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 .. email@example.com
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.
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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
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