#AsiaNow Speaks with Puangchon Unchanam

Puangchon Unchanam is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Naresuan University, author of Royal Capitalism: Wealth, Class, and Monarchy in Thailand, published by University of Wisconsin Press, and recipient of the Honorable Mention for the 2022 Harry J. Benda Prize.

Cover of Royal Capitalism, by Puangchon Unchanam

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book challenges the assumption that monarchy is incompatible with capitalism. Once the latter ascends, it has been normally assumed, the former has to be abolished or restrained. My book introduces a surprising case of the Thai monarchy. Thanks to its active role in national politics, the market economy, and popular culture, the Thai crown remains both the country’s dominant institution and one of the world’s wealthiest monarchies. To be exact, my book examines the reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (1946–2016) and how the crown thrived by transforming itself into a distinctly “bourgeois” monarchy that co-opted middle-class values of hard work, frugality, and self-sufficiency. The crown also positioned itself to connect business elites, patronize local industries, and form strategic partnerships with global corporations. Instead of restraining or regulating royal power, white-collar workers joined with the crown to form a dynamic, symbiotic force that has left the lower classes to struggle in their wake. Above all, my book presents an astonishing case study for those who are interested in the relationship between monarchy and capitalism. It shows that kings and queens today still live long and large in cooperation with the bourgeoisie’s interests and ideology.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I had two reasons to write this book; one was academic, another political. In political theory, political economy, and economics, monarchy is a subject that has been treated as if it were dead in the age of global capitalism. But when I looked at Thailand, I wondered whether the crown is truly irrelevant to capitalism. Seeing the Thai monarch at the top of several lists of the world’s wealthiest royals since the beginning of the twenty-first century, I wanted to examine how the Thai crown accumulates wealth, competes and cooperates with capitalists from inside and outside the kingdom, and even tames Thai capitalists who may have potentials to revolt against the crown’s hegemonic status in the market and the state. This examination, I aspired, would lead to a rethinking of the relationship between the crown and capital in academia.

The second inspiration came from the injustice, violence, and exploitation that many Thai people have suffered during the last decade. In the face of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, one of the harshest in the world, they dare to speak out about how the monarchy is a part of many enduring problems in the kingdom. They wonder how the king and members of the family live so large while ordinary people struggle to make ends meet. They also consider the close relationship between the crown and capitalists, the king and coups, and the blue bloods and the bourgeoisie unconstitutional, problematic, and hypocritical in the kingdom that has been promoted as constitutional monarchy, parliamentary democracy, and “land of all Thais.” Speaking truth to power, many people who are critical of the crown have been charged by the police. Some have been left to rot in jail, and some have to live in exile. Their tragedies gave me the will to write and finish my book. I dedicated it to them.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

It was really difficult to find data about the Thai monarchy, especially those that are not parts of royalist propaganda. Most of the information about the monarchy that the palace, the government, and the mass media has provided to the public audience puts the crown only in a very flattering light. Furthermore, when I contacted the palace, state offices, and even academic institutions in order to access the information, they did not welcome any project that deemed critical of the crown. But the biggest obstacle I faced in this project was the discouragement and self-censorship of my colleagues in Thai academia. They claimed that my project was too risky; it was too political; it wasn’t worth it; and it would kill my career.  

What turned out better than I expected was the reception I got after I sent my manuscript to University of Wisconsin Press. As a writer who had never published any book before, I was worried that the UW Press would not be interested in my project. Moreover, I was concerned that a project about a monarchy in a Southeast Asian country might not sound appealing to the wider audience. Surprisingly, I received a warm and enthusiastic welcome from the UW Press. It was a real privilege and a great pleasure to work with the editorial teams of this first-class publishing house.

What is the funniest story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

The funniest story I encountered in the course of working on this book is about the early days when I tried to access data about the Thai monarchy by visiting the Grand Palace’s library. The first day that I visited the library, I dressed casually, like most people who live in the hot and humid weather of Bangkok, in a T-shirt, shorts, and sandals. The librarians did not treat me well as they considered the way I dressed disrespectful to the palace. Since I really wanted the librarians to help me find some books that were important to my project, I changed my clothing the next day. Like most Thai royalists do when they attend royal ceremonies, I wore a yellow polo shirt with a royal emblem at the left of my chest. This time, the librarians gave me a warm welcome. Perhaps thinking that I was a true-blue monarchist, they helped me find anything that I wanted. When my wife picked me up at the Grand Palace in the evening of that day, however, she could not believe what I had done. More critical to the monarchy than I was, she thought that I sold my soul to the crown. She did not even want to talk to me while we were having dinner. Since then, I have never dressed with any kind of royalist cloth again. When my book was published, I had a chance to show my true colors to my wife, and luckily, she forgave me.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels has been the most important work that inspires me to study capitalism. It also gave me a big puzzle that drove me to study the relationship between capital and the crown in Thailand: is it always the case that when capitalism has been established in a society, “all that is solid melts into air”? The Origin of Capitalism by Ellen Meiksins Wood is another work that I revisit several times while working on this project. This book is about the birth of capitalism, transition to capitalism, and differences between the old form of social exploitation and the new one. It inspired me to apply the same concepts to the historical contexts of Thai capitalism.

I would like to recommend two titles to be read in tandem with my book. The Real Face of Thai Feudalism [Chom na sakdina Thai] by Chit Phumisak gives a Marxist analysis of Thai feudalism and the role of the monarchy in that kind of social system. Examining the role of the Thai monarchy in today’s capitalism, my book can be read as a sequel to that classic work. “Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies” by Benedict Anderson is an iconoclastic article that criticizes how Thailand has been studied. One of its main arguments is that the monarchy has long been given a free pass by scholars in Thai Studies, and the essay calls for a critical study of the crown. My book is a response to that call.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

The role of modern monarchies in the age of global capitalism is a topic that I would like to explore in the future. In particular, I want to study and compare three countries: the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. Apparently, they are notably different in terms of geography, religion, tradition, history, local politics, and social development. Nonetheless, they are essentially similar in terms of a form of government; they are kingdoms, and to be exact, capitalist ones. Above all, their monarchies still survive and thrive today despite several waves of political and economic changes in the modern world. I hope to explore how each of them adapt itself into the age of global capitalism and how they are still resilient in the face of oppositional forces.

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