May 23, 2016

The politics of the General Will in Thailand

Excerpts from
Michael K. Connors
International Journal of Cultural Policy        2016.

Available at:

From cultural enforcer to networker: the Cultural Surveillance Centre (Ministry of Culture)

Despite its seemingly Orwellian appellation, the CSC’s activities are not unlike those practised by other nationally-based cultural guardians – either state or societal – who doubt the moral and political competencies of their respective cultural charges. Given the work of the CSC to constantly remind people of Thainess through its newsletters, public exhibitions, workshops, media appearances, a case may be made that the CSC is merely an add-on to the cultural infrastructure that functions to banally remind people, as Billig (1995)) describes, to be self-conscious of the nation-root of identity, of which subjectivity should be an expression. Such a view places the CSC in a stream of hegemonic politics whereby the coupling of self-nation identification has historically served a broader hegemony of the dominant power bloc of senior bureaucracy, palace and business (Thongchai 2008;Reynolds 2002); this hegemonic bloc emerged through the twentieth Century, although events since the coup of September 2006 have led to a fracturing of that hegemony and splits in its conceptualisation (Glassman 2011).

Viewing the CSC as a persistent ‘identity reminder’ also entails recognising that its cultural surveillance work seeks to generate real-life manifestations of embedded ‘modest’ and ‘decent’ social norms among Thai citizens in market capitalism. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the agency is attempting to nurture and embed national identity as a public good, embodied in officially endorsed notions of culture as a way of life (which agencies seek to shape). As a public good, national identity acts as a normative institution that tempers the possessive individualism of capitalism. This understanding of culture – as a public good/general will – consciously derives, in part, from UNESCO’s instrumental elevation of culture as a prime resource that drives sustainable development, an understanding that has demonstrably shaped MOC policies (Connors 2005;        Surapan, Chareonsap. 2011 ;UNESCO 1998) As Miller and Yudice (2002, pp. 12–15) have pointed out, cultural policy is in part an iterance of the foundational position of all educational projects: that the subject is ethically incomplete and requires reform; and taken in a national context that reform serves simultaneously the nurturing of a civilised individual and nation.

The CSC aims to extend the legislative capacity of ‘the people’ to rule themselves through the principle of the general will – which can only ever be understood as a decision about what is the right way to live together. It is evident that to the iterative Legislator (any usurping governmental agency tasked with constituting the people-body), an enabling capacity for making that decision means engagement in the bio-politics of Thainess, or varied governmental intervention. Thainess works to authorise legislation without an electoral democratic mandate, for it is the enabling condition of the assumed social contract between the Thai state and its subjects, at least among conservatives. Here then we find at its rawest the mentality of many in the moral reform agencies of the Thai state. Its logic in the cultural realm is mirrored in the political realm. In the absence of a capacity to form a general will, in the presence of fractious politics of interest and ideology, limited forms of democracy are viewed as necessary so that the people can be led towards the general will. If one were seeking to find the general tenor of politics informing the justification for suspending Thailand’s electoral democracy, it may be found in embryonic form in the CSC and other pedagogical agencies of state and society. Its surveillance activities form one channel through which a general will may appear and citizens ‘forced’ to be free. That Thailand has, since 1932, never succeeded in embedding any constitutional form (in 2015 and 2016 it deliberated its 20th constitution) means that the figure of the iterative legislator (military coup, government agency, monarchy, etc.) is constant in the modern period.