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The Lack of Political Consolidation in Bali: The Benefits of Non-Weberianess?

One thing is evident from both Geertz’s work and Schulte Nordholt’s book The Spell of Power: A History of Balinese Politics 1650-1940, which we discussed in our previous post: Balinese states endlessly fought each other from the 18th century right down to annexation by the Dutch in the early 20th century.

Mengwi were at the brink of annihilation at the hands of the Dutch in 1891 (as they did earlier in 1823 when, somehow surreptitiously, the ruling dynasty managed to bounce back). Faced with the threat of annihilation,  the dominant theory in social science, espoused in  Charles Tilly’s Coercion, Capital and European States , suggests that the Balinese polities ought to have developed much more effective states in defense. But they did not.

As Schulte Nordholt notes (p. 331)

A history of two centuries did not provide the Mengwi dynasty with a state, because the fragmented nature of the political system was too stubborn to adapt to permanent centralized control.

The truth of the matter is that all polities fight wars, and some centralize while others do not.

Looking at centralized ones and observing that they fight wars, therefore warfare creates states does not seem very sensible empirically — hugely popular do it may be in social science especially in political science.

Schulte Nordholt doesn’t elaborate on “the fragmented nature of the political system”.

One important idea implicit in his account is one we will come back to at a later point when we talk about some new work of ours: trying to consolidate power is risky.

Schulte Nordholt, in particular, suggests (p. 333) 

expansion was easier than consolidation; growing power of a royal centre went hand in hand with increasing tension with various satellites, which led to violent confrontations threatening the continuity of the negara.

But when you read his book, you also get the idea that the very fluid and flexible relationships between a Rajah and the large lords in his territory might have had some advantages.

For someone looking at this from a Weberian mode, the Balinese states look like failures. The Rajah of Mengwi never dominated the regional lords and never had a monopoly of violence. But after the military defeats and occupations that led to the collapse of the state in 1823, these fluid informal relationships were quite easy to reconstruct, perhaps more easy than a Weberian state based on more formal rules. Indeed, Schulte Nordholt gives quite a few examples where the Rajah of Mengwi militarily conquered regional lords and could have tried to integrate them in a different way into the state but did not. Ultimately then, Mengwi was not a Theater state but neither was it a Weberian state. Instead it was a different type of state based on a different type of politics.

That this type of informal organization might be more enduring, or perhaps more robust with respect to certain shocks or challenges, is quite plausible to us and probably has wider application than in Bali.

Consider an apparently very different but we think related example. In most part of rural Colombia people do not have proper written titles to their land. Instead they have informal titles; everyone knows that Daron owns the land between the river and the mountain because his father bought it from James’s father in 1940. He has no written legal title, but everyone in the local community knows it is his land and respects that.

Now imagine some paramilitaries turn up with guns. If you have a written title, it is easy for them to put a gun to your head and say “sell me this land for $1 per hectare” and then they have the title. You can’t do anything like that with an informal title. So perhaps, counter-intuitively, in some situations an informal title may be more secure than a formal one.


Interrogating the Theatre State

In an earlier post , we outlined Clifford Geertz’s theory of the Theatre State in 19th-century Bali. Put simply, Geertz argued that the state was not about power and extraction it was about symbols and theatrics.

But all states are heavily into theatrics and into tactics that justify and legitimize rule. The British state loves theatrics, royal weddings, crimson velvet ropes and ermine capes, and of course photo opportunities on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with guards clad in red with bearskin hats. If you get invited to tea in the garden for some cucumber sandwiches with a member of the royal family or even if you just make it to the House of Lords, all of that theatrics will be quite memorable.

So is it any different than in 19th-century Bali?

Geertz essentially claimed that it was different. Bali’s state and rulers were divorced from society and floated above it. That theatrics was all there was.

An interesting story. But according to historical anthropologist Henk Schulte Nordholt, it may have been just that. A story.

Schulte Nordholt, in his book The Spell of Power: A History of Balinese Politics 1650-1940, argues that Geertz got it largely wrong.

The book provides a history of Mengwi, one of the historical states of Bali, which emerged in the 18th century. The evidence that Schulte Nordholt produces is inconsistent with the image of Balinese states that Geertz portrayed.

Schulte Nordholt starts by posing some important questions. He asks:

the `power’ that upheld the splendor of the theatre state remains an enigma: from where does it emanate, how is it organized, who controls it? (p. 7)

He answers it simply (p. 7):

the more successful of the Balinese rulers were anything but anonymous objects of ritual; they were clearly leaders who survived by commanding the respect of those around them.

Moreover, rather than floating over a self-organizing society, the Negara was heavily involved in it.

Take the salient issue of irrigation. Schulte Nordholt shows that the rise of the Mengwi state coincided with a large extension of irrigation in the area. Schulte Nordholt described this as (pp. 55, 56)

The irrigation order, then, can be understood only in connection with the royal hierarchy … the Mengwi dynasty, was directly engaged in the building of the larger irrigation systems. One may deduce from this that the rise of the Mengwi dynasty went hand in hand with a sizeable expansion of irrigated sawah fields in the region.

