Back to the Future with Future Forward?

Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit, aka “Ake”, the billionaire leader of Thailand’s newest oligarch-owned and operated political vehicle, Future Forward Party, presents himself as an aggressively masculine opponent of military dictatorship. Like most Thai liberals who hail from the upper reaches of Thailand’s highly stratified society, he conflates “democracy” with the writing of constitutions and the staging of elections and little else.

thanatorn

In a recent interview he made it clear that his priority in power would be “dismantling the senate appointment system, the 20-year strategy and other legacies of the military” and that he would happily cooperate with any other political party willing to sign on to this agenda.

It goes without saying that he promises to rewrite the constitution as one of his first steps toward undoing the evil wrought by Prayuth and the NCPO. In the 86 years since the military-civil coalition known as Khana Ratsadon or “People’s Party” very politely and half-heartedly staged the bloodless coup that ostensibly made Thailand into the constitutional monarchy it is today, Thais have lived under 21 constitutions, which is roughly the same number of general elections that have been held during the same period (23?). Put another way, Thailand has new constitutions more frequently than many democracies have elections. So, when a billionaire promises a new constitution, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are faced with Change You Can Believe In™.

If we take the promise to erase the legacy of the NCPO seriously we only have to revisit the administration of Yingluck Shinawatra to see how Thai democracy was flourishing before Big Joke and Big Brother Tuu “stole” it from the Shins.

dastardly duo

Under Yingluck, neither the military nor, ultimately, the police were available to enforce order in Bangkok while the proto-fascist PDRC staged their “Shutdown Bangkok” in order to induce the military to stage a coup. Three years earlier, when the country was devastated by floods that cost the country an estimated 40-50 billion dollars in damages and lost production, the Governor of Bangkok resisted the orders of the national government to sacrifice parts of Bangkok in order to lessen the suffering of people upcountry, and the military went out of its way to set up its own rescue operations, successfully portraying the Yingluck administration as incompetent and unconcerned with the well-being of ordinary Thais. This insubordination and the accompanying PR campaign went a long way to restoring the image of the military that had been tarnished by the 2006 coup and subsequent ham-fisted governing record that led to a quick return to a Shinawatra-led government in 2008.

shins

It is normal in Thailand that the writ of the national government does not run into all the nooks and crannies of what is essentially a semi-lawless society, but the brazen disregard for parliamentary authority that was demonstrated from day one by many branches of government, including of course the military, means that the notion of returning to “pre-coup democracy” sounds much better as rhetoric than it might actually manifest in reality.

If it is objected that “pre-coup democracy” is better understood as referring to the good old days when Thailand was still a “ beacon of democracy in the region“, usually meaning from the late 90s to the tragic return to authoritarian rule in 2006, it should be remembered that in those halcyon times, somewhere between 1300 and 2700 Thai citizens were extrajudicially executed under the orders and supervision of the popular Prime Minister of the time, an early instance of SE Asia’s version of the ever-popular War on Drugs that has vaulted Roderigo Duterte to “evil-demon-threatens-democracy” status in “international media”, even while said demon maintains popularity and trust levels with the Philippine people not seen since the People Power Revolution chased Ferdinand Marcos et famille to Hawaii.

Press freedoms in the “Beacon of Democracy” were under intense pressure from Thaksin’s administration; human rights defenders were disappeared and lost their lives; police corruption flourished; Muslims were murdered in military “police actions” that kick-started an intensification of the southern insurgency; Bangkok capitalists in bed with Shin Corp were experiencing the thrill of genuine and highly profitable corporate governance under a CEO PM: and all of this was taking place under the aegis of the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997, a temporary document much celebrated for its theoretical improvements in Thai governance that nevertheless was subverted as resolutely as all Thai Constitutions have been so that whoever happened to hold power at the time could reap the benefits thereof.

democracy not my goal
It’s easy to forget how panicked people were by Thaksin’s overwhelming success at consolidating power under a constitution explicitly constructed to provide a system of checks and balances.

