May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Knowledge production in the age of neoliberal authoritarianism

Published: May 11, 2023

Ben K.C. Laksana

Versi Bh Indonesia

Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998 ushered in a period of increased openness to new ideas and perspectives within academia. This period has enabled greater freedom for academics to engage with a wider range of material and ideas, information and knowledge. However, the Indonesian government continues to exert influence over how knowledge is consumed and produced within academic institutions.

Legacies of Indonesia’s authoritarian past have remained. In some cases, they have been renewed through various restrictions. This includes a novel interaction with religious conservatism. We see this in a variety of ways ranging from restrictions placed on certain discourses – particularly in areas of leftist politics (as seen in Indonesia’s new Criminal Code) such as sexuality – and the emergence of self-censorship amongst academics. 

Additionally, the state’s education policies have actively enforced an ideology of neoliberalism. I refer to Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel’s definition of neoliberalism within education as the transformation of educational institutions and their workers to produce ‘highly individualised, responsibilised subjects who have become entrepreneurial actors across all dimensions of their lives’. This approach is shaping how academia is conducted at all levels. While the initial reforms of higher education in the mid-90s were hindered by strong popular forces, Indonesia’s academic institutions today face an expansion of neoliberalism. This can be seen in the government's new ‘Merdeka Belajar/Kampus Merdeka’ or MBKM (Freedom to Learn/Independent Campus) policies. I argue that these are merely a renewed attempt by the government to orient what is taught within academic institutions towards market concerns. The result is a restructuring of Indonesia’s education system to benefit the needs and wants of the wealthy politico-business elites. For elites, the benefit of a market-oriented framework for education is a larger pool of an easily disposable labour force primarily concerned with their own survival.

One might assume that neoliberalism and its emphasis on individual freedom easily opposes any form of authoritarian tendencies. This might suggest that they are incompatible with one another. However, we see in Indonesia not just the disjointedness of neoliberalism and authoritarianism in tandem, but also the often concealed links between the two. This situation brings to mind descriptions such as that of the British Marxist geographer David Harvey in 2005: a ‘neoliberal concern for the individual trumps any social democratic concern for equality, democracy, and social solidarities’. Recent examples in Indonesia have shown how even the process of enacting neoliberal policies requires a ‘strong state’. One example is the Omnibus Law, which was passed using authoritarian tactics including repressive methods towards protestors. The implementation of these neoliberal policies and their justification centred on economic growth have inadvertently and/or deliberately directed the Indonesian state to lean further toward authoritarianism.

Graduation ceremony circa 1980s / Unhistoried archive collection

What is less understood here is how these policies have also helped channel the conduct of groups and individuals towards conforming to the authoritarian state. This includes Indonesia’s tertiary education institutions and its academics. Academics are shaping their ways of producing knowledge to conform with the expectations of a growing neoliberal authoritarian state. Knowledge that is produced within a neoliberal authoritarian environment deprives people of their economic and political rights, sustaining the state’s power. Controlling the people who produce knowledge is to control knowledge. Powerful elements of society sustain and legitimise themselves with the help of knowledge that supports that legitimacy. Without such influence over what constitutes legitimate knowledge, any hegemonic rule – including within Indonesia – may easily falter.

Neoliberalising academia

The global spread of neoliberal ideology over the past four decades has led to a frame of governance in which the market is seen as the primary mechanism for determining the production and distribution of knowledge. In the context of Indonesia, we can see this in how the government defines the purpose of their recent MBKM policies, which is ‘to meet the demands, the flow of change and the need for a link and a match with the business and industrial world, and to prepare students for the world of work’. Through MBKM, the government wishes to push two underpinning ideas: First, the government attempts to shape what counts as ‘legitimate knowledge’, which sociologist Michael Apple defines as knowledge that all of us are required to possess. The government does so by privileging certain types of knowledge over others and within that hierarchy lies implicit ideas of how our social, political and economic worlds operate and how they should operate. Second, it attempts to define legitimate knowledge from a neoliberal, market-oriented perspective, centring entrepreneurial actors.

The Indonesian government pushes forward through the marketisation of curriculum, letting the market shape and define the kinds of knowledge that are deemed important (as opposed to other possible criteria, such as public good). In return, this process shifts the balance of power in the production and dissemination of knowledge. The needs of the public are neglected in favour of the needs of those with political and economic power, be it corporations or wealthy Indonesian elites. Privilege is given to forms of knowledge based simply on how they can contribute to the monetary gains of the individual. Aside from the marketisation of the curriculum, a further manifestation of neoliberal policies within the education system is the growing precarity of labour relations within academia. This form of neoliberal precarity transforms the conditions of work for individual academics, which ultimately affects the research that they undertake and knowledge that they produce.

