[Re]-Interpreting Javanese Society:Cultural Determinism and Political Economy

Rabu, 3 Mei 2006

[Re]-Interpreting Javanese Society:
Cultural Determinism and Political Economy


By Luthfi Makhasin
(Lutfi Makhasin adalah lulusan Hubungan Internasional UGM, anggota FORUM LAFADL, dosen di UNSOED Purwokerto, sekarang sedang sekolah di ANU Australia)

This essay attempts to review important scholarly works on Javanese society in post-independence Indonesia. Perhaps, there is no more interesting topic than Javanese society for those interested in studying Indonesia. Javanese people form the largest political and cultural entity, so that it is almost impossible to ignore their existence in trying to understand Indonesia as a whole. For years, the topic ‘Javanese society’ has attracted many scholarly studies and continuous debates as well. However, these result in more disagreements rather than consensus among scholars in understanding appropriately Javanese society. Disagreement derives from distinct theoretical approaches adopted by scholars, different places where scholars conduct their research and particular time frames in which scholars conduct their research and develop their arguments. Over decades, debates among scholars on Javanese questions are mainly concerned with how to understand properly the socio-economic changes that have occurred in Javanese society. Indonesianists produced and continuously reproduce scholarly works on Javanese society based on two major approaches, the cultural and the structural. Debates along these two distinct theoretical lines create one of the most attractive and fascinating intellectual circumstances on the subject matter of Indonesian studies. The cultural approach deals with Javanese society by examining its own embedded characteristics such as norms, values and kinship system, language, cosmology and religion. On the other hand, the structural approach emphasizes capital penetration brought about by colonialism and the state and its influence in shaping power relations among different social classes. While the cultural approach is particularly influenced by Parson’s structural-functionalism tradition and Weber’s disenchantment of the world”, the structural approach is inspired by neo-classical economists and the Marxist tradition.
This essay will divide into three parts. First, I will deal with scholarly works in the cultural school and demonstrate its significance and weaknesses in addressing Javanese questions. Then, I will reveal major debates in the structural approach and the differences between it and the cultural school. Finally, I will end this essay by showing the main weaknesses of both theoretical approaches in dealing with contemporary Javanese questions and attempt to propose a further research agenda for Javanese society.


Part I


The cultural approach is preoccupied with questions of internal uniqueness such as cosmological views, religion, values and kinship system and its role in shaping pattern of social relations and stratification in Javanese society. To some extent, this is driven by a spirit of so-called “oriental exoticism” which widely influenced Western scholars in the colonial era and early post-colonialism. In the case of Java, culturalists departed from the assumption that Javanese society can best be understood by interpreting its religious behavior and religiosity, and symbolic meaning systems. For culturalists, Javanese socio-economic changes therefore should be understood simply as a result of internal dynamics rather than an externally driven process.
Clifford Geertz, an American anthropologist, was a very influential scholar pioneering this approach. Geertz regards culture primarily as a public domain rather than a private one (1973: 10). Moreover, Geertz regards culture as “a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life” (1973: 15). Culture in other words is shared codes of meaning in a particular society. By approaching culture as a symbolic system, Geertz refutes simultaneously Strauss’ structural system and Goodenough’s cognitive system (Keesing, 1974: 79). Yet Geertz believes in ethnographic materials helping anthropologists to interpret this shared code of meaning, which is often hidden in texts, personal behaviors, etc. Based on his conception of culture as a symbolic and meaning system, Geertz is particularly interested in religious behavior and the religiosity of Javanese people and how these influence social relations and social stratification among Javanese society.
To some extent, religious behavior is about how people interpret divine texts and accordingly behave using/with them as guidance. Despite the disagreements, all scholars agree that Islam in Java is unique in that Javanese Muslims behave differently to their fellows in the Arab world, the origin land of Islam. Among others, Javanese people are always put forward as a distinct Islamic society. This is a point on which Geertz develops further his conception of the Javanese society. It should be noted, however, that Geertz was not mainly concerned with Javanese religious behavior itself. Instead, he was proposing a holistic cultural point of view in addressing the Javanese questions amidst the rapid socio-economic changes that Javanese society was undergoing in post-independence Indonesia.
Certainly, Geertz’s works are too important to ignore in dealing with Javanese religion. Through his seminal work, The Religion of Java, Geertz is worthy of being considered as the one who first assembled into a whole picture the “jigsaw puzzles” of Javanese religious behaviors in particular and Javanese social stratification in general. In fact, Geertzian approach is my point of departure. By taking this stance, however, it does not necessarily mean that I always agree with the “mainstream” interpretations of Geertz’s. By “mainstream” I mean the interpretations that put the Religion of Java as a purely religious question of Java-ness. However, I strongly believe that the religious question is just a peripheral thesis rather than a central one in overall work of Geertz on Java. Geertz’s works have a much broader scope than merely examining Javanese religious behavior. The cultural approach as developed by Geertz ranges over matters of Javanese religious behavior, Javanese social stratifications, Javanese economic ethics, and Javanese political behavior and ideological orientation. Ironically, it is the religious question in Geertz’s work that attracts most of his followers and his critics.
Geertz’s magnum opus was based on the ethnographic research he and his fellows conducted in Pare, a small city in the Kediri regency, East Java, between May 1953 and September 1954. This research was funded by the Ford Foundation in collaboration with MIT’s Center for International Studies, Massachusetts. The “Modjokuto Project” (officially named “The Development of the Javanese Economy: A Socio-Cultural Approach”) was aimed at providing an accurate account of Javanese society in post-independence Indonesia. This was also the first social research involving scholars from different scholarly backgrounds – anthropology and sociology.