It should also be pointed out that, like many elite liberals in Thailand, “Ake” makes much of the “anachronism” of the appointed Senate. It is hard to know what to make of this sort of historical illiteracy. The Thai parliament has swung back and forth- between a royally-appointed senate in the context of a bicameral legislature and a unicameral legislature with no senate at all- regularly and frequently since the first senate was appointed in 1947. There has been precisely one all-elected senate in Thai history-  the one elected in 2000 under the provisions of the ’97 Constitution, which forbade senators from membership in political parties.

As with everything Thai elite liberals touch, the ’97 constitution was designed to keep “democratic politics” as far away from real power as possible, hence the non-affiliated status of candidates for the Senate and the similarly intended insistence that Cabinet appointees not be sitting members of parliament. The result of the senate elections in 2000 was as predictable as rain in October. A Nation Weekend headline before the election, commenting on the affiliations of the non-affiliated candidates, renamed the upcoming senate The Assembly of Siblings and Husbands and Wives (sapha phi-nong sapha phua-mia).

If a political party cannot field candidates for an elected senate, then surely individual party members can put forward their brothers and sisters and husbands and wives and children, all of whom will then be indirectly funded and supported by the political party they are not affiliated with. A post-election article in Thai Post was headlined  “A Bad Joke! An Assembly of Slaves” and went on to talk about the irony of chao pho (godfathers) and the children and wives of MPs delegated to reform and constrain their husbands and fathers in parliament.

Within two years of the establishment of the first elected senate in Thai history, it was evident to all and sundry that it was functioning as yet one more wing of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai juggernaut. So whether or not an appointed senate is an anachronism, an elected one is surely not a surefire road to democratic heaven in the context of actual-existing Thai politics.

That is the real Thai constitution of course, but don’t tell that to Thai liberals- they and their families are the beneficiaries of that history of corruption and so do not appreciate having it highlighted by the light shone from another sort of “beacon” altogether.

wat dead
When people talk about Thai Democracy and how it has been “killed” by the coup-makers of the RTA, they are not wrong. But they are far from telling the whole story.

 

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The Suffering of Media Corporations

Well, the Wa Lone & Kyaw Soe Oo verdict is finally in and they have been sentenced to 7 years in prison.

The most apt response thus far from the outrage generator that is journalist twitter is this:

So two young men- likely underpaid by Reuters because that is how these news services work in SE Asia- and their families will suffer for 7 more years and an AP journalist analyzes this as the Myanmar government “wreaking revenge” on Reuters.

The stupidity of the media in this part of the world is never to be underestimated.

We Are All Liberals Now Part II

When I was a high school student, back in the 60s, I used to trot out the “but that wasn’t real socialism/communism” canard whenever anyone threw Stalin and Soviet Russia in my socialist face. I was probably just being a good son to my father who often lamented that “socialism is probably the best theoretical system of government but people are not really capable of applying it” whenever I asked him about Russia and the Soviet Republics.

50 years later and the same thing is happening everywhere you look. Right-wingers and self-identified liberals fling Venezuela and Pol Pot into the ring whenever they feel a “democratic socialist” coming on. And the “left” is still trotting out the canard.

The particular spin put on the classic canard by many of America’s contemporary “millennial socialists” and their slightly older confrères involves naming Norway and Denmark as real exemplars of socialism, in spite of the frequent denials by Norwegians and Danes that such is the case.

So the rule on the American left is: if a nation has undergone a socialist revolution and calls itself a socialist or people’s republic, it is absolutely not really socialist but two tiny constitutional monarchies, the Kingdoms of Norway and Denmark, are.

The point of this absurdist exercise is clear: whereas the history of capitalism and its ugly backside imperialism is fair game when it comes to debating the merits of systems, the history of socialism is yet to be written so all we can refer to are the tracts and tweets that make up socialist reality.

Plus the Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway of course.

Besides this utterly American tendency to prefer the fantasy of discourse to the discourse of history, this denial is related to the contemporary American left’s inability/unwillingness to distinguish itself from the liberalism that pervades the atmosphere of all American “democratic socialist” discourse.

According to much of the American left, democratic socialism is going to both “deepen democracy” and “make people free”. This sounds good until you begin to ask yourself what sort of “freedom” a “deeper democracy” is going to grant to communities of evangelicals and fervent Trump supporters. Will a democratic socialist America grant regions the “freedom” to ban abortion and institute racial discrimination in schooling and employment if local majorities support such policies? Will some localities be empowered to ban the hijab and the building of mosques?

