Royal Capitalism: Wealth, Class, and Monarchy in Thailand

Edwin Pietersma

By adopting a post-Marxist lens to analyze the connection between capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and the monarchy, Unchanam wants to argue against classical theories that capitalism necessarily constitutes the demise of monarchies. Instead, he shows through in-depth research and discussion of the Thai monarchy, in particular the reign of Rama IX, that monarchies are not just more resilient than previously thought but can thrive in capitalist development and expansion. Even more so, the monarchy can become “an invisible currency for political, business, and cultural relations” (p. 219).

In his book, Unchanam starts with the idea that classical theories on monarchy and economic forces hold two dichotomies. First, it always creates a binary opposition between the two, and it contrasts the ethical values of the monarchy with bourgeois ideology. By doing so, such theories imply a necessary relationship between the emergence of bourgeois revolutions and the direct demise of the monarchy. However, in the case of several Arabic countries and Thailand, he notes this is not the case, but that the monarchy cannot just survive but thrive under bourgeois domination. He tries to prove this by analyzing the reign of Rama IX (1946-2016) through three theoretical frameworks: the division of monarchical bodies as natural and political (Kantorowicz), the invention of tradition (Hobsbawm), and the notion of social class and class conflict (Marx) (p. 25-26).

In the first chapter, he tries to define the Thai monarchy prior to Rama IX’s ascension to the throne in 1946. This is a general overview, where he characterizes Thailand and its monarchical system as 1. Predominantly precapitalist, 2. Justified by feudal ideologies, 3. Holding ambiguous bodies, 4. Accumulating capital and monopoly of power only until the transition to capitalism. This is discussed through the notion of Thai feudalism (sakdina). In short, it meant that the king was the official sole owner of all land and all people were subjugated to mandatory service up to several months a year. This system decayed with the Bowring Treaty of 1855 onwards, whereby the kingdom was forced to install a modern bureaucracy and adopt Western standards (p. 42). Here, Uchanaman provides a short but straightforward conclusion of this development. Sadly, this analysis does not consider the historiographical debate on what constitutes the notion of feudalism in the Thai sense, which has been under much scrutiny since the Thai Marxist historian Chit Phumisak (1957) and still is under heated discussion. In addition, it centralizes solely on the role of the king and the economy but does not discuss the development of different classes at this time, while this is regarded as an important factor later. Rather, he perceives them as given and unchanging.

In the second chapter, Unchanam focuses specifically on the relationship between the rise of capitalism in the post-war age and the thriving of the monarchy. He describes this as possible due to the monarchy’s close involvement with the military, even “acted as an umpire in political conflicts between the military and civilians.” (p. 65). It exemplifies this with the restoration of the monarchy by the coups of Sarit in 1957 and 1958 and the king endorsing the 1976 coup by Thanin (p. 66-77). In addition, with the return of the Crown Property Bureau to the king in 1948, the monarchy itself became an active player in the market and supported the import-substitution industrialization (ISI) policy of the military government. In the 1970s, this policy became of necessity, as it could replace the role of the monarchy with the threat of communism no longer a dominant factor in Thai politics. A direct response is the “Sufficiency Economic Philosophy” (SEP) developed by king Rama IX in the 1970s, which propagates frugality and hard work. Even though this philosophy seems in stark contrast with the rise of a consumption culture in the 1990s and the economic focus of the government, Unchanam shows how the king actually commercialized and publicized his connections with business, receiving over 180 audiences from businesses annually between 2001 and 2010. He argues that we should regard it as a specific narrative used to counter criticism of the development of Thai society.

In the third chapter, Unchanam analyzes the popularity of the king with the general Thai masses. He notes that this popularity was only possible due to the rebranding of the monarchy and embracing ideological values that connected well with capitalism. In particular, the ideas of hard work, frugality, prudence, and self-reliance were emphasized. He discusses how the first part of Rama IX’s reign focused on royal imagery in a more traditional sense, especially the Thai notions of the king as Dharmaraja (Buddhist King), the cosmopolitan king with his tours through the US in the 1950s, and the warrior king through depiction in military costumes in the 1960s and 1970s. From the 1980s onwards, in sync with the industrialization of Thailand, three new images emerged: 1. Developer king, 2. Economist king, and 3. Jubilant king. These were all enhanced by different imagery, such as the focus on the sweat of the king, him being often dressed in “development gear,” the king is depicted as an ordinary farmer whose soles were completely worn or who is eating burned rice to prevent waste, and celebrations of milestones such as the longest-reigning Thai king in 1988. With the launch of the SEP of Rama IX, we even see a switch from royal language to using common Thai language (p. 117-144).

The fourth chapter takes a different turn and focuses on the post-1997s development. In particular, it tries to answer the rise of Taksin and why his rule was ousted by a coup in 2006, and the same applies to the rule of Yingluck until the coup in 2014. Here, he focuses on the opposition between the Yellow (pro-monarchy) and Red (pro-Taksin) Shirts. He notes that the rise of Taksin was possible through conflicts caused by the inequality and uneven development produced by industrialization in the 1980s. He notes how in 2000, there was an economic inequality stratum of 14.54 times, with wealth heavily concentrated in Bangkok (p. 158-159). According to Unchanam, Taksin was not merely disapproved of by the monarchical system as Taksin did not rely on the king’s approval but his popularity among the poorer masses was a direct challenge to the hegemonical position of the king. Unchanam shows, however, that resentment toward the king continues to be in popular culture, often mocking the symbols of sweat and frugal use of toothpaste as mentioned earlier (p. 190-206).

The analysis by Unchanam, as summarized in the final chapter, shows that the so-called “symbiotic relationship between the Crown and the Capital” (p. 235) should be taken more seriously, even today in countries that have replaced the emperor, such as Xi Jinping in China or Erdoğan in Turkey.  In addition, this relationship is something we need to consider with the new reign of Rama X, who has elevated the legacy of Rama IX and whose reign seems to “facilitate capitalism’s deeper penetration into the kingdom.” (p. 228).

While Unchanam’s analysis is extremely powerful and shows a strong dynamic between the monarchy and capitalism, it also leaves no space for any alternatives. It does not identify who actually constitutes the Thai bourgeois, if we should identify the king as part of the bourgeois or an outside force, or how the resentment created by the military policies (p. 224) constitutes itself in Thailand beyond the Yellow and Red Shirts. One could think about the protests in Thailand by the younger generations since 2018 that raise questions about the power of this relationship today. In short, Royal Capitalism clearly illustrates the intricate relationship between the monarchy and the development of capitalism in the late twentieth century, how these forces became interlinked over time, and shows how old institutions reinvent themselves alongside new ideologies to ensure its place. For economic historians, therefore, this book is an absolute must to read.