Fri, 26 Dec 2003

Culture is not a dead end

Satish Mishra

Have you ever stopped to think why culture matters? In a recent book with the same title world class authors tell us how different cultures have spawned quite different economic and social institutions in history.

David Landes quotes Max Weber as saying that culture makes all the difference. Of course, Weber, writing in the second half of the 19th century and infatuated with both Bismark's Germany and the virtues of the Protestant ethic, would be expected to argue just that.

What is more puzzling is why a range of famous modern economic and political theorists ranging from Douglass North, Samuel Huntington to Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama should share the same passion for exploring the cultural foundations of growth and development?

Shorn of all the heavy theory and the clever argumentation that the work of these famous authors might unleash on the unsuspecting reader is the interesting variety of questions they seek to explore. Why did Korea become the fourth largest economy in the world by the early 1990s while Ghana, which had a similar per capita income to Koreas in the early 1960s, remained unchanged? Why are some minorities: the Chinese in South East Asia, the Indians in East Africa and the Lebanese in West Africa more enterprising than other business groups in the region, and at times more than in their own countries of origin?

Why have efforts at mass social engineering designed to change cultural norms and behavior such as that attempted in Stalins Russia proved to be singularly ineffective while the mass cultures of coca cola, rock music and blue jeans have swept the world? Why do liberal democracies exhibit such complex structures of civil society organizations ranging from businesses and voluntary associations to football clubs and charities? Besides being interesting riddles, such questions lead us to the examination of contributing factors, other than government decrees and investment flows, in the success and failures of development outcomes.

Culture seems to matter because markets and governments do not operate only through formal rules and regulations, or formal organizational structures, but through the very habits, customs and ethics of people. This creates the social trust needed to make both governments and markets work. Such social trust, and the social capital to which it gives rise, is necessary for both social stability and economic progress.

There is however a problem. Social capital is not like other forms of human capital. The latter is built by individual decisions such as those relating to education and employment as well as by public investment decision. The former is created through shared norms, ethical values and traditions. That makes it a difficult concept to examine and to apply in a practical setting.

Difficult or not, there is no denying that culture and the cultural determinants of politics and development retain an enormous fascination for observers of the Indonesian scene. Benedict Anderson's essay on the idea of power in Javanese culture, or Clifford Girts' monograph on religion in Java, are only some of the most famous examples of the pioneering work done on the role of culture in national political life by external scholars.

The importance of culture in determining the shape of Indonesian institutions is not only the subject of learned books and discourse. It is as much a subject of day to day conversation in the tea shops and warungs (food stalls) all over the country.

Clearly, culture matters. The difficulty is to harness the concept to yield some meaningful insights into ways of fostering its beneficial effects and jettisoning its less desirable attributes.

On the face of it such a quest would seem to contradict the argument that culture can be neither legislated into existence nor socially engineered by government. Yet, if we were to accept the position that culture is the foundation on which institutions are built we come across rather pessimistic conclusions about the possibility of change and transformation.

If culture is immutable Ghana can never be a Korea and the indigenous (pribumi) can never prosper in business relative to the Chinese. Overdoing the importance of culture would lead to rather racially driven theories of social change, something which had discouraged the use of cultural categories in development policy to this day.

Luckily, everyone has now begun to agree that culture is a two way street. It is not entirely an independent variable. It is influenced by history, political movements and, it you accept Jeffrey Sachs' view, by geographical location and climate. This may be obvious to international experts. In Indonesia however, the dominant, popular view of culture is inherently that of a constant, immutable foundation on which post-independence institutions must continue to be erected.

Conservative interpretations of the role of culture in Indonesian development take three common forms. The first is through the claim that patrimonial government is an outcome of local cultural preference for strong, family based leadership.

This is used to argue that authoritarianism is the natural political state in Indonesia while democracy is a foreign concept and unsuited to the Indonesian temperament and traditions.

The second is the argument that endemic corruption in Indonesia is due to cultural norms which view the appropriation of a share of public revenue by corrupt officials as tribute rather than theft. Hence, a corrupt act in the liberal democratic context is merely the assertion of a quasi-feudal right by the elite.

This is used to explain the lack of public protest and resistance to the extortion of illegal charges by an entire array of government officials from the local policeman to the senior civil servant.

Third, observed cultural differences across Indonesia provide a rationale for imposing peace from above since it is claimed that left to themselves local social structures are incapable of deriving peaceful solutions. This is because culture ranks family and ethnic loyalties above those of the nation as a whole. Dilution of central power, so the argument goes, is therefore ipso facto likely to lead to national disintegration.

What is wrong with this line of reasoning is the fact that it can explain why political and social institutions are resistant to change, but they are rather useless at explaining why change takes place at all. Change in such a scheme of things relies on conspiracy theories of the most imaginative kind, such a world Jewish plot to control the world, which can be demolished rather easily.

Once we accept the view that culture both affects and is affected by other variables such as history, politics and economic systems a number of more reasonable interpretations of the Indonesian situation are possible. For example, the advent of dictatorship can be ascribed to the liquidation of civil society, including political parties, which flourished at the time of independence by armed force.

Widespread corruption can be linked to the cronyism integral to New Order rule which deliberately played on the feudal tribute idea by paying its civil servants, its military officers and its school and university-teachers noticeable low wages in the expectation that they will make up the remainder through corrupt acts. Ethnic differences were exacerbated by transmigration schemes, the enslavement of the judiciary and the ban on political activity which create channels of peaceful inter-ethnic accommodation and negotiation.

Seeing culture as a two way street also makes it easier to understand the tremendous and rather spontaneous growth of media, political parties and other voluntary organizations since 1999. It also explains why corruption has become the single most important political issue in the 2004 elections.

The fact is that end of dictatorship in Indonesia has generated an entire spectrum of constitutional, political and economic reforms. Some such as the retreat of the military from politics, the restructuring of the DPR/People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) and direct elections for the presidency are likely to permanently change the political landscape. So will decentralization which has created a brand new dynamic of social change and inter ethnic accommodation.

In addition, seeing culture as a "product" of a range of inter-connected factors rather than as a statistical constant allows us to anticipate new cultural influences on the horizon. A static approach to cultural questions will lead us merely to bury our heads in the sand while hoping that the storms of globalization and rapid growth of cities will simply pass over our heads. That way lies neither cultural dynamism nor evolution but the extinction reminiscent of Tyrannosaurus Rex.