My dissertation is in political science, so even though I spend a lot of time reading about the logic, causes, and consequences of economic policy decisions, the real point I have to make is about politics. Furthermore, policy does not come from economic science, it comes from politicians. There is a political logic to why policy makers decide what they decide. Economics as a science shows us the consequences of how little parts of the economy work together. But long-term economic goals always impose short-term costs on members of society. (This is the tirade of every political scientist who studies the economy, and something that economists just put up with because we’re not quite so good with equations and they feel sorry for us.) My work focuses on political configurations within different autocratic governments lead autocrats to make particular economic policy decisions.
To do that, you need to know politics. So I’m learning a lot about that too. An odd but rather understandable feature of political studies of non-Western countries is that they often tend to be written by people who really think that these non-Western states are inherently different than their Western counterparts. While most (but not all!) mainstream political science studies “real” politics with presidents, parliaments, courts, and constitutions, non-Western countries that don’t have these are left by the wayside. The people who study politics in non-Western settings seem far more willing to tell you that their country is incredibly different than the West. Mainstream political science (read: focusing on the West) imagines little individual utility-maximizers bumping into objective institutional constraints. Studies of non-Western politics are usually either simple (not “simple,” but rather non-theoretical) histories or grand accounts of cultural conceptions of politics that explain why these foreigners act so differently. Mainstream political science emphasizes sameness, while non-Western political studies emphasize difference. I find this both intellectually unsatisfying and a little colonial.
Today I read Benedict Anderson’s Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia. Anderson is a famous social scientist on the Government faculty at Cornell but widely read instead by anthropologists and Asianists. In this book he sets out a particular thesis about the fact that Indonesians, and in particularly Javanese, just think of politics differently than Westerners. This is the theoretical foundation for a larger project of understanding how Indonesian politics works.
He identifies four differences. (1) “Power is concrete. This is the first and central premise of Javanese political thought. Power exists, independent of its possible users. It is not a theoretical postulate but an existential reality.” (2) “Power is homogeneous. It follows from this conception that all power is of the same type and has the same source. Power in the hands of one individual or one group is identical with power in the hands of any other individual or group.” (3) “The quantum of power in the universe is constant…concentration of power in one place or in one person requires a proportional diminution elsewhere.” (4) “Power does not raise the question of legitimacy…power itself antecedes questions of good and evil.”
I just don’t get how these things are different than the West. On (1), saying that power is “concrete” is too vague, and he doesn’t elaborate later. He does not mean that power is something that you can grasp, but if he just means that power is (in the scientific realist sense) something that has a causal effect on society, then that’s the same as the West. On (2), I’m not sure that this statement has any real meaning. I’m open to suggestions. On (3), this I know to be the same as in the West. This is the heart of the realist international relations school and zero-sum noncompetitive game theory. On (4), this is also the same as in the West. You can talk about power without talking about whether or not power is good or bad. In fact, it is only in the application of power that raises normative issues.
The point of this is at least (1) that Anderson is wrong, and perhaps (2) also that I can discount culturalist explanations in studying Southeast Asian politics because even if they appear to work in reality, they fall apart in theory.