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  • Beyond Oligarchy? Critical Exchanges on Political Power and Material Inequality in Indonesia
  • Michele Ford (bio) and Thomas B. Pepinsky (bio)

In December 2012, a group of political economists, political scientists, and political sociologists gathered at the University of Sydney to consider the effects of inequalities in wealth and power on contemporary Indonesian politics.1 The lively and critical discussion over two days centered on competing interpretations of oligarchy in Indonesian democracy by scholars representing a range of theoretical traditions. This special issue is the product of these discussions.

As Jeffrey Winters noted at the workshop, “beyond oligarchy” could mean one of two things in assessments of the state of Indonesian politics. On the one hand, it could refer to a time when oligarchs were no longer politically dominant. On the other, it [End Page 1] could refer to a framing of politics that does not focus as closely on the interests and influence of the very rich. What we mean by “beyond” is very much the latter. Like the great majority of scholars of contemporary Indonesian politics, all those present at the Sydney workshop are sensitive to the influence of material power in post-Suharto Indonesia. However, most of those participants do not explicitly work within the oligarchy framework, as proposed either by Winters or by Richard Robison and Vedi Hadiz. Instead, they emphasize other factors shaping Indonesian politics, including non-material sources of political power, the organization of oppositional forces, electoral institutions and the political incentives that they produce, and the craft and skill of Indonesia’s political leaders. The debate, then, is over starting points and emphases. Is material power the fundamental driver of Indonesian politics? How should scholars approach non-material interests in the context of oligarchy?

The insights generated by scholars of oligarchy should be taken seriously. Indeed, the express purpose of the workshop was to challenge the assumption that scholars drawing on different theoretical traditions necessarily always operate within “parallel universes” when it comes to the study of politics in Southeast Asia.2 As the workshop demonstrated, this does not have to be the case. At the same time, it is important to recognize that—extensive citation of the work of Robison and Hadiz in contemporary research on Indonesian politics notwithstanding—there had been little productive exchange among proponents of the oligarchy thesis and scholars who adopt a different perspective. As a result, the literature risked becoming mired in stale, predictable, and unproductive pronouncements, rife with caricatures and misrepresentations, on all sides. In the absence of vigorous and genuine exchange, there is a danger that the field could evolve into a collection of inward-looking scholarly camps whose failure to engage seriously with the important theoretical and empirical contributions of those working in other traditions lessens its collective capacity to understand and theorize Indonesian politics. The purpose of the workshop, and of this special issue, is to promote such exchange.

Our experience in Sydney, and subsequently at the 2013 conference of the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in San Diego, California, confirmed that these conversations best happen in person. Face-to-face interactions force us to take responsibility for our positions, and to respond to questions and challenges informed by different theoretical traditions in a way that written exchanges do not. The five essays in this collection—the output of those face-to-face discussions—represent distinctive statements about political power and material inequality in contemporary Indonesia. By publishing them as a collection, we seek to reclaim a tradition of focused debate about Indonesian politics at a time in which major works on post-New Order Indonesia have offered very different interpretations of the essential character of Indonesian democracy. [End Page 2]

Oligarchy: An Overview

The concept of oligarchy is associated with three major scholars of Indonesian politics: Vedi Hadiz, Richard Robison, and Jeffrey Winters. Robison and Hadiz’s Reorganising Power: The Politics of Oligarchy in the Age of Markets3 and Winters’s Oligarchy4 share an approach to Indonesian politics that emphasizes the primacy of material resources as a form of both economic and political power. These works are also theoretically distinctive, departing from the conceptualization of oligarchy that has emerged from the...


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