bike@chiangmai – now rolling 6:00 am to 6:00 pm

Five years ago we brought news courtesy of Aljazeera, of Hang Zhou‘s free public bike share. This June 2015 ChiangMai began a scheme practically identical with that of Hang Zhou with some differences.  Presently we are unable to upload photos for this item, but

For a description & Map see bike-at.com

The scale of course is different as Hang Zhou has a population of over 8 million and their scheme has 2000 bike stations and 50,000 bikes while we have 17 stations with 6 bikes per stop, Neither is ours free except for Thais 18 and over with a limit of one hour per day. So despite the fact the 24 inch wheel bikes are small enough for children as young as eight the service is not for the family, nor for Chinese unless they are proficient in Thai or English and with a dual pricing system there is yet one more reason to resent Thainess.

Funding I believe is from the World Bank Global Environment Fund as part of an 124,000,000 baht initiative supposedly meant to promote environmentally friendly transport. The first spending for the fund involved a controversial repaving of the Three Kings Square, followed in haste by mysterious bike lane markings.

The scheme is wildly uneconomic, is a very bad deal for tourists, and nothing has been done on the roads to improve cycling conditions, so as in any project associated with the Chiang Mai Municipal Government under a mayor who refuses to release financial figures one might wonder who be the beneficiary of the scheme and how long it will be on the road?

 

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Huai Kaeo Arboretum – Worth a Visit ?

In ancient times, before the air conditioned  malls Chiang Mai folk had a spot to cool off. They would walk up towards Doi Suthep and enjoy the cool shade under the trees of what is now known as the Huai Kaeo Arboretum.

 Arboretum Entrance Sign on Huai Keow Apology – Technical difficulties prevent the display of photographs at this time.

The park is not as picnic friendly as in the past as it has been fenced off with barbed wire, apart from the entrance near Puping Police station,  rubbish bins have been removed and little seating remains.

But the shade remains and some of the trees have labels with Thai and Latin names so I would suggest a visit by members of the newly formed Facebook group “Botanical Chiang Mai”.

The few interpretation signs are only in Thai.

The study of trees is often difficult because of their height, and flowers, fruit and leaves may be too distant to see with clarity. So early morning visits are recommended before the sweepers have cleaned away what has fallen over night, as some of the trees’ secrets may be lying in wait on the ground.

The park is largely dominated by trees of the Dipterocarpaceae family – Hopea odorata and Shorea roxburghii, both local to the area and the introduced Dipterocarpus alatus (Yang Na),  two giant specimens of which grace the entrance.

Behind the park across the ancient moat many more tall Yang Na trees  grow and there is a tree nursery which includes a small section where Gum Hak Doi Suthep grow a few trees. Trees in the nursery are grown for reforestation and should be available free on request.

 

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Reckless Spending as Car kills 3 Cyclists

The road toll is seldom out of the news in Thailand and today brought news in the Bangkok Post of the death of three and injuries to more cyclists from the Sansai cycling club.

Reckless speeding was the cause of today’s deaths but also one could say reckless spending on an over-engineered bike path beside a stretch of the irrigation canal from ChiangMai’s International Corruption and Exhibition Center to Huai Teng Tao. (Photos coming soon)

 

Duabanga grandiflora, planted one year ago

Duabanga grandiflora, planted one year ago at Huai Teng Tao

 

Why is the government avoiding spending to curtail speeding motor vehicles – cars,trucks,vans, motor bikes, while squandering funds on show projects and ignoring the informed views of cyclists?

Bike Path Barriers

Cyclists had no say in the design of these barriers which prevent bike trailer and wheelchair access to both the bike path and parallel running track.

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Mae Kha needs Wetlands

Typha domingensis

This photo was taken from an article from Science Daily which explains how the bulrush Typha can reduce by 98% pollution loads, including bacterial contamination, from waterways like the Mae Kha canal which runs with black water near the Chiang Mai Night Bazzar.

 

Typha angustifolia is indigenous to the largely vanished wetlands of Chiang Mai and can be seen in wet areas along the railway line north of Lamphun.

Mae KHa Chang Klan

But if we are to take advantage of the healing powers of this plant, which also provides excellent habitat for birdlife where can it be grown?

Planting along the edges of the canal to stabilize the banks as the dangerous concrete is removed should reduce abnoxious odours which upset the nearby residents.

 (Note: clicking on any picture will allow zooming in the expand it )

Further upstream there were formerly natural wetlands, which I am told were the property of Chiang Mai Municipality, but durng the Mayorship of Mr Boonlert Buranapakorn, uncle of the present mayor, this site was sold to the retail firm Central Pattana.

Future  Wetland Panorama

Now that the company has opened its new Central Festival shopping mall is the ideal time to return the ownership to the public estate to return the low lying land for use as a pollution abatement and flood control basin.

The Chiang Mai Deputy Governor presently heads a task force working on returning the Mae Kha to be an asset to the Chiang Mai people.

 

Let us see these ideas raised for action, not decades away, but this year 2015 or 2558.

 

 

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Car Free Songkran in ChiangMai

In ancient times of course Songkran Festival was a car free time, but I wonder if elephants and buffaloes joined in the fun, unlikley considering the absence those days of funseekers from foreign parts?

The overlay of modernity in old ChiangMai has brought with it mechanical equivalents of the former four legged friends, both to the roads in the form of trucks,cars and motorbikes, and also to the rivers, providers of water , the essential element for Songkran frolicking. The natural waters are now so transformed by mechanical dredges and pile drivers that the town’s quest for the cool of waters has thrust the people into the midst of motor traffic around the city moat.

Now however, thanks to the State Railway of Thailand, we are fortunate to have a car free place, with plenty of open space and shady areas for water play –

Railway Park and Pond.

Railway Park Pond

Railway Park Pond

By filling the pond to a depth of about one metre, the park has been made safer should anybody fall over the unfenced perimeter.

At the southern end is a wide flight of steps where water can be collected for Songkran cooling.

 

Pool Steps

Pool Steps

 

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FIRE ? Give us a break ! – so Dave Did

 

From Dave Arthurs

Dave & his Bumble Bee

Dave & his Bumble Bee


As of today, it has taken me almost three years to build the house that we live in; a modest sized mud-brick house in an un-productive Lamyai orchard. The best thing about our house, and the reason that we bought this land in the first place, is that it is located right up at the southernmost tip of Doi Suthep/Pui National Park. 
 I like that there is continuous forest cover between here and the summit of the mountain and the fact that, if I were a squirrel, I could visit the temple without having to set my feet on the ground. The truth is though, in making that squirelly journey, a lot of the forest I would pass through is not in the healthiest of conditions; there are large stretches dominated by a few species, with almost no leaf litter or topsoil. These sections are the result of the annual burning with which we are all familiar.
 Dave's Bush in the Rainy Season
Since the first year here I have lived through each burning season in a state of nervous tension. Waiting for the smell of smoke or the dramatic volcano-like spectacle of a mountain on fire at night. I have helped extinguish many small fires, some by calling the forest fire team and some with a rake on my own. Watching the burning two years ago made me realise that I could do little to protect a lot of the forest, but with a well placed firebreak, I could protect the area directly behind my house.
Our land sits on the flank of a fairly wide ridge, and I figured that by sweeping a 200 metre long break between our valley and the valley on the other side of the ridge, I could protect an area of forest about 15-20 rai*.  I’d always thought the forest behind our house was in relatively good condition; it has a wide variety of species (to my untrained eye) and is distinctly more lush than the surrounding forest during the rainy season. Some tree-expert friends confirmed that the forest is a healthy example of natural growth, containing even teak and mai daeng (the two species** most prized for timber). All this made it worth protecting all the more.
The relative health of this part of the forest may account for the diversity of fauna we see here too. I’m a keen wildlife spotter but when we moved here I had no idea of the variety of things I would see. It seems that, particularly during the dry season, this part of the forest becomes something of a haven. I have seen bird species here that I’d previously only seen in some of the better national parks. Some of these birds are transient and are seen on their way elsewhere, but many are seasonal or even permanent.
 Dave's fire break

