The February 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Framed by Freedom: Emancipation and Oppression in Post-Fordist Thailand,” by Claudio Sopranzetti, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Oxford University. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that London School of Economics graduate student Alessandra Radicati conducted with Sopranzetti about his article’s arguments and their relationship to his broader research agenda.
Alessandra Radicati: How did your ethnographic engagement with motorcycle taxi drivers begin? Are they the main occupational group you follow in your research? How do drivers and the theorization of freedom you offer here fit into your larger body of work?
Claudio Sopranzetti: Motorcycle taxi drivers were a landing spot, rather than a starting point. When I began this project my idea was to conduct an ethnography of urban mobility. During my time in graduate school, I saw a gap between urban theories—which stressed the role of infrastructures, transportation, and circulation in the birth, growth, and ongoing life of cities—and ethnographic engagements that often focused on specific locales, enclaves, spaces, or social groups and ignored the work needed to keep the city connected. It was as if all that urban thinkers had taught us was suddenly sacrificed on the altar of traditional ethnographic methods, which were developed to investigate bounded physical and social spaces. I saw that many urban ethnographies kept using the oldest trick in the anthropological book: study a community and assume a metonymic relation between its scale and that of the city. This, it seemed to me, missed an essential aspect of how the urban comes to be, how it is lived, and how commodities, people, rumors, aspirations, and power circulate through its veins.
With that in mind, I began my fieldwork by tracing the circulation of objects, documents, and commodities around Bangkok. First, I followed the circulation of newspapers but soon expanded to explore how different local companies move retail products around the city and ensure their timely delivery. Almost every conversation I had would bring me to a motorcycle taxi driver as the last leg of this complex system of circulation. If large-scale water infrastructure always ends with a tap, the circulation of people, commodities, and ideas in Bangkok often ended with a driver. They were Bangkok’s urban taps, so to speak: the final connectors that allowed the city to function.
During my first extensive fieldwork in Bangkok, however, I realized that taps can be both open and closed. In March 2010, the people who normally allowed the city to remain connected shut it down, as part of the Red Shirts protest that took over the city. With that, what had started as an investigation of urban circulation turned into something larger. As my article shows, I was working with people who experienced, made sense, and made do with an epochal transformation in the structures of Thai capitalism. Through the protest, I witnessed collective action emerging among precarious workers who had come to think about themselves as individual entrepreneurs but were now adopting circulation, and the ability to take control of it, as a technique of political mobilization. In this sense, the theorization of freedom among the drivers is just a small piece of a project that, over the last five years, has explored the entanglements between emerging logics of capital, transformations of everyday life in terms of mobility, labor, and desire, as well as emerging forms of political mobilization (Sopranzetti, forthcoming).
AR: You begin the article by talking about the importance of local, contextual understandings of freedom and anthropology’s unique capability for getting at these—even though anthropologists, as you point out, have not always made use of this capability, relying instead on understandings of what you call “freedom with a capital F.” Reading this, I could not help but think of Anna Tsing’s (2005) Friction, and wondered if her approach to the idea of universal concepts and how they travel had any bearing on your own thinking? If so, how?
CS: This is a very perceptive question and one that allows me to discuss something that appears in the background of this article, but that I only touch on in passing: the relationship between what you call universal concepts, a global hierarchy of values, and local configurations.
Anna Tsing’s exploration of the modalities of contact between concepts affiliated with global projects and the specific locales in which they lodge themselves has been very central to my thinking. Friction is an example of this analysis, but even more important to me is a less widely known book that she edited called Words in Motion. This text starts from the assumption that words can produce worlds, and it analyzes how specific concepts travel across the globe and get adopted and transformed in specific contexts. This process often follows unexpected routes and ends up transforming how local actors envision what Tsing calls global modernity. I find this analysis convincing, but I believe that something else can also happen: local actors can use the aura of concepts associated with global modernity to legitimize local political and economic transformations—what in the article I call making sense and making do. Sometimes, as with the concept of ‘itsaraphāp, these transformations align with global trends like entrepreneurialism and precarity. At other times, they diverge radically. Let me give you an example of this second process, which is taken from another article that I recently published (Sopranzetti 2016).
