Authoritarian and paternalism in Indonesian peasant cooperative

A former plantation workers’ cooperative from the 1950s to the neoliberal era
15 March 2018

This paper examines the dilemmas of a former plantation workers’ cooperative attempting to develop an egalitarian and self-managed agrarian community in the face of persistent military influence in Indonesian’s rural areas.

These dilemmas relate to the question of how the ex-worker community shapes and is shaped by exclusionary politics as their cooperative shifts from a peasant political movement into an instrument of capitalistic relations of production.

The paper focuses on an ex-plantation workers’ cooperative in West Java (Indonesia) which has been struggling since the rise of the socialist movement in the 1950's. At that time, the plantation workers occupied the former colonial rubber plantation and initiated land reform for the subsistence plots of landless households. The rest of the undistributed land was maintained as an independent cooperative, owned and managed by the members under the guidance of the Indonesia Peasant Movement (GTI), a movement inspired by socialist ideology.

In 1965, the political economic context changed abruptly with Suharto’s takeover, the mass killing and persecution of leftist peasant movements and the ensuing 32 years of Indonesia’s ‘New Order’ military regime. Suddenly, political activities vanished with the rise of military influence and the commodity boom in rural areas. After 30 years of successful participation in the rubber market, and a lack of internal political regeneration, the cooperative faces three main dilemmas:

First, there is a technocratic trap, related to the members’ successful campaign for the land titling on private plots, the formalization of the cooperative's leasehold right, and the cooperative bureaucracy’s shift in direction from an egalitarian peasant movement into an instrument of business enlargement. Those traps have led to the emergence of wage labor relations between members and non-members in rubber production.

Second, growing social differences have emerged since the formalisation of land ownership and the mechanism of rubber contract-farming relationship. The contract-farming excludes the landless, and incorporates the land owners and the cooperatives to enlarge the latex supply.

Third, there is a pressing problem of democracy related to the question of internal regeneration in rural area and the continued involvement of the military in Indonesian cooperative organization. Since 1965 the cooperative has tended to avoid political and ideological regeneration, and this in turn propels the young generation into the labor market. Instead of creating egalitarian relations, the cooperative labor force want to access cooperative membership as the guarantee of permanent labor contracts. These dilemmas in wage relations, unequal access to land, and internal organization show how the cooperative, despite its continuing rhetoric of egalitarian relations, has fully integrated itself into capitalistic relations and authoritarian styles of management.

This paper was presented at the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) 2018 Conference: "Authoritarian Populism and the Rural World"