September 11, 2011

Thinking about authoritarianism in an ambivalent state

The full paper with tables, matrix and references may be read here

In the context of a fascinating surge in discussions on the nature of the Thai state at various forums, I reproduce a section of my attempt to think about unpacking the nature of authoritarianism in the ambivalent Thai state. The full paper may be read by clicking the link above. A much shorter version of this paper was published in Pacific Review as "Liberalism, Authoritarianism and the Politics of Decisionism". That version did not contain my attempt to think about authoritarian power.


This paper is an attempt to think through the nature of authoritarianism in Thailand by arguing that the focus of analysis should be on the exercise of political power, rather than regime form, in the context of the failure to settle on forms of legitimate power at the state and regime level. It first offers a way of thinking about authoritarianism, markers of its existence and, importantly in the Thai context, its articulation to liberalism. It advances this argument by noting the synchronicity of liberal and authoritarian modes of power across a range of regime forms in Thailand since 1976. Rather than situating authoritarianism in specific institutional sites (though it surely resides there – see Table 1), attention is given to the failure to establish and consolidate rules for the exercise of power as a consequence of Thailand’s specific ‘democratic transition’ that entailed a liberal and security settlement based on repression of progressive democratic forces, and the entrenchment of the monarchy at the centre of a national power bloc. Consequent to that settlement, competing groups of strategic elites in Thailand exist in a permanent state of insecurity and revert to authoritarian modes to secure their position, even as liberalism progressively deepens its reach.

Liberal and authoritarian regime framers, those forces that on balance support liberal or authoritarian forms of social order, are not exclusively identifiable in specific institutions, they are trans-institutional and trans-social class, and manifest in political exigencies. The contest and co-existence between the two currents reflects competing agendas for social order that are formed around different and changing coalitions of social forces. Since 1976 the complex pattern of forces that have come to occupy each current has shifted, their realignment contingent on a range of factors that come to bear on the task of social order and capital accumulation. As much as Hewison can speak of ‘contingent democrats’, to indicate the shifting position on democracy of the Thai bourgeoisie and the middle class, one may also speak of ‘contingent authoritarians’, to recognise those liberal regime framers who will utilise power, or condone its use, for the purposes of stemming power from below or in the struggle against authoritarian regime framers. Indeed, the contemporary situation (post-2006) is marked by a suspension of liberal modes of conduct at a national level, implicitly sanctioned by liberal regime framers, as different political forces compete to establish dominance in the Thai state, mobilising various resources and legitimating strategies.

Authoritarianism of power, not of regime.

Rather than viewing the 2006 coup and the resulting political fallout as ushering in new forms of authoritarianism in Thailand, this paper will speak of continuities and repetitive pathologies of state power, encased in the different regime forms since 1976. It will argue that the failure to settle the pattern of domination that lies at the heart of state structure requires that we think less of distinct regime forms (semi-democratic, democratic, authoritarian) and more of an ambivalent state of power in which shifting and differential patterns of liberalism, electoralism and authoritarianism have momentarily congealed as regimes.

This approach entails moving beyond the prevalent dichotomous models of regime form in democratization literature that posits authoritarian or post-totalitarian and democratic endpoints as opposite poles on a transition-continuum. As Thomas Carothers has argued, those regimes whose ‘transition’ to democracy has seemingly stalled may not have stalled at all, rather they are stubbornly squatting somewhere tangentially forked-off the linear continuum. The existence of hybrid regimes is now widely accepted: seemingly in temporary holding positions of their authoritarian leaders in “democratic transitions”, these “hybrids” have become embedded regime forms around which political behaviour is structured.

Moving beyond regime form at a macro level requires recognition that the yielding of power in state agencies, through political institutions, and in collaboration with business interests, may be remarkably similar whatever regime formally holds. This insight can often be lost as a consequence of giving too much credence to formal regime appellation. I have argued at length elsewhere that a significant force shaping the modern Thai state (understood both as an institutional apparatus concerned with the making and enforcing of public decisions and as a relationship of power that reaches into society) is liberalism, this despite the hold of the military and the bureaucracy over important state resources. I would extend my argument to note that within liberalism generally, and Thai liberalism specifically, it is possible to detect moments of authoritarianism that are not contradictory to the liberal project, but inhere in it (and this is so of liberalism in general). And, conversely, within authoritarian regimes one will find liberal moments of pluralism, intra-regime opposition and tolerance that would belie a harsh exterior. I would argue that it is these ambivalences (“contradictions” only if we accept ideal types) that can best illuminate recent Thai politics and its apparent authoritarian backsliding.

