Identity politics has recently become a buzzword, but the term itself has been around since the late 1970s. Currently, however, it typically refers to the centering of marginalized group identities for political inclusion. Initially coined by the Combahee River Collective, a Black feminist organization, the concept has been appropriated by both mainstream liberals and conservative forces in developed and developing democracies around the world. While identity politics has in many ways served to celebrate and endorse diverse identities and political pluralism for liberals, it has provoked intense opposition from conservatives, who see the liberal version of identity politics as a form of politico-cultural imposition upon the forgotten majority. In an absurd political twist, the right has skillfully utilized identity politics to reassert its own entitlement. By reimagining the majority in an identitarian fashion, it has attracted massive support and won significant political victories, as demonstrated in the ascendance of Donald Trump and other right-wing populist figures and forces across the globe in recent years.
This poses a challenge for the socialist left and other progressive movements worldwide, who seek to go beyond the mere politics of identity-based inclusion and move toward a politics of redistribution and recognition for all. The pressing need for such a politics is especially pertinent in Indonesia, where recent capitalist development has unleashed right-wing, Islamic populism, systematic oppression against Papuans, and social marginalization of working people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our discussion of “identity politics” attempts to explain the cultural specificity of the various struggles against oppression in Indonesia and their connection to larger structures of exploitation that interact with the evolution of capitalism. As we write, the headlines cover protests against the killing of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer. This would not have been so widely known had a video of the event not gone viral on social media. The speed with which the video spread would also have not been so accelerated had people not been more glued to their phones than usual, with Covid-19 forcing many of those who can afford it to work from home.
In Indonesia, the George Floyd case triggered #PapuanLivesMatter on the Indonesian Twittersphere, a spin-off of #blacklivesmatter and #Aboriginallivesmatter. The discursive motivation behind the #PapuanLivesMatter hashtag is a call to end racism towards black people, including Papuans. Under the varied calls for racial and, to some extent, intersectional solidarity is an emphasis on the subjective experience of identity. This means a stronger emphasis on one’s own racialized, gendered, religious, and ethnic experience of oppression, painting our enemies in other people and less and less in our common, gloomy fate as working people under capitalism.
Such an approach, however, has its limitations. A crucial task for any progressive supporting the fight for racial justice and equality for African Americans, Papuans, and other marginalized groups is to critically analyze the origin of racism and struggle in the context of broader capitalist structures. We need to unpack the paradox of demanding recognition from the very structure that oppresses working people of all backgrounds. As such, we argue that putting an end to racism and other forms of oppression requires understanding how capitalist development transforms with the politics of race relations.
We can assess the cultural specificity of capitalist reorganization in Indonesia by borrowing the Symbiosis Research Collective’s framework to analyze Indonesia’s state formation process and colonial experience, as well as its own version of internal colonialism in West Papua.
Like the majority of nationalist movements in the early 20thcentury, Indonesia started as an anti-state — or more specifically anti-colonialist state — project. But this brand of anti-colonialism, centered on opposition to the Western Other, failed to address the problem of internal colonization among Indonesians themselves. The project was driven by the nationalist intelligentsia educated under the colonial education system, and mostly based in Batavia (the old name of Jakarta). In fact, present-day Indonesia and its centralized government model is very much a colonialist legacy. The nationalist project had inherent contradictions. Early organizations that joined the movement prepared the ground for ethnic and religious-based orientations of the future. These groups appropriated the colonialist lingo: Jong Java (Young Java), Jong Islamietenbond (League of Young Muslims), Jong Minahasa (Young Minahasa), to name a few. In their aspiration for a modern, anti-imperialist nation state, these organizations downplayed local colonialisms like those of the Acehnese kings over Minangkabau, the Javanese aristocrats over Sundanese, and the Balinese lords in the island of Sasak.
Like other countries in the South, the defeat of the Axis in World War II expedited Indonesia’s declaration of independence. In the early years of independence (1945–1949), youth from various classes and educational backgrounds, including those with problematic alliances with Jakarta’s 1940s underworld, aligned themselves with the rising anti- and decolonization agenda. This tumultuous state- and nation-building process continued well into the electoral democracy period of the 1950s, when competing political factions tried to gain influence via election and mass mobilization. As the Cold War progressed, the first president Sukarno gradually lost control domestically due to the destabilizing effects of various regional rebellions in the late 1950s — a series of regional responses to the rise of communist power in combination with a corrupt, Java-centric central government. This led Sukarno to establish so-called Guided Democracy, supposedly a unified government centered around his leadership and founded on the constructed political unity of nationalist, religious, and communist camps, or Nasakom. This shaky political front was constructed to balance the tension between increasingly divided social and political movements no longer bound by a shared struggle against a common colonial enemy.
