Contents>> Vol. 11, No. 2
Capitalism Magic Thailand: Modernity with Enchantment
Peter A. Jackson
Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2022.
Customers in malls shop for amulets that attract money like magnets. Monks pronounce incantations for businesspeople to win over customers. Spirit mediums become possessed to predict winning lottery numbers. Anyone familiar with Buddhist Thailand is aware of the intersections between religious practice and the accumulation of wealth. In Capitalism Magic Thailand: Modernity with Enchantment, Peter Jackson, a leading voice in the study of Thai Buddhism, sets out to examine these practices as well as the broader religious milieu in which they flourish.
Focusing on material culture and ritual, Jackson argues that linkages between wealth and religion were reinvigorated after the end of the Cold War by neoliberal policy, the increased marginality of economic models other than capitalism, and advancements in visual technologies and digital media. Downplaying the novelty yet emphasizing the greater visibility and proliferation of wealth-oriented religiosity in recent decades, he uses words such as “efflorescence” to evoke its liveliness. Jackson’s thesis rejects Max Weber’s prediction about the progressive “disenchantment” of modernizing societies, proposing instead that modernity itself generates ever more magic. The book ultimately aims to contribute to debates beyond Thai Buddhism, doubling as an exploration of “the conditions under which capitalist modernity produces novel forms of enchantment, not only in Southeast Asia but more generally across the globe” (p. 3).
To be sure, the phenomena studied by Jackson are not free from controversy, in Thailand and beyond. Critics describe practices linked to wealth accumulation as dangerous departures from a supposed original tradition, which, in their eyes at least, emphasizes liberation from material attachment. Jackson himself steers away from moral judgments. Expressing frustration with a scholarship that too often refuses to take prosperity religion in Thailand seriously, he urges readers to move “beyond an emphasis on the Thai cults of wealth as a commercialization of Buddhism [and] to instead view them from an alternative perspective as a spiritualization of the market” (p. 27). A subtle but crucial shift.
Capitalism Magic Thailand features seven chapters, some of which offer extensive reworkings of theoretical interventions articulated by the same author in previous publications. Chapter 1 argues that modernity produces two seemingly contrasting ways to engage with religion. One, in Jackson’s own words, “rationalizing” and “reformist,” invokes adherence to the sacred scriptures; the other, based on ritual, results in ever-new iterations of “magic” and “enchantment.” Chapter 2 focuses on yet another duality, as it proposes that Thai Buddhists manage their religious lives strategically by relegating practices deemed controversial to the private domain, while conforming to more orthodox forms of Buddhism in public.
Chapter 3 contemplates the diversity of beliefs and practices that exist within Thai religiosity, offering a series of analytical lenses, including, most usefully, the idea that different temporal and spatial contexts (in Thai, kalathesa) command different engagements with religion. Chapter 4 explores different religious practices and cults that are united by the common goal of material accumulation. Chapter 5 details how Thai Buddhists seek to secure the favor of prosperity-oriented deities via amulets and spirit possession. Chapter 6 interweaves the development of prosperity religion with the history of modern Thailand, stressing linkages between major political or economic processes and the intensification of wealth-related practices among the elite and middle classes. Chapter 7 explores in detail the relationship between capitalist modernity and enchantment, also illustrating how media technology contributes to the “auraticization” of magical personas such as kings and monks.
From a methodological perspective, Jackson keeps his argument as comprehensive as possible by considering data gathered via meticulous engagements with secondary literature. He simultaneously maintains the focus on the nexus between religion and economy by “bracketing out,” as he explains in the Introduction, practices that, while also booming, are not strictly or ostensibly related to wealth. Nonprofessional mediums who reserve spirit possession for family members, infertile couples who pray for a pregnancy, and university students who flip tarot cards on campus to assess their chances at romance, while arguably on a continuum with the contexts he describes, therefore do not figure in his narrative. More generally, the author chooses to zoom out from the voices of individual religious actors in favor of a narrative in which social groups are moved by economic and political changes that unravel on a global and national scale.
The analytical categories emerging from this bird’s-eye perspective are neat. Too neat perhaps, at first glance. Working ethnographically, I can hardly think of Thai interlocutors who fit easily in the dual categories of reformist or magical Buddhism, the “rational” Buddhists I know also making claims that raise eyebrows, and those more inclined toward “magic” likewise presenting as vehicles of some kind of original truth. In the same way, I hesitate to identify specific social contexts that correspond to either the public or the private domain. These dualities, however, once understood as a theoretical model rather than a descriptive account, allow for an endless spectrum of possibilities, offering a useful framework to navigate the complexity found on the ground.
Worthy of praise for its scope and the illuminating theoretical advances, Capitalism Magic Thailand is an invaluable resource for anyone working on Buddhism and on the cultural dimensions of capitalist modernity in Southeast Asia. Jackson continues to be one of the most thought-provoking thinkers working on religiosity in the region and beyond.
Department of Asian and North African Studies, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice