Wolfgang Streeck en de uitgestelde crisis van het Democratisch Kapitalisme

Wolfgang Streeck in het bezette Maagdenhuis

Wolfgang Streeck in het bezette Maagdenhuis, zie de hele lezing hier.

Veel te weinig mensen stellen zich de cruciale vragen van onze tijd: waarom lijken we als samenleving steeds minder te zeggen hebben over de cruciale economische vraagstukken en hebben we al dertig jaar lang te maken met neoliberaal afbraak-beleid en waarom is niet langer toenemende welvaart? Wanneer mainstream commentatoren zich al deze vragen stellen komen ze niet verder dan een dooddoener als ‘globalisering’. Wolfgang Streeck probeert juist de bovenstaande vragen te beantwoorden en komt met een historische analyse over de diepere oorzaken van de huidige crisis. De losstaande feiten van de oorzaken waren voor mij niet nieuw, die had ik allemaal al eens ergens eerder gehoord. Maar Streeck plaatst het allemaal wel in een overtuigend narratief dat tot op zekere hoogte wel nieuw is. Het is ook een verhaal dat vrij makkelijk is over te brengen naar een groter publiek en dat ansich is erg waardevol.

Sociale vrede op krediet

Streeck richt zich op het democratisch kapitalisme van het ‘Westen’ en hoe de crisis steeds wordt uitgesteld. Hoewel een land als de Verenigde Staten vaak een voorhoede rol opneemt, is de onderliggende dynamiek in vrijwel alle Westerse landen hetzelfde, ook voor bijvoorbeeld de Scandinavische landen, zo illustreren de talloze grafieken en tabellen. Het verhaal begint met het ‘postwar settlement’ dat na de tweede wereldoorlog onder dreiging van het communisme totstand kwam kwam, met een interventionistische overheid die de markt disciplineerde en zorgde voor toenemende welvaart en voorzieningen, wat we dus het ‘democratisch kapitalisme’ zouden kunnen noemen. Dit leidde tot ongekende groei en welvaart, maar eind jaren ‘60 begon de economische groei terug te lopen. Werkers waren in de jaren ‘70 echter nog militant en bleven loonsverhogingen en stijgende voorzieningen eisen, waarmee het verdelingsconflict tussen wat Streeck ‘winstafhankelijken’ en ‘loonafhankelijken’ noemt weer op de voorgrond kwam. Hierop begon het Kapitaal investeringsmiddelen in te trekken. Om de sociale vrede te bewaren stuurden overheden aan op een monetair beleid dat groeiende lonen mogelijk bleef maken, met enorme inflatie tot gevolg. Mede dankzij de oliecrisis stagneerde de groei ondanks inflatie; met het zogenaamde ‘stagflation’ als gevolg.

Halverwege de jaren ‘70 begon het Kapitaal het neoliberale project van deregulering en liberalisering om daarmee de interveniërende overheid terug te dringen en de markt weer het primair economisch allocatiemechanisme te maken. Onder het voortouw van Reagan en Thatcher brak men met de inflatie door de te rente te verhogen met stijgende werkloosheid tot gevolg, wat op de langere termijn de kracht van vakbonden en stakingen verder ondermijnde. De sociale vrede werd vervolgens gekocht door de (schulden-)staat, overheden staken zich massaal in de schulden om te voldoen aan de sociale zekerheid (waarop door de hogere werkloosheid vaker een beroep opgedaan werd).

De kapitalistische vrede was hiermee echter tijdelijk en niet duurzaam verlengt. In de jaren ‘90 begonnen regeringen zich steeds drukker te maken over hun schuldenlasten en vroegen schuldeisers zich af of staten hun schulden nog wel terug konden betalen. Onder Clinton ging men ertoe over om de begroting weer sluitend te maken. De meeste andere Westerse landen volgden het voorbeeld van de Verenigde Staten, al dan niet tot de orde geroepen door het IMF of de OESO. Maar nog steeds moest de sociale vrede bewaard worden. Deze werd nu gekocht door de groei van particuliere schulden, door middel van krediet voor consumenten (de proliferatie van creditcards), maar ook door hypotheken. Dit hielp natuurlijk ook om consumptie te bevorderen en daarmee de gevaarlijke achteruitgang van vraag tegen te gaan. De particuliere schuldopbouw is de derde (en tot nog toe laatste) manier waarop de sociale vrede kunstmatig in stand gehouden wordt. De particuliere schuldenlast steeg niet alleen gigantisch in de Verenigde Staten en Groot Brittannië, maar dus ook in de Scandinavische landen.

Er is kortom al 40 jaar lang een telkens uitgestelde crisis van het democratisch kapitalisme. Inflatie, staatsschulden en particuliere schulden zijn de drie op elkaar volgende ingezette methodes geweest voor groei- en welvaartsillusies, waarmee steeds tijdelijk tijd werd gekocht. Het is sociale vrede op krediet geweest. Neoliberale hervormingen bepaalden ook de voorwaarden van alle drie overgangen, ten koste dus van de loonafhankelijke bevolking. Het einde van de inflatie was het begin van de tot de dag van vandaag aanhoudende structurele werkloosheid (en daarmee een gedeeltelijke verklaring voor de zwakte van de vakbonden). Vervolgens leidde het terugdringen van de overheidsschulden in de jaren ‘90 tot bezuinigingen en de privatisering van overheidsdiensten. En met de particuliere schuldopbouw zien we het verlies aan spaargeld, verdere bezuinigingen en een nieuwe generatie die opgroeit met schulden. De hervormingen van de afgelopen veertig jaar komen neer op een definitieve poging om de kapitalistische economie en de markt te bevrijden van de massademocratie die deel uit maakte van het postwar settlement. Het lijkt er nu op dat het kapitalisme het nu zonder vredesformule moet doen van het op krediet gefinancierd consumentisme. Continue reading

Changing the world with Hollowayism

holloway (1)

This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time. I am very interested in theories of social change. It is a tremendously important topic but one that is rarely discussed among the left and very much ignored in academia. John Holloway is one of those few authors that made a well-known contribution to the topic, but reading articles about and interviews with him, it always seemed Hollowayism is a perspective that I very much disagree with. That is why this book was on my to-read list for a long time: what better way to challenge your own perspective than to read something you think you very much disagree with. I still disagree with Holloway, but this is also one of the best books I have read in the last year.

It starts out brilliantly with the first two sentences, a paraphrasing of Goethe´s Faust: “In the beginning is the scream. We scream.” While you don’t realize it in the beginning, this already includes the main epistemological implications that are worked out in the rest of the book. The introduction is brilliant, it’s angry and not holding back:  ‘we need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we feel to be wrong’. While the book is quite complicated, with many difficult concepts being introduced and discussed, it is also written as accessible as one possibly could at this level of theoretical sophistication and still very poetic at times.

