Monday, 30 May 2016

The Happy Kingdom of Siam

According to certain reports in the international media in recent times, the poor people of the Kingdom of Siam – occasionally called ‘Thailand’ – are “suffering” for the lack of democracy. The present author, who has now been travelling through this same Kingdom for over a month, however, must report to the contrary. The overwhelming impression one has of the country and its people is that it is generally prosperous, well-ordered and, on the whole, happy. The only sign of discontent the author has encountered has been an old Siamese gentleman standing at the traffic lights complaining about the proliferation of automobiles and pining for the old days of rickshaws and horse-drawn carts. Otherwise, the people of Siam are unusually peaceful and cheerful in their demeanor. This cannot be universally true, but it is all the same an accurate generalization as any number of the tourists who flock there every year can confirm. Suffering? Hardly. There is some poverty to be seen, especially in rural pockets, but no destitute beggars on the streets such as one finds in many other places, and the general reception one receives from people across the whole spectrum of Siamese society is warm, generous and friendly. You would expect a “suffering” people to be dour, surly, bitter. There is nothing of that.

Some people attribute the warm and felicitous disposition of the Siamese to Boodhism, for the Kingdom of Siam is officially Boodhist with some ninety percent of the population subscribing to the Theravadan mode of Boodhist thought. An acquaintance of the author opines that a long heritage of Theravadan Boodhism has made the Siamese “soft” and “gentle” in their manner. This is possibly so. There is a Boodhist ambiance and wats – temples – in every town. Perhaps it has contributed to the national temperament, and if so it is to be commended for that. But there are surely other factors too, some of which are evident to even a casual visitor and which become more obvious once one knows something of the history and deeper culture of the land. No doubt the Boodhism contributes to the strong sense of social cohesion in Siam, but so too, for certain, does the strength and endurance of the nation’s monarchy. If there are Boodhist temples in every town, there are portraits of the king, and of the royal family, everywhere as well. Every café, every school, every public building, but also every home, is adorned with pictures of the king, King Bhumibol, (his full title is Phra Bat Somdet Phra Paraminthra Maha Bhumibol Adulyadej Mahitalathibet Ramathibodi Chakkrinaruebodin Sayamminthrathirat Borommanatthabophit) who is not only respected but genuinely loved by his people. This is a very strong and healthy monarchy. It is a striking feature of the nation, especially for those of us who come from countries where monarchies have degenerated into mere parodies of what they once were and where, in fact, the very notion of monarchy is treated as an anachronistic embarrassment by the intellectual elites. The Kingdom of Siam, the Boodhist Kingdom of Siam, remains a viable monarchy and the people of the nation are united in their love for the king and the institution of the monarchy. The nation was ruled by absolute monarchs for many centuries. This changed to constitutional monarchy in the early XXth century, but the monarchy has remained strong, an emblem of tradition and continuity.

The practical effect of the monarchy is, as this author has witnessed everywhere he has gone thus far, to bind the people into a single kinship. It is instructive to see a real monarchy in operation. It gives to a society a locus of veneration, but more importantly it universalizes the value of family. For monarchy, finally, is about family. Other societies might be conceived to be social contracts, or be modeled on corporations, or – worse still – be understood to be types of machines (the State as machine, the model of the technocrat), but a monarchy, in theory and practice, concerns the State as family. Monarchy is about kinship. It is not necessarily racial or ethically static – since people from outside can marry into family – but even then citizens are bound into a single family structure at the head of which is the king (and by extension the queen, princes, princesses and the wider royal family and aristocracy.) This is what gives the Kingdom of Siam such a strong sense of social cohesion. The present author is invited into Siamese homes. There, on the wall, invariably, are pictures of the homeowner’s family, their mother and father, and ancestors, and children, but among them – or usually over them – is a picture of the king. He is regarded as the head of the greater family. He is like everybody’s great-grandfather. He is woven into every family structure. Reverence for him is as sincere as reverence for one’s family elders. There can be no question that this permeates Siamese society with such values as respect, dignity, mutuality and makes the Siamese into a people bound not so much by a pompous, confected nationalism such as one finds in modern republics, but by a living, genuine, concrete sense of family unity. The fact that there might be miscreants, criminals and malcontents in Siamese society, as everywhere, does not undermine the more considerable fact of a palpable social cohesion and common purpose. It is a happy kingdom, a place where – contrary to all the cynicism and selfish bitterness typical of Westerners – we can see the real virtues of monarchy still alive and functioning today.