Sukarno’s Nasakom collapsed as the Indonesian Communist Parties (PKI) was eliminated by an alliance between the army and political Islam. In 1965, somewhere between 500,000 to more than a million PKI members and communist sympathizers (a category encompassing left-leaning intellectuals and artists, ethnic Javanese syncretic Muslims, as well as working-class Chinese) were systematically murdered. Communists were purged from Indonesia’s body politic, the party was banned, and many intellectuals branded party sympathizers were forced into exile. This moment marked the rise of General Suharto’s New Order authoritarian regime.
Suharto consolidated power by granting the military active roles in state affairs, suppressing dissent, and paving the way for capitalist development. Throughout the regime (1965–1998), the process of authoritarian state-building was enforced through state-controlled national media and curricula, which demonized communism and erased it from the history of anti-colonialist struggle. Suharto’s virtually absolute control over the state apparatus turned the intelligentsia into civil servants, smoothed the flow of foreign capital into Indonesia to fund the president’s ambitious economic development programs, and strengthened the state-dependent capitalist class. Probably the most prominent instance of foreign capitalist expansion is the International Nickel Company and Freeport Sulphur Company in Papua. Coupled with the regime’s militaristic approach, the development provided the cornerstone of neo-colonialism in Papua.
Indonesia experienced the slow rise of the neoliberal political project in the 1970s. It is now the dominant political logic in Indonesia. Continuing economic liberalization, which began in the 1980s with the promotion of land markets, has had devastating impacts on people’s livelihood. In resource-rich areas, this translates into the intensification of “accumulation by dispossession” and market expansion in the countryside. Peasants are driven from their lands, some forced to look for opportunities in the city where factory workers, the urban poor, and increasingly precarious salaried professionals experience wage depression, rising living costs, and the enclosure of public space, all in the name of “urban development”.
It is even worse for Papuans, for it has meant the continuing state repression and subjugation of Papuan aspirations for self-determination. To “whitewash” this repression and gain support from the general public, the state legitimizes internal colonialism by framing it as a nationalist effort to uphold the republic’s territorial integrity.
The question for progressives, then, in Indonesia and also globally, is how to restore class struggle and the national liberation project in the context of persistent neoliberal and neocolonial realities and a fragmented social movement landscape. Present-day electoral democracy in Indonesia, despite its much-celebrated vibrancy, has not led to the emergence of a united front of social movements for class politics. The brief experiment of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), the post-1965 leftist formation that presented a major challenge to Suharto’s regime in its last years, suffered heavy electoral defeat in the post-authoritarian elections of 1999. Since then, we have not seen a resurgence of the left in Indonesia’s electoral politics. If anything, we witness the continuing fragmentation of social movements and, by extension, the progressive political project.
This is why we criticize the current tendency to rely on identity politics as the primary mobilization strategy. While its emphasis on recognition and racial justice is commendable, an overreliance on identity politics distracts from the primacy of class struggle as the overarching banner for all struggles against oppression in capitalist societies. Moreover, identity politics is more effectively used by the right than the left, as evident in 21st-century populism. This is also true in Indonesia, where conservative populist figures and opportunistic politicians tap into rising socio-economic grievances, couching them in Islamist or nationalist rhetoric to stay in power and maintain the political status quo.
It is true that the struggle of African Americans and Papuans shows the depth of racial oppression. But it also is a reminder that capitalist structures shape our bodily, spatial, and temporal realities and our seemingly subjective experience of exploitation. The challenge then is to connect these diverse experiences and translate them into a common political program against an oppressive structure that exploits every working person.
The struggle and enthusiasm of the working people and youth, with a clear democratic socialist orientation, remains alive. Social movement collectives — reading groups, progressive religious movements, networks of agrarian justice advocates, and women’s movements, among others — form in response to capitalist expansion or simply as channels to express collective frustration towards neoliberal politics. In our experience as scholars affiliated with IndoProgress, an online magazine connecting Indonesian progressive activists and academics, we also witness the thirst for robust socialist analyses of today’s political situation.
Generating rigorous analyses of the contours of contemporary capitalism and its intersections with identities is fundamental to a socialist political program that unites the diverse experience of oppression under capitalism. This encompasses political repression, agrarian dispossession, workplace marginalization, threats to academic and press freedom, religious discrimination, racism, and more under the re-energized banner of class struggle, rather than the divisive slogans of identity politics. Echoing Jodi Dean, we propose the rejuvenation of comradeship, or the construction of collective egalitarian political subject committed to rectifying the problems of capitalist society. This involves an end to ally-ship, the feel-good individualized politics of representational alliance with oppressed groups that does little to address the issue of class exploitation.
Identity politics should not be the end goal of those sympathizing with democratic socialism and other progressive social movements. To put an end to all forms of systemic discrimination, we need a clear anti-capitalist perspective and action, in both formal and everyday politics. The task for progressives in Indonesia and other parts of the world, then, is to re-center class struggle in our democracies.
Inaya Rakhmani is assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Indonesia
Iqra Anugrah is postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University
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