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Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful

It is quite all right to hate democracy. T. F. Rhoden dislikes democracy immensely. Without classical liberalism, he argues, it is normal to mistrust democracy in its purer form. Democracy is dreadful without the classifier “liberal” in front – because liberalism is a safeguard against democracy’s inherent decadence of rule by the people.

Without Liberalism, Democracy is Dreadful. Fortunately We Have Both

Whatever one thinks of Donald Trump’s election and Brexit, we might do well to pause briefly and consider the state of democracy as a regime type. Both elections make useful pedagogical tools. They toss into relief inherent aspects of this regime type – aspects that may appear hidden most of the time for many of us who fret over the condition of such things.

More than anything else, they should serve as a reminder that Britain and the United States are not pure democracies, but rather liberal democracies.

Democracy as Demagoguery

As long as no monarch, no military junta, no unelected revolutionary vanguard or commission impedes this process of the people in their governing body, then democracy can be said to be working well. The people – the demos – vote on some course of action, as in the EU referendum, or they vote on some individual to lead a slew of actions in the US example. For those who win at this process, then there is much at which to rejoice. For those who lose, there is even more to dread. Indeed, without some form of institutional brakes and constitutional liberties, very little can stop a demos from putting into power a “tyranny of the majority.”

Democracy in its purest forms captures the joys of a winning majority as much as it does the fears of a losing minority. The ancient Greeks knew this well. So too did many of the founders of American government. Democracy as a regime type is nothing other than a vehicle for the demagogue. A well working democracy is, in fact, demagoguery pure and simple.

One of the more humorous misadventures in the scholarly literature on political transitology and democratisation is how comparative political scientists have thought that they need to “depict a ‘new species’, a type of existing democracies that has yet to be theorised” whenever they encounter a democracy that appears wanton. When we think of democracy in this more fundamental and classical sense, democracy naturally appears less appealing to the contemporary thinker. Is it any wonder that for many of the people living under one of these truer forms of democracy, governmental rule may seem more capricious and less predictable? “Democratisation” takes on a more sobering, even sinister, meaning for those citizens who have lost at the ballot box.

Some theorists have gone out of their way to describe this uglier aspect of democracy and call it a “delegative democracy.” Yet if we could only remember that democracy always has this harsher aspect within it, one could leave out the moniker “delegative” altogether. Unchecked, unbalanced incompetence voted into power: this is democracy without liberalism.

Liberalism before Democracy

Democracy, when denuded and reaffirmed as “rule by the people”, does not in any way include… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Democratic Audit UK by T. F. Rhoden; image credit for this re-post goes to ModDB. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Burmese Buddhist Political Thought

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Matthew J. Walton’s Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought.

Our cultural upbringing, our mores and customs, our manners and practices, and, in particular, our religion (or lack thereof) constitute that pathology that we often call one’s moral worldview. If, as social scientists or humanities scholars, we accept this much, we may also concede that such a moral worldview might have further consequences on how we think and act in various situations: socially, politically, economically, or otherwise.

Take the case of a religion like Buddhism—or more specifically, “Burmese Buddhism”—as Matthew J. Walton does in his dissertation Politics in the Moral Universe: Burmese Buddhist Political Thought. Does being brought up (indoctrinated?) into something like a contemporary Burmese Buddhist “moral universe” have consequences on how one goes about her politics and politicking? The essential argument of this dissertation is that this “Theravāda view of the universe as governed by moral causal laws has been the primary lens through which Buddhists in Myanmar have thought about and engaged with the political realm”. This moral worldview is not simply how one “thinks” about politics but also how one “engages” with politics.

In short, one’s religious coloring of morality has consequences on the political stage… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Dissertation Reviews by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit for this re-post via Political Blindspot. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Oligarchy in Thailand?

Abstract

A modern conception of oligarchy, which can be housed under an authoritarian regime as easily as it can under a liberal democratic one, can affect our understanding of the potential national political repercussions of extreme inequalities of wealth. This article has two goals: (1) to conceptually analyse the meaning of oligarchy; and (2) to make a
descriptive case for its use in the Thai context. The test case of contemporary Thailand shows what exactly an oligarch or oligarchy means under a military regime and the potential effects for national politics of an oligarchy based on material wealth. Utilizing Jeffrey A. Winters’ Aristotelian-grounded conception of oligarchy for the contemporary world, this article argues that some political outcomes in Thailand are inexplicable without recourse to a modern variant of oligarchic theory and analysis.

Keywords: Thailand, oligarchy, monarchy, military regime, Thai oligarchy.

Introduction

This article argues that Winters’ concept of oligarchy can be extended to politics at the national level in Thailand. The coup d’état on 22 May 2014 by military forces led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander of the Thai Royal Army, may offer evidence against the argument that Thailand has an oligarchy. A year earlier, the representative democracy in Thailand – despite it being “low” on liberalism – may have also opposed such a classification. Thailand with its unique form of constitutional monarchy, sometimes termed a “network monarchy”, also appears to argue against oligarchy. Additionally, a review of Riggs’ now-classic concept of “bureaucratic polity” or Chai-anan’s concept of “three-dimensional Thai state” also seems to chal-lenge any notion of national-level oligarchy.

The present paper argues that while Thailand is not an oligarchy, it does very much
have an oligarchy. This is not a play on words. To understand why the above claim is empirically true, one must revisit the concept of oligarchy and allow for misconceptions to change. Three specific elements need to change. Firstly, the theory of oligarchy, as originally understood by Aristotle, is not a regime, but a very powerful, hard-to-eradicate, and not always coherent element of almost every state and society since Aristotle posited his mixed regime, including contemporary Thailand. Secondly, the theory of oligarchy is a materialist theory of power. Thirdly, the theory of oligarchy can be applied to Thailand and, by doing so, researchers of social science gain a new perspective of recent turmoil in Thai national politics.

