Sunday, March 02, 2008

Weapons of the Weak

Back again with more potentially libelous and illegal musings on the state of the country. I say this because the freedom of the press is once again under attack in Indonesia. In an interesting piece in last week's paper by the Jakarta Post editor, Endy M. Bayuni (fawn, grovel, ingratiate, give us a pay rise Mr B.) I learned that in Depok it is now illegal to insult a government official. A journalist there is facing up to 18 months in jail for getting stuck into some local elite types. This is serious stuff indeed and a blatant attack on democratic principles.

Let's hope this doesn't set a precedent as I could be in for the high jump myself. In fact, after some of the things I've written I'm perhaps more likely to get the Munir treatment and I've woken up in a cold sweat before after some nightmare or other involving myself being done in with a poisoned tipped umbrella in a Hero car park or some such Cold War type spy scenario. Mind you, perhaps all is vanity. I mean having, as I do, about 7 1/2 regular readers I may be overreacting a little.

The whole issue of press censorship though does open out into the broader issue of the ideological war waged by elites everywhere to control the collective minds of the general public.

Anthropologists and political scientists often invoke the concept of hegemony in their discussions of societies. Hegemony refers to a group or society in which the masses give their spontaneous consent to the direction they are pushed in by the dominant, elite class. This elite class can leverage their privileged access to mass media and public education in order to naturalize their self-interested ideologies so that they are accepted and unquestioned by the great unwashed. Thus the public can be duped into acting against their own interests. The jingoism and nationalism whipped up by the corrupt and militaristic New Order and post New Order governments here would be a great example of such false consciousness.

Factors other than national politics, such as religion, also feed hegemonic systems though. For example, the religious ritual of female circumcision demonstrates how hegemony co-opts opposition. Female circumcision is supported by many women themselves who have bought into a patriarchal system that exploits their own bodies.

So the idea of hegemony and revealing how we are all manipulated by ideologies can be a liberating one. Anthropologists do have to be careful, however, not to be too ethnocentric and end up saying, "We know best, you lot are just blinded by ideology and we can take your blinkers off." Indeed, every society contains within it a resistance to hegemony. In oppressive societies though, such resistance has to take on subtle and covert forms.

Political scientist James Scott wrote a book in 1987 entitled Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Scott based the book on his experiences in rural Malaysia. The area in question was at the time undergoing a process of mechanization of its rice agriculture and previously independent farmers had sold their land to those rich enough to buy the new machines and seeds. A tension was thus created between the new agricultural capitalists and the farmers who were now at their mercy.

Malaysia, however, has a history of severe state repression and thus the farmers could not rebel directly for fear of being imprisoned or even tortured. The farmers thus developed what Scott dubbed, "Weapons of the weak". These could include such things as foot dragging (working very slowly), feigned ignorance, false compliance (i.e. not following through and doing what you've said you are going to do), gossip, pilfering and petty acts of sabotage.

Now does this sound familiar to you at all? Are any alarm bells starting to go off? Have you ever experienced this kind of thing in Jakarta?

Many of you surely have and these weapons of the weak are indeed employed today in commercial and industrial settings as a way of getting back at a system that pays people an extremely minimum wage and which doesn't appreciate their efforts in their jobs. This idea of resisting without seeming to resist puts a rather different complexion on the unpleasant stereotype of poor Indonesians as being stupid and lazy. At the very least, it may calm you down slightly the next time you burn your car through a nail trap and coast to a halt conveniently outside a garage or entertain murderous thoughts towards a waiter.

We live in a pretty Kafka-esque world of huge institutions. The global free market is full of banking systems, political and advertising conglomerates and entertainment empires that we can't penetrate and are increasingly at the mercy of. Perhaps these subtle but sinister tyrannies can only be resisted through such tiny acts of rebellion.

But that's enough revolutionary banter for one week. Enjoy your Sunday and remember to tune in for a more light-hearted Metro Mad gaiety next week folks.