Business as Usual: how ideology is deformed

 | Fri 17 Jan 2014 15:31 ICT

“This ain’t politics. It’s street theatre,” wrote Bangkok based writer and long term expat Jim Algie on his Facebook wall today.

His sentiments echoed many writers I know who are living in Bangkok. One journalist I know told me that he was actually having a pretty good time in the protests, and that they, “give out some nice grub.” It seems, in spite of the bus delays and regular-life hiatus, the protests are quite a lot of fun for some people. This, of course, is better than blood on the streets, oppressive curfews, men in balaclavas sneaking about on rooftops. But what does the carnival, indulgent, fun-loving aspect of the protest mean?

A Facebook Page has been created – and is very popular – in which many of the prettiest and coolest whistle-blowers are captured looking hot in their tri-colour outfits. The photographs, as is the modus operandi in Thailand’s social media, are littered with comments left by males all over Thailand who seem deserted of any other lexicon other than ? (beautiful) or perhaps even an intensified ? (beautiful, beautiful).

In view of the strong language of the protest above the pretty people’s faces: corruption, equality, education, the pretty aspect seems a little superficial. Maybe I’m just too serious (in the Thai sense of the often misused word). People do, after all, have the right to take a selfie and look good, even when they are supposedly fighting for human rights and an end to a corrupt regime… Protest accessories, t-shirts, hats, placards, etc., are omnipresent around certain streets in the capital. The Thai flag is constantly within the grasp of our consciousness; the national emblem is a fashion statement, as well as a political statement.

Business is booming if you work in the protest racket. Yesterday Blue Sky TV, a pro-protest channel, warned of counterfeit whistles copying their own whistles, and announced that this is a violation of copyright. Guards, they said, will be on the look-out for these illegal venders… maybe even causing trouble in an otherwise peaceful demonstration.

*I don’t want to besmirch any of those protestors who passionately want social reform and better standards of living for Thai people – the ones who appreciate civil disobedience for the dangerous yet necessary phenomenon that it is. This is not about you.

In the Slavoj Zizek book First as Tragedy, then as Farce – Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce – Zizek writes about the nature of certain political struggles and how when they are repeated they become more farcical. Ideologies and their symbols might be deformed repeated, copied, subverted, or become subjected to capital, or fashion. One such symbol we all know is Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Che, if you didn’t know, was not a symbol of weed-smoking, doing Asia, or a full moon party. He was a Marxist revolutionary fighting for equality, human rights, and an end to imperialist monopoly capitalism. The reproduction of Che is a farcical one. Che has now taken on what is referred to as a “second order signification”, which is less a revolutionary figure, and more a symbol of hedonism, travelling, drug-taking. He has become a global product – that has taken on a new meaning (mythology) – and his face is a very profitable commodity. Meanwhile his ideology, the very thing he actually became famous for, is likely hardly ever understood, or people don’t even know it exists. The Marxist has become a thing of capital, enjoyed and exploited by people with very different ideologies to his own. 

Back to the lovely protests: Is history repeating itself in Thailand, except this time as farce? What kind of ideology does the flag draped around a pretty’s (sometimes pale skinned girls with the fashionable look are simply called ‘pretties’) slender waist represent? Does she embrace an ideology, or has the demonstration become something she feels compelled to join not because of ideological reasons (such as those protesting for human dignity and rights) but because the three colours, the pretty whistles, the protest selfies, have taken on another meaning. The new meaning might be related to fashion, urbanity, maybe even education, and though it might not be emphatically expressed, it is nonetheless existent, steeped in its own mythology, serving to maintain the us and them divide.

This street theatre phenomenon is only something I’ve seen in Thailand, and so I have nothing to compare it to. While it might be harmless fun, it might also be a monstrous spectacle. With that said – enjoy the weekend!


James Austin Farrell