Andrew Walker’s in-depth and well-written examination of rural politics is a welcome contribution to Thai studies and to peasant studies. Based on his repeated research stays in a place that he calls “Ban Tiam”, a village in northern Thailand, Walker makes a compelling argument about the political behaviour of middle-income peasants and the relationship between their behaviour and the national government.
The book’s argument revolves around relations between middle-income peasants and various sources of power. Middle-income peasants in contemporary Thailand, argues Walker, have a “thoroughly modern political logic. The strategy of this modern peasantry is to engage with sources of power, not to oppose them” (p. 219). A crucial concern of middle-income peasantry is to attract resources held by powerful entities that will aid their pursuit of security, safety and prosperity. Central to this concern is building, maintaining and expanding networks that link people to sources of power. Walker summarizes such networks as “political society” (p. 24). The politics of creating networks extends well beyond participating in such familiar institutions as elections and political parties; it includes a wide range of behaviour, a point Walker stresses at the end of the book in a ringing endorsement of a broad conception of politics and the importance of politics in everyday life (pp. 227–32). The power sources that villagers seek out also are wide-ranging. Walker’s analysis emphasizes four: the spiritual world, the market, the community and the state. [End Page 351]
An early chapter previewing the argument relates the study to themes in the literature about peasant societies in Asia, making clear that Walker is interested in showing the relevance of political society in rural northern Thailand to the broader academic landscape. Especially important is the contrast that Walker draws between the political orientation of middle-income peasantry, who constitute most of rural society in contemporary Thailand, and the poor peasantry that predominated in rural Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia fifty or more years ago. James C. Scott’s book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (1976), synthesized the political orientation of poor peasants of that era. Always teetering between survival and death, poor peasants were risk-averse, inward-looking and wary that external economic and political forces threatened their subsistence. Most of the peasantry of contemporary Thailand, Walker says, are in a much better economic situation and consequently have a political orientation that is much more open to interacting with, and anticipating benefits from, external forces.
Walker subsequently marshals data showing the impressive decline of poverty and rise of middle-income peasantry in rural Thailand generally and in Ban Tiam particularly. In the 1960s, about 96 per cent of rural Thai households lived below the poverty line. By 2007, only about 10 per cent were poor. In Ban Tiam during that period, the proportion of poor dropped from most households to about 20 per cent. Walker terms another 20 per cent of Ban Tiam’s 130 households today its “commercial elite” (p. 62). The remaining 60 per cent of Ban Tiam’s 130 households are middle-income. They have enough food; they have decent housing; and they have refrigerators, telephones, televisions, CD players, motorbikes and other belongings indicating their comfortable living standards.
Economic diversification and the tremendous efforts of the state are two major reasons for these improvements. Farming in Thailand has diversified from primarily growing rice to raising garlic, vegetables and other crops. Moreover, whereas a half a century ago farming would have been nearly their only source of livelihood, today less than a third of rural households rely on agriculture alone. Most [End Page 352] also have income from non-agricultural work such as construction, government employment, trade and other businesses. Government policies, programmes and investments are among the factors accounting for this diversification. They have been central to overall progress in rural Thai living conditions. Government spending on agriculture increased fifteenfold between 1960 and 2008; government credit institutions have in recent decades provided loans at reasonable...