The precariat academic

Neoliberal policies have made academia more unstable, less secure, and increasingly precarious for academics. Incomes for Indonesian academics remain low, including within many private universities, and even more so for adjunct lecturers with no guaranteed pathways to tenure. This includes a system in which research funding has become more scarce in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. With limited income and research funds, opportunities to conduct sustained research remains rare. Coupled with a culture within Indonesian academia in which it is understood that the research imperative must comply with the needs of the state, it comes as no surprise that the research that is undertaken is often found to be of low quality. To offset their impoverishment, many Indonesian academics have taken on external research, often in the form of government commissioned projects. Some have even taken on secondary jobs within corporations, including state-owned corporations. This academic-industrial complex has tightened the growing relationship between academia and industry, influencing academic freedom and meaning that government-industry relations are exempt from criticism. The lucky few make collaborations with foreign universities or academics, or NGOs and international organisations. Although this brings the promise of a much better income, due to restrictive foreign research regulations in Indonesia, such academics also find themselves under the directions of the state.

Women graduands, Yogyakarta circa 1980s / Unhistoried archive collection. From the archive of a transmigrant family

Recognising their dependence on the state due to the increasing precarity, it is also not unexpected to see academics side with a growing authoritarian state. Although not specifically looking into academics, David Bourchier’s and Windu Jusuf’s investigation into middle-class liberals in Indonesia may provide some explanation as to how this could happen in academia. Bourchier and Jusuf identify that due to their relative weakness, be it political or economic, and dependence on the state, liberals have historically sided with ‘authoritarian statism when their interests have been threatened by populist movements from the left or the right’. In a similar fashion to Indonesian liberals, we have also seen how Indonesian academics are limited in their economic and perhaps political power, opening the door to them siding with whoever has power. While it may seem easy to label academics as mere pawns of the state, to see a precarious academia support illiberal ideals, including helping produce whatever research is needed by the state to justify the state's policies, is not simply a matter of submission. Rather, these practices reflect a survival mechanism in a constantly uncertain, demoralised and repressive academic environment. Academia here is simply one of the many avenues where neoliberalism and authoritarianism may engage with and expand on one another.

Opportunities for resistance

Seeing the bleak outlook of Indonesia’s academia today, we must also remind ourselves that hegemony is never complete. Perhaps the most attainable everyday antidote to Indonesia's currently expanding neoliberal authoritarianism is in the many examples of collective forms of education and knowledge production. Given the solitary alternative to it, collective struggles are something worth fighting for.

There are a number of examples of collective resistance that we can observe in Indonesia. One example would be KUNCI Study Forum and Collective based in Yogyakarta which ‘experiments with methods of producing and sharing knowledge through the acts of studying together at the intersections between affective, manual and intellectual labor. In doing so they have initiated The School of Improper Education, which serves as a public laboratory for these experiments by serving as an educational meeting point between the general public and academics or experts. Providing everyone, both the public and academics, opportunities for learning and collaborative knowledge production and forming personal ties as a basis of collective resistance. Organisations such as KUNCI not only act as a bulwark against the neoliberalisation of legitimate knowledge, but also resist the individualisation encouraged by neoliberal education.

Additionally, while opportunities outside of formal education institutions are present, many Indonesian academics are restricted within their institutions. Their work is shaped by regulations or, as is more often the case, their limited economic means. This is the reason why we still need efforts to radically alter the inner workings of the neoliberal academic institution. One possible attempt would be to unionise academia. While understanding that academic unions in many countries have had very limited success, Indonesia at the moment has no viable union for academics. At the very least, such a union could help them voice their concerns about their precariat lives – the lack of a union has severely limited the discussions around the livelihoods and the problems faced by Indonesian academics today.

These possible forms of resistance are no easy task. Yet collective efforts may be the most viable option in the current environment: a mixture of neoliberal/corporate interests and state authoritarianism. The pervasiveness of neoliberalism and authoritarianism in the everyday lives of Indonesians has made it difficult to question and challenge this disastrous social-political imagination as individuals. Acting collectively may allow us to reflect on how such a system has entrenched itself within society and within our own lives.

Ben K. C. Laksana ( is a Ph.D. student at Victoria University of Wellington. His focus is in the intersection between sociology, education, youth and activism. He is also the co-host of the Benang Merah podcast.

Inside Indonesia 151: Jan-Mar 2023

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