Politics in and through Indonesia: Agrarian Change, Conservatism, and Many More
Changes and continuities in Indonesia’s political economy, culture, and ideas have piqued intellectual curiosity and inquiries regarding capitalist development and the social dislocations it unleashes. Understanding this becomes an imperative for those who want to understand historical and contemporary societal dynamics in Southeast Asia and the broader Global South. Moving beyond methodological nationalism and, at the same time, heeding the call to conceptualize “Asia as method” , Indonesia in this context should be seen not merely as a country case study. Rather, it can be used to reflect on broader processes concerning two problematics: agrarian change and political theory.
Similar to many other countries in the Global South, the rural world in Indonesia has experienced a process of agrarian change, that is, the process of market expansion and the deepening of capitalist social relations. This brings tremendous impacts and changes for the rural population. The days of the classical subsistence-oriented “peasants” of the 1960s are long gone. Nowadays, villagers participate in diverse economic activities, on-farming and increasingly non-farming or off-farming. Yet, this does not necessarily mean the end of the rural way of life. The populist undertones and nostalgia associated with the bucolic village life (that never was) continue to influence political discourses in Indonesia.
How do peasants and agrarian activists respond to this challenge? To answer this question, we can look at the transformation of agrarian political economy in modern Indonesia (1945-2019) with a focus on the post-authoritarian period (1998-present). During this period, peasants and activists pursue a variety of strategies to mitigate, and sometimes challenge, the excesses of market expansion into the countryside. During the authoritarian New Order regime, this was particularly visible in the 1980s, when World Bank-style land market policies were introduced. More recently, there has been a rise of rural protests against land grabbing and other forms of agrarian dispossession.
However, this is just one facet of agrarian change and its socio-political ramifications. Capitalist penetration into the countryside often happens in a less-dramatic way. At the same time, peasants and activists do not always resist this capitalist intrusion and they might even embrace it under certain circumstances. They are best seen as contingent decommodifiers.
Two factors influence the varied strategies that these rural actors pursue. The first is the severity of agrarian grievances. If the threat on rural livelihood is severe, such as the loss of livelihood due to land grabbing and other forms of violent agrarian discontents, then there is more incentive for the peasants and their activist allies to pursue a more contestational manner. Conversely, if such threats are relatively mild, such as the declining share of agriculture in local economies, then these actors tend to pursue a more conciliatory form of engagement instead.
The second factor is the ideological and cultural framework of agrarian movements and coalitions. This ideational dimension colors the worldview of peasants and agrarian activists and influences their demands, advocacy agenda, and policy preferences. These ideological inspirations can come from multiple traditions from leftist political sensibilities to local cultural and religious values. Broadly speaking, they can be categorized into two categories: populist and reformist ideological inclinations. Those who are inspired by populist spirit will seek to challenge market-driven agrarian change. The reformist-oriented actors, on the other hand, tend to focus on addressing the excesses of rural commodification.
My doctoral and postdoctoral works confirm this finding, based on three years of in-country research (2015-2017; 2018-2019) and interviews with around 150 interlocutors across different localities in Indonesia. Findings from this research have been published in venues such as Cornell University Pressand CSEAS’s Kyoto Review of Southeast Asiaand will culminate in a monograph that I hope to publish soon.
Another issue that deserves close attention is the growth of conservatism and populism in Indonesia. The recent conservative turn and right-wing populist surge in Indonesia are part of the broader global wave of populism. Populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jair Bolsonaro burst into the political scene spectacularly. Conservative movements such as Hindu Nationalists and Indonesian Islamists have made significant inroads. In the broader public, new conservative media outlets such as PragerU and the Muslim Cyber Army have successfully introduced new cultural sensibilities. At its core, these movements and figure are reactionaries fighting against progressive demands and defending traditional hierarchies and duties.
Here, the evolution of Indonesian variants of conservatism over the past century (1900-2020) provide a vantage point to theorize about conservative and right-wing populist thoughts and politics globally. To do so, one must transcend the Western/Non-Western dichotomy, combine an appreciation for Western canonical political thought and decolonial sensibilities, and move beyond an empiricist lens. This means looking at strange parallelisms and unexpected divergences between Indonesian and Western conservative traditions. Such an inquiry is conducted using an eclectic yet grounded approach, escaping the straightjacket of textual preoccupation in traditional political theory and injecting area studies sensibility.
I started this project only recently, but I have already found several intriguing insights. Working across sociological categories (conservative intellectuals, military leaders, economists, Islamists, and right-wing celebrities) and research materials (archives, field observation, and digital materials such as videos and memes), I manage to trace the revolutionary zeal, modernizing elan, pragmatism, and postmodern tendency of these conservative and populist actors, networks, and thoughts. This potent alchemy, (un)ironically, is used in the service of the elites and their imagined hierarchy.
This critical, yet sympathetic account of conservatism, is my attempt to do a political theory comparatively based on Southeast Asian materials. It is also an attempt to put Indonesia in the broader world-historical context and at the same time historicize the Indonesian variants of conservatism and its resonance with conservative traditions in the West and the Global South. This is just the beginning, and there will be more to come.
Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Iqra Anugrah is an Affiliated Researcher at CSEAS, Kyoto University and a Research Associate at the Institute of Economic and Social Research, Education, and Information (LP3ES) in Jakarta, Indonesia. Formerly he was a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Postdoctoral Fellow at CSEAS from 2019-2021. In early 2022, he is scheduled to take up a Visiting Fellowship at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV).