Cornell University Press

Protests in Hong Kong and Thailand: A Politics of Hysteria or Perversion?

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What is remarkable about the spate of protests in Hong Kong and Thailand in recent months is their tenacity. Despite state intimidation and violence in both places, demonstrators have kept up their fight, at least until lately. In Thailand, waves of demonstrations, composed mostly of high school and university students, have risked heavy-handed police tactics and arrests to demand democratic reforms and the end of the “feudalism and dictatorship” of the monarchy and army.

And in Hong Kong, starting in 2019, protestors managed to revive the fervor of the 2014 Umbrella Movement with repeated demonstrations to both oppose the government’s extradition bill and vote out regime-backed candidates in local elections, once again braving imprisonment and police violence. But the recent mainland Chinese-imposed national security law has cast a pall on such resistance. Will it succeed in breaking the steadfastness of the Hong Kong protestors? And will Thai demonstrators be able to sustain their opposition to their “masters” in the face of state threats and declarations of “emergency”?

And will Thai demonstrators be able to sustain their opposition to their “masters” in the face of state threats and declarations of “emergency”?

One way of understanding the resolve of the demonstrators—or the relative weakening of it—is to focus on its unconscious make-up. This is partly what I attempt to do in my book, Confronting Desire: Psychoanalysis and International Development, where I highlight the libidinal underpinnings of popular uprisings.

What a Lacanian psychoanalytic lens helps emphasize is that, sometimes, critiquing or challenging the Law (i.e. the authority of the state or the force of the market) is only seemingly rebellious. Not only is our violation needed for the Law to function, but such violation can bind us to the Law, keeping our rebellion within the (unthreatening) bounds that the Law itself defines and tolerates. “Perversion” is the term given to such quiescent defiance, while “hysteria” names a more thoroughgoing transgression that enables the rebel to uncompromisingly hold on to their desire for radical change.

“Perversion” is the term given to such quiescent defiance, while “hysteria” names a more thoroughgoing transgression that enables the rebel to uncompromisingly hold on to their desire for radical change.

The Thai and Hong Kong protestors have, according to this view, been engaging in a politics of hysteria, refusing to compromise on their desire for change. Yet the recent militarization and securitization of the protests, notably the arrest of several movement leaders, may well see the mutation of hysteria into perversion: continued intimidation and co-optation, after all, is a way of swaying desire and seducing the subject. It’s far easier to enjoy the immediate material temptations of the market or the security and stability of the powers-that-be than suffer the perils of an uncertain future.

The Thai and Hong Kong protestors have, according to this view, been engaging in a politics of hysteria, refusing to compromise on their desire for change.

Time will tell, but it seems to me that the political mediation of desire in both the Hong Kong and Thai cases will depend on the protest movements’ ability to broaden their bases of support. This could take shape, for example, by building bridges with other social or workers’ movements (notably in mainland China, in the case of Hong Kong); engaging in supplementary forms of protest (e.g. workplace actions) to try and overwhelm the state; or attracting greater public attention and backing by publicizing the growing social inequalities and authoritarianism in both places.

A notable development here has been the recent attempt by Thai and Hong Kong activists to themselves form an alliance in their common struggle against tyranny and inequality. Such a move is a significant step towards strengthening their shared political resolve. That is, it ensures against the compromise of their desire by building stronger foundations for the politics of hysteria. 

*Featured photo Youth protest at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, 18 July 2020, by Supanut Arunoprayote.

Ilan Kapoor is Professor of Critical Development Studies at the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change, York University, Toronto. His research centers on psychoanalytic and postcolonial theory and politics. Follow him on Twitter @ilankapoor. Join him on Thursday, November 19 at 3 pm EST for a panel discussion on his new book by clicking here.

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