Consent, or the absence consent, is a crucial concept that runs like an operating system inside politics, criminal justice and social systems. In a democratic system, consent of the governed allows for a co-operative basis to co-ordinate the administration and distribution of governmental services. Only dictatorship can ignore the consent of those it rules. And, instead of consent, the population is managed with weapons, prisons, and gulags to process those who demand consent.
Consent is important. So what does it mean in a political and social context?
Their is a minimum age before a person can ‘consent’ to having sex, to being contractually bound, to marrying, and to voting. Below a certain age the person’s consent is irrelevant. The theory is such a ‘young’ person lacks the capacity to form consent. The assumption being that until a person reaches a certain age they can’t judge for themselves matters of importance. There consent is void in a number of areas, including voting. The age for each of these categories shifts across cultures. How we structure consent is a cultural construct and a social construct that is shared by people who are born and raised and live inside that culture.
Our idea of consent is restricted to the age at which we say a person is capable of giving consent; it also applies to what groups are included (and those excluded) from participation in the political process. It isn’t limited to age. For example, blacks in South Africa, regardless of age, were excluded from voting in South Africa under apartheid. Criminals and the insane are commonly excluded from voting. So are non-citizens such as immigrants. Such a category exclusion is significant. An immigrant physicist or heart surgeon can’t vote, while a citizen with no education, job, and low mental ability can vote. Deciding who is in and who is out, is itself a political decision—one that every country makes.
If your consent is embedded in the political process, you have a channel to shape and influence the officials who make and enforce the laws that affect the lives of citizens. Consent in a democracy is egalitarian. Consent in a non-democracy could mean that many citizens have no more political status to influence government than an illegal immigrant.
The current political impasse in Thailand, in my view, is largely an argument about who gives consent, how consensus is formed, and how dissent is allowed along the road to judge the legitimacy of government to make public policy, allocate funds for such policies, and the legal frameworks that create the institutions of government. Battles of expansion of consent is found in a recent ruling by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission), an independent agency, which found a prima facie case against 308 MPs who voted to amend the Constitution to make the Senate a wholly elected body. At present under the constitution, it is half-elected and half-appointed. As a result, the 308 MPs may be banned from politics.
The decision should be put in context. Under the 1997 Constitution, the Thai Senate was wholly elected. The selection process was changed to a half-elected body in the constitution that followed a military coup that toppled a popularly elected government in 2006.
The traditional cultural system in Thailand is based on patronage and a hierarchy of ranks and status. Consent of the larger population is not part of such a system. Patronage was never designed as an egalitarian system, or a system based on equality. A patron will take care of those who rely upon his position and authority even if it means abuse of power. Benefits and privileges in a patronage system are not allocated in a transparent, public way. Large, mass-based consent is not how the patronage system works. But Thailand is also a fledgling democracy that overlays the more ancient patronage system. The problem has been the two systems work off a different playbook. The democracy pulls to an expansion of consent as the basis of legitimacy and that means winning elections. The patronage system rests on notions of loyalty, unity, authority, status and rank that provide an alternative to consent obtained by an election. A patronage system has its own internal checks and balances to monitor cheating and deception and a patron who is too greedy will suffer from lack of loyalty.
Each political system has a founding myth and set of metaphors. The metaphor that describes a patronage system is the family. The father (the patriarch), mother (the matriarch), children and extended family make decisions based on their status and authority. Children don’t have the right to withhold their consent to go to school or do their homework. The father’s decision is the law, but as he’s benevolent and loves his family, consent isn’t (in his mindset) needed as he’s always motivated to be fair, justice, kind, and decent ensuring that the family’s needs are met. When this metaphor is scaled up to run a modern nation state problems emerge.
There is an uneasy tension between the forces of domination and those on receiving end of rules, regulations and restrictions who demand a voice. Absolute political domination is the unrestricted power to use education, threats, censorship, imprisonment, exile or force to dominate the lives of others without the consent of the dominated. At various times in the past, in the West whole classes of people had no way to offer or withhold their consent to political domination. Blacks, women, non-property owners had not right to vote. Their opinions, interest, desires and needs might have had indirect influence but without consent their political expression was faint and easily ignored. The expansion of political consent has been a slow process over hundreds of years in advanced democracies such as the UK and the United States. The population granted political consent gradually expanded but over a long time to replace the simple idea of the family unit as the model for decision-making.
What makes democracy an unusual political system is that it is premised on consent of all citizens. Other systems of government hoard consent for a few, the elite, the good people, or those inside a networked, narrowly defined ruling system. It is often said democracies don’t declare wars on each other; they trade with each other and have economic interests that would be harmed by warfare. Another reason is a democracy with a draft ensures that everyone’s sons and daughters are at risk and consent for sending them to war is a restriction on the military’s decision to go to war. War is a political decision. Going to war requires, at least in a democracy, the consent of the majority of the citizens. It is their children, fathers and husbands who will be killed and injured, and they think twice when it is their own kin who is ordered to patrol inside a killing zone.
The idea of consensus comes from a commonly shared consent to a course of action, a policy decision, an investment, an expansion or contraction of programs. Forming consensus is rocky, unpaved road, and conflict is the norm. Agreement by all whose interests are involved is unusual. Only in a Utopia is there no conflict. In the political sphere, democracy allows these conflicts to be worked out with concessions until a consensus is reached. That is why democracy has the reputation of being messy; finding a common consensus amongst millions of people is a messy process.
Dissent is the withholding of consent or contesting that the authorities making a new policy, implementing an old policy, or distributing benefits has acted without consent. In a democracy, there is an acceptance that dissent is part of the deal. Not everyone will agree to the consensus on an issue. Those in the minority are left to register their dissent in a number of ways. Demonstrations, protests, boycotts, public petitions, referendums, recalls, social media campaigns are common examples as those in the minority seek to undermine the consensus and substitute a new consensus in its place. Dissent is difficult to accept in a system that demands unity and conformity. Dissent can also be the response to dictatorial governments that either ignore or minimize the group of citizens that consent is extended to. Criminal defamation and other laws work to keep dissent within pre-defined boundaries and to punish those who exceed those bounds.
In the heat of the current political turmoil much has been written about corruption. In a patronage system, it is no surprise that nepotism and cronyism are widespread. It is, after all, little more than a scaling up of arrangements made inside a family. Of course, members of the family help out each other and their friends. When the family is nearly 70 million people, the limits of scaling from the family to a large population from different regions, ethnic backgrounds, local customs and which has become aware of its diversity.
That gift of cash to the family friend who helped little Lek get into a highly competitive elite school isn’t seen as corruption in a patronage system. It is how the system is designed to work. As power is in a few hands, the common consensus is that appointing friends and relatives to official positions, or helping a friend to avoid arrest and imprisonment for a criminal offense, or colluding in distributing under the table payments oils the patron-client relationship. Such activities are not flaws in the system. They are a feature of the system and how and why the system works and remains stable. Personality cults arise from the patronage system and the powerful use laws as weaponized ordnance designed to defeat opponents who challenge the patriarch. Like drones, the enforcement of laws isn’t about justice, but efficiently eliminating challengers who threaten the system.
In a democracy inevitably there will be corruption but it is at the margins, and is more difficult to conceal and justify. If voters are promised universal health care, some might say that is ‘corrupt’ as the candidate and ruling party are ‘buying’ votes and a bought vote doesn’t represent true consent. A bought vote is not counted because a ‘genuine’ vote requires ‘true’ consent. The government’s legitimacy, in this way of thinking, means the motives of those giving consent must be examined as well as the political intentions of those who receive the consent from the voters.
The nature of voting is for a political party to promise voters that electing them to office will return a range of policies that serves their interest. Cynics argue that most of the policy decisions are too complex for ordinary voters to understand, and they are easily manipulated by sleek political TV advertisement campaigns, appealing to emotions.
At the same time when a patron acts to advance or protect the interest of those who shelter under his power umbrella, it begins to look like a prototype of vote buying. A patron who can’t protect his charges will find his power and standing diminished. In a face culture, the patron is aware that if he fails to protect, his reputation is tarnished. Patrons (in theory) fight hard to protect their luk nong (the Thai expression for those under the charge of the patron). Unexpected switching of roles does and can happen. In the case of a Thai beer empire heiress, the daughter was requested by the father to lower her public profile in participating in street demonstrations to limit voting rights. She refused. There is irony in the refusal by one in the younger generation who demonstrated alongside with others in the streets of Bangkok to, among other things, impose limits on the voting system, to keep the old system.
The problem for the old system in Thailand is that once the idea of consent is expanded, creating a wide spread expectation that voters can influence policy and reward politicians who exercise power under a regime of consent, withdrawing consent is difficult. Once the Americans freed the slaves, what if a majority of American voters voted to reintroduce slavery, would this be a legitimate expression of majority consent? Or the majority vote to withdraw the right of women to participate in elections?
The reality is that once political participation through consent has been enshrined, there may (and likely will be) a fringe of people who will work to undo that decision. Another reality is taking away consent once given is going to be a bloody event. It would be viewed as an enslavement by default, and a return to a purely patronage system where relationships to power are based on concepts that devalue consent as the measuring stick for legitimacy.
On January 7, “Respect My Vote” on a hand-written sign held up by a middle-class, educated Bangkok Thai man occurred at an event organized by the Democrat Party under the titled: “Eradicate Corruption, Committed in Reforms.” When pointed out from the stage by former Prime Minister Abhisit he was someone sent by a rival, the protester replied, “I am not your rival. I am the people.” A reply that echoed the ancient cry, “I am Spartacus.” The words “Respect My Vote” cropped up on T-shirts and posters during the 2012 US presidential election. And now “Respect My Vote” has gone viral on Thai social media.
Thailand is stuck in the transition between patronage and democracy. The difference distills to a sound bite-size distinction between Respect My Authority and Respect My Vote. And it won’t be resolved until the idea of consent can be reconciled with the governing system and mutual respect based on equality gains acceptance by all parties.
In Thailand, the scope, nature and power of consent as the way to judge legitimacy is at the heart of the current political storm. The thing to remember: this storm never blows over. There are never clear skies politically or economically. The old generation and the rich cling to what they have and resist changes that are a threat. They don’t consent to change. The patronage system has worked for them. But a new generation and the poor have come to see giving their consent by voting is normal. Taking that right away or diminishing it with a thousand tiny cuts will not be the solution going forward.
Patrons don’t let go of their children easily. And children once they’ve left home aren’t happy to be forced back to live under their father’s house rules. As a civilian observer in the 1980s riding with NYPD in the early hours, I learned first hand from the police a couple of lessons. First, both sides in a domestic argument believe that right is on their side. They become highly emotional. Kitchens are full of knives and other possible weapons. People are drunk. They are enraged. They are armed. And that’s why cops everywhere, not just in New York, hate taking a domestic violence call. Because they know from experience there is a high chance someone is going to get hurt. The equivalent of police dispatchers in Thailand are calling in a domestic dispute that is just about to get out of hand.