But, but, but… stammer the leftist liberals and so-called ‘democracy activists’ and ‘human rights advocates’. The only ‘but’ is that the Kingdom of Siam does not conform to the narrow expectations of Western elites. People can be charged and jailed for the crime of lese majeste – speaking ill of the king. Is this not an outrage against the god of “free speech”? And, in fact, the country is administered by the army and a National Council of Peace and Order, with the king as a figurehead with merely residual powers. Is this not an affront to ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’? This is where some will claim that the people of the nation are “suffering”. The truth, though, is that they are not, and that – inconceivable as it may seem to Western liberals, left and right – the country is well-run, peaceful, prosperous and orderly even though it is not a liberal democracy. 

The history is instructive. In the 1920s Western-educated intellectuals agitated for “modern democracy” and ended centuries of absolute monarchy. But then, almost immediately, the unity of the nation was shattered and it fell into civil turmoil since “democracy” is, after all, a type of ritualized civil war between contending interests, specifically capital and labour. The country fell apart. At this, the army – the one remaining stable institution, along with the monarchy – stepped in to restore order. And so it has been ever since. Western-educated intellectuals, and their Western backers, agitate for “democracy”. Then the cohesion of the country is broken. Then the army – on behalf of the king - saves it from self-destruction. The demonstrable fact is that it is a nation that functions very well, and enjoys prosperity and peace, under the monarchy, but which quickly falls into disarray under the artificial, imported structures of “democracy”. It seems clear that most Siamese are perfectly happy to be living under the benign care of the National Council and the watchful paternalism of the king. It is only a small, spoilt, vicious, Westernized, urban elite that thinks that “democracy” is the gold standard in constitutions. In this respect, Siam bears the fruit of never having been a European colony. The Kings of Siam were always too canny for the European colonial powers. And consequently, the intellectual life of the nation was never infected with the lasting poison of an anti-colonial independence movement such as one finds in, say, India, which insists on “democracy” as the measure of self-government. There is a destructive pro-democracy movement in Siam, to be sure, but it is not a systemic toxin for all of that. 

* * * 

For the present author, these points are of particular interest given his long-held affinity to the philosophy of Plato, which philosophy is, of course, essentially political in nature. Plato is a political philosopher first and foremost. And the good Kingdom of Siam invites several meditations upon Platonic political themes. Most famously, Plato wrote an account of a supposedly ideal state, the Republic, but there is also the dialogue called the Laws, and that called the First Alchibiades, and many others, which bear upon directly political questions. Socrates, wisest and most just, let us recall, was put to death by the Athenian democracy. So the Socratic Plato was no democrat. Indeed, he is the most comprehensive and deepest critic of the democratic system and democratic theory. In a place such as the Kingdom of Siam we can see stark illustrations of his critique, as well as at least bare outlines of the sort of alternatives he proposed based on his analysis of polities. Make no mistake, it is not an “ideal state”, and no one is suggesting so, but neither is it a tyranny under which its people are “suffering” just for a lack of popular elections. Pornography, narcotics and gambling are all illegal, but it is hardly a joyless, puritanical place, as, again, its booming tourist industry attests. The streets are clean, the beer is cheap, the children are polite, the women are petite, the food vendors are full of smiles – not, your average “military dictatorship”. The assumption that liberal democracy is the only possible mode of government under which a people can be content is one of the most infantile falsehoods of our time. Siam is not a democracy but it is assuredly a well-governed state.

Plato’s political theories are complex to say the least and they overlap at every juncture with his metaphysics, psychology and much more, but central to them is the observation that there are three fundamental groupings of forces in both a state and a man: the ‘appetitive’, the ‘emotive’ or 'spiritedness' (thumos) and the ‘rational’ (nous). These may be observed in any society, but specifically the appetitive classes are those concerned with production and consumption, the ‘spirited’ class with the heroic impulse, and so with war and defense, and the rational with contemplation, guidance, rulership. In a modern democracy society is ruled by the appetitive classes, producers and consumers, capital or labour, who compete in elections for the right to govern. This is, as we said above, a type of ritualized civil war which, at best, is prevented from destroying civil society with open conflict by a system of agreed but always precarious checks and balances. It is a fragile thing, as Plato knew, and its weaknesses eventually erode civil purpose and lead to chaos. This is what happened in Siam in the 1920s, and then again with regularity in the 1950s, 1970s, 1990s and so on.