Religious Variants of Javanese Society
Geertz’s The Religion of Java proposed the so-called syncretistic view of Islam in Java. The Javanese are assumed to have a unique belief system characterized by syncretism, of mixing, animist-Hindu elements and the great religious tradition (Islam). Geertz was preoccupied with building a claim that Islam as daily practiced by Javanese people is no longer a genuine religion compared to that seen in the Arab world. Yet, the thesis of syncretism assumes that Javanese people prefer to follow an “indigenous” belief, which they inherited from their ancestors rather than fully convert to an “alien” one imported from a distant place. Supported by very rich ethnographic materials, Geertz presented a very persuasive argument in dealing with Javanese religion and religiosity.
He even further claimed that what the Religion of Java revealed was not pre-constructed realities (1960: 12). Rather, it genuinely resulted from the Javanese people themselves in perceiving their environment and how they respond to it. In other words, the categorization of “santri”, “abangan” and “priyayi”, was a purely cosmological view of Javanese society in dealing with the divine world and others. Geertz writes,


…[this] indicate[s] the way the Javanese in Modjokuto themselves perceive the situation, as will, I hope, be apparent from the extensive quotations from my field notes…(1960: 6-7)

Despite its weakness, however, Geertz’s The Religion of Java is, in fact, the most impressive and provocative work that scholars had ever produced in this field. The Geertz categorization of “priyayi”, “abangan”, and “santri” has been widely quoted as a point of departure and even taken for granted by a huge number of scholars, both Indonesian and foreign, in addressing various Javanese questions (if not Indonesian in general): society, politics, ideology, culture and, of course, religion.
“Abangan” refers to those who adopted an animist worldview in dealing with the divine world. They believe in ancestor spirits and ghosts as well. They respect all these things as much as the existence of God himself. Abangan disregards formal rituals such as praying 5 times a day, attending mosque, and going to Mecca on pilgrimage as Moslems do. Instead of formal rituals, abangan upholds the traditional rituals, the so-called “slametan”. According to Geertz, the heart of Javanese religion lies in the ritual so-called “slametan” (which literally means ritual meal). The ritual of slametan was held in accordance with the “life cycles” (birth, circumcision and marriage, and death), the “Islamic ceremonial calendar”, the shared-burden of social responsibility (cleaning of the village), and special events (1960: 30).
“Santri” on the other hand, is a devout Muslim with a strong commitment to Islamic doctrine. Unlike his abangan fellows, “santri” associates religious devoutness to formal rituals such as praying 5 times a day, fasting a whole month during ramadhan, attending mosque, reciting Al Qur’an and going pilgrimage to Mecca. “Santri” differs from abangan in two aspects: ritual-doctrinal and social organizational aspects (Geertz, 1960: 127-29). At the doctrinal level, “santri” splits into “santri modern” and “santri kolot” (Geertz, 1960: 130). According to Geertz, while “santri modern” enthusiastically follows Islamic reform ideas, “santri kolot” insists on upholding culturally rooted Islamic traditions (1960: 130). In the mean time, at the organizational level, the divisions have to do with the differences such as a political party’s orientation, the school system, etc. (Geertz, 1960: 130).
Meanwhile, “priyayi” includes all “white-collar nobles” such as bureaucrats, clerks, and teachers (Geertz, 1960: 229). Priyayi are the ones on whom the Dutch relied on for managing their indirect rule. Geertz describes the priyayi in these terms,


…originally indicated a man who could trace his ancestry back to the great semi-mythical kings of pre-colonial Java; but, as the Dutch,…employed this group as the administrative instruments of their policy, the term widened to include commoners pulled into the bureaucracy…(1960: 229)


Priyayi’s religious life is shaped by “etiquette”, “art”, and “mystical practice” (Geertz, 1960: 238). Defining these three, Geertz writes,


…Etiquette, the polishing of interpersonal behavior into smooth decorum, lends to everyday behavior a spiritualized formality; art, a dual discipline of mind and body, provides a revelation of inner significance in outward gesture; and mystic practice, the intensive regulation of the life of thought and feeling, organizes the individual’s spiritual resources for an attack upon ultimate enlightenment (1960: 238)


Etiquette is manifested in the priyayi’s personal daily behavior and the way the priyayi speak, which is different from either abangan or santri. Priyayi appreciate the finest arts in the form of wayang (shadow-plays), gamelan (Javanese music), tembang (poem/folk songs), and batik (textile decoration). Religiously, priyayi were not interested in either slametan as commonly practiced by abangan or reciting Al Qur’an as santri did. Priyayi upheld their own religious system – so-called mysticism – with strong Hindu elements based on personal “affective experience” (Geertz, 1956: 26). Yet priyayi’s mysticism is characterized by its “universal tolerance”, and “relativistic view of religious beliefs and practices” in nature (Geertz, 1960: 336). Geertz asserts,


[priyayi] have been concerned with the search for ultimate mystical enlightenment, with elaborate philosophical and mythological speculation upon the nature of man and the basis of his spiritual life and with secret systems of mystically supported prophecy and moral exhortation (1956: 28)


Koentjaraningrat (1963) and Bachtiar (1985) made critical comments on Geertz’s Javanese religious variants. According to Koentjaraningrat, “abangan” and “priyayi” constitute one religious orientation named “kejawen” rather than separate ones. On the other hand, Bachtiar criticized Geertz on the ground that Geertz mixed religious orientation and social status. According to Bachtiar, “priyayi” is a social status and therefore has nothing to do with religious behavior as attributed to “abangan” and “santri”. Despite these comments and other bitter criticisms, however, Geertz was the first one to pave the way towards understanding the complexity of Javanese cosmological views.
Geertz’s thesis of Javanese religion is echoed by Jay (1963), Mulder (1978) and Beatty (1996: 271-88; 1999). Like Geertz, Jay shows how the schism between santri kolot and abangan was apparently profound in rural Central Java. Moreover, Jay reveals that this schism is rooted in a divergent power struggle attached to the diverse political parties of these socio-cultural groups. Rather than using a strict ethnographic method in dealing with this schism, however, Jay examined it in relation to the 1920s’ and Madiun’s abortive communist uprisings. The Madiun massacre in particular, had “greatly sharpened” the schism between abangan and santri (Jay, 1963: 19).
Unlike Geertz, Mulder attributed mysticism as a religious practice to the abangan as well as the priyayi. Using a local genius approach, Mulder declared that Javanese religion was neither Islam nor any religion as commonly understood. It was a Javanese mysticism instead, in which Javanese people express their conception of God. Mulder made clear this point by saying,


[abangan views] God is not an unapproachable distant judge; on the contrary, ‘God’ is closer to man than anything else, because man is fundamentally part of the Divine Essence…(1978: 11)


In addition, Mulder asserted that Java’s emerging mysticism was a “cultural expression and identity” (1978: 12). Similarly, Beatty pointed out that Javanese religion was genuinely syncretistic in nature. Using a multivocality approach, Beatty conducted his observation of slametan (ritual meal) in Banyuwangi, East Java. He was particularly interested in interpreting symbolic meanings of “words” and the sort of speech used during the ritual meal (1996: 272). Beatty acknowledges,


…though [slametan] obviously incorporates Islamic elements, most people regard the slametan as authentically Javanese and pre-Islamic or even Hindu in inspiration (1996: 284).

To some extent, Mulder and Beatty made overgeneralizations of Javanese religion and religiosity. Observing just aliran kebatinan (Mulder) and slametan (Beatty), both offered very myopic views of Java’s picture as a whole. Indeed, Javanese Islam is unique with its own features. It is an exaggeration however to say that “kebatinan” was completely un-Islamic (Mulder, 1978) or mixed with Hindu elements (Beatty, 1996) since Islam requires even very minimal conditions of its adherents – being Muslims means professing no God but Allah, and believing in Muhammad is a messenger –.
Geertz’s characterization of Javanese religion as a mixture of Islam and Hindu-animist elements was criticized because of its modernist bias (Hodgson, 1974, 551 in Woodward, 1989: 1). In line with this view, Nakamura (1983), Hefner (1985), Woodward (1988: 54-89; 1989), Mulkhan (2000), Muhaimin (2001) and Nur Syam (2005) argue that Islam as practiced by Javanese people is basically true Islam with locally rooted-traditions. These works affirm the uniqueness of Javanese Islam. Unlike Geertz, however, they regard it in relation to the acculturation process of Islamisation taking place in Java. Thus, these works can be named as “acculturative” theses of Javanese Islam.
Woodward (1988: 54-89; 1989) refuted Geertz’s syncretism thesis based on his research at the court of Yogyakarta. According to Woodward, Geertz had wrongly pointed to priyayi’s mysticism as having pre-Islamic Hindu elements. In fact, they were actually Islamic sufism elements that had strongly influenced Islamic dissemination in Java since the very beginning. Using the so-called structural axiomatic method, Woodward paid attention to the significance of various Islamic texts and their role in shaping Javanese religious behavior. According to Woodward, the unique Islamic tradition as seen in Java was a result of interpretations of these various Islamic texts (1988: 62). By saying so, Woodward confirmed Johns’ preposition that sufism was the very early form of Islam as it first flourished in Southeast Asia, included Java (1975: 33-56).
Mulkhan (2000) revised Geertz’s thesis by revealing that modernist ideas flourished not only among the urban trading class, but also among rural Javanese peasantry. Rather than Islamisation, however, this rural Javanese peasantry was able to maintain an abangan ethos that was typical of the Javanese peasant community. Mulkhan observed that this happened as educational improvement diminished the role of syariah experts in preaching Islam.
Despite their differences, “acculturative” theses basically strengthen Geertz’s original thesis of Javanese religious behavior in the way that they are also preoccupied with addressing a similar question to that put forward by Geertz – What kind of Islam flourished in Java? –. The latter scholars take for granted Geertz’s characterization of Javanese society and use it as a basis of their accounts of very recent Javanese religious behavior among santri kolot (Nur Syam, 2005), santri modern (Nakamura, 1983; Mulkhan, 2000), abangan-santri kolot (Hefner, 1985), priyayi (Woodward, 1989).


“Politik Aliran” and Patron-Client Relationship
A Geertzian perspective on Javanese society considers that the dynamic of social and power relations is determined by immaterial things rather than material ones. In other words, social and power relations have more to do with an “unseen world” rather than a real world. In a Parsonian functional-structural tradition, the dynamic of social relations is always assumed as leading to social integration and harmony rather than conflict and disintegration. Complemented by the “Kahinian” historical perspective approach of Cornell, the Geertzian perspective formed the so-called modernisation school, which was previously very dominant in understanding Indonesian politics.
Aliran literally means stream or current. Geertz asserted that aliran was “the core of social structure replacing the traditional status groups” (Geertz, 1963b: 15). This refers to “a form of social organization which arose to fulfill certain social needs” (Kahn, 1978: 106). By aliran, Geertz was basically referring to Javanese religious orientations – abangan, santri and priyayi – as a basis for political affiliation. Geertz pointed out that different religious orientations manifest themselves completely into political ones (1960: 363). Moreover, Geertz stated that aliran could be seen in the form of political ideologies of major political parties – Nationalist (PNI), Modernist Moslem (Masyumi), Orthodox Moslem (NU), and communist (PKI) – (1963b: 14). Yet, Kahn revealed that Indonesian politics was also shaped by an element of patron-client relationship in which interactions between “inferiors” and “superiors” were based on different access to wealth and power (1978: 110). Rather than rigid class-based social interactions, interestingly, the patron-client relationship “corresponds with the aliran system in which patron and client are linked in the same social group” (Kahn, 1978: 110).
Geertz’s politik aliran itself, however, was far from complete in understanding a modus operandi of power among Javanese people. Anderson (1972: 1-69) filled the gap through his impressive account of the concept of Javanese power. While Geertz’s politik aliran mapped out vertical and horizontal patterns of political allegiance based on socio-cultural divisions, Anderson’s Idea of Power in Javanese Culture provided a socio-cultural justification of these patterns of political allegiance. According to Anderson, Javanese people have very different conception of power in which power was considered as “concrete”, “homogenous” in nature, “constant”, and no question of legitimacy (1972: 7-8)
Geertz’s politik aliran and Anderson’s concept of Javanese power influence were not confined to anthropologists, but expanded to political scientists, historians and other social scientists as well. Both Geertz and Anderson influenced the way political scientists/historians view Javanese political behavior and ideological orientation (Feith, 1957, 1962; Jay, 1963; Gaffar, 1992), the relationship between ruler and ruled in the Javanese society (Liddle, 1985: 68-90; Emmerson, 1976; Schiller, 1996), conflict between priyayi vs. abangan-santri (Lucas, 1988), and the relationship between religion and peasant rebellion (Kartodirdjo, 1984).
In his analysis of the general election of 1955, Feith acknowledged the influence of “santri-abangan duality” in shaping voting preferences among different social groups (1957: 82). The ascendancy of nationalist-communist political parties (PNI and PKI) was attributed to the persistence of abangan ethos among Javanese peasant communities. However, Feith did not exclusively focus his studies on Javanese society. Rather, he was particularly interested in political fragmentation among elites at the national level during the turbulent period of the 1950s. Nevertheless, his distinction between “administrator” and “solidarity-maker” types of political leader could not be separated from Geertz’s politik aliran framework (1962). In his comment on Benda’s criticism, he made clear this point by saying,


… most of my story is indeed about the doings of elite factions, but I would argue that I suggested the fate of these factions was determined by deeper social forces..(1965: 306).


Unlike “administrator”, “solidarity maker” refers to those “to whom élan, revolution, and ideological incantations are far more important than the rational solution of economic, administrative, and other problems” (Benda, 1964: 453). Despite refuting that this notion had to do with Java, Feith echoed a cultural approach as the basis of political analysis. By “solidarity maker”, Feith was basically referring to, though not exclusively, political leaders with Javanese background such as President Sukarno, army generals, and some Islamic leaders of the santri community.
On the other hand, Jay (1963) showed how political conflict at the elite level influenced the socio-cultural landscape in Javanese rural areas. Village people split into various political streams along politik aliran lines. According to Jay, Java rural areas experienced a schism between orthodox and secular followings. This schism was a result of vertical political and ideological allegiances brought by different political parties in rural areas.
Taking a very different theoretical approach, Gaffar (1992) affirmed the politik aliran as the main basis of voting preferences among Javanese voters. Using a survey research method, Gaffar confirmed that socio-religious beliefs played a pivotal role in shaping the voting behavior of Javanese people. He asserted,


…in rural Java, people are inclined to vote according to their socio[-]religious beliefs, that is santri-abangan…the santri people will prefer to vote for an Islamic party, while the abangan are inclined to vote for a party that does not advocate and promote Islamic beliefs
(1992: 191).

Unfortunately, Gaffar tended to play down the “politic of fear” imposed by the New Order state and its role in engineering political preferences of rural Javanese people. In fact, the survey research method as adopted by Gaffar failed to reveal the real picture of Java rural people.
Meanwhile, Liddle and Emmerson were heavily influenced by Geertz and Anderson in the way that both were preoccupied with the personal style of Javanese political leadership. Liddle introduced the so-called “symbolic legitimation” which was rooted in “the court of ideologies of pre-colonial Java” (1985: 81). Similarly, Emmerson (1976) also considered the personal style of Javanese political leadership as having its roots in a long cultural legacy of Javanese kingdoms. Emmerson asserted that the New Order regime represented exclusively Javanese abangan and priyayi tradition, so that the political establishment failed to accommodate santri’s interests (1976: 247). On the other hand, Schiller (1996) showed how the expansion of the New Order’s “power-house state” was confined by the persistence of a strong santri community. This strength of santri community stems from entrepreneurial skills they employed in manufacturing the economic sector.
Lucas (1988) explored the role of popular rebellion led by abangan and santri in toppling the hegemonic power of priyayi in Pemalang, Tegal and Brebes following the collapse of Dutch colonialism in Java. Kartodirdjo (1984) on the other hand showed how religion provided a moral justification for the peasant rebellion in Banten. Despite using a more holistic approach in dealing with the issue, both Lucas and Kartodirdjo were influenced by the cultural approach in the way that, to some extent, they applied the patron-client model in explaining patterns of popular rebellion and resistance among the Javanese peasant community.


Culture and Economic Ethics
The core of the Modjokuto Project was directed at understanding the influence of religious belief and cultural virtues in driving the socio-economic changes Javanese society was undergoing after independence. By referring to abangan, santri and priyayi, Geertz and, of course, his fellows were basically mapping out three distinct economic institutional clusters, which constituted Javanese society: “village”, “market” and “government bureaucracy” (1960: 5). “Village” was a sub culture that reflected old indigenous economic institutional arrangements with land and agriculture as the main source of revenue. “Market” was a typical urban-based economic institution with commodity exchanges as the main activity. On the other hand, “government bureaucracy” represented a new economic institution that emerged following the collapse of the colonial system.
The relationship between culture and socio-economic changes therefore constitute the main thesis of Modjokuto related scholarly works. Through his three works (Agricultural Involution, Peddlers and Princes and The History of an Indonesian Town), Geertz dealt with the nature and development of rural and urban economy in Java, compared to another Indonesian town (Tabanan Bali in the case of Peddlers and Princes) and country (Japan in the case of Agricultural Involution). Alice Dewey’s Peasant Marketing in Java on the other hand, focused on the development of market relations and market economy among Javanese peasant community.
Agricultural Involution was an account of socio-economic changes within the rural Javanese peasant community. Using Steward’s cultural ecology approach, Geertz was preoccupied with “interdependency between cultural patterns and organism-environment relationship” (1963a: 7). Geertz was concerned with three interrelated issues in dealing with Javanese rural peasant community: environmental condition, problems of overpopulation and the legacies of colonial dual economy (Larkin, 1971: 785-6).
Geertz distinguished Java into two distinct modes of land usage: “swidden” and “sawah”/wet rice agriculture (1963a: 15-37). These two distinct agricultural systems resulted in different consequences in terms of population density, modes of land use, and agricultural productivity (Geertz, 1963a: 15). Wet rice agriculture as commonly seen in rural Java (except the southwestern part of Java) was burdened with the task of fulfilling the subsistence needs of an increasing rural population. A lack of alternative employment available in the village and demographic pressures forced rural peasants to live by sharing work in the wet rice fields. This was what Geertz called “shared-poverty” (1956: 134-58), a process in which peasants were unlikely to achieve economic improvement due to diminishing plots of land with a huge number of people relying on that land. The involution process therefore had more to do with land working than land-ownership (Geertz, 1963a: 97).
The pattern of work-sharing was not only confined to the wet rice field. This was part of a whole social system that underpinned rural Javanese society in general. As a whole, “agricultural involution” and “shared-poverty” constituted a sub culture abangan that represented rural Javanese peasantry. Geertz asserted this point by saying,


…the involution of the productive process in Javanese agriculture was matched and supported by a similar involution in rural family life, social stratification, political organization, religious practice, as well as in the “folk culture”…(1963a: 101)


“Shared-poverty” as seen in rural Java was attributed to the failure of abangan to reorganize labor arrangements under a rapidly increasing population. Under this severe circumstance, the Javanese peasants underwent “equal fractionalization” of land holdings (Geertz, 1956: 141). Interestingly, Geertz’s “shared poverty” assumed a condition in which accumulation and impoverishment in rural Java did not exist at all.
Meanwhile, Geertz’s Peddlers and Princes primarily dealt with the emergence of small businessmen in urban societies in the post-independence period by comparing two Indonesian towns: Modjokuto (pseudonym of Pare, Kediri) and Tabanan, Bali. He directed his scholarly interest at explaining the development of commercial activities and markets in a Javanese town. To some extent, Geertz was influenced by the thesis of “dualistic economy” by distinguishing urban-based economic activities into two types of activities: “bazaar” and “firm”-type economy (Geertz, 1963b: 30-73).
This distinction showed Geertz’s preoccupation with binary opposition between traditional and modern in which “bazaar” was considered as traditional, whereas “firm” was modern. The bazaar was considered as a traditional economic institution and a way of life for Modjokuto society in which “flow of goods and services is fragmented into a huge number of unrelated interpersonal transactions” (Geertz, 1963b: 28). According to Geertz, as a traditional market, a bazaar was a patterned flow of economic goods and services, a set of economic mechanisms to sustain and regulate that flow, and a social and cultural system within which those mechanisms are embedded (1963b: 30-47). Yet Geertz also regarded the bazaar not simply as a “distributive apparatus”, but also a “productive apparatus” as well (1962: 138).
On the other hand, Geertz observed that Modjokuto’s urban society was moving towards a more organized, established and effective pattern of economic activity (1963b: 48). This was what he called the firm-type of economy consisting of “retail stores” and “small factories” (1963b: 51). This type of economy was run by those who were influenced by Islamic reform ideas. Geertz affirmed Weber’s view that religious reform was a driving factor in the development of capitalism. Following Weber, Geertz considered there was a close relationship between Islamic reform and the creation of a bourgeois ethic among the urban trading class with modern santri background (1963b: 49).
Modern santri formed the core of indigenous entrepreneurs the urban economic sector. However, Geertz also revealed the inherent weakness of this urban trading class in becoming a genuine capitalist class. Geertz pointed to organizational matters, rather than lack of capital, as the main problem faced by modern santri as they attempted to develop their business. He asserts,


…what [modern santri] lack is the power to mobilize [its] capital and channel [its] drive in such a way as to exploit the existing market possibilities. [Modern santri] lacks the capacity to form efficient economic institutions; [modern santri] [is] entrepreneurs without enterprises (underline by reviewer) (1963: 28).


Associating santri with trading urban commercial activities was echoed by Castles (1967). Castles conducted his research among the santri community in Kudus, a centre of cigarette manufacturing on the north coast of Java. Unlike Geertz, however, Castles revealed the emergence of santri’s middle class and its failure to develop its business further. According to Castles, there were several factors responsible for this: lack of organizational skills, the failure of mechanization, competition from ethnic Chinese, and the failure to generate a broad political basis amongst the mass of santri (1967: 92-3). Despite recognizing the importance of religious reform ideas in driving a productive ethic among the santri community, Castles also correlated business’ success and political influence. Moreover, Castles also stated that Islamic modernism itself was not a determinant variable in encouraging entrepreneurship virtues among the santri community (1967: 90).
Similarly, Abdullah (1994) observed a similar trend of an emerging productive economic ethic among modernist santri adherents/Muhammadiyah followers in Jatinom, a city in central Java. Through his work, Abdullah refuted Peacock’s thesis (1978), saying that Muhammadiyah failed to promote a productive economic ethic among its followers. On the other hand, – based on his observation of a rural community in Klaten, Central Java, Kuntowidjojo rejected the generalization of the relation between religious reform and the development of bourgeois ethics (1971: 47-55). Rather than supporting religious reforms, according to Kuntowidjojo, the bourgeois class in the rural community strongly supported religious orthodoxy (1971: 55). In other words, Kuntowidjojo said that there was no parallelism between reformist credentials and the emergence of religious reforms as proposed by Geertz in the case of Modjokuto.


Part II


Indeed, the cultural perspective explains many things about Java and all its complexities. Culturalists see Javanese society through the lens of historical continuity with its own internal dynamics. However, the course of Javanese history since the 16th century has changed radically following the arrival of western colonialism. This process was increasingly accelerated in the 19th century, as capitalist modes of economic exploitation and systemic political oppression were profound felt throughout Java. In fact, Java underwent more than 350 years of severe economic exploitation and political oppression.
Capitalism certainly resulted in considerable effects for the Javanese people. Rapid monetization, emergence of an urban economic sector, industrialisation, and increase of educational opportunities, all changed fundamentally very basic features of Javanese socio-cultural order. The cultural approach’s preoccupation with Javanese traditional order, historical continuity and internal dynamics therefore was no longer adequate (if not, to some extent, even irrelevant) in understanding Javanese society. Rather than considering cultural factors, a political economy perspective is preoccupied with capital penetration and its immediate effects on Javanese society. Moreover, the latter perspective points to the material basis and economic relations that are becoming much more important in dealing with Javanese society.
A political economy perspective derives from neo-classical economist and Marxist ideas in understanding the Javanese economic trajectory and its socio-political effects for hundreds years during and in the aftermath of the colonial era. A structural perspective attempts to demystify the course of Javanese economy by concerning itself with the issues of the market and voluntary transactions, profit maximization, power relations, class-based social stratification, inequality, exploitation, class struggle, resistance, division of labor, modes of labor control, etc.
A political economy perspective is basically another extreme standing because of its overemphasis on socio-economic factors as a determinant variable in dealing with Javanese society. A political economy perspective regards Javanese economic transformation and its contradictory effects as part of a universal process of social change taking place in other countries as well. The Dutch cultuurstelsel policy (1830-1870) was regarded as a turning point for the course of modern Javanese economy. However, the political economy perspective split into those considering it as a natural process, and those taking into consideration power relations and the struggle among different social class.
For those inspired by neo-classical economic ideas, the emergence of Java’s market economy is a positive development in that commercial activities enable Javanese people to fulfill their needs through market transactions. The market is always assumed to lead to efficiency. Indeed, market players are always considered rational and to act in accordance with their rational choices. On the other hand, Marxist-inspired scholars take into consideration power relations as a determinant factor in market relations. Those who have more capital are likely to accumulate profit by exploiting imbalanced power relations embedded in the market transactions. W.F. Wertheim and Benjamin Higgins are pioneers in a political economy approach to Javanese society.
Wertheim, a Dutch sociologist of Amsterdam University is the one whose scholarly works bridged the colonial and independence periods of Indonesian studies. Wertheim was particularly interested in explaining changing Indonesian social structure following the collapse of Dutch colonialism. Wertheim disregarded Geertz’s preoccupation with Javanese status-based social divisions. Unlike Geertz, Wertheim adopted Marxist ideas in dealing with changes in Javanese social stratification in particular and Indonesia in general. According to Wertheim, educational improvement and revolution speeded up trends toward an increasing individualism and toward a social evaluation based on personal achievement (1955: 51). In relation to that trend, property was becoming more and more important as a basis of socio-economic and socio-political division.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Higgins, an economist at Center for International Studies of MIT, then directed the Indonesia Project. The center also sponsored the Modjokuto Project in which Clifford Geertz was the one of the team members. Together with Cornell University’s political scientist, George McTurnan Kahin, and Yale’s geographer, Karl Pelzer, Benjamin Higgins directed the most ambitious project sponsored by the Ford Foundation on post-independence Indonesia. When he moved to the University of California, Berkeley, he was the one responsible for training the first generation of Indonesia’s liberal economists such as Widjojo Nitisastro, Ali Wardhana, Subroto, etc.


Colonialism, Dualistic Economy, and Market Relations in Java
In early post-independence Indonesia, the Javanese economy was considered as typical of a “dualistic economy”. “Dualistic economy” is a concept introduced by J.H. Boeke referring to a system in which traditional and modern economic sectors exist side-by-side as a separate economic activity. Boeke stated that “dualistic economy” was a logical consequence, as a new economic system could not remove an old economic system that had already existed in a particular society (1953: 4). In other words, Boeke tried to assert that the Dutch colonialism in Java created an enclave economic sector that was completely segregated from the indigenous economic sector.
The dualistic economy was associated with the development of two distinct economic activities in Java since the 19th century – the corporate plantation system and subsistence-oriented farming. The corporate plantation system was a system in which commercial activities were focused on producing cash crops such as sugar, tea, indigo, rubber, etc for the international and export market. This system involved large-scale cultivation areas, massive labor deployment, and capital-intensive investment. It was exclusively owned and managed by foreign capital. On the other hand, subsistence farming primarily dealt with food crop production to fulfill household and other domestic needs. In the case of Java, the food crop was mainly the staple food, rice. Unlike the corporate plantation system, subsistence farming had nothing to do with the market mechanism. It was a tiny scale of economic activities involving Javanese rural peasantry with communal-type labor arrangements.
“Dualistic economy” assumes a clear distinction between urban-rural sectors, plantation-subsistence farming, and communal-market economies. Geertz’s Agricultural Involution and Peddlers and Princes departed from the urban-rural and plantation-subsistence farming framework. Alice Dewey dealt with the distinction between the communal economy and market economy: the communal economy favored the fulfillment of social obligations rather than profit taking as commonly seen in the market economy (1962a; 1962b: 177-90).
Alexander (1978: 207-23; 1982: 597-619; 1987a, 1987b: 42-68, 1991a: 493-512; 1991b: 370-94) criticized both Geertz and Dewey. By elaborating historical evidence of colonial Java, Alexander rejected that there was a “mutualistic” relationship between the plantation system and subsistence farming as Geertz tended to portray of rural Javanese life (1978: 207-23). Alexander also refuted Geertz’s “agricultural involution” and “shared-poverty” by demonstrating real competition for economic resources taking place in Java (1982: 597-619). In relation to the Javanese market, Alexander demonstrated how Javanese female traders had real entrepreneurial skills in dealing with market transactions. Unlike Geertz and Dewey, the only problem that Javanese traders faced was not a socio-cultural burden, but lack of reliable information for price setting (1987a: 190).


Class-based Social Stratification
Indeed, Javanese society is highly stratified. However, scholars differ in their determination of the basis of this social stratification. While culturalists attributed this stratification to traditional status and religious devoutness, political economists consider property and other economic resources as the main source of social stratification. Given this stance, political economists believe that Javanese society is typical of class society. Of course, labeling Java as a typical class society is one thing, but on what basis this stratification is measured is another.
Landholdings are commonly referred to as the main basis of social stratification in Javanese society. Mortimer (1969: 1-20), Lyon (1970), and Pincus (1996) for instance, are some of the scholars who believe that landholdings are the main basis of class stratification, especially in Java rural areas. According to Mortimer, Java rural areas were characterized by acute unequal ownership of land (1969: 3). This resulted in social tensions between landlords and landless peasants. However, Mortimer seemed not to be consistent in his analysis since he still considered religiocultural-based divisions as an important factor in triggering social conflict in Java rural areas (1969: 1-20).
Similarly, Lyon (1970) observed that prior to the 1965 massacre, Java’s rural areas were increasingly undergoing social tensions with landholdings as the main issue. He portrayed Java rural areas in the following passage,


