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Nidhi Eoseewong: Thai politics through a Gramscian lens

Note: This essay was first published in Thai in Matichon over six months ago on 16 December 2014. The truths contained within it, however, remain unchanged. The NCPO remains in power and continues to exercise domination without hegemony.—translator. 
 
The ruling power of the state is comprised of two aspects. The first is domination, which refers to the control of the state apparatuses, such as the armed forces, the civil service, the organs of communication, etc.  The state that rules through domination becomes a large power unable to be countered. The state holds a monopoly on violence, and for this reason, is decisive in every single battle. But domination alone cannot endure. Domination can only be used in one way: to oppress and to subjugate. This is no longer acceptable in today's world. In addition, even though the jungle no longer remains, other spaces have emerged to which people can flee. For example, it is perhaps easier to escape given today’s communications systems, even than in the old days in which the jungle still existed. One does not need to prepare a lot of provisions nor must one’s family join one in flight.
 
Therefore, hegemony, the second aspect of the ruling power of the state, is no less important than domination. Hegemony is the cultural basis of acceptance of domination by the state. Weak states possess only domination, while strong states barely use it. If a state deploys only hegemony to rule, it is because the power of that state’s hegemony is so vast that it has created expansive acceptance across the totality of society. An insurrection or uprising by people of this or that group in society therefore barely impacts the state’s rule. There is no need to mention the criticism that is naturally open to everyone. 
 
In this sense, one could say that hegemony is more important than domination. This is because for a hegemonic state, hegemony is often so strong that it is difficult for anyone else to create an alternative hegemony that can compete. However, during some contingent moments in history, some “classes” (which do not have only an economic base, but refer to a critical and moral consciousness as well, or a shared awareness of “culture”) may meet with success in building an alternative hegemony. This destabilizes the existing acceptance of totalizing state power by the people.
 
No matter which “class” hegemony arises from, it is never a closed system, or a system of thinking and culture that remains motionless and at all unchanging. If it is able to do so, then to transform in line with new forms of consciousness in society, such as the acceptance of the rights of people of color, the acceptance of the rights and equality of women and LGBT people, etc., will serve it well. The reason is that this kind of acceptance does not destabilize hegemony’s basis, at all … are not black people, women, and kathoeys all products in the market [of competition for hegemony]? In contrast, any hegemonic body that attempts to remain a closed system and refuses to change displays its weakness and impending decline.
 
(Nearly everyone perhaps knows that this version of Antonio Gramsci is twice as simple and easy as the real thing.  This pruned down form is what my intellect allows me to understand. This is the first simplification. I have purposefully written in an even more pruned down form than my own understanding for the benefit of general readers. This is the second simplification.)
 
I think that if we view the Thai state and society at this moment of historical contingency from a Gramscian perspective, a particular understanding emerges. It is at once gravely concerning and brings new hope. Let me parse both the sorrow and the joy for you.
 
It is apparent that all that remains of the state seized by the NCPO is domination. From the moment of the seizure of power, the NCPO has used the state apparatuses, especially the army, to compel every side to bow down fully. At times they have used a surprising amount of force and weaponry in order to drive away unarmed groups that gathered to oppose the coup. The NCPO has to use hundreds of armed soldiers to arrest even a few people engaged in symbolic protest. The summoning of people for “attitude adjustment” in military camps continues up until the present.
 
Nevertheless, various new forms of protest that individuals have created to communicate in society continue to spring up. This indicates that measures that rely solely on domination are unable to keep people down.
 
It is not that the NCPO fails to recognize the importance of hegemony. The head of the NCPO put forward the 12 core values during the first period after the seizure of power. Various state apparatuses, such as the Ministry of Education, the central and local administrative organizations, and various media outlets under state control, have attempted to spread the 12 core values among the people. But if one looks at society’s response to the 12 core values, one would have to say that the NCPO has completely failed to construct hegemony.
 
The soldiers’ method of constructing hegemony has no hope of succeeding. This is because they only exercise domination. The harsh and repeated use of Article 112 amounts to setting up the enemies of the NCPO as the enemies of the institution of the monarchy as well.  The arrest or summons of people for attitude adjustment under martial law, even on issues which are not issues, further emphasizes and indicates that the NCPO does not hold hegemony in its hands at all. They cannot even hold on to existing, old hegemony.
 
