Thu, 13 Mar 2003

Upper class luxury destroying civil society

Ignas Kleden, The Center for East Indonesian Affairs/CEIA, Jakarta

Ever since the early 1990s and even some time before that, discussion about civil society has become intellectually and academically fashionable, especially in our big cities. This might express a conscious or unconscious reaction to the main characteristics of the New Order Regime. It was state-heavy, government-centered, top down -- all features secured by more emphasis on result (economic growth) rather than on the processes leading to the result (the formation of productive behavior and the foundation of productive institutions).

It was also supported by security approach to prevent or to contain supposedly anti-development reactions, loyal participation in the government's plan rather than spontaneous initiatives from social groups in society, and a rigid bureaucracy which was to establish standard operational procedures.

No wonder, the issues that were on air were then a series of binary oppositions: Bureaucratization versus deregulation, economic statism vs. privatization, security vs. law certainty and law enforcement, political pressure vs. human rights, or effective government vs. good governance --- all these leading eventually to the issue of state vs. civil society.

The idea of civil society seems to originate in a philosophical assumption that the state must not necessarily regulate everything within society. This assumption still rests on another more basic belief that the state is there for the sake of societal development and not the other way around.

It has also something to do with the observation that the society can and has to organize itself freely until it turns out necessary for the state to make some limited interventions in order to retain social order. The notion of minimum state of the liberals can be understood from this perspective.

Empowerment, capacity building, self-reliance, good governance and autonomy are new keywords signifying the change in political thinking and discourse regarding state-society relationship.

All the new notions revolve around the vision that the potential and the initiatives of various social groups in society should be encouraged as far as possible, while all constraints which might obstruct societal development should be removed.

From a merely academic notion civil society has become a political program involving a wide range of social forces. But which social groups are supposed to make up our civil society, and what would the relations between these groups look like?

The elements of civil society did play an important role in toppling president Soeharto from power in May 1998. The struggle was spearheaded by student, supported by the urban middle class in a latent or manifest way. They did this by giving their political and moral support and by helping to organize logistics for the movement.

However, the students were supported by the people outside the urban middle class who gradually could no longer stand the political pressure and political violence of Soeharto.

This explains why the initial idea about the constitutive elements of civil society here was fairly urban-biased and middle class-related. People initially believed that Indonesian civil society consisted of university students and academicians, young executives and middle managers, or young professionals and progressive members of religious groups.

However, this notion of civil society is far from sufficient because it neglects other elements of Indonesian society which happen to make up the majority and whose spirit is no less progressive than that of the urban middle class. They are mainly peasants, factory workers, small traders and vendors who run the "people's economy proper" without bothering too much about what is going on at the state level.

The power of the commoners became obvious in the beginning of 2003 when the government of Megawati Soekarnoputri declared price hikes for telephone, fuel and electricity. The policy appeared a threat for employers and workers, the big business people and small traders -- it brought out a wide spectrum of demonstrators, including most of the important layers of our civil society.

The government faced political resistance on many fronts at the same time, so much so that it had no opportunity to compromise with one party in order to strengthen its bargaining power in dealing with the other.

The government revoked the policy and modified its implementation. That was a time when civil society became spontaneously united to insist on a total policy review. The employers' protest would not have been so powerful had it not been supported by that of workers, small traders and housewives. As it turned out, all the social strata that make up civil society, provided it with substantial political energy far above that which could be done by urban middle class alone.

The inclusion of the commoners into civil society is very important because of two related reasons. First, the commoners -- the majority -- can be made strong supporters of society. Second, they can forestall the possibility that civil society would be another domain to be dominated by certain social classes.

Whether civil society can become a means for democratization depends on whether as many people as possible can have equal opportunities and are not dependent upon one social class. Hence, it is far from sufficient if we look at civil society merely as a countervailing force against state domination.

It should also be seen as a vehicle to liberate as many people as possible from the dependence on a dominant class, whose formation might be led by our uncritical attitude towards the emergence of our civil society.

But there must be special attention to consolidation of civil society. Our political history is full of precedents that the temptation to internal frictions is much greater than that for consolidation -- witness the political parties.

If our civil society wants to become more solid, it has to be aware of that tendency and has to manage forestalling the workings of such a tendency. One way is to look at civil society as a concerted effort of all social forces to gain more access to democratization.

Thus the inclusion of as many elements of society as possible is more helpful than their exclusion. Also it would be more promising to ensure equal opportunities for as many of the socio- economic levels as possible, rather than trying to monopolize opportunities for one or two privileged classes at the cost of all others.

To consistently demand the lower and middle classes pay for upper class privileges and luxury, is in the end, demanding them pay dearly for the breakdown of civil society in Indonesia.