Every theory, method or approach provides insight. For some students of Thai politics and society, recognising that Thailand has an oligarchy may induce something of a modest epiphany. For others, this recognition will be more like an intellectual homecoming. There are many ways to describe Thailand’s national politics, including the concept of oligarchy, regardless if one likes or dislikes the word. This article is about theory and classification and how it applies to one national state in Southeast Asia. I agree that a causal argument may be more powerful than a descriptive  argument in the social sciences. However, because there is still so much confusion over the term oligarchy and its applicability outside of Hellenistic Greece, I make a simpler argument of reviewed classification and exampled application. Oligarchy as diction can be more than a facile epithet. Oligarchy is, in fact, a vital force in Thailand’s political society… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit goes to Reuters via International Business Times. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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The Liberal in Liberal Democracy

Abstract

This article argues that much of the work on democratization and democratic consolidation is obscured by a conceptual fog, when at the very least some of this confusion could be ameliorated by parsing out components that are obviously liberal in nature. An admission of the importance of liberalization and liberal consolidation as distinctly different in form and measurement from democratization and democratic consolidation are the first steps to better research on the varieties of causation that constitute and propel the dissolution of more authoritarian regimes towards more liberal democratic regimes. Acknowledging that the liberal in liberal democracy is unpopular for some, and that liberal democracy does not necessarily mean American liberal democracy, go a long way to freeing these terms from ethnocentric misconceptions, as well as cementing analytical clarification. Though all modern democracies have both liberal and democratic components, democratic consolidation does not guarantee liberal consolidation.

Keywords: liberalization; liberal consolidation; liberalism; democratization;democratic consolidation; democracy; liberal democracy.

Introduction

A causal argument, whether borne by a statistical inquiry or a qualitative articulation, is in the aggregate the most valued species of argument in contemporary political science. If we are to present an argument that veers away from causation and instead focuses our attention on the level of concept, we must justify ourselves to those who prefer the middle path. A linguistic trial by classification and typology creation can “have a useful role, however, as a way of categorizing causes and effects that cannot be measured using numbers”. In order to avoid a droll discussion of conceptual classification and clarification, some imperative must excite us away from a question of what causes what towards a more fundamental query of what are we even talking about. Something like a normative imperative surely exists amongst the community of scholars and practitioners of what is normally  referred to as “democratization” and its various offspring: “democratic transition”,“democratic consolidation”, and “quality of democracy.” If scholars get these concepts wrong, how should we expect those in the world of policy to get it right? This article has a singular argument: in the twenty-first century, any concept of democratization is wrong when liberalization is also assumed to be an inherent part of that process. If democracy and liberalism are not the same thing, then why do we expect (1) democratization to automatically include liberalization, and (2)democratic consolidation to include liberal consolidation?

To state the conclusion first: we should not. Liberal democracy, though more than a simple sum of its parts, can never be “consolidated” unless both of its parts are understood. Furthermore, the liberal must be accepted and embraced in the same way that the democratic has been if we are to ever make sense of the various paths of transition from more authoritarian regimes. This article begins by reviewing the current confusion caused by the concept of democratization that values rule by the people more than liberty. A review of what democracy and liberalism mean and how they do or do not fit together to create a liberal democracy is in order. An alternative classification o fcurrent regimes will be provided in order to ground future theories of causation in a plane of greater clarity. The remainder of the article will then ask why it is that researchers have been so reluctant to use the adjective liberal in their projects and what might be gained by shifting a focus towards ideas of liberal consolidation…[click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in Democratization by T. F. Rhoden; photo credit to Biography.com. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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Thailand’s Oligarchs Are Fighting

I want to believe that those who have taken to the street recently in Bangkok really do wish at heart to simply have a political system that is free from the influence of money. Or maybe we should say extreme amounts of wealth, like an ultra-extreme amount of wealth available only to the—not the top 1 percent—but the top .01 percent, top .001 percent, and, empirically speaking, really the top .0001 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people.

The influence of extreme inequalities of material wealth on national politics is a very good reason for those who work in salaried, white-collar professions in Bangkok to protest en masse. Honestly, the influence of extreme wealth on politics is a good reason for anyone to protest. And so, we should acknowledge that those on the street right now are acting of their own volition, correct? All of us have friends and colleagues who, whether we agree with them or not, are part of this protest, people whom we respect. We can acknowledge their passion. If this is a passion stirred by the direct consequences of extreme material wealth—the most salient example of this in Thai national politics being former PM Thaksin Shinawatra—then it is a legitimate passion, and more importantly, a legitimate reason to protest.

When political equality is hampered by economic inequality, can Thailand still have a liberal democracy? I wonder if this is at the heart of the problem. Does Thailand have something like a national oligarchy that is affecting, whether negatively or positively, some political outcomes? Does it make sense to ask if, casually speaking, the presence of a robust Thai oligarchy after Thaksin’s emergence on the national stage has conditioned, constrained, shaped, or some other way constituted the various events leading up to the 2006 coup, the crackdown of red-shirted protesters in 2010, the national elections in 2011, and the current round of protests in a way that if there were no Thai oligarchy would quite simply have not have occurred? Does Jeffery A. Winters’ thesis in his 2011 book Oligarchy apply to national case of Thailand as well?

PM Yingluck has made a public statement saying that… [click here to continue to read full text]

*Originally published in New Mandala by T. F. Rhoden; all other written and photo credits appear on New Mandala. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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