Writer – Yung Kay
Here, we sit on the event horizon between core and periphery, if there is anywhere it can be reconciled, surely it must be here. Not just Thailand, but other regions that fall into the same global economic bracket of the middle-income trap. Can there be any interaction between the periphery and the core?
Right now, we’re in northern Thailand. Here, we’re caught between the periphery and the core. We’ve seen refugees from across the border, carrying deliveries from the ice trucks into the pristine co-working spaces, effortlessly gliding past the professional email writers in their air-conditioned chambers.
Thailand itself is caught between the periphery and the core. Still today a “major Non-Nato ally,” which pays endless lip service to our comrades in Beijing. In reality, our heydays as a cold war colonial outpost are long past. Slowly crumbling away, Thailand is a relic of the old bipolar world, weighed down by auto-imperialist bloat and imprisoned by long irrelevant foreign imposed dogmas.
How do you reconcile it?
Which is which?
To begin any reconciliation, we have to first try to establish what is the periphery and what is the core. One simple way to do so is to look at the GDP spread across the kingdom. Bangkok is all-consuming. A black hole that sucks in wealth and labour from across the country. Almost 50% of the whole country’s wealth lies in Bangkok, while it hosts just 22% of the population, much of whom are domestic or foreign migrant labourers. Of course, of that wealth, the vast majority is in the hands of the bourgeois class.
Since its founding in the mid-18th century, Bangkok has been developing its outposts across its kingdom. Chiang Mai in the north, Khon Kaen and Korat in Isaan, Had Yai and Nakorn Si Thammarat in the south. These outposts serve the purpose of bringing the periphery into the core. The Thaification policies of the explicitly fascistic government in the 1930s were not just cultural imperialism but an economic program, it is how they sought to reconcile the periphery and core, by absorbing the periphery into the core’s economic strata.
The north, per capita, is the poorest region, largely due to the poverty found in Mae Hong Son, which is undoubtedly the province furthest from the core, geographically, economically, culturally and in terms of the reach of governance— it is often said by indigenous locals that Mae Hong Son is not Thailand. Mae Hong Son is where many of the aforementioned subaltern labourers come from or through, they are all refugees in one way or another, both those born domestically and from over the border, indeed the border means very little when this far out in the periphery.
Bangkok, while it serves as the imperial core of Thailand, is itself becoming increasingly part of the global periphery of capital. Once it was the bulwark of the American empire’s fight against communism in Southeast Asia— billions of dollars were poured into the capital, fortifying it from the peasantry who wished to seize it and redistribute its wealth.
It was at this juncture that the domestic deep state was forged. The republican fascism that gripped Thailand from the 30s through to the early post-WWII era was under threat from a more Third-Worldist, non-aligned sentiment. The republican elements of the former openly fascist regime were discarded, which many of their ideals remain, the republicanism was replaced with a program of uplifting the monarchy, to make them into the benevolent front face of the nation. Harnessing their religious and feudal patronage networks, combining them with the nationalist militaristic fascism of the previous generation of leaders. This was the military, monarchy and capital in an alliance against workers and against communism, an alliance which was fiercely backed, an alliance which was made possible, by global capital via the tendrils of the US empire.
The kingdom became a key base of operations, from which aggression against neighbouring states was launched. While capital suffered minor setbacks in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, that aggression was ultimately successful. Come the 90s, with the threat of the workers subsided, Bangkok was largely left to its own devices, the slush funds had been cut and domestic imperial bloat began to set in. Today, the decay is evident throughout Bangkok; an absurdly overcrowded city, its boulevards of empty shop fronts which are quite literally sinking as the sea slowly reclaims the land on which sparkling new malls and condos are still being erected.
For the top end of the bourgeois class, however, nothing needed to change. Consent has been so thoroughly manufactured. However, in the race to the bottom for capital to find new frontiers of extracting as much surplus as possible, Thailand is plateauing. The brutal extraction of profit can be performed for cheaper in nearby places like Bangladesh and Burma. Today, pristine Teslas glide effortlessly over the cracked streets and past the crumbling slums— their drivers entirely unaware of the rot that surrounds them, blissfully ignorant to the truth that they’re running on fumes, capital is abandoning them, though the stench remains.
Those who can see the rot first-hand are, of course, the working class. The most recent figures show that Thailand’s household debt now exceeds 90% of GDP, ranked 11th-highest in the world, with the vast majority of this debt concentrated in lower-income households.
The economy urgently needs massive investment and overhaul, however, the pillars that prop up the nation are bowing. The military, the monarchy, the bureaucracy and its parliament are all entirely impotent at anything other than upholding the status quo. These institutions are anchored and bound by their bloated patronage networks and confined by the deep state which itself is bound by the dogma of Thailand’s mid-20th century past, but today it is no longer an important outpost of global empire, just a festering relic of US implementation.
The one meaningful attempt at reform came in the shape of Thaksin Shinawatra. For better or for worse, Thaksin was a revolutionary force within the Thai economy, and politically he aimed to bring the nation into the 21st century. Though his policies still solidly served the bourgeois class, he was deemed too much of a threat to the aforementioned bloated dogmatic institutions of state and capital which violently ousted him and worked tirelessly to crush any remnants of reform, proving their inability to adapt to the pace of global capital.
We Are Not Alone
This peril is not an uncommon one worldwide. Look for countries with large populations, mainly rooted in agricultural sectors which underwent massive urbanisation and developed a manufacturing base in the past half-century. Spot the telltale signs of sprawling cities which host both a well-fortified domestic elite and a massive slum-dwelling population. Note the geographical periphery, the stretches of the country near ungoverned by the central state. See too the political violence on top of which these contemporary iterations of the state were built, with US intelligence operatives lurking in the background. Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Mexico, etc.