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Sterilizing the City

yuppenterrasbaarsjes

In explaining people’s apathy in Northern European countries, many make the argument of how the ‘objective conditions’ are not ripe yet for massive protests, how things are simply not bad enough at the moment. This is bullshit. In the past there have been massive uprisings while things were objectively getting better. ’68 happened in a time of annual wage increases of 5-8% with new consumer goods that became affordable for the masses. Looking at the Netherlands, the ‘objective conditions’ are worse than in the ’80s. It has the most flexibilized labour market of continental Europe and unemployment rates are almost as bad as the worst in the ’80s. Besides that, being unemployed nowadays is a lot worse than in the past (getting benefits is a lot harder) and back then young people could decide to study an extra couple of years without being indebted for the rest of their lives.

But people have to know it. The average person doesn’t ‘feel’ the unemployment rate and the most flexibilized labour market. It has to be told. And it has to be told that it is really fucked up and that action has to be taken. Otherwise the average person will blame himself for being un(der)employed or will simply think of their part-time contract as normal. They will deal with their frustration individually rather than collectively. And that is exactly the problem currently. People turn to medication and self-help books rather than setting up action-committees.

There are many reasons for this individualization of collective problems. A major problem is that people simply are not being told. And when trade unions and leftist parties fail in producing a counter-hegemonic discourse of how fucked up things are and how things can be different through action, then it is up to the extra-parliamentary leftists to fulfill that task. And for a marginalized small group of people that is not backed by money or powerful connections, the easiest way to get your message across to a wider audience is by putting up posters and graffiti on the streets. But this is exactly something that is more and more repressed in many modern developed nations.

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Reflections on Violence – Georges Sorel

Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

Georges Sorel (1847-1922)

I ended up reading this book when I found it in a give-away library in one of Amsterdam’s social centers. I had heard of the book before, it’s one of those influential classics that probably almost nobody reads. As I’m quite interested in the question of violence for achieving social change, Sorel’s book on the functions of violence seemed relevant. Plus Sorel wrote about the role of myths in converting and motivating people, which sounded quite intriguing. And also the fact that Georges Sorel was supposedly Benito Mussolini’s favourite philosopher actually made me only more curious.

Now after reading it seems to be a hard one to review. I do think it was certainly worth the effort of reading.  It is written in 1906, before the world wars and before the Bolshevik revolution, but it is still easy enough to follow, especially after reading up Wikipedia on the Dreyfus Affair and characters as Jaurès. Sorel is also rather convincing. In fact, I’m quite sure this book may have turned me into a syndicalist from one day to the other if I had read it somewhere between 1900 and1930, but the world has drastically changed and we live under completely different conditions now. Sadly, there are (for as far as I know) no books around now that would have such a convincing answer of what needs to be done in order to achieve lasting social change. For me, the struggle with this book is determining in which ways Sorel’s ideas and concepts can be made relevant to today’s world. Consider this review to be an attempt.

Let me first start by explaining why Sorel may have turned me into a revolutionary syndicalist before 1930. It is actually the purity of his revolutionary strategy that I really like. There is nothing like it today. The puritanism of Vaneigem seems just to be about following his own egoistic individual desires, while for Sorel there are also no compromises, but there is still a coherent strategy that is logically deduced from Marxist theory. It is the myth of the general strike that reflects the fundamental principles of Marxism. Firstly, it intuitively shows how society is divided into two antagonistic blocs, namely the proletariat (the producers) and the bourgeoisie. No philosophical explanation is necessary, the general strike makes all oppositions extraordinary clear. Secondly, it entails that rebellion is necessary for capitalism to disappear. Workers could be tempted to the capitalist order of things, through capitalist philanthropists and parliamentary socialist promises, but the myth of the general strike will keep them in a state of revolt, plus the class war perspective will prevent the masses from turning to other reactionary forms that could help them loose their anger. Thirdly, to partisans for the general strike, even the most popular social reforms will look silly. Finally, the brilliant thing is the anti-elitist implications. With the myth of the general strike there is no need for intellectuals thinking for the masses, no party line, no leaders.

“These results could not be produced in any very certain manner by the use of ordinary language; use must be made of a body of images which, by intuition alone, and before any considered analyses are made, is capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments which corresponds to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by Socialism against modem society. The Syndicalists solve this problem perfectly, by concentrating the whole of Socialism in the drama of the general strike; there is thus no longer any place for the reconciliation of contraries in the equivocations of the professors; everything is clearly mapped out, so that only one interpretation of Socialism is possible. This method has all the advantages which “integral” knowledge has over analysis, according to the doctrine of Bergson.”

A problem for relating Sorel’s myth of the general strike to the Netherlands in 2013 is that for Sorel the proletariat is only the producers. And what Sorel in 1906 categorizes as producers does not include retailkeepers, and also not the foremen that are less likely to join the strike. I certainly don’t think that class analysis is no longer relevant. You can certainly still divide society into two antagonistic blocs, those who control the wealth and means of production and those who have no control over the means of production and have to work for a wage. But limiting the possibility for social change (through the general strike) to what Sorel uncompromisingly and narrowly defines as ‘producers’ is no longer relevant for 21st century developed nations. It’s hard to imagine how syndicalism on itself can lead to revolutionary change. As for the historical record, revolutionary syndicalism did have quite the impact and potential. Having recently read a bit on Gramsci’s involvement in post-WW1 Italy, Turin was a hotbed of lengthy general strikes that were beyond control of the Italian Socialist Party (and subsequent Communist Party) or intellectuals that wanted to think for the masses. Similar events transpired all over Europe. But everywhere, they were in fact beaten down by the freikorps and similar paramilitary fascist organizations. It seems that the myth of the general strike and proletarian violence was not enough for the producers to actually win the revolution. Unfortunately, if we look in history (with some exceptions) it seems that labour militancy at best achieved social reforms and led to fascist reaction every time the masses demanded more than just a piece of the cake.

Fiat factory occupation in Turin in 1920

Fiat factory occupation in Turin in 1920

Now let’s progress to the question of violence. It is first worthwhile to remark that Sorel makes a distinction between violence and force. Force is what the governing minority uses to impose the social order, violence are the acts of revolt to destroy that order. He then notes how violence is also useful for parliamentary socialism. Without exceptional circumstances created by striking and rioting, the parliamentary power of socialists is reduced. It is in these exceptional circumstances that parliamentary socialists (/social-democrats) take up the role of peace-makers, scare the middle-classes into conceding reforms to restore order. Also without the consent of socialist leaders*, “[workers] endeavour to intimidate the prefects by popular demonstrations which might lead to serious conflicts with the police, and they commend violence as the most efficacious means of obtaining concessions. At the end of a certain time the obsessed and frightened administration nearly always intervenes with the masters and forces an agreement upon them, which becomes an encouragement to the propagandists of violence. ”

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Europe and the crisis

Note: I have written the below for myself in order to make sense of the euro-crisis that I have been following over the last year. It is basically a long summary of the different perspectives and theories that for me made the most sense. Writing them out allowed me to process it and put out my own thoughts in a somewhat coherent way. If other people get something out of it by reading; great. I would of course be glad to hear criticism/feedback or whatever.