The concept of good governance was introduced to Thailand by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank after the 1997 economic crisis. Those institutions kept repeating that economic growth in Thailand had stalled because of the lack of good governance. With this expression, they referred to an alleged failure to live up to a set of technocratic standards, a failure that they saw as the original sin of developing countries. When the Thai economy crashed in 1997 those institutions, after years of praising Thailand for its management of economic success, imputed what was happening to a failure of good governance. Once the concept entered Thai political discourse, a political scientist named Chaiwat Satha-anand translated it as thammarāt—literally meaning governance of dhamma. With one simple neologism, a technocratic concept was transformed into a moral one, which gestured toward a connection between good governance and governance that aligned with the King of Thailand, who is also known as the thammarāchā. Since then good governance has become a central tool of Thai conservatives who advocate against democratic politics, on the understanding that electoral politics does not necessarily lead to the governance of moral people (thammarāt).
Now, what are we to learn from these two examples? Are the ideas of freedom and of goodness in governing universal concepts? Or are ‘itsaraphāp and thammarāt examples of radical alterity and incommensurable worldviews? The answer to these questions intersects with debates around universality and difference that have been at the very core of anthropological theory for decades, debates that have recently been driven by proponents of the ontological turn. I find the dichotomy that these debates presuppose misleading, and I think Anna Tsing’s early work helps us to get out of it.
Concepts, practices, and forms of life are neither universal nor particular. They are always local, but at different scales. We live in a world in which specific people, organizations, and institutions—whether religious leaders, financial institutions, media conglomerates, or political movements—are capable of creating and diffusing concepts on a global scale as well as positioning them along what Michael Herzfeld calls the global hierarchy of value. Yet this hierarchy is neither stable nor singular. The hierarchies proposed by ISIS and by the American empire may be different, but they are equally global. As a consequence, they always intersect with other actors operating at different scales, whether national, regional, urban, or whatever. Those global hierarchies of value, because of the military, economic, or political powers with which they are associated, operate as fetishes—inviting actors at smaller scales to orient and submit themselves to them and providing powerful tools for legitimizing their practices. What interests me are the processes through which those hierarchies are produced, reproduced, and challenged, and how in specific contexts words and discourses align or come into conflict with political-economic transformations. Anna Tsing’s work is absolutely central to this analysis.
AR: It strikes me that a concept closely related to freedom is dignity; you mention this word a couple of times in the article, and it is implied negatively through your descriptions of how rural workers are treated in humiliating ways (scolded, compared to animals, and so on) when working in factories. Could you say more about how dignity and freedom relate to one another, based on your ethnographic engagement with drivers in Bangkok? You explain the origins and connotations of the Thai word for freedom in the text, but is there a similarly charged or significant term for dignity?
CS: One thing that struck me when I started to talk with the drivers about changes in labor practices was that they never referred to the Thai word for dignity (kīattiyot). I had previously been involved in the anti-precarity movements in Italy and there, as in other southern European contexts (see Narotzky 2016), the word dignity (dignita’) was central, as something that had been lost with the flexibilization of labor and needed to be taken back. Now, I have not thought at length about how these two contexts might be compared, but it seems to me that there are two main differences at stake: one to do with political-economic configurations, and another to do with the word’s connotations.
When motorcycle taxi drivers looked back at the Fordist moment, they did not associate it with a sense of dignity. This may have to do with the absence of social-welfare programs during that period in Thailand or with an industrial configuration in which enterprises were rarely family-based and lacked the kind of paternalism that defined the southern European context. Whatever the reason, the factory floor was not remembered as the site of a moral economy—as was often the case in Italy or Spain—and therefore flexibilization was not seen as having taken workers’ dignity away. Quite the contrary.
Secondly, the Thai word kīattiyot is used to refer both to dignity—in the sense of as a universal characteristic of human beings—and to prestige or honor—a characteristic defined by status or rank (yot). As a consequence, the word does not have the same egalitarian meaning that it does it English and it would sound odd coming out of the drivers’ mouths, given their relatively low social status in Thai society.