The liberal answer to all such questions is to simply equate the individual rights doctrine of liberalism with “real” democracy and dismiss the preferences of the demos as bigoted reactionary ignorance.

What will the “millennial socialist” answer be?

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting to hear. There are some questions that are better not asked because the answers are all equally unwelcome.

Beacon of Democracy Moves to Malaysia

The journalists who cover SE Asia for the Anglophone world, aka “the international community”, are back on the “beacon of democracy” hobby-horse.

Malaysia has just shown the world that democracy is alive and well in SE Asia. And in much the same way as happened in the wake of Aung San Suu Kyi’s overwhelming victory in the Myanmar elections just two and a half years ago, the poor, junta-ridden Thais are being twitted for their failure to keep up. If only Thailand could have an election, a genocide, and a widening civil war on multiple fronts, it could get the same sort of plaudits Burma got from the brain trust of white men that constitute the international media hereabouts.

There is precious little in the way of awareness of the gaping irony that Malaysia’s democratic phoenix is manifest in the form of a 92-year-old former demagogue who once imprisoned his closest party rival for being gay, who was accused of every kind of corruption in his almost 23-year run as the head of a one-party state that blatantly and unapologetically promoted the interests of one ethnicity over those of others, and who grew more illiberal, less democratic, and more anti-western as his time in office went on. And on.

When the “shock” victory was first announced, it was confidently announced that Mahathir would stay in office for only a month or two, until Anwar Ibrahim could be released from prison and seated on the Prime Ministerial throne. Two days later, Mahathir was in the media announcing that it would actually be a year or two. There is every possibility that this will turn out to be a lifetime position for the old demagogue.

Mahathir famously once said of Ibrahim that he “would make a good prime minister of Israel”, a very sharp jab indeed in an anti-semitic nation like Malaysia, but in SE Asian democracies there are no permanent enemies or friends, only bodies that can be stepped on to get that much closer to power. While Ibrahim really has been released from prison already, this is not the first time that such an amnesty has been granted the former student activist. And if he gets sent back in, that won’t be a first either.

The local media definition of ‘democracy’ seems to be little more than “election that can be spun for headlines”.  Given the state of the liberal-democratic world, they may be onto something. Either that or they have simply made it so by communicative fiat.

 

Empire of Empiricism

I just got called a “crypto-reactionary” for laughing at a “leftist” American for tweeting this bit of intellectual frippery:

“Capitalism is empirically unsound and can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism. From a humanistic standpoint it is no less grounded in mysticism and dogma than any other reactionary ideology.”

Hard as it is to disagree with the notion that capitalism has attracted a set of intellectual apologists who indulge in “mysticism and dogma” in praise of their chosen subject, it’s even harder to see how “mysticism and dogma” are somehow unique to reactionary ideologies.

While there is little doubt that Marx used the word “science” in a way that is not precisely consonant with what most people think of when they think of physicists working on the A-bomb or chemists brewing up ever more clever plastics with which to destroy the environment, he was hardly a dogmatic mystic. This is absolutely not the case with all the varieties of “leftist” critique of capitalism-patriarchy-white supremacy that today claim to be downstream of Marx the social scientist. If there is an ideological faction out there in the world today that is not saddled with “mysticism and dogma” I would love to meet it in the flesh.

My real problem with this vaguely tautological bit of hollow virtue-signalling is the double whammy of absurd claims made in the first sentence.

“Capitalism is empirically unsound”: what can this even begin to mean? Empirically, capitalism has grown from its meager beginnings in 16th C England and Holland to a world-straddling colossus the likes of which has quite frankly never before been seen. “Empirically”, that is.

“[Capitalism] can only survive in a culture hostile to empiricism.” Now what this means seems rather evident even though it also seems to be referring to life on another planet.

Empirically, if we allow that something as reliant on textual interpretation as history can be called empirical, the opposite appears to be true. The earliest incubators of capitalism were also arguably nations where the cultures were far more accepting of empiricism than most of the rest of the world. Some writers might even go so far as to suggest that one reason capitalism was born in England of the 16th century, rather than 13th century Siam or even 15th century England, was the embrace of empiricism after centuries of intellectual enslavement to dogma and mysticism.

After a little hostile back-and-forth, it emerged that our interlocutor actually meant: ” my critique is that the theoretical basis for capitalism is empirically unsound”. So now we see that it isn’t capitalism that is “unsound” as stated ever so clearly in the initial tweet, it is “the theoretical basis for capitalism” that is “empirically unsound”.

It is my impression that capitalism was a praxis well before it ever gained such a thing as a “theoretical basis”. This would seem to me to mean that “theories of capitalism” are not remotely its “basis” but merely post facto rationales or analyses of its reality. Once this is taken on board it becomes rather mundane to point out that attempts to “theorize” a reality as complex and ever-shifting as actual existing capitalism fall short “empirically”. This would be as true of Adam Smith’s formulations as of Marx’s or Hayek’s.

Unlike socialism or communism, whose theorizations have always preceded and outrun and indeed usually denied its realities, capitalism is what it is and theories run around trying to keep up with its chameleon-like disappearances into whatever social and cultural background it inserts itself.

It’s almost as if Karl Rove or whoever it actually was had put it this way:

“Capitalism’s an empire now, and when it acts, it creates its own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—it’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. It is history’s actor…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what it does.”

This is the reality that anything calling itself “left” has to confront if it is going to further the cause of a socialist future rather than impress followers on Facebook and Twitter with just how apparently intellectual we can be in our little snippets of “anti-capitalism”, regardless of how actually inane they turn out to be.

The problem of course is the virtual impossibility of contemporary westerners, especially North Americans, attaining escape velocity from the liberalism that they stretch and crimp here and there to represent themselves as leftists. When identitarian left-liberals want to let their “leftist” flags fly, they say things like what I laughed at in that tweet exchange.

Looked at closely, these “leftists” rarely manage anything remotely close to a hard-edged critique of the bourgeois society and culture they so perfectly reproduce in almost everything they think and say.

If seeing and saying so makes me a “crypto-reactionary” in their eyes, I suppose I’ll just have to live with that. It sure beats playing middle-class revolutionary while scrambling to get a better job and taking my political stances from Column A, B or C of the contemporary left of neoliberalism.

Nothing Left

Well, well. Here we are again.

You really have to ask yourself why it is that Americans will flock spontaneously to their local airports to protest their president’s illegal banning of immigrants but can’t be bothered to do the same in equal numbers to protest their president’s illegal bombing of yet another war-torn nation in the global south.

It could be that immigration falls naturally under the “racist-white supremacist” clause of the identity politics version of the social contract, whereas illegal wars that take place far away among “people of colour” who are on all kinds of different “sides” just cannot be comprehended in the “racist-white supremacist” analysis of the world.

It could also be that Americans of whatever political stripe are vaguely in favor of war because they can never really be sure whether it is for good or for ill, so best to just let the bosses have at it.

But really, the failure of the American “left” to actively oppose American imperialist militarism since the last gasp of that One Big Rally back when Cheney and Rumsfeld organized Bush II into invading Iraq is not a failure of any actual “left”.

Because for all intents and purposes there is no American left, just a simulacrum thereof consisting of online identity politicking claiming the leftist label and the occasional socialist-materialist leftist so frightened of the attacks from the Id Pol Vampire Squad that they might as well be on the radical liberal team themselves.

The Emperor has orange hair and bad clothes and zero effective internal opposition.

May we hope that Russia and Iran backed by China will step up where leftists fear to tread?

Who’s To Blame? Not “The State”

I’ve been having an interesting “discussion” on Twitter regarding the recent uproar over Indigenous kids representing a ridiculously high proportion of children in care being kept from their parents for long periods of time.

At issue in my end of the discussion is the tendency of people upset by this situation to want to blame it on “the state”.

As someone who spent 7 years working with kids and who sat in on various meetings related to child placement in foster care, returning kids to their families, and assessing progress in ‘treatment’ and thereby justifying continued residential care, I find the notion that this is somehow “the state” behaving badly as “the state” somewhat ridiculous.

To begin with I admit my take may be somewhat biased because of my Ontario-centric point of view. Indigenous kids are not as overwhelmingly predominant in Ontario foster care as they are in other provinces- 30% vs 80-90% according to the Macleans article I linked to above. Not only that, but child protection services in Ontario are the purview of Children’s Aid Societies, legally designated NGOs, so not what we normally associate with “the state”.

