The Intimate Life of Populism: Interview with Bo Kyeong Seo

Photo by Bo Kyeong Seo.

This post builds on the research article “Populist Becoming: The Red Shirt Movement and Political Affliction in Thailand,” which was published in the November 2019 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Ola Galal: Populism gives rise to multiple and intertwined modes of being—multiple becomings—that are best captured as you argue through a micro history of Ta whom you chose to focus on and whose singularity you want to make visible. What did your focus on the life history of one person allow you to do, and what was occluded by the focus on one individual?

Bo Kyeong Seo: Focusing on one person’s story was my only way of finishing up this article. I just want to be honest about my previous failures. I produced several unsuccessful versions of this article, which means that it took me quite some time to figure out how to deliver the very sense of being a populist. The early version of this paper actually had a broader scope of investigating the local dynamics of the Red Shirt movement. During my initial fieldwork in Chiang Mai from 2010 to 2011, my main research topic was not actually about this movement, but I found that I had been engaging with many Red Shirt supporters, especially middle-aged and elderly women. While I learned a lot about the local and national politics of the movement from them, what I was really hooked by was the ways in which their activism was embedded in their domestic life, in their relationships with their husbands, children, kin members, and neighbors. I had gradually learned that the whole political zeal of being a Red Shirt or being a Thaksin supporter had very different meanings of which I was never fully aware.

I finally decided to focus on Aunt Ta’s story only and dropped the other ones, because, in a sense, it was the only practical way to keep the ethnographic details that I wanted to deliver as much as possible while at the same time developing some theoretical ideas. But, more importantly, I wanted to write a mini biography of her. When all populist leaders are indeed treated as biographical figures, regardless of how lousy they are, the people who also deemed to be their followers are not given much chance to make their lives memorable. What I realized from Aunt Ta and other Red Shirt women was that they also wished that their political deeds would be commemorated.

By delving into the political life of an ordinary no-name woman, I was trying to find a way to keep some distance from the dominant ways of talking about Thai politics, Thaksin, and more broadly about populist politics focusing on populist demagogues. I made this choice intentionally, and by doing this, the ethnographic picture I painted turned out to be very ideologically messy and one that provides no simple answers to where the mass movement has since gone.

OG: You are writing against a position that understands Thailand’s political polarization as one between democratic and anti-democratic forces and offer an alternative interpretation that polarization as being symptomatic of the “paradoxical relationship of populism to democracy” (557) by studying the Red Shirt mass movement. You draw heavily on political philosophy but maintain distance from the literature on social movements. Can you elaborate on your choice of engaging with one set of conversations rather than another?

BKS: You are right. I could write more about the social movement aspects. The Red Shirt movement was a mass movement that occurred on various scales. One thing is that my ethnographic data is not well suited for approaching the organizational complexity of the Red Shirt movement. I was pretty well informed about what was going on at the village level, but I didn’t have much access to its regional leadership and couldn’t know about the ideological struggles that most likely had taken place among the politicians in the upper echelons at the national level. So I had to work within this empirical limitation.

The other thing is that although populist politics seems to depend on social movement mobilization tactics in many ways, it is not just about the struggle for recognition. Identity politics, class relations, and ideological commitments are all sucked into populist mobilization, and in this jumbled field, I began to sense that people are organized in a certain direction but are disorganized as well. So what I was really interested in was not the question of who populist followers are but rather the question of how they become populist followers and what they would become after being immersed into this kind of mass movement. Theories of subjectivation and subjectivities allow me to understand better this fluid, ever-realigning process of subject-making. This very intense, but also ephemeral experience of joining a mass movement left a mark on particular lives, while its meaning also drastically changes in the course of one’s life, as I tried to show in my ethnography.

OG: In tracing the life of Ta, you re-orient the conversation about populism toward processes and actions rather than identity, proposing the notion of “populist becoming” as an analytic lens that best captures the way political subjectivities are formed and transformed. Are you arguing that Thailand has witnessed a particular iteration of “populist becoming” or could this notion also be useful in understanding the rise of different forms of populist mobilizations elsewhere, such as in Victor Orbàn’s Hungary or in the United States since Trump’s election.

