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Year-end reflection: An urgency for paradigm shift

Friday, 27 December 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Jakarta Post, 27 Dec 2002 : Opinion & Editorial

by Yanuar Nugroho

Humanity involves a pilgrimage across space and time. Panta rei, everything is in flux, Heraclitus would say, meaning that since everything flows and continues to flow, you can never step into the same river twice. Life indeed is a river of time, a river in which we have seen many important things over the past year.

Much significant progress has been (and will still be) achieved, but we should not forget to face our responsibilities in tackling the problems of our humanity. Stepping into 2003, we are taking another step into the global paradox.

The Economist magazine recently estimated that global growth in 2003 will be 3.5 percent, compared to 2.5 percent in 2002. Still, in the face of such growth are other statistics; while 3.1 million people died from AIDS this year, UNAIDS reported that this year saw 5 million people newly infected with HIV. The rate of infection is rising, not falling. Death from diseases like malaria or tuberculosis have not been projected. Much progress has taken place, but the environment and human life are seriously affected and are being degraded. The widening gap between the rich and the poor seems impossible to bridge.

This is the runaway world, said sociologist Anthony Giddens in 1999. We are all entrapped in a huge juggernaut, which runs so fast that no one can stop it. We enjoy such unprecedented comforts, but we also suffer from unprecedented problems.
So, this might the right time to reflect back on our lives, at least from the perspective of social and political economy.

First of all, this is about our shared life. However, we should distinguish fact, or description, from idea, or expectations. Thus we cannot assume that everyone agrees on such notions.

Substance is missing when we generalize with words like “Indonesia” or “the public” because the dynamics of power are not taken into account. Indeed, it is power that most significantly affects our shared life.

This brings us to the second point: Centers of power. Power is polycentric rather than monocentric, or emanating from one center, given the paradoxical nature of our recent life. It is thus misleading to consider governments as the sole holders of power in society. While it is true that government has the legitimate state power, there are also other substantial centers of power. As Herry B. Priyono wrote in this newspaper, the current “three axes”, or three centers, of power are the public agency, the market and the community.

The Jakarta Governor is, of course, much more powerful than evicted pedicab drivers, marginalized riverbank inhabitants or locally based non-governmental organizations, but the government of Indonesia can do nothing to prevent Sony or Reebok from relocating their production plants. Tribal and/or communal conflicts have complicated the position of the government, while local communities also seem to be powerless in the face of ruthless industrial expansion.

Yet, make no mistake. The asymmetrical nature of power itself is neutral, and it does not necessarily lead to an abuse of power. It only becomes a problem when, through its practice and exercise, power adversely affects a society’s shared life, for example, environmental degradation, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, closed and undemocratic governance, etc.

Thus we come to the third point in our reflection: The very centered idea of democracy. This idea draws on the premise that power is involved through the whole process of our shared life. Without this, democracy would lose its raison d’etre, for it is substantially an idea or a movement to make any socially consequential exercise of power accountable (Plato, 428-354 BC). And towards what aims must democracy strive? Actually, democracy has no formulated, final aims.

Thus, it is a cliche to say that democracy only targets state power, since the forms and socially consequential exercise of power is constantly shifting throughout history: power could lie with tribal leaders, kings, sultans, governments, military forces, business, etc. Blindly targeting democracy towards a certain form of power, e.g. state power, even while the power constellation is always changing, would therefore amount to a kind of political fundamentalism which gets us nowhere.

Today, the biggest irony is that the power of capital has escaped from the criteria of public accountability, and the irony seems to be rooted in the conception of the origins of power.

This clearly comes from the standard distinction of the “public” character of state power and the “private” nature of capital, or business, power. State power is rooted in its control over the state of, say, Indonesia, which of course is not private property.

In contrast, business power is rooted in its ownership of capital, which is unquestionably private property. In the libertarian conception, the democratic criteria applies towards state power, but not towards business power. This might be the deepest root of our powerlessness when faced by capital power which can fly anywhere and intervene in the economic process of any country without any entry-exit regulation, as Priyono wrote.

The key problem of such a paradigm is the sundering of ownership/property from power — we know clearly that they cannot be separated. There is no property which does not involve power, and vice versa. Any socially consequential exercise of power based on private property should not escape the democratic criteria. The use and abuse of private property in the pulp industry, for example, has a deep implication on the environment and on ecological governance.
We can easily look at other examples of power related to “privately owned” capital — the workplace, employment and unemployment, the deposit pool, consumerism, credit provision, state income for social welfare, provision of public needs, income and living standards for farmers and workers, etc.

Perhaps we should pay more attention to what is most influential nowadays — not only the dictatorship of the state, but rather the oligarchic domination of capital, or even the combination of both.

So, when reading something like, “the war is expected to push the barrel price (of oil) temporarily above US$40 during 2003” from at least $20 in 2002 (The Economist, “The World in 2003” edition) we should realize that the way we see the “war against terrorism” is far behind the ontology, or the reality, of the “economics of war”.

“Christmas does not come from stores and presents,” the Grinch movie tells us; yet reality shows the opposite.
And it is time for us to reinvent our history.

History is the outcome of the network of ideas, actions and movements regarding our own lives. It is not as simple as Harry Potter using his magic wand to change anything magically and instantly.

We need to change our paradigm, though it will not be easy.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! (*)

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