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The demise of emancipatory peasant politics? Indonesian fascism and the rise of Islamic populism

The death of class-based rural movements in Indonesia has entrapped rural resistance in the clutches of market power. 

lead Prabowo Subianto on horseback, Senayan City, Jakarta , Indonesia, 2014. Suffragio,org. Some rights reserved.

This article is seventh in the series on ‘confronting authoritarian populism and the rural world’, linked to the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI). The article opening the series can be read here.

As Indonesia prepares for regional elections in 2018 and national elections in 2019, political operators try to curry favour with both the military right and radical religious groups, in the scramble for votes.

Recent months have seen an escalation of fake news, penetration of extremist views into everyday discourse and violent attacks on the imagined evils of (supposedly) resurgent leftists, religious minorities and the LBGT community. Recent months have seen an escalation of fake news, penetration of extremist views into everyday discourse and violent attacks on the imagined evils of (supposedly) resurgent leftists, religious minorities and the LBGT community. 

Symbols of the ‘New Order’ regime of President Soeharto, who was in power between 1966 and 1998, are being deployed by two new political parties, each sponsored by one of Soeharto’s children. The main rival of the current president, Joko Widodo, is Prabowo Subianto, Soeharto’s former son-in-law and military strongman. He appears at party rallies on horseback dressed like Mussolini, and once told a foreign journalist that he favoured a “benign authoritarian regime …Do I have the guts? Am I ready to be called a fascist dictator?”

What are the roots of Indonesian fascism? Why has it re-emerged on the political stage and accommodated Islamic populism? How does it shape and constrain emancipatory peasant politics?

Seeds of fascism

The seed of fascism has always been a kernel in Indonesian identity rhetoric. In the colonial time, nationalism took its first steps through an elitist movement of western-educated Javanese and aristocrats who gathered youth groups from many parts of the country and declared the existence of ‘one territory, one nation, and one language’. Inspired by the history of glorious kingdoms and sultanates, and the flourishing of fascist governments in Italy, Germany and Japan, Indonesian nationalism started to take fascism as its core idea.

The Indonesian Fascist Party founded in 1930 was chaired by a Javanese aristocrat. The group most impressed by fascism was the Parindra or Greater Indonesia Party, whose leaders expressed admiration for Hitler’s firmness, the German people’s love for their leaders, party and homeland and the strength of their organization, and encouraged the use of the German–Italian fascist salute at meetings.

The military gained a formal role in politics when the first President, Soekarno, announced martial law in 1957. Army officers were placed in the management of nationalized former Dutch enterprises, and for decades continued to be involved in state-owned plantations, mining, banking and trading corporations. The land reform law of 1960 was labeled as a leftist agenda, and all peasant struggles were suspected as communist acts. 

Military power became pervasive, especially after the 1965-66 massacres and persecution of leftists. Peasants were depoliticized through one-party domination. The land reform law of 1960 was labeled as a leftist agenda, and all peasant struggles were suspected as communist acts. State oligarchs, Chinese business conglomerates and military personnel controlled the logging, mining, plantation and financial companies. Such economic domination marginalized Islamic politics and narrowed chances for Moslems to become part of the Indonesian bourgeoisie. 

The rise of Islamic populism

Twenty years after the downfall of Soeharto, the authoritarian and paternalistic practices of his “New Order” regime have not completely vanished.

With the conservative turn of Islam and rising inequality, anti-Chinese and anti-communist sentiments were used by the military to create imaginary threats. Riding the same wave, Moslem middle class entrepreneurs launched a campaign of ‘economic jihad’, and formed a ‘212 Moslem-cooperative’.

In combination with military power and the “dull compulsion of the market”, Islamic populism exercises powerful constraints on genuinely emancipatory rural movements, despite its mainly urban and middle-class roots. The bloody 1960s genocide against the left and continuing rural depoliticization have suppressed the formation of a critical progressive rural mass.

The return of authoritarian populism and heightened agrarian conflict

Despite populist challengers, such as Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi won the presidential election in 2014, propelled by a majority in the rural areas. But, three years into his presidency, after many campaign pledges of social reforms and resolution of human rights violation cases, Jokowi seems to have turned his back on any plans for structural change. His new paradigm is pragmatic, growth-oriented, and conservative in its approach to problems of transparency, governance, human rights and justice.

There are uncanny echoes of the past in this new developmentalism, which has heightened agrarian conflicts in Indonesia. At village level the expanded presence of the military is felt directly by the assignment of military ‘Village Guidance Non-Combat Officers’ (Babinsa) to all villages and urban slums. A MoU between the Ministers of Defence and Agriculture includes 50,000 Babinsa personnel to provide security support in food production.

The implementation of these top-down measures has been challenged by various forms of peasant resistance. For example, West Sumatran rice farmers who refused to practise continuous year-round rice cropping, despite the Governor’s threat of military confiscation of their land. While in the million-hectare rice project in Merauke, Papua, military personnel took over land clearing and tilling for rice field expansion from local farmers.   

