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146 Paradoxes of Order in Thai Community Politics Michael Herzfeld Oscillation between hierarchical and egalitarian models is a feature of the political life of the Shan of Burma, as Edmund Leach (1954) famously argued. But it is also of more general significance; indeed, it characterizes the uncertainty of anthropologists themselves as they try to put Southeast Asian societies into one or the other box. In the Thai context, older anthropological notions of “loose structure” (see Embree 1950 and cf. J. M. Potter 1976; but see also Textor 1977) seem to be incorporated in a certain studied informality in some interactions, but these performances vie with a heavy emphasis on models of hierarchy that draw heavily, if not always directly, on royal symbolism.Yet even that seeming contradiction may be more the result of the way in which Thailand has become a Western-style state, governed—and analyzed—according to a positivistic understanding of the meaning of data and order and yoked to a Western-derived progressivist model of the past: the “pulsing galactic polity” that Stanley Tambiah offered as the mandala-based dynamic of the early Siamese state (see World Conqueror and World Renouncer, 1976) has been displaced to an idealized past. Today, the earlier polity is treated with a nostalgic conF5920 .indb 146 F5920.indb 146 12/17/12 3:00:44 PM 12/17/12 3:00:44 PM Paradoxes of Order in Thai Community Politics 147 descension worthy of the Eurocentrism that the modern Thai state has so assiduously sought both to cultivate and to deny, a feat it has achieved by reifying the idea of a unified Thai tradition in a manner strongly reminiscent of many European nationalisms over the past two centuries. I make these remarks, then, in the context of a conviction that arguments about “where modern Thai culture came from” are bedeviled by simplistic etiologies of origin: the either-or formulations of “the West versus China” are no more satisfactory than the simplistic insistence that everything about modern Thailand, including the seemingly obsessive positivism of much of its political elite, can be traced to Buddhist models. To say that there is much in Thai political and cultural life that is obviously of Western inspiration means neither that it is a straightforward imitation—indeed, it rarely is that— nor that Thais are unaware of the geopolitical conditions that have seemed to necessitate a creative use of Western prototypes. Indeed, I would argue that the country’s “crypto-colonial” condition (Herzfeld 2002) and the concomitant insistence that Thailand must achieve a certain degree of “being civilized,” khwaamsiwilai (Thongchai 2000), are precisely what have made the apparently uncritical adoption of a positivistic model of society and culture all but inevitable. That does not mean, however, that Thais are fooled by the claims of positivistic discourse, only that they have learned to use it well and in a distinctively local way; ironically, they may sometimes be far more aware of its contingent character than were its Western originators. The representation of the West and Asia as mutually opposed is as unproductive as the binarism of loose structure and hierarchy, and is indeed often read into the East/West stereotype as a dictatorship/democracy dualism that is equally unhelpful in disentangling the complex realities of modern Thai politics. It would also be unrealistic to insist on such “pure” explanations and neatly Cartesian dualisms in the context of a rapidly globalizing and increasingly complex world economy. In my own fieldwork in Rattanakosin Island, Bangkok, earlier in this decade, I found that middle-class populations (such as those of the Phraeng Phuthawn, Wat Sakaet/Phukao Thong, and Tha Phrachan locations) were far less interested in pursuing community identity as a strategic goal than were those groups—notably the Pom Mahakan community, of which much more in a moment—whose desperate economic plight and fear of eviction made concerted action a more attractive alternative. Local F5920.indb 147 F5920.indb 147 12/17/12 3:00:45 PM 12/17/12 3:00:45 PM 148 Michael Herzfeld observers often commented that they found much more of a sense of community in these poorer communities (and again, Pom Mahakan seemed to be the most striking example, although Tha Wang was certainly another) than in the middle-class enclaves, in sharp contrast to official insistence that squatter populations, as the poorer groups were considered, could not be considered true communities at all. Thus, even the dynamics of self...


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