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Subaltern agency and the political economy of rural social change

Meckelburg, Rebecca (2019) Subaltern agency and the political economy of rural social change. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Twenty years after the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, most political studies of Indonesia’s post-New Order democratic ‘transition’ have left the ideas, forms of organisation, strategies and impacts of lower class struggles largely unexamined. Scholarly works that address the dynamics of social and political change have largely focussed on the mixed outcomes of decentralisation and democratisation of state power for elite actors since Reformasi, providing little or no framework for conceptualising popular political action in the context of this institutional restructuring. Drawing on propositions from Marxist political economy, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and social reproduction theory, this thesis develops analytical approaches for investigating the dynamics of rural subaltern agency in post-New Order Indonesia, focussing on how rural subaltern actors ‘do politics’. The approach applied here extends the analysis of political studies beyond the state, its institutions and hegemonic practices by focussing on the persistent, albeit often fragmented, popular struggles to secure control of resources and shift social relations of power in favour of subaltern and other non-elite classes. It considers the connections between everyday popular encroachments on hegemonic power, social movement struggles and moments of social and political crisis with the potential for transformative social and political change.

Using qualitative data from extensive fieldwork in Central Java, the thesis demonstrates that legacies of subaltern struggles over power and land as a resource are reflected in villagers’ contemporary relations with state institutions and other forms of social organisation. They organise across multiple scales, and employ diverse tactics including shifting alliances with other social actors to further their interests. Their political claims are strongly informed by cultures and ideologies that have their roots in previous periods of collective action, which are reproduced or transformed though their experiences in contemporary social struggles. Finally, the thesis considers how these diverse expressions of subaltern social struggles might contribute to progressive forms of agrarian development and the broadening and deepening of pro-poor democratic struggles in Indonesia.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: Asia Research Centre
United Nations SDGs: Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities
Supervisor(s): Warren, Carol and Wilson, Ian
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