Commenting on the Thai Prime Minister's recent statement calling for solidarity and co-operation in addressing the social issues which have arisen out of the economic crisis, Jeremy Seabrook observes that the rhetoric of inclusiveness is the last resort of power and privilege. The current concern for human suffering is, he contends, a temporary malaise, one that will vanish when it is clear that the spectre of riots, mayhem and social collapse has been exorcised.

By Jeremy Seabrook

April 1999

Chuan Leekpai, Prime Minister of Thailand, says it is time to address the social issues which have arisen out of the economic crisis. At a grandly-styled meeting in January 1999, on Social Issues Arising from the East Asian Economic Crisis and Policy Implications for the Future, organised in Bangkok by the World Bank, the Prime Minister said he hoped 'a stronger partnership will be forged between the public and private sectors, non-governmental organisations, civil society and the international community'.

A resounding call to solidarity and co-operation; an unfamiliar appeal for unity and collective sharing of the burdens imposed by economic disaster.

It is significant that such appeals are rarely heard in good times. Perhaps when the economy is booming, governments expect individuals to find their own salvation. But this is not necessarily true either. Over the past 30 years of Thailand's economic success, almost 60% of the wealth has been concentrated in the hands of the top 20% of the population, while the poor have gained a declining proportion of the increased wealth. It is simply that the injustice of this was masked by an absolute rising income, which is the classic distraction from the 'problem' of economic equity and social justice.

The rhetoric of inclusiveness is the weapon of last resort of power and privilege. The enhancement of wealth is not an issue when things are going well, because at such times, the poor are too busy attending to the meagre increase in their own well-being.

But economic breakdown leads easily to social unrest, violence on the streets, demonstrations, crime and all the other phenomena that have such a disastrous effect upon the return of economic confidence, the resumption of growth, the emergence from recession, and all the other promises, which, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and Western governments assure the rulers of Thailand and Indonesia, cannot fail to appear within a matter of months, if only all the people will buckle down, shoulder the burden and share the pain.

Hence the present conciliatory messages to the poor. The nation, the community, the family, the non-governmental agencies - all the people. Now, in this moment of generous despair, no one is excluded.

This is because the poor must pay disproportionately for the good times, during which they saw such slender returns. The poor must pay. Each newborn child in Thailand inherits a debt of several thousand baht, thanks to the conversion of vast privately incurred debts into public liabilities. Unemployment has doubled. The price of drugs on the streets has come down, thereby creating thousands of new addicts. There are more beggars, there is more crime. There is hunger.

'Public involvement must be sought to tackle social problems,' intone the statesmen in Bangkok. 'It has become increasingly apparent that the social problems facing the crisis-hit countries are too big for one country to address alone, due to the scale and gravity of the issues.'

There is a double appeal - to the poor, whose participation in the affairs of the country is usually negligible, and to the 'international community', that ad hoc assemblage of nations which dissolves and reforms itself according to the interests of the rich countries, particularly of the USA. It is, of course, highly proper that this 'international community' should be called upon, but since it is the agencies of that same 'international community' that helped to bring about the crisis in the first place - the banks, the financial institutions, the transnationals - their prescriptions are going to help no one, except the creditors of Thailand, who are the banks, the financial institutions, the transnationals, etc.

This accounts for the new solicitude for the excluded, the unemployed (or, more significantly, the under-employed, those whose earning capacity has fallen below levels that will secure subsistence), the four million landless families in the countryside, the construction workers and desperate migrants who have left Bangkok, only to place even greater burdens on families who were depending upon their remittances to survive.

Chuan Leekpai asked all the participants at the meeting to formulate together new elements of a social agenda which will provide the driving force for the participation of the people, for the full potential of all citizens. This was, he declared, not only for higher social returns, but also for more sustainable growth. Like politicians all over the world, he falls back upon rhetoric about developing the full potential of citizens, the importance of education, upgrading the quality of the workforce, equipping the people with skills for the new millennium, and so on.

In Thailand, over the past year, unemployment has, according to official figures, doubled to 6%. The number of school, college and university dropouts has increased. There are 300,000 more children working. Budgets for health care and social services have been cut, while the rising cost of imported medicines and pharmaceuticals has also hit health care services.

There is clearly a problem here. Part of the nostrums for recovery involve cuts in government spending for the sake of balancing the budget. Aware of this, the World Bank is proposing compensatory sums to be targeted on the most needy, a humanitarian tenderness for the victims of the recession. (Victims of flyaway economic success, of course, do not exist.)

The Vice-President of the World Bank, Jean-Michel Severino, said at the same meeting that the economic crisis had especially burdened the poor, which may threaten the reforms necessary for economic revival. 'It is critical,' he declared, 'that social suffering is alleviated, not only for human reasons, but also for the sake of a rapid micro and macro economic recovery.' He agreed that the task is so large that it cannot be achieved by anybody in isolation; neither the government nor civil society organisations can meet the challenge without dialogue among all the actors or without international support.

Dialogue with all the actors. The poor have become actors, when until now they have been victims, passive bystanders at their own fate. In other words, it is to be hoped that their raised status will give them a sufficient sense of responsibility to discourage them from rioting, taking drugs, committing crimes, political agitation, or any other activities damaging to the well-being of privilege.

In this drama, the World Bank is the good cop - promising social help, succour to the needy, peace and harmony; but even the IMF, cast as the villain in the Asian drama, by its rigidity and its failure to judge the depth and severity of the crisis, is all penitence, metaphorical sackcloth and symbolic ashes in its five-star refuges. An internal document published on 19 January 1999 admits it made errors, but at the same time, defends the sound basis of its broader principles. High interest rates, which it had recommended for the defence of the currencies of Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, which were criticised for dragging Asia into even-deeper recession, had been necessary to prevent the currencies from sinking even further.

The superficial repentance of the IMF and the humanitarianism of the World Bank are responses to criticisms of these institutions, calculated to show they are quite capable of self-policing without outside interference. At the same time, there is no indication that the prescriptions for a globally homogeneous economic policy, crafted in Washington, Frankfurt, London (decreasingly Tokyo), will undergo any very significant modification. The IMF said it had 'erred on the side of optimism', which is a venial economic sin: to have erred on the side of pessimism would have been unforgivable.

Those who have seen the crisis as an opportunity for change, and have hailed the end of an ideology in the downfall of the orthodoxies of neo-liberalism, may be celebrating prematurely. Walden Bello, co-director of Focus on the Global South at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, wrote recently that the resistance of some Asian economies to IMF prescriptions, their return to some modest Keynesian recovery programmes, their recourse to government deficit spending, meant that the ideology of free markets is now dead.

It is not necessarily so. The history of capitalism is full of moments of regret, movements of penitence, particularly at times of social collapse, of ruinous breakdown.

Indeed, the whole history of Western Europe since the Nazi holocaust occurred in what was thought to be the heartland of civilisation, became a form of institutionalised recantation in a Europe that said 'Never again' to the kind of economic collapse that led to the excesses of Nazism. Market forces were to have been tamed forever; a resolution which lasted only until the unholy Reagan/Thatcher alliance in the 1980s, which marked the triumphal rehabilitation of the same market forces which had set in train the laying waste of a whole continent in the 1930s and 1940s.

Mr Prasittiporn Kan-Onsri, of the Assembly of the Poor in Thailand, states that the present government, far from including the marginalised, has actively sought to undermine the work of those fighting for a better deal for poor farmers, slum-dwellers, evictees of development projects. In the light of this, a chastened IMF, a newly caring World Bank should not be taken as evidence of a change of heart. For globalisation heartless, and its mission is the continuing subordination of the powerless to an increase in power and privilege where these are already concentrated.

The present concern for human suffering is a temporary malaise; and will pass away as soon as it becomes clear that the people of Asia are prepared to go about their appointed - and largely ill-rewarded - business once more, without riots, mayhem and bloodshed on the streets of their capital cities, which serve as such a deterrent to foreign investors. - Third World Network Features


About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.