I have a very clear memory of a series of meetings my agency had with social workers from Children’s Aid as part of the process of having one of our children adopted after years in our care. The CAS people came with profiles and analyses of potential families and we discussed the appropriateness or inappropriateness thereof. There was a lot of disagreement and argumentative discussion about two of the families, the characters of the would-be “moms”, the jobs and attitudes toward child-rearing of the wannabe “dads”.

The third family, however, offered the possibility of a “kumbaya moment” for the two sides in these meetings. Dad was a politician, a sitting provincial MP if I recall correctly, and both the “hippies” from our children’s mental health center and the “bureaucratic authoritarians” from the CAS agreed wholeheartedly that there was no way this child was going to be given over to the sleazoid hypocrisy of a politician for a dad.

I remember leaving that particular meeting feeling vaguely dirty. I was probably the most “hippoid hippy” on our team- and so more or less hated politicians and government and “the state” as a reflex- and yet when I really thought about it, I couldn’t help wondering whether our shared prejudice was what determined the outcome of that discussion rather than any sense of what was actually best for the child. After all, the family was well-off, well-educated and mom was at home to give the kind of time and attention that our soon-to-be former “patient” would doubtlessly need over the next few years.

Our center served a large area of the province because we were viewed as the “last resort” for kids who either couldn’t be cared for by other agencies or who other agencies wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: too violent, too crazy, too little likelihood of progress. I loved most of the people I worked with and respected their attempts to do their best for the children that we worked with. I also loved the kids. It was a rich time for me in many ways and I have been permanently affected by my experiences with the people I met and worked with, children and adults alike.

But by the time I left I was disappointed in how we worked with our kids and their families.

ADHD was in the process of “being invented” and so more and more our kids were being medicated. I entered the field in the dying days of psychoanalytic influence in treatment modalities. We read Erikson and Anna Freud, attempted to generate a treatment approach based on a combination of Erikson and Piaget, and most of us believed that the Browndale approach to retrogression therapy, while flawed and potentially dangerous, was nevertheless essentially correct in its understanding of how our kids had been damaged by toxic relationships. Using Ritalin and antipsychotics to mask symptoms and suppress behaviour was chemical imprisonment, not therapy.

I spent years campaigning to put an end to “therapeutic holding”, first in my unit and finally in the agency. Around the time I left, the ministry issued guidelines that therapeutic holding was to be avoided. I have no idea how consistently that has been upheld or whether in fact another change in the weather has led to holding making a comeback in therapeutic spaces. I hope not. The line between ‘therapeutic holding’ and corporal punishment is one that is too fine to be left up to the momentary judgement of an adult who has just been spat upon and is being told to go fuck his mother.

But perhaps most significant was my recognition that all of our jobs- CCWs, social workers, psychiatrists, pediatricians- were dependent on kids remaining in treatment. I can’t recall the number of times I or someone else asked at an assessment meeting when we were going to finally acknowledge that one or another of our kids was “done” and ought to go home. Occasionally someone would joke that if we let them all go we’d all be out of work.

It seemed that someone, often the designated case worker, was always arguing that either the child or the family were just not ready. If the kid seemed to no longer need our support, then it was noticed that on return from home visits he was antsy or depressed. If mom was back in a stable relationship and no one was drinking to excess in the new family home, then there was a fear that everything would fall apart if our kid was sent back to live in that environment. The child would ruin the family’s progress or the family would ruin the child’s.

Most of the children I worked with from 1974 till 1980 stayed in treatment for at least 3 or 4 years, some longer. When we opened up an adolescent unit some of our kids just “graduated” from our center to the other unit. Saying goodbye to the majority of kids we had had in care for most of the workers was always a wrenching experience. It seems that being kicked in the shins almost daily for years on end can be a stimulus for a kind of love that I can still feel at a distance of ten thousand miles and almost forty years.