BKS: It is a good question. In fact, this was the question I had tried to answer in the article. I think that “populist becoming” can be a good concept to engage anthropologically with various political struggles around the notion of democracy. It allows us to broaden the scope of who can be and should be democratic subjects and to avoid reducing multiple modes of political participation into simplified categories of voters, clients, or customers, and even victims. If we think that our political subjectivities are not only determined by discourses, histories, and political economic structures, but also emerge through a series of becomings, we might find a better way to channel and tap into political energies that we haven’t fully appreciated or adequately taken care of.

I know that it may sound suspicious and even morally wrong to use the term “populism” as something inevitable in democratic politics, especially in these extreme times. The political situation in Thailand is still very murky, and the authoritarian tendency that several “populist” governments around the world including the Trump regime may be somewhat terrifying to many. It is a presidential election year in the United States, and as a South Korean citizen, I hope not to see any further foreign presidents escalating threats of nuclear war in the Korean Peninsula anymore. Yet, if there is a large number of people investing their hopes in a politician like Donald Trump, my suggestion is that our ethnographic investigation on populism should be directed toward them, inquiring about how their ordinary practices and aspirations for change turn out to be connected with this kind of political conduit. Such an attempt entails looking beyond the political rhetoric of right or left to the everyday texture of people’s lives.

Here, I might just reveal my own populist commitments to what William Mazzarella (2019) calls “the common sense of common people” (46). The Thai experience of populism that I tried to delineate in my ethnography is very particular, and populist mobilizations elsewhere also cannot be easily generalized, because of their particularities. The anthropology of populism, if it expands enough to offer an anthropologically comparative context, will show very diverse and even contrasting qualities of what we call “populism.” My argument is that if the demos is an essential category for democracy, we can then think about it as particular forms of life, as an anthropological object. Populist becoming can be a useful concept to look into the demos’ potential to become otherwise, its openness to change.

OG: In different sections, your article focuses on the ways in which affect imbues political discourse, drives action, and shapes political subjectivities, and is central to democratic practices of giving, sharing, and living together. To what extent does an ethnographic approach to the affective dimensions of collective action impel us to rethink the nature of politics today?

BKS: Thanks for a good summary and again great question. What I wanted to emphasize is that populist affect is not only located in a mode of enchantment or collective effervescence but also entails personal affliction. Aunt Ta’s struggles were interweaved with both the collective history of violence and her personal reflection on loss and endurance. And by learning about her journey, I could better understand how a debt of responsibility and care can be the central affective impetus in populist mobilization. She demanded care, justice, and redress, not because she was a victim, but because she was someone who had once taken care of collective lives in a vulnerable situation and wished to continue such meaningful work for herself and others.

Moreover, I think that this democratic ethos of care deserves much more attention, especially when the expression of hatred, rage, and prejudice toward the Other is regarded as a prominent feature of various populist mobilizations. I’m not saying that those expressions are only superficial and there is something innately good in those who are regarded as populist followers. Certain social bonds that populist affect creates and relies on are consolidated surely through violence and the negation of differences. My observation was that, in this particular Thai context, it was not all about anger and hatred. And so I was seeking to shift the question of why into a question of how and thus to probe the kind of interdependency and of ethical obligation involved in populist becoming.

Care, actually, has been a very important concept for my work. In my forthcoming book, Eliciting Care: Health and Power in Northern Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2020), I do not actually deal with populism per se, but if I may shamelessly self-promote my own work at this opportunity, I explore how caring and governing share overlapping territories of life, and how people in vulnerable situations elicit and sustain relations of care against all odds. Several feminist thinkers like Joan Tronto, Eva Kittay, Virginia Held, Selma Sevenhuijsen have guided us to consider care as the central concern of democratic political life. I am surely influenced by this line of thinking, but since my accidental yet irreversible exposure to the populist-democratic movement, I have begun to realize that a relation between care and democracy is much more unsettled and even twisted than it has been discussed in terms of the fair allocation of responsibility. If I may stretch your question a little further, populist mobilization is based on affective, practical, and moral engagement, and is what constitutes the very notion of care. The populist desire to care and to be cared for cannot claim any “innocence”—to use Puig de la Bellacasa (2017)’s expression—but it may be at the heart of today’s democratic politics.

References

Mazzarella, William. 2019. “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Sentiment.” Annual Review of Anthropology 48: 45–60.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.