As Good As It Gets
Last week, a significant political pivot unfolded in Thailand. The royal gazette, on Friday, disclosed King Vajiralongkorn's decision to reduce ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's jail sentence from eight years to one, following Thaksin's plea for clemency. A day later, the gazette spotlighted the royal endorsement of a fresh cabinet, contrasting starkly with General Prayut Chan-o-Cha's technocrat-laden lineup. Notably absent were key figures like Pichit Chuenban and Pai Lig. However, PM Sretta Thavisn assures them a role, contingent upon legal clearance. In the defense ministry's roster, Suthin Klangsaeng's inclusion seemingly mitigates the fissures between Prayut and General Prawit Wongsuwan. The former has signaled his political exit; the latter has stepped down from his MP role, possibly to usher in his successor, while maintaining a grip on the Palang Pracharat Party. The indication is a calibrated retreat from Thai politics, perhaps positioning his brother, Police General Patcharawas Wongsuwan, as his heir apparent. These royal interventions, culminating in cabinet endorsements and commutations, have stirred fervent debate, resonating with themes of "royal prerogative" and interpretations of the Thai constitution. We shall delve into these in light of the principles articulated by John Locke.
The Royal Prerogative
Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's former premier, now serving a truncated jail term and currently hospitalized, has again become a central figure in Thai political theatre. Wisanu Krue-Ngarm, the erstwhile caretaker justice minister, alluded to having received Thaksin's documents petitioning for a royal pardon. He firmly posits that the decision to amend the sentence or grant clemency rests squarely within the "royal prerogative". Wisanu employed the Thai term "Pra-rat-cha-am-naj" (พระราชอำนาจ), which he insists is indisputable. This choice of terminology, seen as ambiguous by some, has drawn subtle critiques from leftist thinkers. They've used social media platforms to satirize the term without overtly questioning its place in modern politics. Their contention? A seeming mismatch between this traditional prerogative and their Marxist narrative, which envisions a societal shift from feudalism to capitalism. However, through the lens of John Locke's "The Two Treatises of Government", Wisanu's stance aligns with Locke's theory of executive prerogative. It pertains to the power that resides in the executive to act according to discretion for the public good, even potentially against or without the explicit law. Locke views this prerogative as necessary in situations where the legislative cannot foresee or legislate for every circumstance. This perspective will be further unpacked later in this article.
In revisiting the timeline, Thaksin returned to Thailand on August 22, 2023, from his self-imposed exile that began in 2008. By September 1, 2023, a mere ten days later, his 8-year sentence was curtailed to just one year by royal prerogative. Given that Thaksin saw the inside of a "real prison" for a mere half-day, speculation abounds. Many observers infer that this rapid series of events may have been choreographed to seal some form of deal. It's noteworthy that many of Thaksin's legal entanglements, rooted in the events of 2006, bypassed traditional judicial processes. The Assets Examination Committee (AEC), established by the Council for National Security – the very military junta that ousted Thaksin's administration in 2006 – is hardly seen as a neutral entity. Most of its committee members are perceived as Thaksin's political adversaries. The overarching concern here, seldom addressed, is the legitimacy of the coup itself. Its arguably undemocratic nature and the blatant disregard for the rights of a lawful administrative body remain points of contention.
During Thaksin's tenure, certain policies, if not overtly contentious, did appear to skirt the boundaries of the rule of law. Notably, the "war on drugs" initiative resulted in over 2,500 fatalities. While the administration at the time asserted the legality of its actions, the collateral impact of its policies, particularly on innocents, drew sharp censure from academia and human rights circles alike. Thaksin's political successes inadvertently fuelled a divide, culminating in the highly charged "shirt wars" between the yellow and red factions. While Thaksin's commutation by royal prerogative might elicit relief from some red shirt quarters, others perceive it as a tacit concession to erstwhile suppressors, including factions that backed the 2014 coup led by Prayut. Yet, the most intriguing response has emerged from the yellow shirt or "royalist" camp. Our social media scans indicate attempts to pacify their base. It's an unexpected twist, given their staunch royalist stance. Some of their critiques of the royal prerogative inadvertently appear as direct criticisms of the King, a move that skirts the acceptable boundaries of Thai discourse.
No matter the intensity of the grievances from both the Red and Yellow Shirt factions, they might find solace in Hegel's aphorism: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk." This suggests that wisdom and understanding come only after events have unfolded. In our case, while critiques may flow post-event, the royal prerogative, the prime mover, had already weighed other considerations. The silver lining? This move could potentially extinguish the smoldering embers of Thailand's two-decade-long "cold civil war", turning a fresh page for the nation. It provides an opportune moment to recalibrate Thailand's stagnated economic trajectory and bolster national resilience, especially as the looming geopolitical tussle between the US and China, with a particular spotlight on the Taiwan issue, awaits on the horizon of the next decade.
Locke's Retort: A Rebuttal of Divine Right and an Embrace of Consent
Sir Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes, luminaries of their era, stood at the intersection of political philosophy, delving into the profound questions of political authority and power. Their timelines overlapped, but the paths they carved were distinctively their own.
Filmer, immortalized through his "Patriarcha" (released posthumously in 1680), was an unwavering champion of the divine right of kings. In his narrative, the monarchy drew parallels with familial authority. Filmer posited a straightforward proposition: just as Adam, the biblical progenitor, held dominion over his kin, monarchs too, by divine mandate, were endowed with a similar overarching authority over their subjects. In essence, Filmer's patriarchal framework offered a robust defense of unyielding monarchy.
In stark contrast, Hobbes, through his magnum opus "Leviathan" (1651), made a compelling case for a potent centralized authority. Yet, unlike Filmer, Hobbes rooted his justification not in the divine, but in a societal compact. Hobbes painted a bleak tableau of a state of nature, a realm characterized by self-preserving individuals culminating in a relentless "war of all against all". To stave off this anarchy, individuals, Hobbes theorized, would willingly cede certain liberties to a sovereign entity, seeking, in return, the assurance of protection and order.
It's pertinent to note that Filmer and Hobbes weren't engaged in an intellectual duel through their works. Filmer's gaze in "Patriarcha" was beyond Hobbes. His treatise primarily sought to fortify the concept of hereditary monarchy, pushing back against burgeoning notions of popular sovereignty and resistance to monarchs.
John Locke, stepping onto this stage with his "Two Treatises of Government", wielded his "First Treatise" as an intellectual foil, parrying the thrusts of Filmer's arguments in "Patriarcha". Locke, while cognizant of Hobbesian thought, took specific aim at Filmer's divine right doctrine in this initial treatise. In his subsequent "Second Treatise", Locke embarked on an expansive exploration of his own governmental vision, with the pillars of natural rights and governance by consent firmly at its core.
Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau: Navigating the Terrain of the State of Nature
The philosophical trinity of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau present diverse viewpoints on the primordial "state of nature." These perspectives, more than merely academic pursuits, have profound implications for envisioning governance, societal organization, and human interrelations.
The Hobbesian Lens: Thomas Hobbes casts a shadowed, pessimistic interpretation of the state of nature. In his eyes, human beings, unrestrained by overarching authority, descend into a tumultuous state marked by relentless self-interest and strife, culminating in the dire "war of all against all". It's a gloomy tableau where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." To Hobbes, a formidable, centralized power— the Leviathan— emerges as the indispensable guard against this inherent anarchy.
The Lockean Perspective: Contrasting Hobbes' bleakness, John Locke envisions a more sanguine state of nature. Though not utopian, Locke's state is characterized by reason and natural law, ensuring individuals refrain from infringing upon another's life, health, liberty, or possessions. While conflicts, particularly over property, are conceivable (some Marxists criticize Locke for his championing of property rights, advocating instead for communism), the overall ambiance is peace. The absence of a neutral arbitrator to adjudicate disputes propels individuals towards forming a civil society and government. Locke, distinct from Hobbes, envisages this government's legitimacy emanating from the consent of the governed, and its primary function as safeguarding natural rights.
Rousseau's Romanticism: Jean-Jacques Rousseau offers an idyllic and divergent view. To Rousseau, the pristine state of nature is inhabited by humans—solitary but harmonious. Their existence, unburdened by moral considerations, revolves around fundamental instincts and necessities. The inception of private property, Rousseau contends, heralds the degradation into inequality, discord, and ethical decay. His lament, "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," underscores his belief that it's society— not nature— that debases humans.
Reconciling the Ideals: Where Hobbes sees perpetual peril, Locke perceives potential, and Rousseau, paradise. Though the "ideal" state remains subjective, drawing upon Francis Fukuyama's The Origin of Political Order, it can be posited that the "moderate" Locke provides a lens closest to observable reality. Fukuyama postulates that political order's origins are rooted in biological factors, emphasizing family as the primal social organization. This aligns with Locke's balance between rights and societal imperatives. The evolution from tribal societies to complex civilizations, as Fukuyama suggests, further resonates with Locke's progression from the state of nature to structured governance. In the philosophical maze of the state of nature, navigating through Hobbes' skepticism, Locke's pragmatism, and Rousseau's romanticism, Locke's moderate stance emerges as the most congruent with historical evolution and the nuances of political order.
Locke's Prerogative and Historical Precedents: Bridging Theory with Practice
Locke cast an indelible mark on political philosophy with his "Two Treatises of Government". At the heart of his treatise is the complex but fundamental notion of the "prerogative power" of the executive, an idea that finds echoes in historical practices, notably in the Roman system of appointing dictators during crises. Navigating through this maze of theory and practice offers insights into the timeless challenge of balancing authority with accountability.
Dissecting the First Treatise: The first treatise is Locke's methodical rebuttal against the "divine right of kings," a concept ardently championed by Filmer in "Patriarcha". With surgical precision, Locke contests the idea that a divine mandate, ordained upon a chosen lineage or monarchy, can justify political authority.
Diving into the Second Treatise: Locke's "Second Treatise" offers a more constructive and forward-looking perspective on governance.
Consent of the Governed: Locke’s vision of governance is anchored in the belief that legitimacy is bestowed upon a government by the consent of its people, making them the ultimate arbiters of political power.
Right of Revolt: A revolutionary idea, Locke posits that when governments betray their people's trust, it is the moral duty and right of the populace to challenge, resist, and if necessary, replace the governing entity.
Prerogative Power: Perhaps most pertinent to our exploration, Locke introduces the concept of "prerogative power". Acknowledging the practical limitations of the law to foresee and address every circumstance, especially during exigencies, he provides room for executive discretion. Yet, this discretion is not unchecked. Overreach or misuse can trigger legitimate resistance by the people.
A Historical Parallel, The Roman Dictatorship: The Roman Republic offers a tangible, historical manifestation of a mechanism reminiscent of Locke's prerogative power. During crises, the Republic could vest vast powers in a dictator, allowing swift and decisive actions by temporarily sidelining the usual democratic checks. However, this was not a blank check. The temporary nature of this appointment (typically six months) and the inherent expectation of relinquishing power post-crisis acted as safeguards against potential autocracy.
Synthesis: Both the Roman practice and Locke's prerogative power concede the need for enhanced executive flexibility during emergencies. The parallels between the two underscore a recognition of the pragmatic challenges of governance. However, Locke further enriches the discourse by embedding it in the broader canvas of the social contract and the inalienable rights of the people, transcending the confines of just emergency provisions.
Locke's philosophical architecture, informed by these historical precedents, would eventually catalyze the emergence of democratic traditions that prize both executive efficacy and individual rights, a balance as sought-after in contemporary governance as it was in Locke's time.
Conclusion: As Good As It Gets – The Turn of History's Page
From the deliberations of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau to the steadfast practices of the Roman Republic, our journey through the annals of political thought has been intricate and enlightening. Their perspectives, each a pillar in its own right, offer a composite view of governance, rights, and the nuances of human nature. As we reflect upon their insights in the context of today's political and societal challenges, a fundamental realization emerges.
The title, "As Good As It Gets," encapsulates the perpetual tension within political spheres and human endeavors at large. No form of governance, no societal structure, ever reaches a zenith of perfection that satisfies all. Discontent and disagreement are as much a part of our societal fabric as harmony and agreement. Yet, this phrase, reminiscent of the film, also suggests a kind of acceptance; a realization that in the vast theater of human relations and politics, we might be witnessing scenarios that, for all their imperfections, are perhaps the best attainable outcomes given the prevailing circumstances.
Drawing parallels with the movie, where characters navigate the labyrinth of emotions and relationships, the political drama in Thailand unfolds in a similar vein. Factions, leaders, and the populace wrestle with the intricacies of power dynamics and the often elusive quest for equilibrium. In this intricate dance, there's a growing recognition that the present state of affairs, while not universally applauded, might indeed be the most balanced compromise amidst the ongoing tug of war of interests and ideologies. As history continues its relentless march, it documents both the euphoric highs and the challenging lows of this journey.
However, the true gravitas of any pivotal historical shift isn't immediately apparent. It is often only in retrospect that the depths of its implications become discernible. In this vast expanse of history and philosophy, some might argue that the common scholar, despite their vast knowledge, can sometimes be relegated to the sidelines – merely observing, analyzing, and commenting without steering the course of events.
Invoking the symbolism of Minerva's Owl once more: as the bird takes flight at the onset of dusk, seeking sustenance, there are those who, while surrounded by the richness of knowledge and history, venture out only when the day's events have concluded, engaging in discourse but perhaps without effecting significant change. The night has set, the owl is on its prowl, and history, as ever, keeps turning its inexorable pages.