Duncan McCargo – Fighting For Virtue

Let me begin with an introduction of Duncan McCargo. It is easy to simply describe him as a scholar of Thai politics. But this description leaves out so much. In some ways he is an ethnographer who prides himself on field work where he examines the politics, institutions and reactions in a direct and personal way. His work borders on anthropology because he works hard to offer a cultural study which tries to understand Thailand on its own terms. But he rises above the details to offer larger theories which have enormous implications beyond the study of politics in Thailand alone. His 2005 article “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand” will raise questions for all political scientists who recognize the importance of the interaction between institutions. This article essentially establishes a new classification of governance unique to Thailand.

The idea of the network monarchy is central to the work of McCargo and it plays a central role in Fighting for Virtue. The monarch serves as the pivotal political figure beyond their formal political authority. But it is not just the actual monarch but the institution of the monarchy which plays an important role. Over the last few years of King Bhumibol, his role was diminished due to his health. Yet the network continued to protect the interests of the monarch. It continued to act on its own initiative.

The judicial system is a key part of network monarchy because they are considered as representatives of the king. This is a difficult concept to wrap the head around because this relationship remains even when Thailand has gone through periods of democratization. The absolute monarchy formally came to an end in 1932. Despite this the judiciary are recognized as representatives of the king and see themselves as responsible to protect his interests. Indeed, the monarch has retained the right to pardon and has used it in dramatic expressions during important celebrations.

The judiciary of Thailand is remarkably distinct from the Western tradition. Nonetheless, I could not help drawing parallels to a recent work on the Warren Court I had recently read. This work from McCargo offers a bizarre alternative universe where the court is reluctant to resolve political issues and ill-equipped to handle these complex political issues. The period McCargo has chosen is referred to as tulakanphiwat which he says is translated roughly as judicialization. He focuses on three specific cases which help understand not so much the legal theory which underpins their decisions but how the judiciary served as the intersection between different institutions. It is important to recognize McCargo is foremost a political scholar rather than a legal one. Nonetheless, he does have a firm grasp of the legal process in Thailand and the ways it diverges from the Western legal system.

Political scientists will find the first few chapters among the most important. He helps make sense of the judiciary in Thailand. He explains how judges are selected, the ways it shapes their identity and the ways their experiences shape their worldview. Because McCargo is not afraid to immerse himself within the culture, he is able to produce ideas and theories which traditional scholarship might overlook. He makes sense of the examination system with its different quirks which ironically give advantages to applicants with less education. But it is his depiction of the actual identity of the judge which captures his imagination. He opens the first chapter with a description of a young Thai judge who comes home to the family restaurant. The business is short staffed and needs help. But he cannot take part because it is not just beneath his own dignity. It is beneath the King’s dignity and he is a representative of the King. McCargo’s work is unique because he looks for these social clues which are easily overlooked in traditional academic scholarship. But it is often these informal social experiences which help explain institutional arrangements.

McCargo concludes his work with a case against legalism. He believes key political decisions should be decided within political institutions. Thailand serves as a radical outlier where the judicial process has significant flaws. Yet it also helps recognize the problems with leaving political decisions to legal institutions. Far too often these institutions are ill-equipped to handle the delicate compromises necessary to balance civil liberties and social order. In the end, he finds the courts did not help lead the country through these complex controversies. Instead, they followed the paths of least resistance of the time. Sometimes their decisions supported political leaders like Thaksin while other times they ruled against him and defended the monarchy.

The scholarship of McCargo helps recognize not just the distinctiveness of institutions in different cultural contexts but the ways those institutions interact with others. All political systems develop networks where authority is expressed both formally and informally. It is a reminder of how political systems are more dynamic than any written constitution can depict. Rather institutions derive their authority from their relationships with other institutions. In this way network monarchy is not entirely unique to Thailand. Its fundamental ideas are applicable to different political systems and may help uncover political realities which are often overlooked.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

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