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Review: Power politics

Review: Power politics
Published: Oct 14, 2012

Jeffrey Winters’ Oligarchy is an epic work of comparative political insight but has little that is new to add to the study of Indonesia’s politics

Marcus Mietzner

Mostly known for his previous writings on Indonesia’s political economy, Jeffrey Winters has produced a significant and insightful book that goes well beyond the boundaries of the Indonesian archipelago. Indeed, to call his work a remarkable piece of comparative political science research would be an understatement. Rather, Winters delivers an all-encompassing account of the role of oligarchs in world history, drawing from examples that date back to Ancient Greece.

An engaging writer and not afraid to make broad (and sometimes sweeping) statements, Winters proposes provocative explanations for the continued material inequality in modern democratic politics. In its expansive scope, Winters’ study succeeds: it highlights one of the least reflected-upon deficiencies of Western democracies, and emphasises how oligarchs (defined as ‘actors who command and control massive concentrations of material resources that can be employed to defend or enhance their personal wealth and exclusive social position’) are able to coexist with the democracies of the 21st century.

For Winters, there are fundamentally four types of oligarchy: to begin with, warring oligarchies are dominated by armed oligarchs who defend their wealth with the help of private armies. In such a system, oligarchs generally fight one another, leading to high levels of institutional fragmentation. In ruling oligarchies, by contrast, leading oligarchs still compete but they reach a compromise about some form of collective supremacy over the rest of society.

Sultanistic oligarchies, for their part, are presided over by an individual oligarch, who sits at the top of a patronage pyramid and controls the ambitions of all other oligarchs. Importantly, Winters portrays Suharto’s Indonesia as such a sultanistic oligarchy. According to Winters, Suharto’s oligarchic hegemony only crumbled when his children’s expanding business interests posed a direct threat to the property and wealth of other oligarchs.

Finally, civil oligarchies are those that contain the actions of oligarchs through the rule of law. To be sure, the rule of law is also in the interest of oligarchs – it protects their property rights and allows them to dispense with the necessity of defending their wealth through the use of armed militias. Winters’ main examples in this category are the United States and Singapore.

The case of Indonesia

Winters’ comparative and historical reflections are astute, and his description of the New Order as a sultanistic oligarchy is persuasive – despite not being entirely new. Other authors – such as Edward Aspinall – had already applied the concept of sultanism (which is derived from Juan Linz’ and Alfred Stepan’s writings on regime types) to the case of Suharto’s Indonesia, and neo-Marxist scholars around Richard Robison had illuminated the role of the oligarchy in the New Order polity as early as the mid-1980s. Winters has cleverly merged these two approaches, but his discussion of that period does not disclose new material or theoretical interpretations that could dramatically change scholarly accounts of Suharto’s rule. Rather, it is Winters’ classification of the post-Suharto state that is the most novel, but arguably also least sustainable section of the book as far as political analyses of Indonesia are concerned.

In Winters’ typology, post-authoritarian Indonesia is an ‘untamed ruling oligarchy’. According to his analysis, Indonesia’s democratisation allowed the country’s oligarchs to shake off the shackles that Suharto had put on them. Instead of being curtailed by increasing transparency, electoral competitiveness and a myriad of new social forces, Indonesian oligarchs used the absence of a ‘sultan’ to establish control over a political system marked by weak legal institutions. Thus, while Indonesian oligarchs are ‘fully disarmed’, they ‘use their material power resources for wealth and property defence in a political economy overflowing with threats and uncertainties’.

Although it is easy to agree with Winters’ assessment that oligarchs have assumed a strong position in post-Suharto politics, he provides little evidence for his claim that they are in fact ‘ruling’ the polity. Indeed, given that much of the field research for his book was done in Indonesia, Winters’ section on the ‘untamed ruling oligarchy’ in contemporary Indonesia is surprisingly thin – both empirically and analytically.

Sadly, we learn very little about the power constellation in the country’s post-authoritarian politics, and not much is revealed about who the oligarchs are and how exactly they exercise their ‘rule’. Apart from offering a somewhat simplistic dichotomy between Chinese and pribumi (indigenous) oligarchs, Winters provides no map of oligarchic politics in Indonesia’s democracy – something that would have been extraordinarily useful. This absence is compounded by the fact that Winters calls his interviewees ‘Oligarch A’ or ‘Oligarch I’, even if and when they simply confirm trends or patterns already widely reported in the press.

Winters’ fixation on oligarchic rule has two serious implications for his characterisation of post-Suharto Indonesia. First, it leads him to miss the nuances of political contestation in the new, democratic polity. Political parties, Muslim groups, labour unions, NGOs, media organisations, local movements – they are only touched upon insofar they have come under the influence of oligarchic interests as well. And while some of them have indeed been infiltrated in such ways, others haven’t, and others again have witnessed internal struggles between oligarchic and non-oligarchic forces. None of this complexity is conveyed in Winters’ account. There is also very little recognition of the continuing (and, according to some observers, widening) ideological divide between Indonesians who want to maintain the pluralistic foundations of the state and those that aim for a more formal role of Islam in state organisation. Ideology, as a whole, seems to be entirely absent from Winters’ analysis – an omission that is consequential even in the discussion of modern polities in the West, but is particularly visible in a Muslim democracy such as Indonesia’s.

Second, and related to the point above, Winters’ near-universal categories produce very rough and thus often inaccurate characterisations of key politicians and events. For instance, with oligarchs described as Indonesia’s ruling class, Winters succumbs to the temptation of calling almost every prominent political leader an oligarch. Interestingly, he seems rather uncomfortable with such a broad sweep himself, leading him to invent the category of ‘middle oligarch’. But Winters’ main case study in this regard – Akbar Tanjung – is unconvincing. It is true that Akbar, the chairman of Golkar in the early post-Suharto period, is personally wealthy, allowing him to cover some of the costs of his political operations. But far more important for Akbar’s strength in Golkar has been his decades-long involvement with the party’s grassroots, committees and organisational bodies. In turn, this popularity convinced wealthy sponsors to provide Akbar with donations, which further consolidated his position in Golkar. Akbar’s categorisation as a ‘middle oligarch’ therefore brushes over several layers of types of politicians and their complicated interaction. In today’s Indonesia, around half of the chairpersons of political parties belong to the type of well-connected and long-time party activist that Akbar represents – they are neither ‘full’ nor ‘middle’ oligarchs on Winters’ analytical spectrum.

Of course, Winters did not intend to write a detailed book on the Indonesian oligarchy and its role in post-Suharto politics. His ambition was much more far-reaching: to present a study on the almost timeless structures of oligarchic dominance in world history. Therefore, like most other comparative, context-transcending and universalist writings, Winters’ book makes no apologies for sacrificing factual precision on the altar of groundbreaking theory-building. There is no doubt that Winters’ book succeeds in the latter field in an impressive manner: comparativist political scientists and theorists will find his contribution highly stimulating and innovative. The community of Indonesianists, on the other hand, will discover plenty of material in this important book that deserves critical questioning.

Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Marcus Mietzner (marcus.mietzner@anu.edu.au) is Senior Lecturer, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 110: Oct-Dec 2012{jcomments on}

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