Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia 
by Benedict Anderson.
305 pp., $44.95, January 1991, 0 8014 9758 2
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May 20 is marked each year in Indonesia as the Day of National Awakening. It commemorates the founding in 1908 of Budi Utomo, a nationalist organisation created by Javanese in their late teens and early twenties at the Western-type medical school in Batavia, colonial capital of the Netherlands Indies. These founders were drawn from a tiny protoélite, numbering just over a thousand, who had been educated at Dutch-language primary schools. Budi Utomo’s leader, an East Javanese named Soetomo, soon became a significant nationalist intellectual. Late in life, he wrote Kenang-Kenangan (Memories), the first autobiography of its kind in Indonesia.

In ‘A Time of Darkness and a Time of Light’, one of eight essays collected in Language and Power, Benedict Anderson offers a beautifully crafted reading of this memoir. Kenang-Kenangan is quite different from autobiographies familiar in the West. Only a modest proportion of it is devoted to the protagonist; nor does the manuscript chronicle individual achievement from childhood onwards. Without linearity, it treats the author’s separation from, and reconnection with, ancestry. The autobiography describes no radical fissure between past and present. Instead, it constructs ‘a way of making connections in separation’ by forging a new kind of traditional identity, not Javanese but Indonesian.

Soetomo was challenged ‘to proceed into the colonial Western world without imitation; at a deeper level, how to imitate one’s forbears without imitating them, but not to abandon Javanese tradition when one no longer lived embedded in it’. This ‘foreshadows the nationalist solution – imitating one’s forefathers by not imitating them. Being a good Javanese by becoming a good Indonesian.’ In Anderson’s persuasive assessment, ‘Budi Utomo is fully recognisable in both Javanese and Indonesian tonalities. Situated across two languages, it looked both forward and back, signifying committed endeavour ... to live up to something long there in the memory and imagination.’ Soetomo’s text and the remarkable transitions that occurred in Indonesia during the century that spans his childhood and the present day provide Anderson with the opportunity to display a fresh and appealing approach to social studies. He holds in tension two modes of analysis usually practised by quite separate scholarly sub-communities: the macro-analysis of states and social structures and interpretative approaches drawn from literary studies. As in Imagined Communities, the study of nationalism for which he is best known, the essays in Language and Power reject a social science of separate spheres.

Disenchantment and marginality provide Anderson’s bittersweet themes: those of his subjects, and, implicitly, his own. He writes as more than one kind of outsider. Born in Kunming to an English mother and an Irish Sinologist father, and reared in China, England and the United States, he takes note of his own ‘estrangements – English accent in American schools, later American accent in Irish schools, Irishisms in English schools’. As a graduate student at Cornell University, sceptical of the modernisation pieties of American scholarship and public policy, he conducted fieldwork in President Sukarno’s Indonesia, embracing that country as ‘a loved one’. Then came the massacres of 1965, and, in 1972, expulsion by military authorities angered by the leaking of the ‘Cornell Paper’. This was a study, intended to have a limited and confidential circulation, that undercut the legitimacy of the regime by showing that members of the Armed Forces rather than Communists had been responsible for the coup led by Lieutenant-Colonel Untung’s September 30th Movement. Anderson found himself without direct access to his field site and burdened with the emotional task of learning ‘how still to love a murderer’. His methodological adjustment was a turn to texts.

A collection of papers written over an extended period about themes as diverse as sexual imagery in 19th-century Javanese poetry, conceptions of power and charismatic leadership, and the visual language of cartoons, films and public monuments in a country which, with the exception of work by Clifford Geertz and by students of ethnicity in plural societies, has been peripheral to the development of Western social science, is an unexpected place to find inventive approaches to some of the most vexing problems in the social sciences. Language and Power surprises in this way by the nature of its refusals and the quality of its examples.

During the quarter-century in which he prepared these essays, Anderson crafted a career within American political science at a critical distance from some of its central tendencies, including instrumentalism, a preference for the study of behaviour rather than meaning, and an unease with cultural difference. His scholarship, moreover, rejects the choice that currently rends the social sciences between objectivist notions of correspondence and alternative conceptions in which nothing exists apart from how it is represented, and does so on the grounds that these options deny access to the complex and puzzling relationship of signification and reality. As craftspeople, Anderson implicitly insists, we are all like Soetomo: determined and determining cartographers of a disenchanted home.

