Reference of the Day: Thai urban middle class and urban-rural divide
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Reference of the Day: Thai urban middle class and urban-rural divide

Today’s reference of the day is by Sophorntavy Vorng whose doctoral dissertation is entitled Status City: Consumption, Identity, and Middle Class Culture in Contemporary Bangkok and is available from here (PDF). Looking at the urban-rural divide in the current political crisis she states (at V ):

Accordingly, I argue that the notion of the ‘urban-rural divide’ popularly used to describe the conflict obscures a more complex reality in which city and countryside are linked by reciprocal relations within both urban and national systems of status and class.

This is clearly discernable in the nature of everyday interclass relations in Bangkok which have been exacerbated by contemporary diminishment and marginalisation of upcountry Thais by the urban middle classes. It is an incendiary dynamic that has been exploited to tremendous effect in the current political power struggle. I demonstrate that the middle class is significantly stratified internally, and explore how middle class culture and identity are drawn in large part from their understandings of status practices of elites.

Structural constraints and the societal privileging of wealth and connections are constant challenges to middle class aspirations for upward mobility, and the Bangkokian middle class harbours no illusions of Thai society as a meritocracy. This disenchantment has been channelled into a churning politics of resentment with demonstrably explosive potential. Ultimately, however, I argue that middle class discontent will contribute little to reform while the majority of individuals feel their only avenue for social mobility is to negotiate a pre-existing system of stratification which many perceive as unjust.

Then at 7-8:

The political conflict that emerged in late 2005 is sometimes seen to reflect regional fault lines. Bangkok and the Southern provinces, as political strongholds for the Democrat party, have come to be allied with the anti-Thaksin PAD. The North is Thaksin’s home province of Chiang Mai, where, as a ‘local’, he enjoys a great deal of popular support, regardless of what he does. More importantly, however, millions of ardent devotees in towns and villages in the rural provinces welcomed the long overdue attention the Thaksin regime paid to their economic marginalisation. Southern Thais tended to share the attitudes that Bangkokians had towards Thaksin…

Yet, the most salient battle lines have been drawn up between the middle classes in Bangkok, and the rural provinces of Isaan. These are the ‘yellow shirts’ (seua leuang; สื้อเหลือง) of the PAD, and the ‘red shirts’ (seua daeng; สื้อแดง) of the ‘UDD’ or Nor Por Chor (นปช.)5. The clashing primary colours represent a conflict that is not characterised often enough in more appropriate shades of grey. Rather, it is typically construed in terms of a modern-day class struggle between the PAD (which is invariably characterised as an ‘urban middle class’ movement) and Thaksin’s ‘rural working class’ supporters.

This description of the PAD, at 286, was interesting:

The PAD itself is an internally splintered group that is comprised of Bangkokians, Southerners, business leaders, factions of the army, some of the conservative elite (including some prominent aristocrats and socialites), state enterprise union members, academics and NGOs, students, media personalities, members of the Santi Asok fundamentalist Buddhist sect and some other Buddhist groups, a paramilitary group dubbed the Srivichai Warriors, and various other disparate elements of Thai society.

At page 279 of sufficiency economy:

Exploring the discourse amongst informants of low income, I found that principles of self-sufficiency offered a way to validate or rationalise an already frugal way of life, and endow it with an alternative kind of moral value in a social order which exalts wealth and denigrates the poor. Amongst the more affluent middle and upper classes, I found that sufficiency economy is upheld as either an ideal way of life, or criticised as a means of social control designed to ‘keep the poor, poor’, rather than something that is actually practiced at any length. This is compounded by the fact that there exists a great deal of confusion over how to practically apply the tenets of the theory to contemporary daily life or to public policy

At page 291 on New Politics (which would make 70% of MPs appointed from various professional constituencies – functional constituencies): 

New Politics’ might be viewed as the most recent attempt to extend this strategy. It appears that middle class resentment has come to be channelled into a political movement that sweeps a politically constructed ‘rural poor’ – to be robbed of their votes, if ‘New Politics’ comes into being – within the borders of its target. In turn, the deeply entrenched urban prejudices against lower class and rural Thais has clearly fed the frustration of the latter over their social and economic marginalisation, comparable in amplitude, if not in kind, to the pervasive discourse of middle class discontent.

The lower classes aspire towards the comfort and ease of middle classes, who have so much more than they. Why not use their crushing electoral power to secure the victories of those who profess to better their situations? Yet, as the lower classes rally behind the novel attention Thaksin’s regime channelled into the ‘plight of the underprivileged’, they seem to have forgotten that Thaksin and his cronies are in positions to lead the country – and offer them ‘salvation’ – because they are, themselves, part of the elite in a system that, intentionally or not, keeps the working class downtrodden. Discourse on the major reforms required to redress this situation remains vague. In this light, cash handouts aside, prospects for a truly fairer society and a brighter future for working class Thais appear decidedly bleak.

BP: One problem with her statement in the second paragraph is that politicians always make up the elite in many countries in the world – perhaps, they come from a poor background, but to be a politician means you become part of the elite by its nature. It is not going to change anytime soon. People choose a politician to represent them

Then from the conclusion, at 299-300:

Much of middle class identity is framed by a strong desire to attain the status of the Bangkok elite. This is evident in the pervasiveness of the largely middle class-driven hi-so discourse in Bangkok. Every aspect of hi-so appearance, taste and lifestyle depicted in the media or disseminated through calculated marketing strategies is eagerly grasped by the Bangkokian middle class for the purposes of their own identity constructions. True entrance into Bangkok’s elite strata is a remote possibility for most, but competition to do so is nevertheless intense. Going to dern len [walk around] inside upmarket malls is one of the most widespread and easily accessible middle class ways to emulate elite culture, because the bare fact of the matter is that most middle class occupations in Bangkok are not accompanied by sufficient income to permit individuals to live the extravagant, consumption-heavy lifestyle portrayed as desirable by hi-so discourses.

BP: No more walking around Paragon for BP!

At 302:

The consequences can be seen in the ongoing political crisis, wherein which elites vie for power and the frustrated and discontent lower and middle classes struggle within a system of elite privilege and entitlement, in which wealth and connections are the most important ingredients for success, and not one’s own abilities. However, rather than criticising the system itself, political movements have targeted figures which embody their oppression (Robbins 2008:359). This is evident in the sheer force of middle class animosity directed at ex-PM Thaksin. However, as Thaksin rose by exploiting opportunities created by the current Thai political and economic system, only major systemic changes are likely to prevent the rise of future Thaksins.

Although the middle class and the working class both stand to gain from altering the status quo, members of the middle class, with their relatively greater economic freedom and formal education, are better positioned structurally to catalyse reform. As I write this conclusion, there is a lull in the political conflict. However, it is clearly not over. Until both the urban middle classes and the rural working classes realise there are issues of common interest which are much deeper than those which divide them, and unless the middle class redirects its considerable energies away from reproducing a deeply unfair system, then political unrest is likely to remain a continuing part of Thai life.

BP: It as an interesting read.*

On the need for connections for good jobs in ministries which the author raises, it is not always the case. BP knows someone on the interview panel where an extremely bright student from the provinces with little money who had won multiple scholarships on merit with no connections was up against the child of a well-connected government official who had a Masters Degree from overseas, but would be described as average in their class. The panel was made of well-connected insiders and it was the extremely bright student who got the job. The point of this really is that the extremely bright student was reluctant to apply knowing they were up against the well-connected child. This was a job for a ministry which is notorious for senior government officials with the “right” surname.

*In case you think it is pro-Thaksin dissertation, just read Appendix A and her characterization of the political crisis. Her sympathies are clearly not with Thaksin.