Capitalist Realism and The Voluntary Subaltern

Capitalist Realism and The Voluntary Subaltern

Mondor Pakled

Looking beyond the limitations of symbolic protest in an attempt to escape the seemingly omnipresent capitalist state superstructure in which our defiance lacks any material consequences.

The primary quote which serves as the thesis for Mark Fisher’s seminal 2009 book Capitalist Realism reads “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. When framing this in the context of The Kingdom of Thailand a similar quote comes to mind, from the great Ursula Le Guin: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.” It would seem right now that Thailand is indeed trying to escape this divine rule of the monarchy, but what of capitalism? Which alongside a kind of neo-feudalism, is also deeply entrenched and intertwined within the very fabric of life in the Kingdom as Alain Badiou terms it the capitalo-parliamentarian system.

There is one more foundational quote I’d like to frame within this snapshot of the Thai protest movement, from Murray Bookchin who wrote: “The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking.” I would argue that the current moment, by beginning to challenge these once concrete assumptions, provides a potential future far beyond the somewhat tacit calls to reform the monarchy, rather there has been a tear in the veil of capitalist realism, a tear which allows us not to see the other side, but lets in a ray of light, beaming with potentialities, which given the appropriate response, could be actualised. 

Iconoclasm –

Iconoclasm: the belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments.

Thailand is clearly a deeply symbolism rich culture, from religious and state iconography collaging nearly every facet of public life, to constant symbolic displays of social and economic hierarchy through consumption, language and even body movements. As such it’s no surprise then that the current protest movement has largely been engaging in symbolic acts of defiance rather than any material attempts at forcing change. 

It was notable during the demonstration on November 17th, when protestors beat back riot police lines, fought yellow shirt agitators and bravely ran through a thick smog of tear gas just to peacefully sit outside the front of the then empty parliament before going home, content with the ultimately symbolic display of their capability rather than actually occupying the parliament and reclaiming it for the people as so many successful movements have done before. Of course, I’m not arguing that the protesters could, at this point, realistically occupy parliament and seize it as a governing institution in order to enact change. Even seizing the parliament itself would ultimately result in yet another symbolic act, devoid of any real change other than sending a message. Understandably, sustaining energy for a movement which is iconoclastic, rather than truly political is going to be fatiguing, as ultimately that desire for real change is never wholly satisfied. 

The same trap of iconoclasm is by no means unique to Thailand. We saw a prime example this year as the Black Lives Matter movement warped from an anti-authoritarian movement against the police and carceral state, literally burning down police stations, to a war waged against racist statues, at which point the momentum began to fade away. Again I find myself very sympathetic towards this problem. As much as the state is attacked, its power, its base and superstructure seem invincible.

Looking at the options for the protest movement reveals the seeming inescapability of capitalist realism. Coming up against the apparent invincible power of the capitalist state reveals the stark need for imaginative thinking, experimentation and an alternative means of protest. 

This is very much the case when examining the last century of Thai history. Typically there is a cycle of Coup, Protest, Election, Protest Coup. Over the years there have been multiple attempts at reformism, entryism and even armed revolution. From even Taksin’s ingenious pragmatism, Future Forwards charm and optimism and The Communist Party Thailand’s determination and utopianism. I’m sure most would agree that none of these have been successful at achieving any real structural change since 1933.

So how can this protest movement be different and how can the cycle be broken?

The Voluntary Subaltern

Here I will make my case for a new kind of protest, not new to the kingdom, but new to its educated classes. I propose the movement take on the role of a voluntary subaltern. Subaltern in this context refers to an individual who is on the fringes of the empire or state, one who’s economic and social activity are not productive towards the capitalo-parliamentarian system, but rather beneficial for their own communities. 

More specifically this means not engaging with the state or capitalism, living on the fringes of hegemonic state society to the most extreme ends as is possible while collectively building institutions with other subaltern people that specifically exclude the state. This last point of collective institution building I must stress as it is the key distinction that separates voluntary subalternism with punk. Punk also attempts to completely obfuscate from the state and mainstream culture, to live outside it, but fails to provide an inherently revolutionary capacity, this is where collective institution building comes in, to allow for a genuinely progressive movement by the people for the people in a voluntary manner, one through which people can actually see a material benefit to their lives as well as a kinship or solidarity with one another. 

The reason I use the term voluntary subaltern instead of anarchism is because Thailand already has a long history of these kinds of social formations outside of the context of western theorised concepts of anarchism. Furthermore, I do not want to be some kind of prescriptivist falling into the trap of telling other communities the formation by which they should structure their social order based on western intellectual writings from over 100 years ago. 

In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, the historian and anthropologist James C Scott makes the case that due to geographic and technological conditions, large swaths of what was Thailand (Siam, Ayuthaya, Sukhothai, Lanna or Laos) were inaccessible to the states who claimed their ownership. Notably during the rainy season, when much of the land would flood leaving communities to self govern, free of the burdens of taxation, conscription and other aspects of imposed authority.

These conditions developed a base subaltern culture which we still see the remnants of today in the linguistic and cultural distinctions between even central Thai provinces. Going slightly further afield into more remote areas of the kingdom we can find still existing social and economic structures which are a far cry from the rigid hegemony of the Bangkok government. We have already covered this phenomenon and the state’s response in-depth on DinDeng. 

Indeed there are also currently a huge number of what we can consider involuntary-subaltern people in Thailand. Sometimes described as the ‘underclass’ these economically bereft and counter-cultural peoples are already, perhaps unintentionally, experimenting with a kind of subaltern existence, which the state or mainstream society have very little control over.

What Is To Be Done?

Of course, I am not suggesting a return to these primitive feudal times, rather that we take inspiration from them to form our own voluntary subaltern protests to state power and hegemony. As mentioned above, attempts by reformers to take part in the system so as to reform it have cataclysmically failed in the past. The key aim of the Thai state is to keep reproducing subjects that are beneficial both economically and socially to its continued existence, as such, what the state (seen as a conscious entity) wants most is to subordinate these mostly middle class, highly educated protestors into productive citizens, a future which at the moment looks likely if the focus of the protests remains on iconoclasm. Even if the protesters current demands are met and some reform of the monarchy or fresh elections are achieved it will do nothing to break the aforementioned cycle of coups, protests and meaningless elections. 

So how does one become a voluntary subaltern? Unfortunately, that is not for me to say, for I too am enveloped by the shroud of capitalist realism. The only way to achieve this is through experimentation, collective decision making and de-aligning ourselves with a statist mentality. 

In recent history there have been many failed attempts at community building along such lines by groups geographically removing themselves into remote intentional communes, typically cut off from wider society. Many of these experiments attempt to restructure their new social order in one fell swoop from the ground up and in many cases, these have collapsed entirely, if they still remain they clearly do not demonstrate any structurally revolutionary potential as they are far too removed from society at large. 

However new experiments are taking place across the world in the form of horizontally organised co-ops looking to remove the state from targeted areas of our lives. For example in rural areas with farming co-ops to stave off big agriculture and share knowledge, labour and skills. There are also child care co-ops in many cities in the world, relieving some of the burdens of childcare to allow parents to participate in political activity while the collective dependency of the co-op acts as a political organisation in and of itself. The same is true with alternative education and study groups which, outside of an officially institutionalised format, are focused on group education with the aim of freeing us from the higher education system. 

Indeed in Rojava in Northern Syria, a similar movement to what I describe has been taken up en masse in which voluntary-horizontally organised groups are replacing the traditional state model almost entirely. It must be stressed that this became actualised in Rojava after decades of community building, education and critical debate as well as having suffered devastating material conditions due to brutal oppression and war. There is a famous saying among activists in the Rojava freedom movement. “You must spend only 2% of your time attacking the state and 98% community building”.

This may sound like a lot to ask, but when you consider the courage required to charge a police line while being teargassed compared to the bravery needed to establish a community garden it doesn’t seem like too much of a challenge.

Of course, there is always the danger that capitalism will come in to fill the void left by the state. Certainly, this has happened under neo-liberal government programs, in which the carefully managed pullback of state support in people’s daily lives has been replaced by private corporations. For example, the privatisation of once state-run medical facilities in Thailand. This is the importance of the word voluntary. In the aforementioned cases of state withdrawal it happened on a non-consensual basis, those patients did not choose to have their healthcare privatised, it was forced on them, however, if they were to decide to start their own free healthcare co-op/provider in their community it would indeed be voluntary and outside of the purview of capitalism or the state.

The ultimate aim is to both de-commodify and de-state’ify our existence, our communities and our relationships creating our own new realisms disavowing capitalist realism. The tentacles of the state and capital run deep, pervading our decisions, our thoughts and even our dreams. The challenge is to wrestle away these tentacles, regaining control over not just our personal lives, but the immediate world in which we live. It may sound naive or overly utopian, but the state must be subordinated to our whim and the only way to do that is to remove ourselves from allowing it to use us as a mandate for its continued existence.

By no means, however, do I suggest abandoning the direct struggle against state power. While iconoclastic protest has no material ends, the symbolic is nonetheless of some importance, at least to heighten public consciousness of the contradictory relationship between the people and capitalo-parliamentarian system. As such, there is a place for symbolic protest, just not as a means of directly achieving material change. Perhaps later down the line when the heightened contractions of capitalism become more apparent such mass mobilisations will indeed bear fruit.

All of the examples of challenging the state and capitalism mentioned above are but the bare beginnings of a voluntary subaltern movement, a skeleton without any flesh, but by embracing a more holistic view of protest through which, rather than symbolically attacking, we reject the state and its superstructural institutions, grafting on the flesh to create a new voluntary subaltern being through this process. 

The late anthropologist David Graeber along with archaeologist David Wengrow wrote in Eurozine of how human societies in the past experimented endlessly with all manner of different social and economic structures. They claim that we have lost that imagination and agency to even try and live differently. What I propose is bringing back that experimentation and in doing so rejecting the strong arm of the state and the invisible hand of capitalism, finally breaking the cycle and tearing down the veil of capitalist realism. 

Ultimately the protest movement in Thailand is anti-authoritarian, as was Black Lives Matter, a visceral reaction to an oppressive, violent, brutal and humiliating state. Even if we can’t achieve fully automated luxury space communism within our lifetime we can at least claw back some semblance of dignity and try to find some form of spiritual fulfilment in one another.