The Eurocrisis

It is maddening. The amount of bullshit that you hear. The constantly repeated myths of lazy Greeks and profligate South-European governments. The unquestioned acceptance for the need of austerity. The Dutch media implying that staying within the EU mandated 3% government deficit is in the national interest. Suggesting that failing to do so will put “our children” and future generations at risk. Dismissing  anyone who disagrees with that as a populist similar to Geert Wilders. And the fiscal pact that is about to be ratified is left undiscussed. And now also with Christine Lagarde offensively suggesting the problem is that common Greeks are not paying their taxes and that they should not whine as the little kids in Niger suffer so much more. Oh yes, of course, the IMF has done so much to help the little kids in Niger. Rather than blaming Greeks or profligate governments and being all moralistic about paying taxes and spending, it is important to make sense of the structural problems that are inherent in the eurocrisis.

And most of it is really not that difficult. Lets start with Greece. Greece is in the worst position obviously, but I can promise you that if it weren’t for Greece, the financial markets would be ganging up on another European country. Merkel and co now seems to believe that they may be able to get Greece safely out of the eurozone without the whole thing collapsing and to then just wait it out (for the economy to magically kickstart I guess). But that’s not going to work out. And the economies are too interconnected to allow for bigger countries than Greece to fall.

Another important thing to point out is that all the so-called “PIIGS” (Portugal-Ireland-Italy-Greece-Spain), as is the commonly used degenerate term, are all different from each other and all have different reasons for why their economies are currently in such a mess. There is a dominant media narrative out there that blames the crisis on profligate Mediterranean governments, but this narrative is blatantly false. Spain for example ran budget surpluses until 2008, unlike ‘profligate’ Germany that did not even manage to stay under -3% for 4 years in a row during the ‘boom’ as mandated by Growth and Stability Pact (which they bargained for themselves – of course Germany did not have to pay the corresponding fines) .

And then came the economic crisis. After the collapse of Lehman Brothers the powers that be did not want that to happen again and started bailing out the banks that started falling like dominoes. European governments were pressured (also by the EC and other external powers) to bail out their over-leveraged banks (that took too high risks, allowed for by regulation pressured by the EC). Suddenly European countries spend trillions saving their banks. A government debt crisis ensued. Borrowing rates are much higher than the growth forecasts, leading to a debt trap. Financial markets started speculating against the apparently weaker peripheral European countries, so they could no longer borrow money from the private markets at reasonable rates, and borrowing from the core European countries at (barely..) better rates included conditions for neoliberal austerity – worsening the peripheral countries’ growth perspectives even more.

The structural problems inherent in the European Monetary Union (which plenty of people saw and warned for in ’99 but were ignored) became apparent. Only the ECB can print money. The ECB follows neoliberal monetary policy under which it is independent of government (and “populist appeals”) and is just there to maintain a low inflation rate. Member states gave up their monetary sovereignty to the ECB and the Stability and Growth pact was there to bring convergence on the inflation, interest, growth rates. But what we are stuck with is a Eurozone with one common monetary policy, while other socio-economic policy is on a national basis. A monetary union without fiscal union. JPMorgan recently looked whether the right conditions to set up a monetary  union in Europe and they found an astonishing amount of differences between the Eurozone´s member states in key variables. They compared it other hypothetical currency unions and it turns out that the “euro zone is the most implausible currency union of them all. It would be slightly more realistic, in fact, to bind together all the countries in the world that began with the letter “M””. The monetary union still worked while the economy was growing (even though it was partly credit-driven, especially in the “PIIGS”), but the uneven development within the Eurozone was brutally exposed when the economy came crashing down in 2008.

The Eurozone has been very good for capital that can freely move across borders looking for a profit to make, especially the big multinationals (often from the core countries) have benefited immensely. The European member-states however end up competing with each other in order to attract this capital. A race-to-the-bottom in order to improve competitiveness ensues.

Conventional wisdom proclaims there are two ways for a country to become more competitive. One is external devaluation, when individual countries run their own currency, they can print money, devaluate and thereby become more competitive. This is ruled out in the Eurozone, as only the ECB can print money [this is also why the UK outside the eurozone can run its current budget deficits without consequence]. The other way to become more competitive then is internal devaluation, which is is to reduce labour costs. Germany in the last 20 years has been quite busily doing just that, with even the German social-democrats (forgetting their old ideals and becoming neoliberals) increasing precarious employment with so-called “mini-jobs”, striking an union-employers agreement that agreed on lower wages in return of low unemployment, and by keeping wage increases under inflation.

According to neoliberal dogma the rest of Europe then has to compete against all that by lowering their own labour costs. That’s where this Holy Austerity Crusade comes from with the troika (ECB-EC-IMF) and Merkozy demanding wage-freezes, lower minimum wages, removal of pensions, cuts in public spending. Leading to unprecedented levels of social collapse and misery, with their economy going down by a fifth since 2007, with pensioners going through the garbage looking for food, suicides going up 22% a year, young people becoming drug addicts, with people being underemployed and not even having the money to pay the electricity bills. Looking at the mass levels of unemployment and increasingly lower economic forecasts, internal devaluation by lowering labour costs is simply not working. Low labour productivity has not been the cause of the problems of the “PIIGS” and lowering labour costs won’t the solution. The idea of Germany outsourcing jobs to Greece is nonsensical when East European countries with much lower costs of living are taken into account.

Unit labour costs index = 100, start = 1995
“Convergence gave way to divergence in the ability of each Eurozone state to compete. That can be measured by the costs of capitalist production: Germany just outperformed the likes of Greece, even though Greek workers put in the longest hours and were paid the lowest (see my post, Europe: default or devaluation,16 November 2011). Look at unit labour costs. Germany’s hardly moved as wages were held down and productivity was high. Greece’s rose 35% compared to Germany’s even though Greek productivity increased and labour toiled.” (From Micheal Roberts – Euro Calamity 12-12-2011)

But the powers that be are so stuck in their neoliberal dogma they just keep repeating the same lines. Unelected technocrats like Mr Mario Draghi of the ECB declare the social welfare state to be death. The people rightfully disagree with 11 governments collapsing due to the crisis so far.

The new constitutionalism of Europe

The pressure on European welfare states to balance budgets by cutting social spending comes external forces outside popular accountability; financial markets, foreign states, and in this crisis most importantly; the troika of EC, ECB and the IMF. In effect, European member-states have to put on the so-called “golden straitjacket” as coined by NYT columnist Thomas Friedman, shrink the state and privatize or suffer. But unlike what the hilarious writings and analogies of Friedman and others might want you to believe, this straitjacket is not something inevitable or natural phenomenon, but rather something that comes from political choices made by human beings.

It is important to note that what the periphery of Europe is going through currently is not exactly new. Their experience closely echo what Latin America and much of the third world went through since the 80s, which also had the IMF (together with the World Bank) put neoliberal austerity conditions (structural adjustment programs) on its loans, forcing poor countries to demolish their public sector and to privatize  basic public services. The world’s core-economies used its creditor status to the periphery through the IMF and World Bank to force these developing economies open for capital accumulation, to turn them dependent on exporting (raw) commodities (by foreign private companies), and to open up their labour markets to exploitation by companies from the core-economies.