Anderson’s explorations of culture in its relation to modernity and tradition identify with Max Weber’s largely forgotten eschatological anxiety. In ‘Further Adventures of Charisma’ he questions the way the term has come to signify irrational demagogy within Weber’s triad of traditional, charismatic and rational-legal bases of authority. He re-evaluates an earlier formulation of his which had grounded ‘charisma’ in a distinction between ‘The Ideal of Power in Javanese Culture’ that is concrete, homogeneous, antecedent to moral issues, and limited in scope, and Western ideas of power as abstract, heterogeneous in source, morally ambiguous, and lacking in limits. Westerners seek to exercise power, Javanese to accumulate its signs.

Anderson had thought that this opposition established that Weber had erred in constructing a typology which gave charisma a status independent of and equivalent to the other bases of authority. ‘In reality, there were only two general forms of domination, one linked to substantive and the other to instrumental/relational concepts of power. When Weber posited charismatic domination as quite different from traditional domination, he had failed to see that they were at bottom the same.’ When charisma appears in modern Western societies it is ‘a temporary archaism born of crisis ... properly understood, all traditional authority was charismatic, and all charismatic authority traditional.’

‘Further Adventures’ reconsiders this conclusion. Here, Anderson treats charisma as an adjunct to both the traditional and the rational-legal orders. In the earlier essay he had insisted that charismatic leadership is culture- and place-specific. ‘ “Castro in Indiana”, “Sukarno in Riga”, “Nehru in Mexico City”, seemed very unlikely to command much beyond a certain “show-biz” interest.’ He now contends that charisma is also tethered to specific instances of administrative and capitalist rationality.

It was in such settings that Weber utilised charisma as a ‘redemptionist counterweight to rational-legal domination’. If Weber treated bureaucratic and capitalist modernity as an inevitable advance on earlier social forms, he nonetheless understood, Anderson argues, that ‘this rationality was fundamentally instrumental in character, and that it had no satisfactory ethical basis.’ Weber drew on the notion of charisma, from the world-historical religions he had studied, in order to perform the same purpose for which Marx had utilised ‘revolution’: that of finding ‘hope of freedom in a disenchanted world’.

Contemporary social science, by contrast, has squeezed out of the concept just those aspects of reclamation, by transforming charismatic leadership into a rhetorical device to set boundaries between the safe and the dangerous, with Hitler as its archetype. Anderson accounts for this contraction in functional and ideological terms. Social science has been incorporated into a rational-legal social order; it has lost ‘the bittersweet taste of agnosticism’. In liberalism’s battles with totalitarian antagonists charismatic authority has been a useful tool with which to villainise the opposition and put distance between their brutal calamities and our own world. The concept has become an accessory to complacency and self-satisfaction.

Anderson asserts that just as charisma cannot be counterposed to traditional bases of authority, neither can it be divorced from the rational-legal order. If Hitler was the ultimate charismatic figure, he was equally a product of just those instruments of the rational-legal order with which charisma is usually contrasted. Hitler was constitutionally selected; he ‘proclaimed the Third Reich, in continuity with two earlier Reichs, not a novus ordo saeculorum’; he utilised the standing army led by Prussian officers and the administrative apparatus of the Wilhelmine state; his rule was made possible by the collapse of world capitalism; and he achieved the support of discrete social strata and classes. ‘The great atrocities of our time,’ Anderson concludes, ‘are made possible only by the advances of exactly the technological and administrative rationality (professional armed forces, scientific establishments, police machineries, bureaucratic psychiatry, systematic archives, computers, and so on) about which Weber had his nightmares.’

Where in this unsettling discussion would Anderson place Indonesia? Budi Utomo may well have been devoted to a re-invention of ancestry for modern nationalist purposes, but as a voluntary association it was much closer in form to the organisations of the colonisers than to Javanese communal sociality. Further, the contrast between traditional and rational-legal worlds lost even more of its force with the realisation of the nationalist aspiration to fuse the state apparatus with the new Indonesian nation.

This, as I read it, is the force of the first section of Anderson’s ‘Old State, New Society: Indonesia’s New Order in Comparative Historical Perspective’. The introduction urges a shift in attention from the creation, after feudalism, of national states in Europe that centralised sovereignty in new kinds of capable and autonomous structures to nation states based on the fusion of state and nation. This amalgam is a much more recent historical development. ‘As late as 1914,’ Anderson writes, ‘the dynastic realm was still the “norm” – a realm not defined by common language, customs, memories, or permanently demarcated borders, but rather by high monarchical centres ... The great majority of today’s nation-states were “born” in the period from 1800 to, say, 1975 from titanic conflicts between “nations” as extra-state solidarity movements and dynastic or colonial “states”.’