AR: You mention the work of Mary Beth Mills on female migrant workers in Thailand, but your own informants are men. Is it correct to assume that this motorcycle taxi driving is coded as masculine? What else can you tell us about how gender and notions of masculinity shape the understandings of freedom you describe in the article? Might freedom be different for women?
CS: You are quite right, both in assuming that driving is coded as masculine and that notions of masculinity are central to the drivers’ understanding of freedom. In my larger work I explore in more detail the role of masculinity in the drivers’ choices around migration and labor trajectories. The capsulized version is this: as the late Pattana Kitiarsa (2012) extensively explored, during the 1990s a heroic manhood became dominant among Thai rural migrants. This form of masculinity was characterized by an often unresolved tension between the drinking, smoking, and gambling womanizer on one side, and the moral breadwinner, committed to his family, his village, and his woman back home, on the other. ‘Itsaraphāp as described and lived by the drivers offers a way to reconcile the two images, presenting them as both risk-taking entrepreneurs, gambling their lives with each trip, and bread-winners, working to provide something for their children.
That said, however, the language of ‘itsaraphāp is by no mean exclusive to men. Many women who experienced a parallel shift toward more insecure labor arrangements after the crisis of 1997—by becoming street vendors, for instance, or freelance prostitutes—also used the language of freedom to make sense and make do amid this transformation. I have not, however, conducted sufficient in-depth research with these women to know whether behind the use of the same word is a different, gendered understanding of it.
AR: Thailand has been in the news as of late with the coup of 2014, which continues today in the form of rule through military junta. Coupled with aggressive persecution of those deemed to have disobeyed lèse-majesté laws, questions of freedom in Thailand are anything but abstract. Have you been able to return to the country since the military took charge? Can you explain how the current political situation has impacted the lives of your informants?
CS: I am actually writing to you from Bangkok. You are correct: questions of freedom, and especially freedom of expression, are anything but abstract at the moment and, unfortunately, this is not going to change in the short run. I invite anyone who is interested to read the new Thai constitution drafted by the junta, as an example of how you can design an authoritarian regime that lives inside the empty shell of democratic institutions.
This configuration does not only apply to the new administrative structures designed by the military dictatorship. It also organizes my informants’ lives, as much as the lives of anyone in Thailand. Life under the new regime, as under any dictatorship, is divided and contradictory. On the one hand, it goes on normally. Shopping malls and restaurants are crowded and streets filled by the usual frenzy of vendors and office workers. On the other, people involved in direct actions and critical activities are watched, controlled, and silenced. Among them, the dominant feeling is one of being inside a perimeter that is slowly closing in around you, while the rest of society quietly pretends not to see it. Hundreds of people, especially local political organizers, radio hosts, journalists, academics, and activists, have left the country for fear of repression. Since the coup, the regime has banned political activities, censored unfriendly media, and heavily policed Internet discussions. The army has summoned more than one thousand people, arrested more than seven hundred, and tried more than two hundred in military court, with no right to appeal. Even more viciously, as you mention, the lèse-majesté law, which punishes anybody who criticizes members of the royal family with detention for between three and fifteen years, has been used with unprecedented frequency to attack political opponents. In the last three years, at least eighty-six people have been charged while, at the time the coup, only five people were in jail after being convicted of these charges and five more were awaiting trial. The actions that count as criticism of the royal institution have also been expanded to include criticizing the law itself, liking pictures on Facebook, and even mocking the king’s dog.
Some of my informants are, unfortunately, among those affected by this new wave of repression. During my fieldwork between 2009 and 2011, many of the motorcycle taxi drivers played a prominent role as political mobilizers, guards, and fighters in the Red Shirts protest that opposed military and monarchic intervention in politics. I do not discuss this in my Cultural Anthropology article, but my book (Sopranzetti, forthcoming) focuses largely on this aspect of their presence in the city. Since the coup, the army has been working to bring the drivers under control by registering them, so to make them visible and legible, and by terrorizing and harassing the families of their leaders. Let me give you a couple of examples of what this has meant for two drivers: Yai, one of the drivers’ political leaders; and Adun, who appears in the article.