Dave’s fire break

This past smoke season I swept my firebreak about eight times in total, but in the end it was a waste of time. The smoke and fires still came, although for whatever reason, they did not come anywhere near our little valley. There were fires on the other side of the hill which the forest fire service extinguished, but quite a large section of forest remained, for the second year running, untouched.
I speculate about the reasons for this.
My calling the forest fire brigade a few times obviously helped. Perhaps the close proximity of our valley to town and the fact that much of the forest is visible from the highway has some effect? Maybe it was the Kamnan in our village who spoke often about the burning and its negative effects. 
I think, in the end, it’s probably just lucky that it didn’t happen. 
Whatever the reason, next year I will sweep my firebreak again and hopefully keep the little area near me as fire-free as possible. 

For those who are interested; the forest fire number is 1362 – it’s a national number and I think you need to be able to speak a bit of Thai to communicate. They will ask you where you are and give you the phone number of the relevant forest fire team. The number I phoned for Chiang Mai was 053-232019 – but it may not always be reliable. 
__________________________________________________________________________________________
Notes:
* One rai is an area 40 m  x 40 m =1600 square metres. An Olympic swimming pool is 50 m long
**  Teak is called Mai Sak ไม้สัก in Thai, Tectona grandis in Latin; Mai Daeng ไม้แดง  in Thai literally translates as Red Wood in Latin Xylia xylocarpa  .

 

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Chiang Mai Nimman Solar Free Zone

Nimmanhaemin Solar Panorama2015 is set to be yet another historic year in the battle to save our Earth from destruction by the Sun as the nations meet at Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Where Copenhagen failed is there hope Paris will succeed?  Well as the panorama below shows Chiang Mai is doing nothing one can see to help move away from fossil fuels with high energy consuming concrete apartments cheek by jowl and NOT ONE SOLAR PANEL in view. (click on the pic and then again to magnify )

 

Nimmanhaemin Solar Panorama

 

Here in Chiang Mai there is a condo building boom just like Pattaya but while all the flat roofs could be covered with solar panels but there are none. Why is this so? The answer is like that to the question of why so much farmland goes unproductive and farmers feel forced to clear forest to make a living or go overseas to work. Yes, the ultra rich have cornered the market for solar panels and have laws in place to exclude others. This was the information supplied to a recent forum* in Chiang Mai about damming the Mekong to supply electricity for the Thai EGAT grid by former senator and environment campaigner Kraisak Choonhavan. He told us that for a building ( other than a small house I suspect ) to install solar panels it must first be registered as a factory, a process which takes many months. Little wonder hotels and condos do not bother, but also it is clear that factories do not as well. So write to Mr Prayuth, I suggest ,and insist he open the field up and remove import duties while he is about it.

 

*

Film by Tom Fawthrop Screening and Discussion on Don Sahong Dam in the Lao PDR

THE GREAT GAMBLE ON THE MEKONG- ARE WE KILLING THE MEKONG DAM BY DAM? 30th January 2015

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of this documentary,  please write to gumhakdoisuthep@yahoo.com

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ChiangMai’s Commodity Fetishism

Advertizing Uber Alles

At a showing last week of  the documentary film “The Great Gamble On The Mekong” by local director Tom Fawthrop, former Senator Kraisak Choonhavan described Laos a “the victim of Thai Capitalism”. In earlier times this involved, he said “the stationing of 80,000 American troops to bomb the living day lights out of the people of VietNam, Cambodia and Laos”. Today that translates into Thailand’s big four private banks funding dam construction on the Mekong to feed the greed of EGAT and the giant malls of Bangkok for electricity ( 3 Bangkok department stores together use as much as 17 Thai provinces combined we were told) .