I do not think that the leaders of the NCPO are unable to construct hegemony because they are all alumni of the cadet, naval, and air force schools. When I studied in the United States, I knew a number of West Point alumni. They definitely did not have the ability to construct hegemony. But they luckily did not live in a society that expected them to meddle with hegemony, whether to create it or to change pre-existing hegemony to be in line with transformations [in society].   
 
The question then is, in a state that lacks hegemony such as present-day Thailand, what choices remain for the rulers to continue to hold the state in their clutches?
 
Gramsci found that (European) history offered three possibilities. The first is the use of the force of the state apparatuses to suppress other “classes” that do not fully accept domination, such as in Russia during the time of the czars. The second is reform (transformisto) in order to seize land from all of the progressive “classes” that have the potential to create new hegemony. Simultaneously, they construct state power to dominate society until nothing remains. Under these conditions, those at the lower levels run out of ways to haggle with the state, because their leaders have been annexed by the state, or have all become members of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) or the National Reform Assembly (NRA). A historical example of this is Italy following unification of the country until World War I. The third, very interesting possibility, is the creation of a false hegemonic system. This is that the state rulers make themselves as if they are representatives a given class, but in reality they are not. This is in order to create an image of hegemony.  An example of this is Napoleon, who ascended to power by pretending to be a champion of the dreams of the bourgeoisie who had led the French revolution.
 
I think that the means used by the czars will not work in present-day Thailand. The position of Thailand in the global community will not permit it (it cannot be compared with Burma under Newin and the SLORC). In addition, use of this form of power will further lead to increased direct conflict, such as the massacre in 2010 which made confrontation with the masses in the city increasingly tense. This was completely different from the 6 October 1976 massacre. 
 
I would like to conjecture that the NCPO understands this matter well. From the beginning up until this moment, the NCPO has tried to completely avoid bloodshed.
 
It seems as if the method of reform is the one that the NCPO has chosen. But I would like to conjecture that it is has been unable to get results similar to those of political parties during unification in Italy. The reason is that the NCPO has been thoroughly unable to expand its networks and relationships to extend to the groups that are trying to create an alternative hegemony. As mentioned above, there are a great number of people who have fallen off the NCPO train, including both red and salim [those who claim to be neutral, but lean royalist-nationalist  — trans.] people. Gramsci said a great deal about the issue of building coalitions of both reform and revolutionary political parties.  Rather than speaking to this, allow me to offer in summary that the NCPO has neither the capacity nor the intention to do so. For this reason, there is no way that NCPO’s path of reform can lead to a state which lacks hegemony but is nonetheless sufficiently secure, such as in Italy during the period between unification and World War I.
 
As far as building false hegemony, the NCPO could do so by acting as a representative of the capitalist class. But I would like to tell them that if they are inclined to do so, they are unlikely to succeed. If one looks at the recent criticism of former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, or even the criticism of the deputy president of a given private business organization, in the increasingly competitive economy brought by globalization, Thai capitalists can survive via the oppression of workers and a context without corruption. I think that the NCPO cannot provide both of these things (at least they have been unable to do so up until this moment).
 
In the midst of such a choice which does not allow them to choose, and while the hegemony held by the state continues to diminish, to which alternative will the NCPO turn? What is very worrying is that with the short-sighted thinking of some of the leaders of the NCPO and their remaining capacity, they may select the tactics of the czars. If so, there will be another period of significant bloodshed in Thailand during the period since the uprising of the Communist Party of Thailand died down.
 
While noting the NCPO’s lack of capacity to create hegemony, I should also say that the NCPO is perhaps the unluckiest junta ever in the history of coups in Thailand.  This is because the NCPO took over the state during a period in which the hegemony which had once held it up was quickly disintegrating. The Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM) faced a similar situation in 2006, but it was not as severe. From then until now, hegemony in Thai society has rapidly disappeared. All that remains of the Thai state is the power to dominate, and the increased used of domination will lead to the swift cutting away of hegemony until even domination itself will fall apart and become unable to be exercised. Prior to the coup, compromise was the only alternative left for the government. There was no need for the compromise to be based on any principle at all, because once there is no more hegemony, no principles to which the state must adhere remain.
 
And as we can see now, the NCPO is attempting to resurrect and restore state apparatuses in order to once again revive their original domination, but have failed to create or rehabilitate it. I cannot predict how this coup will end. But I believe that if this coup ends without compromise among all sides, even though significant losses may ensue, it will be an opportunity to create a new hegemony in society for the first time in modern Thai history.
 
 
Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn