At the recent International Conference on Thai Studies, my colleage Nicholas Tapp presented a paper [tapp.pdf] on the work of anthropologist Andrew Turton . The paper discussed Turton’s work on ideology, violence and coercion and its relevance to an understanding of power relations in Thai society. In a long footnote/afterword to the paper, Tapp makes an extended comment on work by both Yoshinori Nishizaki and myself about local political culture. He raises some important an interesting issues and I reproduce his comment here in full:

A footnote – as an afterthought, I have to say that I find quite objectionable some recent views such as a recent article by Yoshinori Nishizaki in Asian Studies Review (‘Constructing Moral Authority in Rural Thailand : Banharn Silpa-acha’s Non-Violent War on Drugs’, Sept. 2007) which compares rural views of corrupt politicians in Thailand to the way Marcos or the Burmese leaders may be perceived as ‘rural heroes’ by farmers in villages. Despite the corruption scandals known to surround the figure of Banharn, he stresses that he is seen as a benevolent pho muang by some. In a view which purports to be postmodern but which may actually be more ethnomethodological, the argument is that there is no ‘essentially’ depraved or benevolent Banharn; it is all spin (my gloss) – what matters is how moral authority is constructed at the village and provincial levels, through the kind of village ceremonies and meetings with schoolchildren the article well describes. Villagers are ‘agnostic’ about Banharn’s corruption, the article argues, because they do not see it, but they treat him as a ‘virtuous leader’ because this is what they do see.

Criticising ‘false consciousness’ arguments, and the condescension of arguments that villagers need educating in what democracy really means, and specifically disagreeing with Turton’s 1984 ‘limits of ideological domination’ argument (this seems to imply that he believes there are no limits to ideological domination, ‘ideology’ is in effect all we have), it seems to me this kind of approach begs important questions of truth and levels of analysis which are barely touched by such descriptive accounts. (This follows the context of other works by Aghiros and collections by Ruth McVey and Kevin Hewison).

A forthcoming article by Andrew Walker (‘The Rural Constitution and the Everyday Politics of Elections in Northern Thailand’, Journal of Contemporary Asia, February 2008), puts this in a much broader perspective. This is similarly a critique of the ‘negative portrayal of rural electoral culture’, the view (by both political commentators and the recent coup leaders) that support for Thaksin provided ‘clear evidence of voter irrationality’, the view that the ‘Thai populace lacks the basic characteristics essential for a modern democratic society’ – which Walker, as in other articles, also associates partly with the communitarian valorisation of rural culture as against its commercialisation and the injection of large amounts of (as he sees it, necessary) cash – against the view of ‘gormless’ rural voters and a ‘failed democratic electorate’. Here the argument, following Kerkvliet, is for a broader understanding of local politics as involving debate and cooperations between groups and individuals over local resource allocation and the values which underpin it and, following Nidhi on the ‘cultural constitution’ in Thailand, that these local values embody a ‘rural constitution’ which shapes the processes of local elections and political behaviour.

Relations with the state are mediated through culturally embedded actors, argues Walker, and the skilful ethnography in this piece shows us how local voters do appear to particularly value leaders who are local, and will therefore understand local priorities, how they expect various forms of assistance besides monetary assistance from their representatives, and anticipate a certain amount of personal aggrandizement but not too much – and in the case of Thaksin took considerable pride in the economic achievements of the country and in his good English, seen as a sign of the educational status also much valued in the local perspective. Thaksin was also admired, says Walker, for his campaigns such as the war on drugs, which received considerable local support and commendation.

Again, the methodology owes much to Andrew Turton’s longstanding arguments for precisely this sort of analysis of local situations, yet the conclusions seem to me to merely reflect local ideological misapprehensions in a sadly mimetic way, with no attempt, in true postmodern style, to ask where truth may actually lie, or perhaps more pertinently, to probe alternatives to the dominant perspective, alternatives which may be barely discernible and certainly not overt. Besides local institutions of the state, the call in 1984 (Turton & Tanabe) was to look particularly at ‘non-institutional, informal, extrajudicial, sometimes illegal and subterranean, social forces, processes, and milieux’. There is no attempt here, for example, to deal with the power of fear and intimidation, to come to terms with the surveillance capacities of the modern state, or its powers to terrorize and the capacities of violence which the war on drugs unleashed at the local level throughout rural Thailand. That was an instructive case, for it was not just a matter of concerned village elders and a feckless minority of youth, criminals, ethnic minorities or other scapegoats, but a matter of very real conflicts and disputes, hatreds and enmities, between different individuals and indeed different categories of individual at the local level who resorted happily to the violence which had suddenly been legitimated, and therefore unleashed, in order to settle long-standing scores which run beneath the surface of village life. The appalling excesses of this time have been well documented, with cases of planting of drugs on victims after their deaths, the killing of children, and how local police fulfilled their quotas. In many areas there was open licence to shoot and kill those who stood in the way of particular alliances between local officials, police and drug dealers. In Khek Noi, a large Hmong settlement, extra-judicial killings had become almost the norm and an atmosphere of utter terror reigned.

In such literature there seems to be a worrying unconcern with ‘selective traditions’ (Williams 1977, 1980, in 1984), exclusions from discourse, ‘restrictive’ practices such as scapegoating and ‘excommunication’ (Therborn 1980, in 1984), the complexities of actual consciousness at any one time as a ‘multiply determined configuration of elements’ (1984), the relations between domination, persuasion, and consent, and the more structural aspects of power, indeed with what Reynolds in a literary context importantly called ‘state poetics’ in TCK (the rules about what can be said), which has become too diffuse to be grasped at all. Perhaps what is missing is class analysis. Perhaps that has just become too difficult, and too complex, for a largely interpretive anthropology.

There are many useful points here and now is not the time to respond to all of them. But I would like to make three brief comments.

First, in relation to truth. (By the way, having long been regarded as a crude materialist I am delighted to be associated with post-modernism!) The truth I was seeking to explore in the paper related to what motivated people to vote in one way or another. Here, surely, a focus on peoples own political views is legitimate. To explore the truth about the Thaksin government (was it corrupt?, what was its socio-economic impact?, how did the war on drugs unfold? etc.) would be an interesting exercise but it is not what I was attempting when I wrote about the rural constitution.

Second, I certainly was interested in providing insight into “alternatives to the dominant perspective.” The basic motivation for the paper was to challenge the dominant perspective in Thailand (and among many academics) that rural electors are incapable of rational political judgement. And in my discussion of local political values I went to considerable lengths to argue that support for Thaksin was by no means total, unchallenged or “rock solid” – indeed that was one of the main themes of the paper.

Third, in relation to violence. My view is that issues of “fear and intimidation,” “surveillance,” “terror” and “violence” need to be ethnographically explored rather than assumed as a necessary aspect of people’s relation with the state. An atmosphere of “utter terror” may well have reigned in the village of Khek Noi but based on my ethnographic observations it did not in Baan Tiam, the village I wrote about. Indeed, far from creating an atmosphere of terror, the war on drugs was often spoken of in terms of enhancing personal and family security by greatly reducing the local distribution and consumption of amphetamines.