One month after the army takeover in 2014 I met with Yai. He was uncharacteristically beaten down. “Claudio,” he said, “the military is here to stay. They understand our weaknesses and they are using them. We are fighters, you have seen that too. They attacked us with tanks and we remained in the streets. We were ready to fight, but we have families. If they attack us, we fight back. But now it is our wives who ask us to stop protesting, it is our kids who are scared for their fathers. Things are changing; now your own loved ones are the army’s best allies. It is easy to tell the army to fuck off, but to tell your wife that, to tell your kids that, it is really hard.” Since the coup, Yai’s family, like those of thousands of other activists, has become the target of unprecedented pressure from the army. Their house has been raided multiple times, always when only his wife was inside. A small group of soldiers has repeatedly visited his son’s kindergarten, asked his teachers about Yai and his family, and lingered outside the school as the students are let out. Through these tactics of intimidation, more often directed toward families than the activists themselves, the junta is marrying affect and domination, as totalitarian regimes always do. They are, in Yai’s words, transforming the activists’ families into allies, agents who beg mobilizers to stop protesting and organizing out of love.
While these personal attacks have been directed at organizers in particular, all motorcycle taxi drivers have been subject to a new level of control in recent years. Less than a month after the coup, the new dictator General Prayuth, having experienced firsthand the subversive potential of motorcycle taxis when he directed the army’s dispersal of the Red Shirts in 2010, launched a campaign to register the drivers. In June 2014, military officers started to approach motorcycle taxis around Bangkok, lecturing them about passenger security and an alleged plan to remove local mafia from their operations. Soon thereafter, the military demanded that drivers register with their local municipality and get a special vest with visible photo identification. Those who refused were heavily fined and their driver’s licenses revoked. Adun was one of them. Aware that the junta’s actions were aimed at taking control of the drivers, he quietly refused to register. For the first seven months after the vests were distributed, he managed to continue carrying customers. By the summer of 2016, though, he had accumulated so many fines that working as a driver was losing him money. Frustrated, he put down his name and entered the state’s archives.
AR: I am always interested in the writing process and in how anthropologists working with complex, enormously varied bodies of data produce articles like yours, which manage to give a rich sense of place and context as well as developing a sophisticated theoretical argument. Could you give us a sense of how this article was conceived and how it developed over time? What process led you to your theorization of freedom with respect to the experiences of these taxi drivers?
CS: I am not sure how to answer this question. First of all, after years of working in the precarious labor market of contemporary academia, applying for funds and positions only to get rejections and then suddenly getting a job when least expected, I have learned that managing to do something is often a matter of luck more than anything else. More broadly, though, your question seems to imply that context and place—let’s call it everyday life—exists in opposition to sophisticated theory and that some sort of reconciliation is needed. I do not see them as separate at all. The motorcycle taxi drivers I worked with are intellectuals in the Gramscian sense: they constantly make sense of the reality around them and they do so through concepts that they adopt, dismiss, transform, and create. When you ask what process led me to the theorization of freedom with respect to the drivers, the only honest answer I can give is by listening and trying to learn as much as possible from and about them so to attempt to make sense of how and why they think the way they do.
I do not see this process as significantly different from engaging with Foucault, Marx, or Gramsci, except that drivers are still alive and I can ask them for clarifications. When you read any of those theorists, though, you start from their sophisticated theory. You struggle with it and make up an idea of what they are saying. Then you start expanding, reading what they wrote beyond the specific subject you are addressing. In time, if you sit with them long enough, you develop a sense of the style of their writing and thinking, and you are able to predict where they are going with their next sentence. Sometimes, however, you realize that you are off-target. So you start reading about their everyday life: their upbringing, the books they read, the magazines they liked, their idiosyncrasies, tastes, and obsessions. You read their letters to friends and loved ones. You start feeling like you are growing close to them; you become a sort of posthumous stalker. To me, ethnography is a very similar enterprise, but with an opposite progression: you start off as a kind of stalker and you end up enchanted by someone’s thought.
Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2012. “Masculine Intent and Migrant Manhood: Thai Workmen Talking Sex.” In Men and Masculinities in Southeast Asia, edited by Michele Ford and Lenore Lyons, 38–55. New York: Routledge.