These countries serve as a kind of mediator between the core and periphery. Lowly sub-Lieutenants of global capital. Few climb the ladder into the upper ranks, South Korea being one of the few major nations to enter the fraternity of the bourgeois core. Thailand’s leaders look to them enviously questioning… “Why can’t we have that?”
The answer is that South Korea was coerced into abandoning all sovereignty on behalf of capital, more specifically its enforcers, the US empire. South Korea, a state with such an absurd history, filled with such grotesque violence and such brutal subjugation was moulded into the perfect capitalist state largely through force and due to being the outcome of a freak occurrence in 20th-century history. A few other cases dot east Asia; namely, Taiwan and Singapore, these are more freak accidents of history rather than shrewd domestic governance or savvy economic management. One commonality they all share, however, is a history of near-total lack of domestic sovereignty which in reality lies in the hands of the west and global capital.
The elites of Thailand were not willing to give away this degree of sovereignty, as we saw in 1973, or perhaps they were never even given the opportunity. Either way, it seems that they ended up believing their own fairytales of a “special” plucky little state, capable of holding its own in the face of colonial empires. In reality, Thailand merely rolled over for the British Empire and its successor; 20th-century capital backed by its enforcer; the US empire. When it was no longer of any use post-cold war, the empire lost interest. Fortunately for the Korean and Taiwanese bourgeois class, our comrades further north kept them relevant in the eyes of the empire, and so they were permitted into the core, the fraternity of “advanced economies”.
“Why can’t we have that?” — the Thai deep state cries to capital.
“Because you’re too irrelevant” — capital casually replies to deaf ears.
To define politics in these middle-income trap countries as compared to the true periphery and true core, we have to understand violence. In the core, explicit political violence is seldom seen. Of course, there is that kind of constant undercurrent of violence and subjugation that you find in advanced economies, but it rarely breaks out in mass political brutality. The true periphery, however, is defined by violence. Just across our western border, violence is ubiquitous in everyday life, it is the primary factor in almost all decision-making for the working class. Along our event horizon however, there exists an uneasy understanding of violence, one that has lived it and is extremely reluctant to live it again.
Thai politics is dotted, but not littered, with political massacres, some visible others not. Phumi Bhoon, Thammasat, Black May, Tak Bai, Krue Se, and Ratchaprasong weigh heavy on the minds of the proletariat. These are instances where the state has shown that it is willing and capable of publicly using mass violence. Many in the working class too, remember the violence of the mid-2000s’ war on drugs, the arrests, spontaneous savage interrogations and masses of near invisible extrajudicial murders— which were so prevalent and yet somehow so inconspicuous. In the previous century, those who sought to harbour the revolutionaries of the insurgency faced murder and state brutality which is publicly still entirely ignored to this day, yet still remembered by those who lived it.
On an individual level, if you’re willing to challenge the power of the state, violence is not so much of a threat but an inevitability. How many activists have been beaten, tortured or thrown into overcrowded sadistic prisons in the past decade alone? Their stories and experiences, their blood, sends a chilling message to anyone else brave enough to emulate them. These are the survivors, many others have simply been murdered, disposed of, sometimes on the phone to their loved ones, their bodies tossed into the Mekong.
Of course, in Thailand’s domestic periphery, violence is far more of a ubiquitous facet of daily life. Those who live on “land they do not own” face the constant threat of violent eviction. For migrants who travel to the core to sell their labour, life is marred by violence in the workplace and in the urban slums. Women, in particular, are subjected to horrifying violence in the sex industry, a historic haven for misogynistic barbarity, which incidentally, was built to serve the colonial troops of the last century, imported from the USA— today, the sons and grandsons of those troops continue the legacy of their forefathers.
This kind of violence, both present and historical, both seen and unseen, serves as a constant threat to those who would seek to change their present conditions. In August, during the early days of the 2020 Bangkok protest movement, nearly 50 years after the massacre at Thammasat University, students fought the police in the streets, for many of them, it was their first experience of state violence. Seeking refuge from tear gas in Chulalongkorn University the fearful whispers echoed the memory of Thammasat— “could they do it again? I think they could do it again?” The fear is prevalent and justifiable, one that is unknown in the global core, but known all too well in the true periphery.
In places on our event horizon, the state has proof of concept for explicit mass violence, but this exists in the context of overall peace. Those who wish to challenge the status quo are put in an awkward existential position.
How do you reconcile it?
An Opportunity at Reconciliation
Perhaps we are not caught between a tiger and an alligator, but rather we’re in the best of both worlds.
Capitalism, as we know it, is gradually entering its death throes. Most importantly, the US empire is becoming increasingly unable to project itself to play the role of enforcer. But what happens to semi-periphery when the core collapses… when the Visigoths sack Rome?… an opportunity arises.
We know brutal repression intimately enough to conceive of what we’re up against. The wealth of the bourgeois presents itself in the same frame as the plight of the working class in a way that it wouldn’t dare in the core nor the true periphery. The crumbling economy is a threat to the proletariat, but so too to the bourgeois class— a bourgeois class, that is growing complacent, slow and bloated, juxtaposed to a proletariat that is growing impatient, discontent and increasingly bold.
The labour aristocracy of the core is incapable of genuinely challenging capital without losing its material comforts. While here, in the north, in Isaan, we have Bangkok in our sights. We have the potential to bring the wealth of the core into the hands of the periphery, a potential that is out of reach for much of the rest of the planet.
Equally though, this middling malaise means that for the time being, we have little agency. We’re dependent on the collapse of the global core providing us with an opportunity for that moment of conflict with capital, with our domestic core. Here, we sit in wait and quiet preparation. If it can be reconciled anywhere then surely it must be here.