No one definition of an authoritarian regime will suffice to make sense of the existence of authoritarianism in Thailand. Rather than offer a definition, I offer, drawing from Linz, four angles from which authoritarianism may be examined and diagnosed. The angles are designed purely for heuristic purposes relevant to this paper, and do not claim universal relevance. For the purposes of understanding current Thai politics it seems to me that it is important to capture the spirit of authoritarianism as an approach to the exercise of power and the mechanisms to secure it, rather than as a specific type of regime. In this way, authoritarianism may be understood as present across many regime types.

An authoritarian state is one in which an apparatus of arbitrary power (what may be called an ensemble of dictate) exerts control, and often undirected influence, over physical life and/or a social field defined by imposed limited, hierarchical pluralism. Although patterned, the deployment of power is arbitrary by virtue of its relative unaccountability/un-responsibility, and though pluralism is sometimes controlled (it is always hierarchical) in contradistinction to ideal-type totalitarianism, it is not obliterated. An authoritarian state tends to exert coercive force in the extension of its quasi-legitimacy. To elaborate:

1. Un-responsible power/unrestricted restriction of freedoms.

An authoritarian state may be defined as that which, through internally ill-defined institutional patterns, exercises arbitrary and unaccountable power over the spheres of human existence and association, and which, by dictate, restricts free movement in those spheres. The former exercise of power concerns the derogation of the life of individuals and “natural” communities, while the latter entails the perversion of the relatively free range of collective political possibilities that might exist in an open public field. Both spheres are potentially subject to unrestrained power and power’s neglectful indifference, and are likely to mutate under both.

2. Universal claims.

When applied to national level state-society formations, which is what concerns us here, 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. Such universal claims are not matched by institutional arrangements. Those who exercise power at the centre are enabled by this legitimating claim to demobilize opposition through mechanisms of repression, cooption, and toleration, enduring strategies of depoliticisation, or even electoral mandates and parliamentary majorities.

3. Hierarchy of linkages.

Authoritarian states that are not edging towards totalitarian control will be differentially marked by vertical and sectoral linkages between different levels of power, mediated by actors who react to and shape the institutional features of the regime, according to prevailing incentive and disincentive patterns and the domain of intervention (health, education, industry policy etc.). This provides room to move. Authoritarian state institutions can articulate to regimes of various colours: bureaucratic-authoritarian, institutionalised one-party rule; competitive authoritarian, electoral populist, developmental liberal. While political typologists will rightly characterise regimes according to the dominant impulse at work in the centre (democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian etc) most regimes are complex multi-level systems of considerable institutional overlap; different and even contradictory impulses may be found within and across their respective state levels. An authoritarian state, in any particular regime form, may be, in restricted domains, articulated to a liberal imperative.

4. Propensity to coercion.

The deployment of coercive force is not unique to the authoritarian state, but it does have a marked propensity to coerce under the logic of exclusion by which it operates. Authoritarian states are rarely wholly legitimate ones. They tend to work on the principle of a dual exclusion. Firstly, there is the exclusion of the dissident or oppositional forces that are subject to significant constitutional/legal and extra-legal pressures in the conduct of their affairs. At best, it is the power of bureaucratic and technical coercion that is used to frustrate the formation of oppositional blocs or agendas. At worse, violence is employed. Secondly, there is is the exclusion of some social element by virtue of which the national citizenry may be formed over and over again. Authoritarian states - shaped as bureaucratic authoritarian regimes, as formally democratic regimes, as military regimes - are apt to communicate exclusion by public or hidden coercive measures extending from control to violence. In such a state, when resources, power or status are at stake the possibility of extra-legal coercion or violence is ever present, and shapes decisions. Authoritarianism gives free rein to a politics of fear.

This loose matrix of four features may be used to propose that while individual actions may be labelled authoritarian - as might particular policies, decisions, and ideologies - authoritarianism only emerges as an ensemble of dictate when on average a state’s organization of power over the social body it claims to represent, and its actions on it, are un-responsible and coercive by direction or consequence. To speak of “averages” allows that in any ensemble of dictate, particular instances of sub-regime liberalism are entertained and may be functional to the enduring nature of authoritarianism. It is also possible to speak of an apparatus of dictate in regard to sub-regime levels, much the same as Schmitter suggested that in looking at democratic consolidation a better picture was available by paying attention to the multiple sites in which different structures of behaviour were processed in relations between the state and society; these he called “partial regimes”.