not invariably have to hold the power to overwhelm alternatives in society like the mobs of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin or Mao. It depends on whether or not the majority of people in the society possess enough sense, forbearance, and understanding to not allow the (great) mass (of the people) to blindly lead.
All of us, including Khun Yingluck Shinawatra, in Thai society have arrived at a life-or-death critical juncture. If all of us help support Thai society to break loose from the option of totalitarian dictatorship this time, my grandchildren and Khun Yingluck’s children will have lives in which they can say whatever they think. They will be able to oppose and counter the thinking of other people, without having to be afraid that the (great) mass (of the people) will punish them by blowing whistles, detaining, exiling, or executing them.
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.