Understanding the transformation crisis

Understanding the transformation crisis

The political conflict in Thailand is only the tip of the iceberg in a much deeper transformation crisis.

Political conflicts arise when old structures and norms cannot keep up with rapid social change.

What is a transformation crisis?

A transformation crisis occurs when a society changes quickly without adapting its political order to the new social reality. In a way, transformation societies are suffering from their own success.

Decades of economic growth have created modern economies, which are not only bigger, but far more complex than agricultural economies. Managing the information flows of such a complex system requires an effective operating system. Built for a different time with different needs, traditional governance systems are hopelessly overstretched in catering to the needs of a complex economy. In other words, increasing complexity structurally erodes traditional political orders.

Economic and social development diversify societies and cultures. In an agricultural economy, you could be a warrior, a monk, a merchant or a farmer. Industrial economies create thousands of new professions. Different lifestyles create different worldviews, diverging identities and conflicting values. In a pluralist society, the noise of debate is not the exception, but the norm. Traditional political cultures revolving around notions of unanimity and harmony, however, fear that debate “may cause divisions” and perceive the “lack of unity” as moral decay.

Simply put, diversity structurally erodes traditional normative orders.

Economic and social development creates winners and losers. New middle classes emerge in the provinces and demand equal participation in political and social life. The traditional establishment in the capital, however, is often not prepared to accept them as equal citizens. Conflicts emerge about how authority, wealth and opportunities should be distributed between the top and bottom of society, as well as between the centre and periphery.

To make things worse, premodern societies share the belief that there can be only One Truth. Those who believe to promote this truth perceive themselves as righteous, and see those who disagree not only as wrong, but immoral. In this politics of truth, pragmatic discussion or even compromise are not an option. The fear of losers and the zeal of winners add aggression and existential flavour to transformation conflicts.

However, it is the permanence of conflict in a socially mobile society which is eroding the traditional social order.

While structural changes are eroding the traditional order, a new order does not emerge automatically. The resulting political, social, economic and symbolic order is the outcome of the transformation conflict. In other words: as long as the political and normative order have not been adapted to the needs of a complex economy and pluralist society, transformation conflicts continue to rage.

Top down, exclusive decision-making mechanisms no longer work in a pluralist society. This means urgent practical problems cannot be tackled with the old tools.

How can growing demand for public goods be satisfied if the angry middle class refuses to be taxed? How can people escape the middle-income trap and compete in a dynamic regional market if education and public services cannot be modernised? How can a complex economy deeply integrated into the global division of labour be achieved if only a handful of people have the authority to make decisions?

In other words: how can Thailand make the much needed push to escape the political conflict and economic slowdown if the policy making process is paralysed by social, political and ideological conflict?

In order to tackle these and many more challenges, the political “operating system” needs to be upgraded. In Asia, two modern “operating systems” compete with each other over the challenge to solve the many riddles of transformation.

The authoritarian development state managed to build a relatively clean and highly competent governance system by selecting officials strictly by merit. Lacking electoral legitimacy, however, authoritarian regimes need to legitimately rule by delivering better living conditions for all.

Highly dependent on economic performance, the political stability of authoritarian regimes is vulnerable to external shocks.

Socially, economies driven by the extraction of resources by the few from the many create discontent from those who are excluded and mistreated.

Politically, authoritarian regimes have not yet solved the riddle of how their economies can enter the digital age of free floating information if their political stability depends on the suppression of dissent.

Democratic capitalism, on the other hand, enjoys electoral input legitimacy, but equally faces instability if it does not “deliver”. Facing rising expectations for good governance, better living conditions and greater participation, both models are still struggling to master the enormous challenges of transformation.

All things considered, “upgrading the political operating system” is not only a technical challenge. The political challenge is to find compromises to solve the cleavage conflicts between top and bottom, centre and periphery, and rival claims to the truth.

In order to do this, society first needs to acknowledge that this crisis is different from ones in the past.

Truly understanding the nature of transformation crises is to realise that economic, social and political development are deeply intertwined.

Finding solutions for one means searching for solutions to all. In other words, reform at the institutional level is not enough. Society needs to renegotiate the social contract.


Marc Saxer is the Resident Director of the German foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. This piece is an excerpt from the study ‘Building the Good Society in Thailand’, available at www.fes-thailand.org.

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