Some of our kids we tried to place in foster homes, but were rarely successful for the same reasons other treatment centers and agencies had passed on the kids we treated. I can honestly say I never met a foster parent I liked. Often they were moralistic Christians who you just knew were going to be into “spare the rod”, even if the “rod” in question was just going to be harsh words and time outs and constant criticism and preaching. It was also obvious to me that financial supplement to family income was often the real motive behind fostering and I don’t care how small the stipend is or was. I have never been a fan of “good intentions” and I doubt my view of foster parents would change much if I were to get back involved in the system now.

At one point after I left the agency and was studying at university, I ran into financial difficulties and tried working in a group home for adolescents. I lasted about two weeks if I recall and was just about ready to start a movement to have the private company running the chain of homes shut down. It was so much not what I expected from my years as what I came to realize had been spent as a prima donna CCW in a well-funded treatment center that I was in a state of outrage for months. The kids were no problem but my coworkers, my “supervisor”, and the corporation itself were a travesty. All of them. Talk about systemic abuse, here was the very definition.

The center that I worked at for six years from ’74 to ’80 was located in my hometown. I noticed at one point that out of the 18 boys we had in residence, roughly 70% of them came from the neighborhood that I grew up in. None of the other workers had grown up there and I often felt that my distinctly working-class background set me apart from my coworkers, especially where judging the appropriateness of certain behaviours was concerned. What was normal and necessary for my brother and I and all of our friends growing up and living on the streets of our neighborhood was nothing more or less than pathological for my coworkers and especially for the solid bourgeoise who came in as consulting psychiatrists and pediatricians at regular intervals.

So, yes. The state. We were established and funded under the Ministry of Health when I started and had been moved under the Ministry of Community and Social Services by the time I left. Every year we had to shop like madmen to spend our budget on new canoes and tents and backpacks because we couldn’t afford to lose funding for the next year. At some point we started having problems with getting our kids out of our in-house classrooms and into regular classes at local schools because a funding battle was looming with Boards of Education making moves to take over responsibility for all special ed service provision. Some kids died on a canoe trip organized by some agency so word came down from the Ministry that we had to start cutting back and reconsidering our focus on outdoor programs.

When they started closing “reform schools” in Ontario we were more or less commanded to hire one or two people from those facilities but the philosophy and approach of people in corrections could not have been a worse fit with an agency built on treatment approaches. One of the people we hired was let go within a year because I had initiated a campaign to have him fired for abusing one or two of the kids. “The state” made us hire him and we decided to fire him. And that is a paradigm case for the relation between our agency and this “state” that so many people want to blame for Indigenous kids being taken and kept away from their parents. “The state” mandates that children be protected and sanctions certain powers to be exercised by those working in agencies established to enact that protection, but the individual agencies and workers make all the decisions within that broadly established mandate.

There is a series of tweets from @DepencyLaw that I think get at exactly why it is absurd and vaguely infantile to identify “the state” and the currently popular “systemic racism” as the ultimate cause of the problems experienced by Indigenous families in this regard:thread

It seems to me impossible to read that series of tweets, which corresponds to what I observed very closely, and see it as confirmation that it is somehow “the state” which is responsible. Workers and their agencies are empowered by the state but not directed by the state to behave in the way that series of tweets suggests is common. You don’t blame automobiles for the accidents their drivers cause and this is not a case of “the state” somehow mistreating citizens. It is citizens of one race and class mistreating citizens of another race and class.

It is very far from fashionable to point to “classism” in a discussion of “racism” in the contemporary environment, just as it is anathema to point to individual responsibility and moral/ethical failings when a handy “state” can be blamed for “systemic racism”.

But fashion and genuine understanding are far from the same thing.

As long as there is such a thing as Child Protective Services mandated by Child Protection Legislation there is going to be discrimination based on race and class, not because the state embodies systemic racism or classism but because the definitions involved in establishing what constitutes a “safe” environment, “potential for harm” and “nurturance and care” are always and inevitably going to be expressions of class and culture.

In the end, the only way to avoid the horror of a mother and her children being kept apart for a decade by “well-intentioned” social workers is to dismantle any and all legal systems backed by state power that permit such things to happen with state sanction. There is no “tweaking” these agencies so that race and class will no longer matter as long as they are staffed by human beings.

Just as there is no chance that children are not going to be abused and neglected by their parents as long as their parents are recognized as sovereign within the family structure.