By John Weeks

[in January my new book will come out, Economics of the 1%: How mainstream economics serves the rich, obscures reality and distorts policy, Anthem, about $14]

The Italian fascists take to the streets. Mussolini on the March to Rome, 1922.

I just returned from Bangkok where anti-government protests dominate the local and regional news.  In the 1960s and early 1970s when I was radicalized, taking to the streets to protest was almost exclusively an activity of leftists, except for right wing demonstrations against the few progressive governments of the day (for example, the demonstrations against Salvador Allende in Chile in 1972-73).  In an insufficiently appreciated change, events over the last few years produced many examples of the effective use by the rich of street protests.

The decidedly reactionary character of many mass demonstrations throughout the world in recent years should remind us of an unpleasant historical fact. Street protests played a major role bringing to power reactionary dictators in the twentieth century, Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler being the worst.

Recent street protests in Bangkok fall directly into the reactionary tradition of the rich marshalling a mass base to overthrow a formally democratic government.  At the outset I stress that the story of the protests this month in Bangkok offers us few heroes or heroines.  It does, however, present two important political questions that could be viewed as tests of commitment to progressive causes.  First, when it is obvious that a conflict is a class struggle, should we support workers and peasants no matter how flawed the politics of their leadership?  And, second, do we consider formal democracy only a tactic that progressives can use to obtain power?

For forty years, mid-1960s to the mid-2000s, the economy of Thailand grew at an extraordinary rate, averaging close to seven percent.  At that rate of growth, income per capital doubled in fifteen years, and even faster as the population growth rate declined.  The distribution of the benefits of Thai growth spread in an unequal manner, especially over the last fifteen years, with real wages stagnant, incomes of rural smallholders squeezed, and profits rising dramatically.

At the beginning of this century a shock unsettled the Thai oligarchy:  it lost its monopoly over political power.  Previously appeals to reverence for the monarchy, outright fraud, and threat of military coup maintained prime ministers loyal to the forces of wealth and power.  However, in the closing years of the century there appeared on the scene an aristocrat to challenge the old guard and champion the cause of the lower classes, especially the rural and provincial workers and peasants of the north of the country.

This oligarchic of progressive change, Thaksin Shinawatra, was not and, now in exile, is not someone whose political tactics and record are easily defended.  One can accurately describe his period as strongly authoritarian, most notably in his infamous “war on drugs”.  His tenure as prime minister would end ignominiously in a military coup in 2006 and subsequent criminal convictions that twice sent him into exile, where he remains.

Not withstanding the public disgrace of Thaksin, the political party of the Bangkok rich and the south of the country, the Democrats, found itself unable to win an election.  In 2011 Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, won an election and became prime minister.

You may wonder why I go into this background about “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”.**  I do so to consider the question, what strategy do the rich pursue when electoral success becomes improbable?

The answer in Thailand is quite simple:  demand the end of electoral democracy.  The oligarchy sought to rid itself of the annoyance of elections through massive street demonstrations.  These demanded that the elected government resign and be replaced by a “transitory” administration appointed by the octogenarian king.  The protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, from the Democrat Party, presented as non-negotiable immediate creation of an unelected government.  That ex machina government would convene a non-elected assembly, which in turn would draw up a constitution with no gesture to the principle that governments rule through consent of the governed.

The legislative body created under the “reformed” constitution would consist of two sets of members, 1) people appointed by the king, and 2) representatives elected from “the professions”.  The new constitution would explicitly reject the principle of one person, one vote.  The oligarchy came perilously close to success in their attempt at reconstructing authoritarian rule in its pure form.

After several days of large demonstrations, lavishly financed by the rich, the prime minister Yingluck promised new elections in six weeks (2 February).  This promise represented a limited victory for the forces of reaction, which had little possibility of winning any election under one person, one vote rules.  Suthep rejected the proposal for a snap election, and promised his supporters that he would bring the government down by the end on the day, Monday 9 December.

The military agreed to meet with him, and much of the Thai elite assumed that the game had been won.  To the surprise of most Thais, after the meeting the head of the military expressed support for the 2 February election.  When I left Bangkok on 17 December, that is how matters remained – an election on 2 February and the forces of the oligarchy unsure of their strategy in light of a certain electoral defeat.

In this rather sordid story of a flawed democracy and an explicitly anti-democratic oligarchy lie lessons that resonate far beyond Thailand.  The apparently inexorable rise of globalization has created a political environment in many if not most countries in which the rich explicitly reject democratic institutions.  In the United States an overt attempt to eliminate the principle of one person, one vote is not yet acceptable in the mainstream.  However, we see its close relative, restriction of the franchise, spreading rapidly through mechanisms such as arduous voter registration procedures and expensive and mandatory voted identification documents.

The wealthy take to the streets. Protests in Thailand, December 2013.

The rise of the authoritarian right, lavishly funded, renders my two questions uncomfortably relevant.  In the United States in the next presidential election the best we can hope from the Democratic Party is a middle-of-the-road politician loyal to the demands of the more enlightened elements of finance capital.  We can be confident that the Republicans will nominate an incipient authoritarian intent on rolling back democratic voting procedures and anti-discrimination laws of every type.

Do we vote for a Democratic version of finance capital in hope of preserving extremely flawed democratic institutions? Or do we judge those institutions so flawed that saving them is not worth the effort of voting?  The latter position is encapsulated in the phrase, “things have to get worse before they can get better”.  When I hear that expressed, I think to myself, “if things getting worse” means authoritarian government, what will be the mechanism by which they get better?

Keep your eye on Thailand.  It may provide us with an insight into which position we choose, support the flawed or let the right destroy it.


*Title inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem, “On the Road to Mandalay”, which is less overtly colonialist that most of his poetry.

**Words spoken by British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in a radio broadcast in 1938 justifying an agreement with Adolph Hitler ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Germany.

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John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.