It is certainly true that, as Geertz was keen to argue, irrigation in itself did not give rise to large autocratic bureaucratized states in Bali. But his characterization of the relationship between the irrigation societies and the state seems to have been incorrect.

This wasn’t the only thing that Geertz got wrong, according to Schulte Nordholt. 

One important case is the nature of landholding by people and the extent to which the state exercised authority over it. He writes (p. 60):

On this point Geertz presents a contrasting view, writing that in pre-colonial southern Bali there was no ‘systematic congruence … between the structure of political authority, the structure of land tenure, and the distribution of land tenancy’. All the data I was able to gather during my fieldwork, however, indicate the opposite.

In the end the argument of Schulte Nordholt is that Balinese polities had very weak states. The dynasty at the center of Mengwi never controlled the peripheral areas of the state which was ruled by independent lords with their own private armies. Power was continually in flux and negotiated. He argues (p. 130):

These data … allow us to conclude that the Mengwi dynasty’s grip on the Negara was incomplete and unstable. The royal center lacked a bureaucratic apparatus capable of properly controlling the available manpower and effectively insisting on its share of the agricultural surplus. The center depended greatly on countless vertical relationships in which commoner loyalty was a fairly expensive commodity.

A good one-sentence version of his non-Geertzian argument is (p. 114)

ritual alone doth not a ruler make

How did Geertz get it all so wrong? Schulte Nordholt doesn’t dwell on this, but his analysis suggests a possible explanation.

When the Dutch took over all of Bali between 1906 and 1908 they had to come up with a way of administering it. They brought with them a stylized view of Balinese society that was seriously erroneous. It was based on the idea that the monarchies and aristocracies were largely alien invaders from Java ruling over autonomous ‘village republics’ of stoic Balinese peasants. The Dutch acted to put this vision into action, largely stripping the old state aristocracies of power and replacing them with appointees, often commoners. They also decentralized instruments of control to the village level – where they thought they belonged. In 1938 they relented and re-instated the monarchies, although not that of Mengwi but almost as parodies of their original selves.

In Schulte Nordholt’s telling (p. 334):

The ultimate result of this was that ‘restored’ old dynasties put a Balinese face on colonial rule. If the term ‘theatre state’ is to be applied to Bali, then the ‘restored kings’ of the 1930s fit the bill.

Thus many of the features that Geertz, researching in the 1950s and afterwards, had seen as being characteristics of traditional Balinese society were in fact figments of colonial rule.

This all suggests that we don’t need a separate theory of why the state was an entirely different animal in Bali than everywhere else. But we might still need an explanation for why all states love theatrics.


Development in Tabanan, Bali

In our last post, we discussed how Clifford Geertz used the idea of the Bazaar economy to characterize the economic problems of Modjokuto Java.

Geertz noted that the erosion of traditional society had created a “Catch-22” type of situation where it allowed for the emergence of “economic man and woman” but simultaneously eroded the basis for generalized trust. Thus, though it facilitated some types of economic relationships, these were intrinsically limited in scale.

But things were different in Tabanan.

In Geertz’s words:

Tabanan’s aristocratic-entrepreneur faces nothing resembling the entrenched, resourceful, and bitterly antagonistic Chinese Business community with which Modjokutu’s former peddlers must contend.

In fact:

Tabanan’s traditional ruling family – about 6 percent of its population – overwhelmingly dominates the nascent modern economy of the town.

And Geertz noted that the aristocracy of Tabanan consciously saw themselves as

shifting the material basis of [their families] eminence from land ownership and political power to commerce and industry, as maintaining an old ascendancy in a new society. (p. 119)

Their strategy to do this was explicitly to exploit the traditional social structures over which they had a lot of control:

it is on the basis of this type of pluralistic collectivism – in such marked contrast to the hyper-individuated, person-to-person bazaar pattern with which Modjokuto’s would-be firm builders must cope – that the aristocratic entrepreneurs of Tabanan must base their efforts after innovation, reforms and economic growth. (p. 99)

In Tabanan, the aristocracy used the traditional social structure to their economic advantage. In one firm (a tire capping factory) all “fourteen men, all traditional commoner descendants of the lord, work in the factory” (p. 111). In another (a bus line) “this enterprise obviously rests on concepts of group loyalty and traditional leadership which grow directly out of rural social organization and which are wholly lacking in the bazaar economy” (p. 116).

But just as the bazaar economy was limited, so was that of Tabanan.

Geertz state that this is:

Tabanan’s firms can become easily politicized in modern terms and this is – at least in a democratic state – extremely dysfunctional to further growth.

This was because they 

had a tendency to behave uneconomically because of the “social welfare” pressures of its members who, for the most part, are not basically growth minded. (p. 123)

So although the use of traditional social structures allowed Tabanan princes to build firms that the peddlers of Modjokuto could not, at the same time these social structures were in many ways inimical to profit maximization because they built in social norms of redistribution which impeded the incentives of the princes to build such organizations.


Development in Modjokuto, Java

In Geertz’s view the social structure of the towns is key to understanding their development potential and in particular, as we emphasized in our last post, whether modern firms could emerge.

Geertz traces the different social structures in Modjokuto (Java) and Tabanan (Bali) to the very different colonial experiences they faced.

