Panic on the Streets of Bangkok, Panic on the Streets of Chiang Mai, I Wonder to Myself…

 | Fri 12 Jul 2013 14:11 ICT

I’m not quite sure if it’s me or modern civilization that is having a mid-life crisis. It seems a little tenser in the streets these days, in Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, in cities all over the world (as far I understand from various screens). Half of my social media friends are talking about the End of Times, or regularly quoting George Orwell in relation to modern society and politics, while the other half are so blissfully ignorant of life outside donuts and Instagram that they’re far more worrying.

I am talking about the rediscovery of a man-made virus, one whose most conspicuous symptom is insatiability. The sickness, which is zombie-like in its craving, is of course greed. But unlike a zombie it has an incurable hankering for money, not blood…Although the couple, as we all know, is utterly inseparable. I say ‘rediscovery’, because at this moment in history a vast number of people have become disenchanted with their political and economic system. This has led to various anti-government protests around the world, but it’s also arguably the cause of rising crime rates, nihilism, and all kinds of violence.

Philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek, has been called The Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West. He’s a commie, and he’s cool, and no one had heard of him ten years ago. He’s a radical leftist intellectual, and he’s dangerous, I guess, because he now has a huge following. His rise in popularity is another corollary of this rediscovery of greed. Žižek has said numerous times in interviews that “social tensions are growing” all over the world, and will expand, and deepen until…well, until humanity comes up with an alternative to the way we live. He’s adamant that if we don’t change the political and economic modus operandi, liberal capitalism, then most of us will be buggered. He’s not alone; rather, he’s part of a growing minority. A minority not only consisting of hip Hegelians, but renowned Swiss economists living in Chiang Mai. Marc Faber, advisor to the world’s media on economic issues, is certain of economic collapse. His ‘Doom and Gloom’ predictions point to economic catastrophe in the not too distant future. A dark hour awaits us, according to Faber. A few hundred years before Marc, Marx also predicted that this would eventually happen.

Countless people are marching through the streets of cities in countries all over the world right now with signs decrying the insult of modern capitalist corruption. Religious partisanship, Žižek believes, is not the central problem. Rather, it’s a proxy for social discontent. The central problems, Žižek explains in his very unique voice, are inequity, poverty, harsh livening standards, human degradation, et cetera, which all found their legs after being enabled in the ancient swamp of capitalism.   

“Are the problems and protests of the last few years signs of an approaching global crisis, or are they just minor obstacles that can be dealt with by means of local interventions?” asks Žižek.

Traffic on Nimmanhaemin Road was end-to-end, side-by-side, on Friday night. Cars were double parked down most soi, and for around 30 minutes nothing could move on Soi 5 where I was jammed. I asked a man on a large motocross bike if there had been an accident. Angrily, he turned to me, and in what I think was an American accent said:

“No! Thais are stupid. There’s no fucking accident. They’re just fucking stupid.”

We were outside a bar and quite a few young Thais heard what he said. He saw a gap in the traffic and filled it, while I waited in shame and listened as the young Thais said things like:

Ai hia farang wa!” (Translation: *expletive* foreigner)

Understandably, they weren’t happy about the curt defamation, and the blame that had been ascribed to them. Tensions were growing around me. None of us could move, and even the outside bars were too polluted by exhaust fumes and noise to be anything close to comfortable. I thought for a moment that I might be apportioned some of the blame – being a farang – for what the man had said, that they might have a go at me. Luckily, it didn’t happen. 

We were all partly to blame for the congestion and pollution as we were obviously its constituents. The herd mentality I guess, attracted by the ‘hip-hub’ marketing slogans of the street. But why this street had so many attractions, so little space, so many plots and so much concrete, was not a fault of the people. To prevent messes such as the incorrigible traffic jams of Bangkok, and perhaps soon Chiang Mai, there are supposed to be government bodies to protect our well-being. But it is apparent that these bodies are not complying with our hopeful expectations. On a local level, just as on a national level, we hope the government doesn’t let us down, that profit is not their only motive…

A few hours later, after a good night out, I turned again onto Nimmanhaemin Road and almost immediately a motorbike skidded at my side and two girls slid with it down the wet street. When I stopped to help them they were in shock and crying, saying over and over:

“They took my bag, they took my bag.”

Someone had snatched a handbag, and in doing so had knocked the girls off their bike. Two of the editorial staff here have been robbed in the last month. I am hearing about bag-snatching on a regular basis. Now I know what it looks like. The police were on the scene in seconds.

And then, the next day, I witnessed on YouTube the brutal stabbing and slaying of an American man who, according to press reports, had an argument with a taxi driver over 51 baht, threw coffee at him, and then got stabbed to death with a Samurai sword on Sukhumvit Road.

These crimes are not pathological in the sense of brain cells; they’re pathological in the sense of society. Let me explain.

Take the taxi driver for instance. We might come to the conclusion that the driver is psychotic. But that’s too easy. We can’t blame all crime on neurological aberrations, for one good reason that most crimes (statistically) are committed by the poor. Crime is related to the mind as much as it is related to our living conditions.

The Thai apologist position (taken by Thais and foreigners) is that the American shouldn’t have made someone lose face within Thailand’s rigid cultural guidelines. But seeing as the refinement of culture since the beginning of history has been based on non-violence and harmony, I’m not sure culture is a good enough excuse to get away with murder. What he did was incontrovertibly wrong in my book, but I can’t now just dismiss the case and hang ‘em high as Thaivisa aficionados like to say after any violent crime. Why he did what he did should be what we are all asking. I mean, what circumstances might activate a violent potential? It had nothing to do with Thai culture, but a lot to do with Thailand. Had the American been more savvy to the instability of rural Thai society, the endless contradictions of cultural values; had he been aware of rising oil prices, the stress of inflation, of class struggles, of poverty in Northeast Thailand, of the disenfranchisement of the invisible servants in the capital, he may not have thrown coffee in that man’s face. I’m not defending the act of violence, I’m saying don’t kick a hungry bear. While we have a responsibility to act ethically, we might ask how much we are determined by our circumstances. I’m saying that if we ignore that question, we are in a way perpetrating yet another form of inhumanity.

Hundreds of Burmese immigrants were rounded-up in June

We see that most of the crimes taking place in Thailand, or in any other country, are crimes committed by the poor. This is according to arrest and conviction records. Political crimes or things like banking corruption, even though undoubtedly a cause of smaller crimes (and overall tension), are seemingly beyond the reach of the law. It’s poor people who maintain durable occupancy rates in prisons. The USA, which houses 25% of the world’s prison population, is the centerpiece of capitalism. Since Thailand’s war on drugs started Thais jails have been over-filled. Wars on drugs, and the penal system, also have a profit motive. Billions and billions of dollars. We might ask if capitalism willingly creates criminals? 

I don’t think many people believe that the poor are born unethical, endowed with a fateful penchant to hurt people, or steal, or transport wealthy businessmen’s amphetamines cross-country. We are a product of the sensations caused by our environment. As Karl Marx wrote, we are “a reflex of material situations,” a polymorphous shape molded by its surroundings. Self-preservation, along with public recognition, at all costs, is our goal. If capitalism is the credos, then how might dire living conditions affect people?

If you oppress people, if you disable them from having the things they’re programmed to need, if you abase and mock them, if you command violent wars on drugs against them, if you ignore the consequences of their poverty while gaining from their exploitation and cheap services, what happens? If you admire the way police summarily ‘round up’ these people up a few times a year for the satisfaction of the public, if you turn askew from their dirty mugs when you see them in the paper as you don’t like bad news, then this problem of tension and crime is not going to get any better any time soon. It’s our responsibility to accept that social problems are our problems, not just their problems.

A large part of the critical public has an alternative suggestion to silly, laughably lefty hippy views like mine. They suggest that the government imposes stricter laws and heavier sentences for the (arrested) criminals. They suggest that the cure to social dysphoria is more pain, more restrictions, less freedom, which means ubiquitous CCTV, hardliner militaristic politicians, huge budgets for the police, and perhaps branding immigrants would be a good idea. This is what is called an authoritarian state, something progressive civilization has been trying very hard to stay away from. Although regressive civilization has made a come-back during these days of rising tensions, the police state is no mere fantasy of the mentally challenged. How distant are we from an authoritarian state, perhaps one that monitors emails and social networks, or one that imposes archaic laws that undermine democracy and the freedom of speech? I think you know the answer.

There is a war going on against the poor, one that has no respect for Marx’s theory of interconnectivity through material circumstances. While we quiver in our boots after reading about the latest shock slashing, maybe our fear decides for us that the most viable solution is just to freeze, burn, and lop-off this wart that impinges on our happiness. The problem we find is that the warts always grow back, because somewhere in the body of civilization an antigen thrives that makes society susceptible to warts.

But what does that really mean? What are we supposed to do? Perhaps an empathetic approach to social problems is a start, merely adopting a more open-minded ethos that accepts Marx’s theory of material determinism, something that becomes an education for our children.

Surely there’s no need to start throwing rocks at government houses?

Unfortunately, says deceased pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, yes there is. The ballot box, Rorty insists in his book Social Hope, was never part of great humane movements such as civil rights, women’s rights, and labour rights. If this ever widening wealth disparity is to become smaller, then it might take more than just casting a vote.

If Žižek is right, and the framework in which the political powers work within is itself faulty and apt to self-destruct, then a more radical move has to be made on the part of the public. The power structure, says Žižek, is a facilitator of the problem, and powerless under the capitalist whip. Greed is not just a decision, but intrinsic to the nature of the system.

When we look at growing traffic congestion and pollution in Chiang Mai, we might arrive at the conclusion that local politicians and rule-makers have allowed it to be like this. Bad development, in terms of space, has gone on unimpeded. The city plan was stalled until all the land was bought up. It was stalled, in Zizek’s terms, because the fundamental motive of the city politicians was profit, not the lessening of pollution or social tension. Profit, we are told, is the raison-d’être of modern politics. It’s even inclusive in our education, to destroy our environment by dredging it of its vital resources and subsequently oversupplying it with junk we don’t need.

Institutional greed on a grand political scale infects the corpuscles of the smaller institutions it ‘midwifes’ into being; importantly, our schools. Our schools where our children will attempt to clamber onto this gravy train, and perhaps learn about how to market ‘green’, or exploit ‘charity’, rather than think green and be charitable. Progress might mean re-education.

Radical social critic Ivan Illich said this way back in 1971 in his book Deschooling Society:

“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe you need society the way it is…It forces the few largest consumers to compete for the power to deplete the earth, to fill their own swelling bodies, to discipline smaller consumers, and deactivate those who still find satisfaction in making do with what they have. The ethos of nonsatiety is thus at the root of physical depredation, social polarization, and psychological passivity.”

We might look at the captured criminal with a sense of disgust, or a sense of triumph. We might overvalue ourselves, not wanting to accept that social and economic conditions are what separate us, rather than abstract terms like good or bad, clever and stupid. There is no triumph. It was merely the phenomenon of being born in the right place at the right time that saved you.

The lack of sympathy for the poor, and ignorance towards their plight is outstanding. Thai English language forums are awash with this cruel ignorance. It’s quite arresting to read such mean comments that pertain to this underclass. The government narrative and some media also maintain this us vs. them separation, as if society were a bed of roses juxtaposed by encroaching weeds.

I don’t know if we are doomed like Faber and Žižek say, or that capitalism could never be kinder, but I do know that a semblance of social harmony can be closer reached by making some decisions. Call it a mutual agreement, or a social contract. All the power to us. We accept our interconnectivity and the effect our environment had and has upon us. We don’t allow institutions to perpetuate fear, thereby enabling them to seize more power, to curtail our freedoms and denigrate our living conditions. If we allow them that, then this contract may never reach fruition.

I’ll leave you with something positive from the poet philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“When we behold those deeply furrowed hollows in which glaciers have lain, we think it hardly possible that a time will come when a wooded, grassy valley, watered by streams, will spread itself out upon the same spot. So it is too, in the history of mankind: the most savage forces beat a path, and are mainly destructive, but their work was nonetheless necessary, in order that a later gentler civilization might raise its house.”


James Austin Farrell