The state of chaos in a degenerative democracy is then an invitation to tyranny. Typically, some strong man from one or other of the warring forces takes control. The modern era is so replete with examples of this terrible outcome we need not list them. Representatives of business – Chile’s Pinochet – or else labour – Castro’s Cuba – seize power and oppress their rivals. Democracy degenerates into class war, and then into dictatorship, left or right. Plato forsees this, and earnestly seeks to avoid it. His politics is not predicated upon a class-war model. He is, above all, confident that the conflicting interests in a polity can be harmonized and that a harmonious unity can be achieved where each of its parts can flourish without it being at the expense of others. But this can only be done by empowering the higher faculties and those that embody them. A rational and virtuous order can be attained, and labour and capital can be restrained from destroying each other, by directing a society towards a higher unity and a common good.

In the Republic – admittedly a theoretical ideal and not a programme for action - this takes the form of a class of reluctant ‘Guardians’ who must surrender their own liberties in order to rule in wisdom and righteousness for the sake of all. At best it is a type of philosophical theocracy. It is rarely to be seen, Socrates says, and more commonly it takes the form of some type of aristocracy, and indeed in practical terms Platonic politics is essentially aristocratic. Thus do Platonists look well upon most manifestations of monarchy, because at very least a monarchy – and its aristocracy – entails a class of people who are trained and dedicated and raised to the task of ruling from birth, and though they may live in an atmosphere of opulence and fine taste (contrary to the more austere Platonic ideal), they are removed from the grubby intrigues of commerce (they are aristocrats, not tycoons!) and live under the quite severe restraints of custom and tradition and duty.

What we see in the Kingdom of Siam is the second order – the ‘emotive’ 'spirited' class, which is to say the army, whose primary virtue is valor and courage – taking control in order to prevent the warring appetitive classes from wrecking the fabric of the nation. But, happily, instead of some army general taking control and appointing himself tyrant – as we saw in, say, Idi Amin, or Colonel Gadaffi, or Sadam Hussein, any number of them! – the junta in this case took a far more Platonic strategy. They were able to do so by drawing upon the continued strength of the age-old monarchy. Certainly, His Highness King Bhumibol, like any modern king, is not the Philosopher-King of Plato’s Republic, but he is a refined man of wide education, virtuous, benevolent and not without wisdom. Moreover, he is a religious figure: the monarchy is thoroughly integrated into the Boodhist tradition of the land. His image stands beside Boodhas, monks, perfected Arhats and holy men in every temple throughout the nation. He is a pious man of transcendent sensibility. In our age it is probably as much as one can hope for.

The whole problem of Platonic politics, let us state plainly, is to find some virtuous authority that is above and beyond the murderous, envy-driven scumbag working class, firstly, and the devious, corrupt, greed-driven and parasitic business class as well, two groups of the appetitive temperament always seeking to tear each other apart; an authority that will allow these two parties to go about their proper purpose unimpeded and that will govern not in the interests or this or that sectional group but in the common good, guided by higher ideals. In the case of Siam, this role has been taken by the National Council for Peace and Order, guardians of the common good on behalf and with the tacit support of His Highness the king. It is not, by any means, an ideal Platonic arrangement, but it is understandable in the framework of Platonic political theory. The army – royalists and patriots – have saved the country from civil war again and again, and have prevented the advent of both degenerative democracy and the inevitable tyranny that is its eventual outcome. Those who clamber for democracy – let us also be clear – are driven by ideological delusions or else by the urge to seize power through the manipulation of the popular will in order to further not the national interest but their own sectional self-interests (dressed up, as usual, as "rights"). That is always the way in democracies, with very rare and brief exceptions. 
The Kingdom of Siam is an object lesson in these political processes, exactly as described in the dialogues of Plato. 

Long live the King!


Harper McAlpine Black

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