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July 29, 2008

Liberalism, authoritarianism and the politics of decisionism

Introduction from a revised draft paper presented at City University Hong Kong May 11, 2008.


Liberalism, authoritarianism and the politics of decisionism in Thailand


Michael K. Connors
School of Social Sciences
La Trobe University

The 2006 coup d’etat against the Thaksin regime highlights the ongoing failure to embed a legitimate pattern of decision-making, enforcement and sovereignty at the national level. It also signals that the gains of Thai liberalism and democracy since the 1980s were based on a volatile ‘democratic transition’ that entailed a liberal and security settlement which entrenched the monarchy at the centre of a national power bloc (Connors 2007: 128-52). The rise of pluto-populism (Baker 2005) under Thaksin in the early 2000s put pressure on that settlement and the social and vested interests it served, leading to a tacit alliance between liberal and statist elements to overcome the threat posed by Thaksin regime. The coup has led to a resurgence of authoritarian politics in Thailand, but these politics are characterised by a great deal of continuity and are not necessarily new in substance. Despite the outward appearance of liberalisation and democratisation in recent years, the authoritarian exercise of power - power which is unaccountable to democratic institutions and impartial processes of law - has been an abiding feature of different regime forms. The fundamental argument is that the contemporary Thai state exists in a state of ambivalence, its institutions subject to liberal and authoritarian currents and purposes. The argument is advanced in five stages.

Firstly, a broad understanding of authoritarianism is advanced which locates its existence in the styles and exercise of power by office holders, rather than in regime form. One consequence of this argument is that electoral democratic regimes arguably exercise authoritarian power, as do liberal regimes. Conversely, formally authoritarian regimes can have liberal intentions. Making this argument requires a critical understanding of liberalism that goes beyond its conflation with democracy. The democratic struggle in Thailand largely has been waged by non-state and non-regime actors who have sought substantive political and economic equality. At times a protean force, the democratic mass rose to break statist or liberal centres, or to temper anti-democratic agendas. Bracketing that democratic struggle, this paper examines elite competition over regime form. Thirdly, the paper attempts to characterise four different regime forms that have emerged since the late 1970s, each possessing a different mix of liberalism and authoritarian. Finally, the paper offers reflections on the current politics, arguing that Schmitt’s concept of decisionism helps us to understand the reconfiguration of liberalism in authoritarian form since the coup d’etat of 2006.

Authoritarian: Liberal, Statist and Plutocratic

Following Jessop (2007: 9), in this paper the core of the state apparatus is defined as “ a distinct ensemble of institutions and organisations whose socially accepted function is to define and enforce collectively binding decisions on a given population in the name of their ‘common interest’ or general will.” Substantiating this definition involves detailing the specific regime form, or pattern of political power, that is articulated to state institutions and functions. That articulation is usually organised around particular hegemonic projects of social, economic and political order. For the purposes of analytical simplification, I suggest that three blocs of competing regime framers have fought for control of state power in contemporary Thai politics: liberal, statist and plutocratic.

Each camp attempts to sustain or create patterns of rule advancing different models of social order, economics and politics. ‘Statist regime framers’, dominant in the 1980s and in periods of junta rule, refers to those with a commitment to a strong centralised state, in which agents of state institutions wield power with little popular accountability. For statists, the formal separation of power may be declaratory, but executive dominance is practised. Statists also mobilise nationalist forms of development democracy or Thai-style democracy. ‘Liberal regime framers’, fairly dominant in the 1990s, refers to those building or sustaining a political system that largely conforms to the ideals of limited government, separation of powers, rule of law, and contingent freedoms and liberties. Inasmuch as liberals support democratic forms of rule they do so in conformity with polyarchic models of democracy. According to Robinson this is a system “in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites” (1996: 49). Pluto-populist regime framers, dominant during the Thaksin regime, are those who have sought direct capital control over the state. In recent times plutocracy has articulated to a politics of populism and electoral democracy. As do statists, pluto-populists favour strong executive power, but unlike statists they can claim a direct electoral mandate.

Before outlining in more detail the struggle between different regime framers, a general observation will be helpful. Thai political forces blur at the edges. The three camps are composed of various tendencies, social bases and orientations to religion, nationalism, capitalism and monarchy. Their particular mix can not be read off their dominant social base. Statists can be found in non-state spheres. Liberals can hold state office. Plutocrats can work through formally liberal institutions such as parliament. Thai national politics centred in Bangkok has largely been a struggle between these triadic forces. While institutional sites can be correlated to each force, the network nature of regime framers and political groupings extends into state and political institutions, making those institutions conflicted sites. The struggle has been characterised by many seemingly contradictory alliances and defections as each force has sought to advance, tactically retreat, or launch an offensive strike against the other. The use of state power by different regime framers against the other partly accounts for the persistence of authoritarianism in Thailand. In this framework it is possible to speak of authoritarian state power co-eval with liberal, plutocratic and statist regime forms.

For the purposes of this paper an authoritarian state is one in which an apparatus of arbitrary power (what may be called an ensemble of dictate) exerts control in a political field. Although patterned, the deployment of power is arbitrary by virtue of its relative unaccountability to those subject to it (see Linz 2000: 159). An authoritarian state tends to exert coercive force in the extension of its quasi-legitimacy. The term “authoritarianism” entails that on balance the exercise of power is illiberal and based on the authority of those who hold the centre (either formally or obscurely), and to those they delegate or defer. That authority is often legitimated by democratic, authoritative and mythic claims to universal representation, or some combination of all (Malloy 1992: 232). Such universal claims are not matched by institutional arrangements.

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