Now this week there is community outrage at the latest capitalist outrage, a huge advertising sign in THE most prominent place in Chiang Mai.  Why is this so we might ask?  The answer is somewhat complicated so we present here a somewhat weighty  excerpt from a forthcoming book by a ChiangMai academic:

 

Thailand, Occidentalism and Cultural Commodity Fetishism by Wayne George Deakin,Senior Lecturer in English Language and Litertature, Division of English, Chiang Mai University  .. waynedeakin@yahoo.com

Abstract

In this paper I argue that Thailand as a culture, has fallen prey to what I call “cultural commodity fetishism.” Developing Marx’s initial concept of “commodity fetishism” I claim that Thailand, as a culture, absorbs Western cultural products, practices and values, and as such treats these cultural phenomena as fetishes that serve a greater sensory need, whilst having no notion of the politics, agency or historical transformations that have gone into the formation of these cultural phenomena. I further claim that this process is part of the wider spread of capitalism, and as capitalism spreads internationally the “domestic event” of commodity fetishism becomes an “international event” that is cultural commodity fetishism. This in turn facilitates the growth of capitalist, consumer culture to the Far East. Drawing on a number of historical examples, and using a Barthesian structuralist analysis, I illustrate how this has taken place in the context of modern Thailand.

     I argue for a more critical assessment, within cultures such as Thailand, of their own inherent Occidentalism and cultural commodity fetishism and place emphasis on the tacit responsibility of the culture itself to de-mystify this facet of late capitalism within their own cultural framework. I encourage the Thai humanities to develop not only a more deepened critical awareness of this phenomenon, but also a more critical awareness of their own historico-cultural constructions.  

Keywords: Marx, structuralism, Barthes, commodity fetishism, Thai culture

 

Thailand, Occidentalism and Cultural Commodity Fetishism

In Capital: Volume One (1867), Karl Marx describes commodity fetishism in the following terms:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence, it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social.[…] In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There, the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (pp. 164-5).

For Marx therefore, commodity fetishism is a form of mysticism, and one that can only be demystified when we understand the true nature of the capitalist system, a system that hides it’s true workings and produces a one-size-fits all homogenised view of abstract labour-value, a mystified viewpoint that obscures the real and personal labour value involved in the ultimately alienating system of laissez faire capitalism. This in turn means that, as consumers we consume as part of a self-perpetuating system that masks its true, exploitative nature. Taken to its logical conclusion, we are following a negative path of freedom, as opposed to a positive path.1

Marx reiterates this point in terms of the alienation of individual labour power and the transmigration of individual labour into the exchange value of the products themselves in his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), where he argues for the direct recognition of individual labour power in the products of labour themselves:

Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour. The phrase “proceeds of labour,” objectionable even today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning. (p. 8)

In other words, the true nature of the economic relations are revealed, in line with Marx’ Labour Theory of Value, and are not perceived in terms of a fetishistic, reified and autonomous relationship between products on the market. This change of perception would accompany a corresponding shift in socio-economic relations, and would entail a supersession of the capitalist mode of production.

One final quote from Marx’ postscript to the 1873 version of Capital: Volume One should further serve to clarify the point I am making here. In this section of prose, Marx criticises the right-wing Hegelianism first targeted in his Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State (1843). Marx here critiques Hegel’s use of the Concept (Begriff) as the axiomatic basis for his dialectic—for Marx this is a further mystification that obscures the true praxis of the Hegelian dialectic—a praxis that is rooted in material conditions and is obscured in Hegelian dialecticism. The reason for this, as famously explored in The German Ideology (1845), is that the mystical nature of the Hegelian dialectic, rooted in the Concept or in Spirit (Geist), had been used to propagate the bourgeoisie Prussian State. Marx famously argued for the extraction of “the rational kernel” (p. 103) of the Hegelian dialectic in what amounts to a dialectic rooted in material, and consequently socioeconomic, conditions. Marx writes:

My dialectical method is, in its foundations, not only different from the Hegelian, but exactly opposite to it. For Hegel, the process of thinking, which he even transforms into an independent subject, under the name of ‘the Idea’, is the creator of the real world, and the real world is only the external appearance of the idea. With me the reverse is true: the ideal is nothing but the material world reflected in the mind of man, and translated into forms of thought. (p. 102).

Marx here discloses what I take to be the root of his key concepts: de-mystification; Marx therefore in de-mystifying the Hegelian dialectic, goes on to de-mystify the State (as a concretisation of the Idea/Concept) in Hegel’s Foundations of the Philosophy of Right (1820) and by the time of Capital goes on to de-mystify the illusions of capitalism, as propagated by the State; illusions which, include the fetishism of market commodities and the consequent alienation (Entfrerndung) of the producer—an alienation, which in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1806) is the alienation of the mystical Concept.

