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Indonesia Table of Contents



The experiences of population mobility in the archipelago underscore the continuing importance of social stratification in Indonesia. In 1992 the definition and function of social classes in Indonesia, however, was a matter of considerable controversy. Scholars and policy analysts debated the degree to which social classes could be defined in ethnic, economic, religious, or political terms. Although few would dispute that Indonesia was a highly stratified society, it was nonetheless difficult to identify an "upper class." Hereditary ruling classes and traditional elites- -reinforced by their positions in the Dutch colonial bureaucracy-- no longer possessed unchallenged access to political power and wealth. Indeed, they could not even claim to be an elite culture in the late twentieth century. The powerful generals (mostly Javanese) and capitalists (mostly ethnic Chinese capitalists--cukong) of the postindependence period were newcomers to their positions, and, apart from extravagant conspicuous consumption, they demonstrated few clear institutional and cultural patterns that suggested they were a unitary group in the early 1990s (see Political Dynamics , ch. 4; Personnel , ch. 5).

Defining a lower class in Indonesia is equally difficult. Even before the banning of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965, Indonesia's poor formed alliances that had less to do with class than with economics, religion, and community ties. In some cases, the poor peasantry identified across class lines with orthodox Muslim (santri--see Glossary) landowners on the basis of their common religious affiliation. This alliance was particularly evident in lowland East Java. In other cases, small landowners united against both the Islamic right wing and Chinese entrepreneurs. There also were divisions between the indigenous, or long-settled peoples (pribumi--see Glossary) and later Chinese and Arab immigrants. The oil boom of the 1970s effected society and income distribution in ways that benefited the landed peasantry and the urban middle class. However, no independent social groups based on lower class affiliations emerged as a major political force. Although income disparities remained a major cause of concern, the number of poor Indonesians decreased in the 1970s and 1980s.

Between the nation's poor and privileged classes lay a complex mosaic of middle class groups. Although the very existence of a bourgeoisie in any traditional sense was questioned by some, others, like economist Howard W. Dick, argued that there was a middle class united not by any political vision, economic interests, ethnic identification, or even income levels, but by patterns of consumption. This group liked to buy television sets, motorcycles, newspapers, and video cassettes. What set this middle class apart in 1992 was not how much its members consumed, but how they did it. "Among the rakyat [lower class]," reported Dick, "consumer durables are shared: it is antisocial to restrict the access of one's neighbors. Middle class households, by contrast, confine the enjoyment of such goods to members of the household. Fences are raised, doors locked and windows barred." In this view, the middle class of the early 1990s defined itself in relation to lower (not upper) classes, and did so by the way it consumed goods. The role of Islam, women, and regional ethnic identifications in this developing national culture, however, was very poorly understood.

Data as of November 1992