From this perspective, states are relatively old, nations new. While ‘the youth of most nations’ was ‘a stateless youth’, states possess a genealogy ‘older than those of the nations in which they are perched’. On this reading, nation-states are an amalgam of two quite different kinds of interests: representational state interests and participatory national ones. This formulation rotates the axis of debate from questions about the state’s ability to make and carry out decisions in its self-interest in class societies to questions of its contingent relationship with the entity of the nation that today is its main source of legitimacy. Further, it specifies a continuum in which the nation-state is placed at a mid-point between two poles. At one end are circumstances, such as those of military occupation and colonialism, where state interests dominate national ones; at the other are the situations ‘where the state is disintegrating, and power shifts decisively into the hands of extra-state organisations typically recruited on a voluntary and mass basis’.

This typology suggests the possibility of comparative research that can transcend the usual division between developed and developing countries. Unfortunately, the essay does not redeem the promise implied by the subtitle. As in Anderson’s finely wrought and lovingly rendered treatments of Javanese conceptions of power, Soetomo’s autobiography, classic Javanese texts, and the characteristic qualities of Indonesian political language, the main body of ‘Old State, New Society’ highlights indigenous peculiarities. Yet to the extent that post-colonial Indonesia entered the world of rational-legal nation-states, did it not come to share in their amalgam of promise and danger? By taking advantage of Anderson’s conceptual discussions of charisma, nation and state, it should be possible to find an analytical balance between local conventions and shared attributes and to formulate systematic comparisons between such situations as Germany and Indonesia on the precipice of mass murder. Might it not be revealing to contrast the Guided Democracy period before 1965 (characterised by a fragile coalition that bound together the Armed Forces and the charismatic nationalist Sukarno, popular mobilisations and hyperinflation) with Weimar (with its shaky multi-party democracy, authoritarian movements and hyperinflation)? Certainly one way to compare Weimar to the later days of Guided Democracy would be to assess their common position within Anderson’s typology of nation and state.

Soetomo’s moral authority was never tarnished by the responsibilities of wielding state power or participating in efforts to remedy the infrastructural incapacities of the Republic’s state. After independence, the Indonesian nationalism that so brilliantly invented political consciousness on the margins of Javanese ancestry and Dutch authority proved almost beside the point when choices had to be made from a not terribly attractive repertoire in order to secure a fragile state and shape its ties both to a civil society of citizens and to an economy undergoing the rigours of re-organisation and economic development. After 1966, in the New Order of Suharto, the military assumed a dominant role in all spheres, and the state was led by a figure without any history of pre-independence nationalist activity. Though there was no ‘Hitler in Jakarta’, this hypothetical compound was no longer the oxymoron it would once have been.

Anderson rescues Weber from the social science disciplines’ unwillingness to credit his anxieties and aspirations, but this only highlights some normative and analytical elisions in Anderson’s own discussion. If, as in Brecht’s imprecation, ‘Earth’s womb still teems with monstrous prodigies,’ and if the modern combination of state and nation crystallises despotism’s dangers in protean form, then charisma can function much like one element of those terrible binary gases we heard so much about during the Gulf War. The force of the Hitler example achieves its intention to show that charisma is not an autonomous force: but it also validates the fears of liberal social science after Hitler, and not just for the ‘First World’. Anderson emphasises that charisma is imbricated with rational-legal modernity, not just as an author of darkness, but as a potential source of redemption: ‘Its formal Contraposition to everything administratively rational shows sharply why we still need it.’ But this invocation raises questions which his implied opposition of redemptive and liberal inquiry makes difficult to ask. What institutions and ideas, what pattern of social organisation, and what qualities of language, can best secure free Sociality and inhibit evil-doing? If virtually the whole of humankind is now caught in the rational-legal cage, and if we possess only liberalism, with its ambiguities, eclecticism, and forbearance in respect of exploitation and domination, as the best available tradition within which to make our way, how can we learn to live as tolerantly and decently as possible? Brought face to face with these questions, none of us is an outsider.

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