I’d like to argue in the next part of this paper that these mystifications which Marx railed against at all points in his overall oeuvre, are mystifications that are now present in modern Thai society, not just in the mystical power of the State, but also in the form of what I would like to call “cultural commodity fetishism” something that is not a specific characteristic of Thai modernity, but rather a characteristic of late capitalism itself, a mystification of capitalism as it transcends and spreads across international and cultural boundaries.  

Second Order Signification in Thai Culture.

Bringing Marx’ original theory somewhat up to date, and applying it to the historically recent encroachments into Thai culture of Western cultural values and practices, one can discern a certain sense of commodity fetishism, however this is a fetishism that disguises the labour value of a whole culture itself, a whole history and period of enlightenment, an industrial revolution and a whole learning curve. By culture here, I am taking practices such as clothing, entertainment, infrastructural systems and civic/state institutions.2 A present sensory need is satisfied, at the cost of another history of empirical relations. What I would like to do now, using a structuralist analysis, is read this cultural phenomenon in terms of Roland Barthes’ influential designation of the cultural sign in his essay “Myth Today” (1957).

Barthes writes of the social/mythic sign in terms of its dual nature, one side of which is “drained” of its past cultural or political construction, and one that retains this history. Speech as “myth” for Barthes is a second-order system of semiotics. Barthes writes:

That which is a sign (namely the associative total of a concept and an image) in the first system, becomes a mere signifier in the second. We must here recall that the materials of mythical speech (the language itself, photography, painting, posters, rituals, objects, etc), however different at the start, are reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. (p. 114)

In terms of the argument I am presenting here, cultural symbols, indexes or signs are taken as de-mystified by Thai culture, or to use Barthes’ term “de-politicised” and taken as already given neutral signifiers within a second-order semiological system. It is through this system of second–order signification that they become fetishised within a second-order cultural system. Barthes later describes the nature of the new signifying system:

The signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other. As meaning, the signifier already postulates a reading, I grasp it through my eyes, it has a sensory reality, (unlike the linguistic signifier, which is purely mental), there is a richness in it […] As a total of linguistic signs, the meaning of the myth has its own value, it belongs to a history, that of the lion or that of the Negro: in the meaning, a signification is already built, and could very well be self-sufficient if myth did not take hold of it and did not turn it suddenly into an empty, parasitical form. (p. 117). My italics.

In this process of second-order signification, or in more Marxist terms, this mystification, one sees the sign drained of its original history, whether it be something as simple as a red phone box, or a black umbrella, or more indexical as a tea bag, or more highly symbolic such as a civic function or an infra-structural piece of social engineering—whatever the specific case, and wherever the transformation—the original history bound up with this action, object or institution is parasitically drained, and an empty signifier remains. The capitalist transition between borders and cultures is thence completed; whilst at a local and primary signifying level the true social relations bound up with commodity productions are objectified in the commodity itself, so at this higher, secondary level, cultural commodities are exported and mystified or drained of their integral history. This parasitical action facilitates the smooth export of capitalism into other cultures, where the capitalist “gifts” or fetishes are warmly received, without any of the political posturing, struggle, or intellectual work that went into the original cultural artefact.

 

Thai Occidentalism.

Edward Said famously argued for a similar kind of cultural commodity fetishism in his book Orientalism (1978), in which he famously argued that there was a whole Western “construct” of oriental beliefs and practices that was subsumed into the discourse of “orientalism.” One thinks of the grand tour, the pictures of Byron adorned in Arabic regalia—and the whole romantic fixation with the magic of the Orient, originally explored though literature but later codified into a system of knowledge—a system of knowledge based upon poststructuralist binary logic.

However, on closer examination, it appears that Said’s important book fails to fully engage with the hegemony and ideological process at work in the late capitalist age. Firstly, Said fails to acknowledge fully that there is a more dialogical process at work between the East and the West, certainly since the Second World War and the final dissolution of the British Empire. Said’s book is in fact a partial deconstruction, in that it fails to account for the cultural acquiescence at work for example in Thailand, in its acceptance of Western hegemonic models—or its nascent Occidentalism. Capitalism, with all its trappings of modernity, is very attractive to a culture trying to move into a new Gestalt and away from a predominantly feudal socioeconomic situation.

