Symbolic Power in a Technocratic Regime: * the Reign of B.J. Habibie in New Order Indonesia

By Amir, Sulfikar | SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Symbolic Power in a Technocratic Regime: * the Reign of B.J. Habibie in New Order Indonesia


Amir, Sulfikar, SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia


When Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie launched his memoir Detik-Detik Yang Menentukan (Decisive Moments) in September 2006, a book based on his daily notes taken during his short-lived presidency, it captured huge public attention in Indonesia. With a relatively expensive price tag of IDR 150,000, the autobiography nevertheless sold 5,000 copies in less than a week, making it the best selling book ever written by an Indonesian politician. It is possible that the short but controversial account included in the book about how Prabowo Subianto, then head of Army Strategic Command (Kostrad), subtly attempted to overthrow Habibie (1) may have boosted its popularity. But how the book became so popular is due less to the result of the controversy than to the fact that Habibie remains popular among many Indonesians, particularly Muslims. Some even think that Habibie, now running the non-profit Habibie Center, did a much better job running the country than his democratically elected successors. Whatever the case may be, Habibie did play a pivotal role in moving Indonesia towards democracy after Suharto's fall.

This article offers a new interpretation of Habibie and examines how he came to dominate the technocratic politics of the New Order, particularly during the 1990s. The structure of New Order authoritarianism upon which Habibie built his whole bureaucratic career allowed him to benefit from certain peculiar relations of power. This article seeks to unpack these power relations and to identify the sources of Habibie's power. This is important because the whole modality of building high technology that notoriously characterized Habibie's development strategy for decades was produced and mobilized within these power relations. More interestingly, understanding Habibie is an entry point to comprehending the nature of power under the New Order regime, and sheds light on how different forms of power operate and are transacted between leading elite groups. This article thus delves into the conjunction of authoritarian politics, modern knowledge, and the obsession with modernity that resulted in a network of power between a political leader, a technocratic figure, and a religiously labeled group. It is intended to complement studies on Indonesia's New Order that put so much emphasis on Suharto (for example, see Liddle 1985 and Vatikiotis 1993) and understates the influence of satellite figures such as Habibie.

It may be true, as many observers say, that Habibie profited largely from the centrality of power that Suharto possessed for over three decades. However, this view fails to capture the significance of Habibie's scientific background, and how this provided him with his own form of power. To grasp this, the present analysis draws on the concept of symbolic power offered by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1991). Contending Marx's materialist view of power, Bourdieu emphasizes the notion that cultural capital functions as a valued resource through the production of symbolic power. Cultural capital encompasses a wide variety of resources including verbal facility, cultural awareness, aesthetic preferences, schooling system, and educational credentials. Studying intellectual groups as the dominating class in modern societies, Bourdieu explains that an effective medium for domination comes into being, which exercises symbolic power "only through the complicity of those who do not want to know that they are subject to it or even that they themselves exercise it" (Bourdieu 1991, p. 164). The political implication of symbolic systems emanates from its capacity to gain legitimacy for the dominant class by encouraging the dominated to accept the hierarchy of social distinctions that maintain the domination (Swartz 1997).

This concept of symbolic power allows us to see the operation of cultural capital in a political structure that revolved around patrimonialism (Crouch 1979) but was hinged to a technocracy (Amir 2004).

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