The return of authoritarian populism is also marked by the armed forces’ ‘proxy war’ rhetoric, claiming that foreign powers are trying to seize control in Indonesia through support to LGBT communities, NGOs, distribution of narcotics, foreign control of natural resources and ‘the return of communism as a latent danger’. The proxy war doctrine justifies the military’s programme of ‘Country Defence’ or Bela Negara, which supposedly is to be implemented in all campuses, Islamic education institutions (pesantren), and mass organizations.

In both the 2014 Presidential election and the 2017 Jakarta Governor elections, right-wing Islamist-supported candidates came from either a military or Islamist background. The rural poor are lured by the charisma of popular ulama, with their rhetoric of ‘defending Islam’ and ‘economic jihad’. The political strategies that have depoliticized rural peasants for the last 40 years have successfully contained rural resistance and protests.

The political strategies that have depoliticized rural peasants for the last 40 years have successfully contained rural resistance and protests. Grievances have been limited to demands by peasants to be incorporated into commodity production on more profitable terms. While such depoliticization is now hardened through a military invasion into rural life and politicization of Islam, rural resistance is limited to indigenous people’s movements and a quasi-class politics of farmers’ cooperatives. None of these situations provide a way for emancipatory peasant politics to flourish.

The crushing of emancipatory initiatives

The combination of right-wing militarism, conservative Islamic populism and the prevailing neoliberal market conditions has resulted in the co-optation and/or destruction of genuine emancipatory rural initiatives.

Three local-level studies, prepared for the ERPI conference, illustrate this. Two cases trace the trajectories of former colonial plantation workers who occupied plantation lands after the collapse of Dutch rule in the 1940s, with an initial vision to set up egalitarian agrarian communities inspired by socialist ideals.  In one case, the peasant organization was brutally dismantled by the New Order regime and its members killed, imprisoned or re-proletarianized under harsh conditions resembling a labour camp.

Following the collapse of the New Order, the next generation again struggled to re-assert their rights to land, finally achieving land redistribution and forming an independent co-operative in 2012. However, they did not find the political commitment necessary to achieve genuine emancipatory agrarian reform, and reverted to the prevailing neoliberal forms of farm management, strengthening tendencies to differentiation and land concentration. 

In the second case, the cooperative survived the New Order period thanks to links with senior (ex)-military figures, but at the cost of its original egalitarian and emancipatory ideals. It became locked in the combined traps of incorporation into the state- (and military-) dominated cooperative structure, formalization of land titles and business expansion, leading to increasing internal inequalities. In both these cases, the internal organization of the cooperative is now marked by the patriarchal and authoritarian structures found in the wider society.

The third study shows how, in the space of a few years, an emancipatory religious-agrarian movement, aiming to establish a self-sufficient agrarian settler community, was destroyed by the moral panic generated by the alignment of mainstream media, orthodox Islam and the state (military and police) apparatus. With their leaders charged with both blasphemy and treachery/secession, the 8,000 settlers were forcibly dispersed and returned to their places of origin for re-education in religion and national philosophy, and their fields and houses destroyed.

Containing resistance

The conjuncture of historical currents: the marginalization and subsequent resurgence of Islam, and growing militarism in everyday life, has produced a condition whereby right-wing populism now arises as a new style of fascism. The conjuncture of historical currents: the marginalization and subsequent resurgence of Islam, and growing militarism in everyday life, has produced a condition whereby right-wing populism now arises as a new style of fascism.

Neoliberal developmentalism has worsened inequalities and heightened rural resistance and agrarian conflicts. However, these grievances do not transform into an emancipatory peasant politics. Resistance is largely contained within the identity politics of indigenous peoples’ movements and a quasi-class politics in the farmers’ cooperative movement. The death of class-based rural movements in Indonesia has entrapped rural resistance in the clutches of market power. 

About the authors

Laksmi Savitri is affiliated with the Samadhya Institute, Yogyakarta.

Devi Adriyanti is affiliated with the Samadhya Institute, Yogyakarta.

Hanny Wijaya is affiliated with the Samadhya Institute, Yogyakarta.

Ciptaningrat Larastiti  is affiliated with the Samadhya Institute, Yogyakarta.

Abdul Rahman is affiliated with the Samadhya Institute, Yogyakarta.

Ben White is Emeritus Professor of Rural Sociology at the International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague.
He has been involved in research on agrarian change and the anthropology and history of childhood and youth since the early 1970s, mainly in Indonesia. He is affiliated with the Samadhya Institute, Yogyakarta. E-mail: white@iss.nl

Read On

The Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) was launched during 2017 as a response to the rise of authoritarian populism in different parts of the world. Our focus is on the rural origins and consequences of authoritarian populism, as well as the forms of resistance and variety of alternatives that are emerging.

In March 2018, a major ERPI event will be held in The Hague, the Netherlands, bringing together around 300 researchers and activists from across five continents. ERPI small grant holders will present research insights and debates will focus on mobilizing alternatives, generating new research-activist networks across the world.   
 
You can also follow updates from ERPI on Twitter and Facebook.
 

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The Samadhya Institute is a community of critical researchers and scholar-activists that aims to develop critical research in service of activism.

 


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