Thai historians have themselves written of the self-colonisation and Occidentalism that took place in Thai culture in the twentieth century. Phanichphant (2009) has claimed recently of Thailand during the second half of the twentieth century “we were not a colony, but we were colonised, we colonised ourselves.” (Chiangmai Citylife.com, 2009). This “self-colonisation” aptly demonstrates the protean notion of the Thai conception of culture, or Wadthanatham, which more literally signifies the stage of progress the Nation has reached in the present and is therefore itself, in one sense, devoid of a deeper historicity. Thus, the lack of deeper historicity connoted in the term Wadthanatham, runs throughout Thai cultural encounters, encounters that engender an animistic view of reality. Therefore, the cultural discourse of Thailand is protean, non-reflective and a-historical. Mulder (1994) has also written of Thai culture:

Eclectic borrowing, temporisation, adaptability, and pragmatism are the very flavour of the Thai cultural genius. The Thais are no philosophers, ideologists, or essentialists; they are little interested in questions of deeper meaning, mysticism, or religious development, but are rather eminently able to judge things in terms of their usefulness and survival value. (p. 121)

This sense of cultural bricolage that seems to pervade Thai culture (Wadthanatham), also means that things are taken as signifiers in terms of the present, and are as such de-historicised on a macro level. Cultural signs are read in a synchronic, (as opposed to diachronic) sense, and are thus de-historicised and de-politicised. As Phanichphant argues, “we never had an industrial revolution. We went from telling the time by the sun and moon to the cell phone.” (Chiang Mai Citylfe.com, 2009). He even ascribes Thai people’s well known chronological tardiness to the fact they never got used to watches and telling the time; in this sense, a whole new cultural sense of chronology.

This has a two-fold significance in that, firstly, it ties in with the Thai notion of culture, Wadthanatham, as being synchronically of the present, of the now; but secondly, the sense in which Thai culture assimilates other cultural artifacts, rather like a language assimilates other languages, but without any philological or etymological concern for word roots or historical usage. In this case there is an absence of knowledge of the cultural etymology or philology of signs appropriated as second-order signifiers in the Thai cultural system: something that could be remedied with a Barthesian structuralist analysis.

There are various concrete examples of Thai culture importing cultural signs from other cultures and then re-appropriating them in a second-order signification. This was arguably something that commenced with the new conceptualization of the role of the State after the 1932 revolution, after which Phibun introduced an Hegelian concept of the State, the kind of conception Marx had attacked in the The German Ideology and his early treatment of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Chaloemtiarana (1979) argues that this notion of the state placed the state in the mystical position of a powerful entity to which subjects were the adjuncts—in Marxist terms an upside-down conception of ideology, or Phibun’s state ideology of the rhatthaniyom (state preference movement) of 1939:

The concept of the state (rhatthaniyom) changed from that of a mere legalistic term to encompass a wider meaning with ideological implications. It became similar to such ideas that became currency in Europe underlying the philosophical foundations of modern totalitarianism. The position of the citizenry was relegated to secondary importance after having duties to perform for the glory and survival of the state.

(p. 23)

Once the state had become an ideological tool in Thailand, its decrees were to be followed by the populace, in order to maintain the “glory and survival of the state.” One example of cultural commodity fetishism under this new superordinate conception of the state was the ideal of “bobbed” haircuts—or the “Gatsby” look—which is still being enforced in state schools today, another was the ideal image of a Thai woman under the new regime. Phibun actually delivered the following address to the people during a public address on National day, 1943.

“I have seen in our society today, [something] which has made me happy…proper dresses and correct manner are no different from other civilised countries…In the past, it was seldom that one heard the remark “I saw a well-dressed lady; one only heard ‘I saw a beautiful [face] lady.” But now, men remark after coming back from any social affair that “I was lucky today because I met a lady who wore a skirt and hat…gorgeous shoes. She was as beautiful as any lady from any other country.” (Chaloemtiarana, 1979, p. 143)

However, this cultural fetishism can even be traced back to the reigns of King Mongkul and King Chulalongkorn.3 King Mongkul died of malaria after taking a delegation of the court to Southern Thailand to witness a solar eclipse he had predicted using Western astrological methods in August 1868. King Chulalongkorn was renowned for his love of Western attire, and there are many surviving portraits, which attest to this fascination. The Grand Palace was even called by some Thai commentators, the “farrang (foreigner) in a Thai hat.” (Wright, 1991, p. 34). The cultural engineering programmes went on and on, and have continued to the present day, even under the hyper-conservatism of Gen. Sarit, the role of the state in controlling public behaviour only grew.4

More recent versions of this cultural commodity fetishism can be seen in examples as diverse as ‘playboy bunny’ signs, which appear all over clothing and on cars in Thailand—a culture with such strict family values would surely not affiliate itself with the Hugh Heffner Playboy empire? Not however, unless the sign has become drained of its original meaning and re-appropriated as a second-order cultural signifier. The recent events at Chulalongkorn University also brought this home, during which a representation of Hitler was placed next to Spiderman and other superheroes. Used as a simple sign in an aesthetic (bric)collage, this is fine, as long as it’s been drained of its history or depoliticised. On first arriving in Thailand, I was rather bemused by the number of Nazi swastikas over walls and on shirts—not anymore—not when I understand that these are second-order significations, drained of all history and de-politicised. If time allowed, I could produce a long list of these semiotic examples of cultural commodity fetishism.

Thai Identity and Agency.

Indeed, not only would the commodity fetishes, translated into cultural commodity fetishes, appear appealing in facilitating the new dawn of Thai modernity, if we follow Marx’ line of thought, there is a certain inevitability about this anyway. In one sense capitalism transcends agency, the system is almost self-fulfilling—as Marx himself acknowledged—a culture needs to go through the so called “free” markets of capitalism, in order to prime itself for the next dialectical stage in materialist history.

Capitalism, as an international phenomenon, isn’t really interested in agency as such, whether it be Thai, Vietnamese or Laoation. The point is that the internal logic of capitalism was inevitably going to gestate and then become the nascent cultural commodity fetishism we are now experiencing in the form of newer economic success stories. If I am right, and this growth was inevitable, indeed if Marx was right, then what sort of questions should nations such as Thailand be posing in order to problematise the march of capitalism and the cultural commodity fetishism, which has taken hold?

Academics such as Thongchai Winichakul are already questioning the older modes of state pedagogy that are now, in the new era of ASEAN, holding Thailand back as a progressive culture. Winichakul spoke at Thammasat University in July 2013, of Thailand in the following terms: “We don’t know the world, we don’t know our neighbours, we don’t know our region because we are so Thai-centric. We believe in [our] superiority, our being exceptional, our never having been colonised.” (Prachatai.com, 2013). These persistent pedagogies, which are at the root of Thailand’s cultural commodity fetishism, together with it’s almost a-temporal and a-historical view of cultural discourse, were arguably formalised and developed by Phibun and further implemented by Sarit. The notion of “never having been colonised” is not completely true—it is more the fact that protean Thai culture has found ways of assimilating other cultures into it’s a-historical cultural discourse.

Furthermore, as late capitalism has crept East, in it’s attempt to fend off the “communist” threat, these cultural transmissions have been almost inevitable. However, now with a strong historical awareness, a cultural awareness, and the heuristic and methodological tools at their disposal, the Thai humanities should be focusing on what is “Thai” or even “Thai-ness” with one eye focused on the cultural past, and one focused firmly on the future. Prime Minister Shinwatra just last month started a campaign for Thais to promote “Thai-ness” abroad, but how can this be firmly established when, on Winichakul’s astute analysis, Thais are not even sure of their identity or history at home—and by history I am also of course referring to the slow, homogenising movement of late capitalism Eastwards. They appear unsure of the true nature of the historical signs they have incorporated into their own cultural discourse. All of these signs need de-mystification and historical understanding.

One final way of viewing this issue could be in terms of negative and positive freedom. Cultural commodity fetishism raises questions about the true nature of human freedom—is one free because there are no impediments in their attaining commodities on the free market? Or is one more free when one gets to ask questions of the overall capitalistic enterprise, and the way it has insinuated its life into everyday Thai culture? Marx, I think, would argue that whilst it was inevitable that the capitalistic homogenising machine would roll into a culture such as Thailand, and indeed mystify itself as cultural commodity fetishism, now is the real epoch for Thais to grab their own positive freedom and start to interrogate the issue that has in fact problematised not only their own culture, but has paradoxically atomised them and challenged their sense of community and self-hood. A truly positive freedom is a freedom grown from conscience and autonomous reason, not a freedom granted in light of an alienating financial system that is already showing signs of collapse in the “free” Western world.5

 

Notes

  1. The essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1969) adumbrated Isaiah Berlin’s important thesis on freedom that is negative and freedom that is positive. Negative freedom is the freedom whereby you can act of your own will and volition without external impediments to this freedom, and as such is, on my reading of late capitalist society, very much prevalent in modernity. Positive freedom entails agency in making decisions and actively choosing for oneself, using reason. Positive freedom is usually connoted more with civil action and communitarian movements. Positive freedom is usually associated with social philosophy that emphasizes the collective group over the individual, such as that of Rousseau, Hegel or Marx. Hobbes emphasizes a contractualist and collective view of freedom, however his theory is more in line with a negative view of freedom—obstacles to your selfish needs are mutually negated—this however is not a truly positive view of freedom.
  2. This is not to say that the same de-politicisation of cultural history and transformations is not practiced in the West. There are numerous instances of Western youths taking on board cultural concepts and icons without a true historical awareness of their origins or indeed value. Many years ago a royal prince, Harry, went to a fancy dress party dressed as a Nazi—something that caused a stir in the tabloid press. Capitalism isn’t concerned with agency, whether it be singular or societal—the point is that the fetish mystifies and disguises not only the true relations in terms of labour value, but also in terms of historical content and value.
  3. It may be more precise if we date the onset of Occidentalism to the important signing of the Bowring Treaty in 1855, which effectively opened Siam to trading with the British Empire, and almost certainly helped in preventing the later colonisation of the country. Baker & Phongpaichit, (2005) explain that “In 1855, Mongkut invited John Bowring, the governor of Britain’s opium capital of Hong Kong, to negotiate a trade treaty. This treaty abolished the remnants of royal monopolies, equalized the dues on western and Chinese shipping, granted extraterritorial rights on British citizens, and allowed the British to import opium for sale through a government monopoly.” (p. 45)
  4. It is important to note however, that under the leadership of Gen. Sarit, in his role as Phokhun, (father of the nation), Phibun’s state ideology had been replaced by a right-wing populism, which actively discouraged engagement with certain “corruptive” Western cultural values and resulted for example in the banning of Western-style fictions in the kingdom after 1958. The appropriately titled Western-style literary journal Lak Wittya (Stealing Knowledge) had kick-started an interest in Western literary texts, which eventually switched from more romantic texts to realist texts after the coup in 1932. Further to these despotic stipulations in 1958, young people with a Western hippy/beatnik look were arrested as “anthapan” (hoodlums). Additionally, the dancing of the “twist” was banned, as were the dance nights at Lumpini Garden in Bangkok, due to the use of rock n’ roll music. (Chaloemtiarana, 1979, p. 190). These were, ironically, labelled under the homogenous term of “communist threats” by the Field Marshall’s regime.
  5. I would like to thank Dr. Peter Frank Freeouf, Dr. Joseph Wheeler and Dr. Donald Ray Mott for reading and commenting on original versions of this paper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

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Farrel, J.A. (2009) The Lanna Deception. Chiang Mai Citylife, Vol. 18, No. 12, (Nov. 2009). Retrieved from http://www.chiangmainews.com/ecmn/viewfa.php?id=2727

 

Kaewmala. (2013) Thongchai: Thai-style History Education Makes Thais Ignorant and Narcisstic. Prachatai-en. Retrieved from http://www.prachatai.com/english/category/thongchai-winichakul

 

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Wright Jr., J.J. (1991) The Balancing Act: A History of Modern Thailand. Oakland, CA: Pacific Rim Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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