The Dutch East Indies Company founded the city of Batavia in Java in 1619 (present day Jakarta) and they quite quickly became heavily involved in the politics of Javanese states. Until 1901 when the rest of the archipelago was formally annexed, direct Dutch control was limited to Java and key economic places in the outer islands (particularly the spice islands of Banda, Ambon, and Ternate).

In Modjokuto, there was long history of Dutch rule and in the nineteenth century, the presence of large sugar cane plantations undermined traditional political elites. Traditionally Javanese society was also perturbed by powerful outside influences, for example, the islamization of the Javanese coast and the spread of Muslim merchants into the interior, as well as the presence of a strong Chinese business community.

In Tabanan, in contradistinction, the traditional political elite, which traced its roots and legitimacy back to the great Hindu Java kingdom of Majapahit, ruled until 1901, and so was much stronger politically and socially. Islamic merchants were absent in Bali and the Chinese were much less present, and to the extent that they were, they were more ‘indigenized.’

These histories might be thought to have created an advantage for Modjokuto that appeared in the 1950s, when Geertz studied it, to have most of the trappings of a modern society. There was a very dynamic and capitalistic Javanese Muslim trading community based around the market and the Mosque. But these traders, rather than developing modern firms, remained small peddlers.

Geertz described this as (pp. 31-33)

on the other side of the jump from peddling to merchandising, the Chinese storekeepers, truckers, and warehouse owners have  … complete control.

[For a peddler] skill in bargaining … is his primary professional qualification.

The fixed price system, along with brand names, advertising, and the other economic customs which accompany it, relieves the buyer-seller relation of competitive pressure and places it on the relation between sellers.

In other words, Geertz characterizes the economy of the Muslim traders of Modjokuto using the concept of the “Bazaar economy,” which we introduced in our post on the economy of the Congolese city of Kananga.

But those working in the Bazaar economy find it hard to grow and create firms.

In Geertz’s words (p. 126):

Modjokuto enterprises seem to grow so large and then no larger, because the next step means widening the social base of the enterprise beyond the immediate family connections to which, given the lack of trust which is the inverse of individualism, they are limited.

Or (p. 47):

Whatever is obstructing the development of a modern economy out of the general bazaar economy, it is not a lack of “business-like” orientation … what [it] lacks is not elbow room but organization, not freedom but form.

So Geertz portrays Modjokuto as inhabited by economically rational peddlers, but who are caught in the Bazaar economy because, to grow in scale and form modern firms, they would need to be able to write contracts and enter into long-run deals. But they cannot do this because of a general lack of trust. They trust members of their family and this supports the Bazaar economy, but trust goes no further.

Ironically, therefore, the same factors that eroded traditional economic elites along with their social ties and extra-market relations and thus freed the field for capitalistic individuals simultaneously creates an environment with a severe dearth of trust, which turns out to be a major impediment to the development of more modern economic organizations.

Why can’t the Chinese businessmen of Modjokuto take up the slack and create firms?

To some extent they do, but Geertz argues that they are blocked by social barriers, particularly a general resentment, and the fact that they are outsiders.


Peddlers and Princes

Clifford Geertz wasn’t just interested in the nature of the Balinese state, he was also interested in central problems of economic development.

In his book Peddlers and Princes, he examined the comparative development of two towns, Tabanan in Bali, the capital of a pre-colonial state with the same name, and Modjokuto in Eastern Java.

The overarching agenda of the book is to show how social structure influences the possibilities for creating economic development and Geertz shows historically how and why these two towns ended up with very different social structures. By this, Geertz means that even if the basic economic challenge was the same the problems that stopped it being solved were very different.

But what was this economic challenge?

Geertz explains:

Sociologically speaking, perhaps the major difference between a modern economy and a traditional one is that the former is marked by a very large number of social structures, institutions and roles specifically adapted to fulfill economic functions as opposed to others, while for the most part the later is not: … The firm is an excellent sociological benchmark of development … precisely because it is such a specifically economic institution, a miniature social system specialized to perform economic functions and integrated in terms of economic values. And it is such firms that the entrepreneurs of both Modjokuto and Tabanan are trying to create. (p. 137).

So Geertz focuses on the problem of creating firms. 

This is of course well-trodden territory within economics. There are many interesting and empirically relevant theories of how efficient firms may emerge to solve problems that markets cannot, or why such efficient organizations may not emerge because of credit market imperfections, holdup problems or incomplete contracts.

But Geertz has in mind more sociological constraints on the formation of firms. He argues that

the construction of a viable firm … requires two very difficult and somewhat contradictory achievements: a sufficient degree of independence of the – from an economic point of view – non-rational pressures of institutional custom, and the establishment of an accepted normative code in terms of which completely economic activities can be regulated. Without the first, business firms sink into the inefficiency with which those of Tababan are usually threatened; without the second they flounder on the shoals of mistrust, as Modjokuto’s tend to do. (p. 138)

In the next two posts, we will see how budding entrepreneurs in Tabanan and Modjokuto were trapped between the Scylla of non-rational pressures of institutional custom and the Charybdis of lack of an accepted normative code.

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