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  • Illiberal Democracy in Indonesia: The Ideology of the Family State by David Bourchier
  • Jeffrey A. Winters (bio)
David Bourchier. Illiberal Democracy in Indonesia: The Ideology of the Family State. Abingdon: Routledge, 2015. 318 pp.

There is a game of social-cultural generalizations that pretty much everyone engages in. New Yorkers are said to be brash. American midwesterners are nicer folk. Italians indulge their passions. Brits are reserved. In the Indonesian context, the Javanese hate confrontation and won't reveal what they're really thinking. Bataks are loud and relish a debate. The Madurese and Ambonese are warmhearted, but quick-tempered.

Heads nod as various complementary or insulting things get said about broad populations, even though we know these are stereotypes that fall apart quickly at the level of actual individuals in each group.

As David Bourchier reminds us in this excellent book, it is a very different phenomenon when powerful actors and states engage in a parallel game of generalizations about the character of their people. The difference lies in the motives. Contending factions of elites are interested in stable control and smooth domination, and they work hard to manufacture political-cultural interpretations that advance these goals.

Indonesia's leaders aggressively promote the view that from the basic family unit, up through villages and neighborhoods, and on to the national level, Indonesians are a people who value harmony above all else and prefer to operate by consensus rather than by voting. Political opposition, dissenting parties, and general disagreement are labeled as un-Indonesian, and a commitment to individual political and human rights is derided as a Western import. Authentic Indonesian politics is portrayed as a harmonious family with the nation's leaders playing the role of benevolent parents. Permanently positioned below are the citizens as obedient and grateful children. Bourchier notes that this vision has been variously called organicist, corporatist, and integralist. It is also a key ideological ingredient of authoritarianism—and especially of fascism.

Defining Indonesia's social and political identity has been a contested terrain for over a century. Bourchier's analysis of illiberal democracy in Indonesia arrived just as new clashes have erupted over what constitutes a true, authentic, and good Indonesian. The work provides a sophisticated framework for understanding the origins and trajectory of these debates and it deserves to be read widely.

What is at stake in these clashes is not actually discovering who Indonesians are at their core. That is a pointless exercise even for societies that have a great deal of homogeneity. For diverse countries like Indonesia, it is an absolute impossibility. Indonesians are many things depending on their class, gender, and ethnicity, and the socio-cultural trajectories of their lives. Some are empowered while many are [End Page 133] marginalized. The country's history makes clear that Indonesians resist when they can and go along when they must. Their identities are dynamic and may overlap in various ways with the constructed political culture. But there is also an endless array of subcultures and countercultures.

Elite investments in national-identity narratives serve two important purposes. Vertically, and most obviously, the goal is to render the population docile by glorifying a natural and harmonious hierarchy that delegitimizes dissent and resistance. But there is a horizontal purpose as well. Those in power must fend off competing elite factions (ambitious aunts and uncles, perhaps?) who think they should be in charge of Indonesia's big, happy family. Along the way, the masses below endure heavy doses of gotong-royong (mutual assistance) indoctrination, while at the elite level Indonesians conduct an intricate dance of bagi-bagi (sharing of the spoils) to keep the extended family leadership from stirring up mischief.

The broad outlines of the story in Illiberal Democracy are familiar. But what Bourchier accomplishes in this book is to provide the most comprehensive examination to date of how this conservative ideology of domination arose and evolved in Indonesia. He also adds an important historical dimension rooted in European political philosophy. Prior to Bourchier, the most important and pathbreaking scholarship on the topic was by David Reeve and Marsillam Simanjuntak.1 It is useful to think of Bourchier's contribution as positioned between these two...


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pp. 133-136
Launched on MUSE
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