A concept that helps us to make sense of how sovereign states are restrained in what economic policy they can pursue is that what Stephen Gill calls the ‘new constitutionalism’. Constitutions function as a control mechanism that set out the rules of governance and that restrain those in power on what they can do.  The new constitutionalism then is a process that aims to shield the new global political-economic structures from democratic rule and popular accountability in order to grant privileged rights to corporate capital and large investors. It is all about market efficiency, discipline and confidence. Policy credibility and consistency viewed in the light of neo-classical economic theory. Measures are taken to reconfigure the state apparatus into facilitators of market values and market discipline. This new constitutionalism has been deliberately pursued by international institutions as the IMF, World Bank and WTO, and the world’s most powerful states. The separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ is redefined, market policies are ‘locked-in’ externally (under the WTO for example; nations are in many ways prevented from defending their national industries), and elected governments are no longer able to do decide over the most fundamental.

The new constitutionalism can be seen as most central in the European Union. The European Monetary Union has been a long term project to abolish popular influence on macro-economic policy. A substantial amount of all regulation (some say over half) now comes from the EU, over which mostly unelected eurocrats in Brussels have decided, often in cooperation with unelected lobbyists from the corporate world. The fiscal pact that was signed by 25 of 27 member states at the previous EU summit will entail another serious escalation in the new constitutionalism of Europe. They call the pact a “fiscal stability union”, but “rather than creating an inter-regional insurance mechanism involving counter-cyclical transfers, the version on offer would constitutionalize pro-cyclical adjustment in recession-hit countries, with no countervailing measures to boost demand elsewhere in the eurozone. Describing this as a ‘fiscal union’, as some have done, constitutes a near-Orwellian abuse of language“. As with the Sixpack it will essentially imply sacrificing democratic participation on macro-economic policy in favor of imposing austerity on the member-states. The fiscal pact will enforce fiscal budget balancing by adopting debt brake and an automatic austerity mechanism. These measures are signed up as a treaty under international law so it can sidestep European law, which would have assured at least some democratic and judicial control within the EU. Furthermore, national governments are pressured into ratifying the treaty as it used as a pre-condition for receiving aid from the European Stability Mechanism (the new bail-out fund for when the crisis hits again). Considering that currently 24 out of 27 EU countries are currently running a deficit, this will in essence mean constitutionalizing “austerity forever” and put the right to collective bargaining under further assault.

The crisis of capitalism

It is important to link the eurocrisis with the wider crisis of capitalism in the Western world. Although the total government debt compared with GDP for Eurozone countries is much lower than that of the US, solving the structural problems within the Eurozone would refocus the attention of the financial markets and media towards the US. But even then, with the eurocrisis resolved, Europe would still be part of a world that is unlikely to return to the growth periods we saw in the 20th century, especially in the Bretton Woods period after WW2.

After the oil crisis of the 1970s and the end of Bretton Woods the world economy saw an increasing amount of recurrent crises that started following up on each other on increasingly shorter intervals. The boom and bust cycle of the core-economies has been getting shorter and shorter. The Great Recession that we have been in since the housing bubble in the US burst in 2007 has seen lowest recovery since the Great Depression; a jobless recovery even though fortune 500 corporations and Wall Street were promptly highly profitable again. Many European countries, including the core-economies, are slipping back to recession. It is time to question why this is the case, to find out where the Great Recession came from, and why a normal recovery is not coming around. In other words, it is time to question the structural underpinnings and assumptions of our capitalist system. These are questions that are ignored by the mainstream media and economics, as Nouriel Roubini argued: “Crisis economics is the study of how and why markets fail.  Much of mainstream economics, by contrast, is obsessed with showing how and why markets work – and work well.”

So what is the official line of where the great recession came from? They did not see it coming, claiming it was a black swan, a perfect storm that can only come together once or twice a hundred years. Alan Greenspan found out that his ideology was not right, that it was not working . The dominant neoclassical school was obsessed with its beautiful mathematical models, turning a blind eye to human irrationality and market imperfections. The finger is then pointed at deregulation, banking gone wild with deriviatives and packaged securities of which trillions are traded but which almost nobody is really able to value. This financialization that had less and less to do with the real underlying economy however also happened for a reason.

There is the underconsumptionist thesis which links increased inequality with an increased risk of major economic crisis. The argument here is that lower consumer demand can lead to a recession, especially when this is not counteracted by for example public spending as proposed by the Keynesians.  In the last 30 years wages have stagnated relative to productivity (they used to go up together in the golden decades of capitalism post WW2), as the rich have been fighting class war and have been winning in the words of Warren Buffet. And the decrease in wages leads to lower consumptions; this was countered by extending credit to households (creditcards for all!), but that cannot go on forever, it´s a debt bubble that has to burst and this first happened in the subprime mortgages.

Following this logic through shows that less money going to labour and the increased inequality (which greatly increased almost everywhere the last 30 years) that comes with it greatly destabilizes the system. The rich at the top and corporations have an increasing amount of money to invest with a decreasing amount of profitable places to invest in due to underconsumption (overproduction being a different side to the same coin). A dominant myth is that it’s good for corporations and rich people to have loads of money as they are the ‘job creators’; give them tax-breaks and they will invest in innovative businesses that will create jobs. In reality, instead of reinvesting profits in expanding their activities, corporations prefer to pay excessive bonuses to their executives, pay out dividends to shareholders, or engage in financial speculation. While governments are forced into austerity and unemployment remains high, US corporations are hoarding more than a trillion dollar in savings (it’s the same in Europe – Dutch businesses have over 210 billion in corporate savings). Instead of investing it in the real economy and ‘creating’ jobs, capital is pumped it into speculative bubbles all over the world (leading to increasingly short boom and bust cycles). An abundance of cheap labour abroad, the ensuing offshoring, and new technology and automation of production further depresses the share labour in the core-economies receives from corporate profits.

An alternative theory that corresponds with most of the reasoning outlined above comes from Marxists that look at the declining profitability of capitalist production. This theory is however fundamentally different on an important aspect. It doesn’t see neoliberalism as a political-ideological movement, as class-warfare waged by the rich, but as the result of limited political choices that comes from the problems inherent in the capitalist production process that became increasingly problematic in the years of stagflation in the 70s after the golden years of capitalism. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall argues that improvements in technology and higher productivity, while increasing the amount of material wealth, lower the profit that can be extracted out of (productive) labour, leading to crises and “poverty in the midst of plenty”. This lack of profitability rather than lack of ‘effective demand’ (/underconsumption) then explains the financialization that we have seen since the 70s, in which stockbrokers attempt to turn money into more money by inventing increasingly complicated ´ficticious capital´ (derivatives etc). But when this over-investment in credit markets is not backed up by real profitable investments in the global economy the bubble bursts, hence the great recession. The theory is logical and sounds convincing. Empirically proving it is however a different matter. There are many disagreements on how to calculate the rate of profit. I am not an expert and find it hard to judge the arcane and heated debates that Marxist economists have on this issue, but I can recommend the writings of Andrew Kliman, Micheal Roberts and Choonara’s write-up.

What both the underconsumptionist and falling profitability thesis have in common is that we should stop accepting the attack on so-called ‘entitlements’ and that it is time for a fundamental rethink. Think about it. In many ways we have never had it this good. In much of Western-Europe we have constructed welfare-states, where people that are unfortunate enough to become sick are taken care of and treated in modern hospitals without ending up indebted for the rest of their lives, where people unfortunate enough not to find a job receive help from the government and do not become a burden on their families and community, where people after a life of work can enjoy their well-deserved pension. We have beautiful modern technology. Smartphones with access to internet everywhere. Small machines which fit in your pocket, that can stream all the music and movies of the world. More people than ever enjoy modern housing that is keeping us dry and warm. Relatively speaking we have never had this few people producing food for billions of people. Much hard manual labour has been replaced by machines and robots. Assembly lines require less people than ever before. Productivity has skyrocketed. Why then is it still expected that people work 40 hours a week? Why then are our hard-fought social securities going down. Why then is the newest generation the first generation since WW2 that is beyond doubt worse off than the previous generation? Why are these questions not asked and do we simply accept the austerity and increasing social misery as a given that we will just have to live with?

Margaret Thatcher’s mantra of there-is-no-alternative (TINA) is often repeated. Fact is however: there has to be. For the sake of humanity there has to be. In this day and age it is still hard to imagine a live outside our capitalist reality. The people thinking out alternatives often seem utopian, but the real utopians are those who think the current neoliberal order will be the best for humanity. Because where does this endless drive of deregulation and privatization lead us? What exactly is this end game they envision, these so-called liberal-democratic states in a free-market capitalist world in the supposed end of history? Is this truly the final goal we as humanity can achieve, is there nothing better? To be endlessly dragging ourselves down to become more competitive? You really think that this will lead to a point where there’s a world’s labour force of 5+ billion people employed in 9 to 5 jobs and where everyone is able to live on a decent standard of living? That to me seems like the real utopianism.

Neoliberalism as a world agenda or even as a European one is also easily discredited. These reforms in order to become more competitive by lowering labour costs also lower the world’s total capitalist investment, as the market becomes smaller due to lower demand (because workers can buy less). Individual regions and countries´ manufactures may increase production by following a neoliberal agenda due to a reduction in labour costs, but it comes at the expense of the rest of the world. Stagnating wages (relative to productivity and even inflation) and flexibilization of the labour market with “mini-jobs” may have been quite successful for Germany, but it comes at the expense of the rest of Europe. It’s a race-to-the-bottom basically and it’s the utopian aspect of neoliberalism that they never think through the bigger picture of their reforms. The new constitutionalism with the reforms of the Washington Consensus through the IMF, WB and WTO were good for Western corporations and capital, which in theory trickles down to the common people in the Western world, but as a result of the reforms all over the world, the West-European model of social-democracy is under threat as well. In the wider perspective we’re all going down because of the neoliberal reforms. These are basically capitalist grounds on which the neoliberal agenda has to be opposed. If they want to save European capitalism, the folks in Brussels better start to listen.

Idealisme en de nieuwe generatie (Dutch)

De afgelopen decenia is er een beeld gecreerd van onze generatie als de eerste echte post-ideologische generatie. Tot voor kort leefden we zogenaamd in Fukuyama’s  ‘end of history’, een wereld waar het kapitalisme gewonnen had, met onze liberale democratie als eindpunt, waar geen plek was voor de grote collectieve ideologien. Verder zijn we apatisch, opgegroeid met tv, vooral met onszelf bezig in onze comfortabele consumenten leventjes, en te ´realistich´ voor het ‘naïeve’ idealisme van onze ouders’ generatie. Wij vormen de zogenaamde ‘ik-generatie’, individualistisch en extreem narcistisch, waar alles buiten onze directe leefomgeving er niet zoveel toe doet. Dit beeld van de nieuwe generatie is grotendeels onzin. Er zijn genoeg jongeren die vol zitten met idealisme,die nieuwsgierig zijn naar hoe de wereld in elkaar steekt, die vol zitten met empathie voor minder bedeelden, en die zich wel degelijk zorgen maken over bijvoorbeeld klimaatverandering en de apocalyptische proporties van rampen die ons daarmee te wachten staat. Het idealisme is er wel. Het probleem is echter dat de energie van dit idealisme in de verkeerde plekken gestoken wordt.

Nou laat ik mensen die hun idealisme omzetten in het consumeren van de juiste producten (van Max Havelaar producten tot een Toyota Prius) even buiten beschouwing. Ik wil het bijvoorbeeld meer hebben over de jongeren die na hun studie (of tijdens), vol idealisme, aan een slecht betaalde (of onbetaalde) stage beginnen bij een non-profit, waar ze terecht komen in een geprofessionaliseerde werkomgeving, met 9-tot-5 kantoorwerk, waar het probleem van fundraising een centrale rol inneemt, en waar marketing (wat nog altijd niet veel meer is dan het manipuleren van mensen) vaak een nog grotere rol speelt dan voor een multinational. De afhankelijkheid van private en publieke donors voor financiering en de wil om maar toegang te blijven houden tot multinationals, regeringen en hun conferenties leidt tot een politiek van compromis. Bovendien zijn het in deze geprofessionaliseerde organizaties vaak ook nog de carriére-mensen die omhoog klimmen en het voor het zeggen hebben of krijgen. NGOs richten zich vaak op allerlei belangrijke (maar niet fundamentale) side-issues, die allemaal binnen de logica van de ‘vrije’ markt (en het systeem) worden behandeld. Eén van de gebruikelijke bezigheden is het promoten van bijvoorbeeld ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), terwijl het  doel van een multinational vrijwel altijd het maximalizeren van winst voor aandeelhouders zal zijn (een legale verplichting zelfs), waardoor CSR nooit veel meer dan een marketing gimmick zal zijn (of een excuus om broodnodige overheids regulatie te vermijden). Kortom, non-profits zijn over het algemeen volledig gecoöpteerd door de dominante politiek-economische structuren. Het zijn plekken met geen enkele vorm van systeem kritiek, waar al het idealisme uit je gezogen wordt. Het is dan ook niet gek, maar wel typerend, dat zelfs ‘gewone werkende’ (en tot voor kort ‘post-ideologosiche’) Amerikanen in de recente Occupy protesten al snel uitkomen op wereldperspectieven en slogans die in radicalisme veel verder gaan dan die van de grote meerderheid van NGOs.

Een andere vorm van activisme waarin veel jongeren hun idealisme in steken is microkrediet. Het probleem is hier niet alleen dat zelfs het populaire Kiva.org ordinaire for-profit “field partners” heeft die woeker-rentes eisen van gemiddeld 35%, maar vooral ook dat er simpelweg voor de arme entrepeneurs maar een beperkt aantal mogelijkheden zijn om succesvol hun geleende begin kapitaal om te zetten naar iets groters. De claim van de Nobelprijs winnende econoom Muhammad Yunnus, stichter van de microkrediet beweging,  dat globale armoede door middel van microkrediet weggevaagd gaat worden worden is ondenkbaar en utopisch. Naast microkrediet zijn enkele vrienden van mij ook helemaal weg van ‘social entrepeneurship’, binnen de logica van de markt, dictactuur en ongelijkheid bestrijden, vaak door middel van allerlei irritante social media strategiën, maar natuurlijk zonder de onderliggende politiek-economische structuren an sich te bedreigen.

Nu wil ik niet het talloze goede werk van de Oxfam Novibs, Greenpeaces, Amnesty Internationals, enzovoort ontkennen.  Er zijn ook honderden voorbeelden van social entrepreneurship waar mensen groot profijt van hebben. En ook niet elke vorm van micro krediet verlening aan armen leidt tot gigantische schuldenlasten waaruit slachtoffers geen andere uitweg dan zelfmoord weten. Natuurlijk, er zit niks kwaads in al dit goed bedoelde idealisme. Maar de overeenkomst in al deze populaire vormen van idealisme is alleen wel dat er geen potentie in zit voor het soort sociale verandering dat wel daadwerkelijk nodig is. Er zit geen enkele bedreiging in voor de status quo en elke vorm van systeem kritiek ontbreekt. Overal komt het neer op individuele verantwoordelijkheid, dat iedereen maar voor zichzelf moet zorgen, maar dan wel binnen de logica van de markt die buiten discussie staat, en om vooral ook niet publieke diensten te ‘misbruiken’ (aangezien anderen daar dan weer voor opdraaien). Het is strikt individualistisch en sluit aan op een wereld waar alles in economische termen wordt gezien, en waar alles in kosten en baten wordt berekend. Als we deze logica te ver doordenken kunnen we wat mij betreft net zo goed ook wel meteen collectief zelfmoord doen als menselijkheid.

Maar het is wel duidelijk hoe dominant deze logica is voor jongeren tegenwoordig. Zelfs veel van de meer idealistische jongeren nu willen van jongs af aan carriére proberen te maken. Een duidelijk voorbeeld is ook de studiekeuze van jongeren. Kijk naar de populariteit van MBA studies, die een 20 jaar geleden nog amper studenten kon trekken buiten ‘dat over-de-top kapitalistische’ Amerika. Onder het motto van individuele verantwoordelijkheid wordt het je nu afgeraden om een studie als Filosofie te kiezen, want ‘eigen schuld’ als je na je studie geen baan kan vinden. Beter doe je één van die studies die er voornamelijk zijn om studenten te verkleinen tot een zo effectief mogelijk scharnier in de machine van het systeem. In plaats van het oude Bildungsideaal, waarin studie tot verlichting en zelf ontplooiing dient, worden we als robots klaargestoomd voor het bedrijfsleven. Aan filosofie doe je maar in je ‘vrije tijd’.

Al het opgenoemde idealisme; van politiek consumeren, het merendeel van het non-profit werk, microkrediet en social entrepeneurship, valt binnen de neoliberale logica van individuele verantwoordelijkheid en markt-denken. Maar het is juist deze neoliberale logica waar tegen jonge idealisten zich tegen moeten keren. Makkelijker gezegd dan gedaan natuurlijk. Maar een begin zit zich in een terugkeer van een protest cultuur. Er moet een eind komen aan wat je de ‘geenstijlificatie’ van protest zou kunnen noemen, het in de zeik nemen van alle radicalere vormen van idealisme. Een Geenstijl vermaakt de verveelde massa van mensen die in hun saaie 9-5 kantoorbanen de doelloze leegte van hun bestaan weg moeten ‘reaguren’ op het internet. Dit bittere cynisme dat zich als ‘realisme’ verschuilt voedt een misplaatst superioriteitsgevoel boven de mensen die wel inzien dat radicale verandering nodig en daarvoor in actie komen. Het is tijd om over de sociale druk tot apathisch conformisme heen te stappen en om weer de straten in te nemen voor onze idealen.

Four Reigns (สี่แผ่นดิน)

This book is a classic in Thailand and has been turned in several theatre-plays, movies and tv-series. The Thai monarchy is constantly in the background throughout the book with Four Reigns referring to the reigns of four different Kings.  As the monarchy is a very sensitive topic here and impossible to criticize due to the strictest lese majeste laws in the world, I already knew that the book would probably be propaganda for the royalty. But this in itself could make for an interesting read; seeing how the Thai history is written down in novel form in the way the Thai establishment wants you to understand it. Especially when it includes the death of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), who died as an 18-year old in an “accident” with a gun-shot in his head. This death has never been clarified, although this didn’t stop three servants from being executed on charges of conspiracy to kill the King. This incident becomes even more interesting when you take into account that the author, Kukrit Pramoj, was an important politician himself at the time. His brother Seni Pramoj, who basically became the first Thai Prime-Minister after WW2 just a few years earlier, played a prominent role in the aftermath of the King’s death. He accused the then current Prime-Minister Pridi Banomyong (a socialist) for being responsible for the King’s assassination, which was by all accounts extremely implausible. The Pramoj brothers, royal descendents of Rama II and part of the then newly founded Democrat Party, cooperated a year later in a military coup to oust the government, which saw Seni Pramoj rewarded with a high position in the cabinet of the new government (that ironically was ousted by yet another military coup 112 days later).

With this background the book gets another dimension. It is not just a novel for entertainment, but it also promotes an ideology that corresponds with the political viewpoints (and interests) of the author, who was Prime-Minister himself for year in the turbulent Thai mid 70s. It’s the ideology of royalists and reactionary conservatives, that talk of freedom and democracy, but will gladly support a coup against an elected government when it threatens the established establishment (be it the socialist threats of the past or today’s Shinawatra family), yet carefully balancing between leftist populist sentiment from the people and the visible and less visible hands that interfere in Thai democracy to this day. The short Prime-Minister terms of both the Pramoj brothers in the 70s are most illustrative of this, particularly Seni Pramoj’s last term as Prime-Minister in 1976, in which he was ousted (again) a day after the Thammasat Massacre. Since Thailand became ‘democratic’ in 1932 it has seen 17 different constitutions and over 20 mostly bloodless coup d’états, with more than once the military doing a self-coup against its own government.

Thammasat University Massacre 6 October 1976. Pro-democracy students were massacred by paramilitary forces that received support from the monarchy. None of the perpetrators have ever been brought to justice. Modern Thai history books skip the event or play it down as a “misunderstanding” between the two sides.

This book explains how Thai people are meant to see the world. If Ayn Rand´s “Atlas Shrugged” defines an ideology that explains modern America with all its ruthless profiteering, then “Four Reigns” should be seen as the book that defines mainstream Thai ideology or “Thainess” as they call it. The basic tenets of this “Thainess” can be summarized as loyalty to the Nation, Religion, and the Monarchy. In 1981, Kukrit Pramoj writes in the preface of this English version of the original Thai book from 1953 that he hopes that those friends of Thailand who do not read Thai, will now “gain a little more understanding towards us”, implying that farang can never truly understand “Thainess”, which is also the common argument from many Thais when you are critically discussing the elephants in the room of Thai politics (even when you’re Thai). And indeed, the book puts out a defense of the Thai ideology that you regularly run into when you live here. While it explains many specific details that were new to me, in general terms it confirmed more what I had already suspected. Rather that changing my outlook towards Thai society, it strengthened some of the more negative thoughts I already had.

The characters can be seen as caricatures, outlining the values that Kukrit Pramoj wants to either promote or put in a negative light. That is not to say that all the characters are flat and one-dimensional, at least not more so than characters in novels usually are, but the characters do tend to be the perfect stereotypes of their times and the values they hold. Some of the characters are extremely sympathetic, like the main-character Phloi for example. The story follows her life, as she is put into the Grand Palace as a 10 year old girl and later lives with together her high-society husband. The book basically explains Thai history in that period through Phloi’s eyes, mostly based on her relationships with the people around her.

Phloi portrays the ‘ideal’ Thai woman; she is perfect, beautiful and completely flawless throughout the book. At times the book almost reads as a guide on how to be a proper Thai woman, which of course comes down to fully sacrificing yourself to your husband at all costs: being there for him at all times; being a good cook; taking care of the kids all by your own; never holding your own opinion against him, keep it for yourself when you disagree with what he says; don’t even dare to be insulted when he fathered a child without ever telling you; and to suggest him, when he feels depressed, to have more than one wife (or extra-marital affairs and massage parlor visits as it would be in modern Thailand); and did your potential partner cheat on you? Fully forgive him in the sweetest of words (all these examples are from the book). Although things have thankfully changed quite a bit in Thailand, you can still recognize much of it. Some feminist emancipation is still drastically needed in this country.

Just as Phloi is written down as the ideal Thai woman of her times, she is also portrayed by Pramoj as extremely likeable. This trick of making all the characters that support Pramoj’s ideology pleasant and those opposing not-so-perfect is used throughout the book. All the royalists in the book are virtuous, while the bureaucrats that take control after the absolute monarchy is dissolved are all clumsy, self-interested and greedy. The characters of royal blood however, from the Kings (that are always at a distance) to a minor princess like Sadet, who adopts the young Phloi in the Grand Palace, are described as absolutely perfect and virtuous, devoid of any negative characteristics. They are all handsome, well-behaved, treating everyone with affection and being perfect dutiful servants towards their subjects. From time to time, one can overhear conversations of the King or Queen talking to commoners, knowing about all their personal issues. The Queen knowing the name of this peasant she had met many years ago, the King talking with this old farmer without teeth as if they were friends, “nothing too big or small for his wisdom and compassion”. It’s the classic propaganda that we in the West often ridicule, think of Kim Yung-il’s fieldtrips and the corresponding photo-ops. Thailand is however filled with similar photos and videos of King making fieldtrips to all corners of the country, inspecting the thousands of royal development projects, for which public accountability and assessment of success are of course completely out of question.

It’s the basic outline of the Thai ideology in which all the politicians are seen as greedy and bad, while the royals are ‘above politics’ and keep the country on track. The King is the source of all that is good; he’s selfless, never smiling or enjoying earthly pleasure, but dedicating his life to improving the Thai nation. The (current) King is portrayed as a brilliant scientist telling politicians what to do, as one who is (literally, I kid you not) capable of providing rain for the crops, and as a bringer of justice (with the annual royal pardons). Politicians however can do no good and are the source of all misery. In history classes Thai children will learn of all the good things done by the royals, but young Thais are unlikely to know much of statesmen as Pridi Banomyong or Puey Ungpakorn.

Puey Ungpakorn (left) and Pridi Banomyong (right) in London together. Both had to flee Thailand.

Of course we also get the revisionist history of the Thai monarchs as true democrats. The role of Rama VII in the three years after the revolution is mostly ignored. In reality he stifled the democratization process by co-opting the military side of the Promoters (in opposition to Pridi and others), and attempting to create a limited monarchy rather than giving up his executive and legislative powers as in Europe’s constitutional monarchies1. In Thai ideology however, the king is ‘above politics’ and would never intervene for its own interests, so the focus instead is on how the new bureaucrats in power (including Phloi’s son An 2) immediately start constricting freedom of speech (which did happen, but as if there was such thing as freedom of speech under absolute monarchy?). Rama VII is portrayed as being as democratic “as any of them [in the government], if not more” (496). When Rama VII finally decides to abdicate in 1935 after 3 years of uneasy cooperation with the government, Ot (the most agreeable son) tells her mother “Democracy hasn’t been with us for very long, and now we’ve lost one of its staunchest champions”.

Besides the revisionist fairy-tale of Thai monarchs as true democrats, another major element in the ideology of “Thainess” is spirituality and religion. While nowhere becoming super-natural or turning into downright fantasy, throughout the book the Thai’s superstition is quietly supported. The rituals and amulets always seem to help, at least nowhere future events contradict expectations raised by their practice and usage. Many of the future events, especially the dying of characters close to Phloi, are in some way predicted by signs or feelings. The end of the four reigns in particular is always preceded by major signs, especially the death of King Chulalongkorn. The appearance of the Halley’s Comet in 1910 worries Phloi as it must be a bad sign, she is then calmed by her husband some days later, telling her that it had nothing to do with them at all, as the comet must have signaled the death King Edward VII who must have accumulated much, much, much merit, so that even they in Thailand could see it (sure enough it is always good to prop up foreign monarchies a bit, in support of your own3). But of course, less than one page later it is announced that Rama V unexpectedly died, even though he died all the way in October, five months after the death of King Edward VII and the appearance of the comet. Unsurprisingly, during Rama V´s cremation the sky darkened, thunder struck and rain came pouring down (280-284). But at least this cliché however could really have happened considering it took place in Thailand’s rain season.

Then there are the prophecies, we are reminded how the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 coincides with the supposed Rama I’s deathbed prediction that the Chakri dynasty would last no longer than 150 years. Karma is also a constant concept that is referred to. It is believed that making merit, either in your previous life or through your current life, will lead to a good life. Whenever something bad happens in your current life, it must be because of something you have done in your previous life. Buddhism here is always in support of the status quo and the establishment. If you are born into lower-class, it must be your own fault and you can make merit by suffering your way through it rather than rebelling, so you will be better off in the next life. The King however must be the highest of reincarnations, having accumulated enormous amounts of virtue in previous lives, and should therefore not be put into question.

Thailand’s Buddhism is deeply connected to the monarchy. In every wat (temple) one can find portraits of King Bhumibol and yellow flags of the monarchy. The concept of Divine Kingship originates both from Hindu Brahmanical cults of the devaraja and deification of the kings, and Buddhist-based ideology of the dhammaraja monarch whose status is a product of his unmatched virtue. To put the importance of this in perspective, it is instructive to go back to the writings of H.G. Quaritch Wales. He was a British anthropologist that worked in Lord Chamberlain’s Department in the Court of Siam as an adviser to Rama VI and Rama VII, and who published a study on the functional value of Divine Kingship in 1932. He was warning against the breakdown of customs and rituals together with the spread of Western education and modern skepticism, as this combination would threaten the social integrity of the state. His book explains in detail the importance of symbolism and religious ceremonies in strengthening the monarchy. He (1932: 192) writes about the great sociological value of prostration (which was banned by King Chulalongkorn), arguing that the lack of customs and rituals displaying reverence to the monarchy leaves the door open to “… the dark teachings of communism, or whatever doctrines may chance to catch the ear of the masses, to step in and hasten the work of social destruction” (1932: 7).

The monarchy, as an institution, has therefore been central in maintaining Thailand’s strict hierarchical system. Bolstering the divine aspects of the monarch has worked as a great counter towards ‘dangerous ideas’ of social equality. It is then also no coincidence that prostration, even though banned in 1873 by King Chulalongkorn, has actually been encouraged and returned in the current reign (see popular talkshow host Woody interviewing Princess Chulabhorn and sharing her pet dog’s food). It also no surprise that when Thailand became the United States’ most important ally in fighting communism in South East Asia, the “American information officials in Bangkok […] concluded that USIS funds could not be better employed than in spreading the likeness of His Majesty”.

King Bhumibol on the cover of Time Magazine as a fighter for freedom

For the ruling classes, the Thai ideology espoused in Four Reigns has been an incredibly successful answer to any call for social justice and equality. Putting it in a historic context, this book has been Kukrit Pramoj’s counter to the appeal of Pridi’s more socialist ideas. Hierarchy, for instance, is not questioned anywhere in the book. Throughout the book it is suggested to treat the servants and everyone lower in the social hierarchy properly, but the existence of this hierarchy in itself and unfairness of it isn’t acknowledged anywhere. Instead we have the most likable characters criticizing how there is too much freedom after the end of the absolute monarchy, too much freedom to stage a revolution against everything and everybody, with our likable main-character Phloi being appalled to hear stories of pupils staging revolution against their teachers and temple boys against their monks (484). All the characters in the book just accept hierarchy as a natural given fact of life, with all those lower in caste carrying on accordingly. Phloi for instance starts out in the book as a 10 year old girl of low importance, but despite this, she still has her own loyal and obedient maid Phlit that faithfully follows her around without questioning anything until the day she dies. The high society is sometimes portrayed as fashion-crazed, spending money on unnecessary things, but generally as virtuous and enlightened. And at least they know how to carry themselves around, unlike those darned bureaucrats and businessmen that worked themselves up from their lowly simple backgrounds after absolute monarchy ended, they are greedy and always behave frustratingly socially awkward when they are at a party or a ceremony, not knowing the social mores and the contemporary hi-so etiquette. At least, that is essentially the contemptful portrayal they receive from Kukrit Pramoj in Four Reigns.

The exploitation on which wealth of the royalty and upper classes is built is nowhere explored. Instead we hear commoners mourning the downfall of the expensive villas that turn into ruin, after its royal residents flee the country after 1932. Interestingly, traces of sufficiency theory can be found a couple of times. Commoners leading simple lives without complaining are celebrated throughout the book. Particularly noteworthy is the conversation of the difference in poverty between England and Thailand when Phloi´s son Ot comes back from his overseas education. According to him, the rich in England are colossally rich and a large fortune in Thailand would be considered laughable over there. The poor in Thailand on the other hand are much more fortunate than the poor in Europe, as they don’t risk freezing to death in the winter, and the food is easy to come by with plenty of fish, fruit and vegetables growing. This rather contrived dialogue then continues on to ridicule England’s upper-class’ hobby of fox hunting (431).

In Thailand 2012 it is shocking to see how little has changed, the affluent classes still take the obedience of those lower on the social ladder for granted, and are infuriated whenever those dark-skinned “uneducated” peasants start to assert themselves. If you exclude the red shirt rallies in recent years however, it is bizarre how the Thai’s social hierarchy is still strictly adhered to, with society’s lower parts politely serving and looking up to those above them, quietly accepting the injustice of it all and suffering through their lives as proper Buddhists4.

So what to make of all this? Four Reigns is a propaganda book outlining the ideology of “Thainess” that has continued to serve the upper-classes of Bangkok for decades. It reinforces the strict social hierarchy, promotes the deification of the royalty and the revisionist history of the Chakri monarchs as enlightened democrats with the myth of them being ‘above politics’, it prescribes the gender roles of Thailand’s patriarchal society, and quietly supports Thai´s superstition, and so on. It is filled with contrived and manufactured dialogue in support of “Thainess”. Characters are used as devices, whether they are successful or unsuccessful, likeable or less likeable, depends on the moralistic message for which the author uses them. Of course, this is not unique to Four Reigns. No book is immune to ideology; it is implicit in every human expression. But this book is intentionally written by Kukrit Pramoj in order to convince the Thai population of his idea of “Thainess”. For me, as a reader with rather different political ideas, it then becomes confusing to judge or even enjoy the book in a normal way.

I made the analogy before, but I can imagine that it is a similar when you read “Atlas Shrugged”, as a reader you become sort of attached to the character John Galt, while simultaneously despising the values and politics he espouses. There is a similar duality with the main characters in this book; the most pleasant characters are devoted to their monarchs to an extreme that borders insanity. Should you do what Kukrit Pramoj wants you to do and just enjoy the book by buying into its characters, or keep dissenting and resisting the craziness? Personally I found my enjoyment in reading between the lines. What we can do however is to commend Kukrit Pramoj on his accomplishment. “Four Reigns” is a much better written book than “Atlas Shrugged” for one. And while the values espoused in his book served him and his friends politically, there is no doubt that he was also inspired by a sincere love for his country for whatever that is worth.

1 See http://khikwai.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/PRAPOKKLAO.pdf

2 Phloi has four children in the book, all of them caricatures to explain the changes in Thai history in that time. On is the royalist soldier, banished to prison for a decade after participating in the Borawat rebellion. Praphai is the beautiful daughter who exemplifies the changes for women in the modernizing Thailand with her taste for modern fashion and hi-so parties. An and Ot are however among the first upper-class Thais to go abroad for an overseas education. An is the overly ambitious son, is a participant in the 1932 coup and becomes a powerful bureaucrat, who then slowly becomes disillusioned by the new government and regrets his past actions. Ot is the easy-going and most sympathetic son, who is less ambitious than An, but much wiser and constantly in support of the royalty. It’s worth pointing out that An went to study in France like most of the coup plotters including Pridi, while Ot went to study in England like the Pramoj brothers did. I doubt that this is purely coincidental.

3 It might be because I am more perceptive to it here, but it seems I see about the same amount of pictures of the Dutch monarchy as I do back in the Netherlands. The celebrity magazines in Thailand are all about news on European monarchies. The official pictures of the Thai monarchy often include visiting foreign monarchs. And during the British royal wedding madness last year I (and any other Caucasian in Thailand at that time) was hailed several times by Thais sharing their excitement with me, as if care.

4 On a personal note, Phloi’s maid Phlit reminded me a lot of the maid in our own condominium, who works tirelessly from 8am to 11pm, always carrying a smile on her face, and is a similar chatterbox as well.