…land became the primary issue…with an increasing scarcity of resources due to the steady deterioration of the economy, and a resultant increase in the importance of relative economic advantage, land as the primary source of negotiable resources within the rural community grew not only in economic importance but also as a criterion of social position in the village (1970: 38)

By saying so, he disregarded Geertz’s view of “agricultural involution” and “shared-poverty” in Java’s rural areas. Lyon asserted that the gap between landowners and landless peasants was increasingly apparent in Java. Consequently, the struggle for scarce economic resources among different social class unsurprisingly resulted in bitter conflicts and sometimes even blew up into violent action.
Meanwhile, Pincus observed a class struggle for economic resources in rural areas of Subang regency, West Java. Pincus was particularly interested in explaining the “patterns of class formation and the exercise of class power” at the very village level (1996: 1). Moreover, Pincus revealed that large land-owners have an inherent interest in accumulating profit by exploiting the rural labor arrangement (1996: 93). Unlike Mortimer and Lyon, Pincus applied quite consistently a Marxist perspective in explaining the dynamics of social relations in current Javanese villages.

Green Revolution and Labor Arrangements
Another aspect which attracts scholarly interest in Javanese society is the effect of the green revolution and labor arrangements both in rural and urban areas. Hart (1986a, 1986b: 681-96), Husken (1979: 140-151), and Stoler (1977a: 678-98; 1977b: 74-89) observed the changes in rural labor arrangements and the effects of the green revolution in Java’s rural areas, whereas Jellinek (1991) paid attention to the urban informal economic sector with Jakarta as a case study.
Stoler for example, showed the effects of technological change brought about by the green revolution in shaping class relationship in Java’s villages. Agricultural mechanisation benefited unequally the class relationship in which richer people receive most benefits at the expense of poor people (1977b: 81). Unlike other scholars, however, Stoler was not preoccupied with class relations as such, but expanded her analysis to encompass gender relations among Javanese people as well. She paid attention to the high autonomy rural Javanese female workers enjoyed in rural labor arrangements.
On the other hand, Jellinek (1991) revealed socio-economic changes and transformation caused by urban development in Java. Jellinek observed urban development and its influence in changing patterns of social relations, income earning, and housing. In addition, she also revealed that urban development had worsened socioeconomic life of those in very bottom level of social class. However, she seemed not to be consistent with class analysis. Urban poverty according to Jellinek had more to do with “culture of poverty” rather than power imbalance (1991: 178-9).


Part III
Concluding Remarks


Cultural and political economy perspectives are the dominant approaches in dealing with Javanese society and even Indonesian studies in general. Both approach Javanese society in a very different way. The cultural perspective emphasizes internal characteristics such as religious behavior and religiosity, kinship system and traditional values and norms. On the other hand, the political economy perspective emphasizes the economic trajectory and its contradictory effects felt by Javanese society since the colonial era. Nevertheless, both perspectives are basically used to explain the same thing – socio-economic changes in Javanese society. Therefore, both perspectives should be treated as a complementary analysis rather than separate ones.
Despite being very useful as a theoretical framework in understanding Javanese society, however, both approaches are no longer sufficient due to the rapid changes that Javanese society is undergoing right now. Globalisation, urbanisation, information technology, and rapid expansion of infrastructure do not allow Javanese society to be approached with such “old-fashioned” theoretical perspectives. Javanese society is changing in all aspects: religion, culture, politics, and most importantly economy. There are so many things happening in Javanese society right now. Unfortunately, the existing theoretical framework, either the cultural or the structural approach, has not conformed to those rapid changes.
Religiously, fundamentalism and radicalism, though still embryonic in nature, are apparently profound in Java. Religious purification means that Javanese people are no longer the same as forty or fifty years ago. Religious purification in the form of santrinisation is apparent in Java with the urban middle class as the avant garde of this process. Economically, Javanese society is moving more and more toward the urban life and leave behind the rural style of economic activities. Industrialisation, circular migration, and the mushrooming of the modern shopping mall have changed the way Javanese people behave in market relations. Politically, the collapse of authoritarian government, re-emergence of political activities in villages, and emergence of popular democracy are likely to influence the way Javanese people regard public authority and legitimacy of the ruler. Culturally, Javanese society is being integrated into the global society implying a diminishing role for Javanese cultural identity.
In my opinion, all those changes have not been adequately investigated by scholars who are interested in Indonesian studies. Of course, I am not saying that all these things are ignored by social scientist either in Indonesia or overseas. The point is that all those changes are still treated as separate phenomena rather than interrelated ones. However, it is too early to conclude since scholars have not provided definite answers about Javanese society as both the cultural and structural approaches pretend to do.




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One Response to “[Re]-Interpreting Javanese Society:Cultural Determinism and Political Economy”

  1. […] The definition of ideal human based on Javanese is also different with other cultures. Based on Geertz, an American anthropologist (1961) as cited in https://lafadl.wordpress.com/2006/05/03/re-interpreting-javanese-societycultural-determinism-and-poli…, […]

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