Modernity and Asia: the “modern West” is superior to the “traditional East”?
Teaching is a challenging experience. You are challenged to present an analysis of one or other topic and draw students into an engagement with your analysis as well as an engagement with the facts of the issue, which they have to pursue themselves through study beyond what you are able to present in 50 minutes of lecture. This is all the more challenging when the issue you are dealing with is an issue about which there is a strong pre-existing “analysis” circulating in society. This was certainly true vis-à-vis the issue of modernity and Asia, a theme in a semester long course which I have now participated in teaching twice, together with two other lecturers.
One of the first things that I asked myself was why were people interested in this theme: Modernity and Asia. There were such courses in universities around the world, but few on “Modernity and Europe” – although perhaps I did not look in the right places to find them. Even a modest, short reflection on this issue points to the fact that in the general discussions about “modernity and Asia”, modernity is always counter-posed to tradition.
And in the discussion of Asia, this counter-position of modernity versus tradition is mixed into another counterposition: the West versus the East. This is then further complicated by the fact that in this discussion it is often stated, and even more often assumed, that modern is superior to traditional. Societies pass from traditional to modern, advancing and progressing from traditional to modern. This then underpins the racist legacy of the colonial period, namely, the idea that the West is superior to the East.
The “MODERN WEST” Is superior to the “TRADITIONAL EAST”
I lecture on Indonesian history and society so I needed to think about this in relation to Indonesia. Is INDONESIAN society a “TRADITIONAL SOCIETY” inferior to “MODERN WESTERN SOCIETY”?
For me, there are always some immediate contrasts one can make between the situation in Indonesia and in the capitalist, industrialised countries.
(a) It is much, much POORER; less URBAN, less EDUCATIONAL and SCIENTIFIC INFRASTRUCTURE and it has no REAL INDUSTRIALISATION.
But why is this so? IS THIS BECAUSE OF THE GRIP OF TRADITION? I don’t think so. It is a fundamental result of the legacy of colonialism. When the Dutch were finally forced out of Indonesia, Dutch colonialism and Japanese occupation left Indonesia with virtually no educational infrastructure, no scientific infrastructure, only the most narrowly based industry (connected to plantations and a little to mines) and only that transportation and communications infrastructrure useful to Dutch plantations and mines. This was what Indonesia had to start off with in 1950! When North America and Europe had every child at school, universities galore and a scientific establishment that could already split the atom.
Of course, one of the contradictions is that COLONIALISM itself is MODERN and WESTERN and it was/is based on RACISM which is also MODERN and WESTERN in origins. Racism – the systematic discrimination against people as inferior based on the skin colour – arose out of the need to justify the African slave trade and slavery in North America.
So is the lack of urbanisation, lack of educational and scientific infrastructure and lack of industrialisation a PRODUCT OF MODERN WESTERN CIVILISATION? Rather than of EASTERN TRADITION?
(b) But it also indeed true that there are more elements of pre-capitalist and pre-industrial culture, such as religious belief, superstition, highly personalised patron-client relations – almost feudal, active in Indonesian society compared to the urbanised, industrialised West. This is to be expected given that colonialism blocked urbanisation and industrialisation in Indonesia. Moreover it was Dutch colonial policy to maintain and use the defeated feudal rulers as part of their instrument of rule, so they themselves used feudal paraphernalia and encouraged the influence of various remnants of feudal ideas.
BUT HOW TRADITIONAL IS INDONESIAN SOCIETY EXACTLY?
A key element of pre-modern society in the archipelago was that it was caste based, having adopted Hinduism as the religion across most of the archipelago. In this caste based “traditional” society the sudra class (ordinary masses) are dominated by a culture of passivity – it is the upper castes that have political and cultural initiative. Your caste is your fate.
This “sudara” caste passivity, as a fundamental feature of society, was radically challenged in the 20th century.
1900-45 This was the period of the anti-colonial struggle – the “sudra” masses were less and less passive, more and more active – discussing new revolutionary ideas, from borugeouis, proletarian and anti-colonial revolutions. This era began with the emergence and growth of the Sarekat Islam, a modern membership based organization which recruited hundreds of thousands of members. It later gave birth to Asia’s first communist Party. It was also the period of the mass based parties established by Soekarno.
1945-1965 The “sudra” masses are even more mobilised. By 1965, more than 25 million are members of radical political organizations.
1965-1996 During this period there was passivity, but it was enforced through violence and terror. Ironically, this passivity was enforced by a modern military machine and justified by reference to modern sociological writings from North America who equated modernisation with “the end of ideology” and the “exhaustion of political ideas.”
1996-1998 In this period political mobilisation intensified again as the anti-dictatorship movement against the Suharto government grew, drawing in tens of thousands and then hundreds of thousands of people. Passivity is reversed.
1998 – Social discontent, embodied in street protests and other mobilisations, is now endemic.
To my mind the presence of ACTIVE, DEMOCRATIC MINDED MASSES is a manifestation of MODERNITY.
But in Indonesia this modernity exists in a context of underdevelopment – no deep industrialisation and industrialisation based urbanisation; too few resources for educational and scientific developments. So there will be unevenness, tensions and contradictions in the way this modernity evolves.
But what about that formula out there circulating: the MODERN WEST is SUPERIOR to the TRADITIONAL EAST.
What about the issue of mass political passivity versus mass political activity, being active in capitalist, industrial societies: “the West”. It often strikes me (and many others I am sure) that in these two-party, parliamentary system based societies, there is indeed deep passivity. This is not necessarily apathy – there are many sentiments of discontent and questioning in contemporary “western” societies but it only rarely and transiently manifests itself in mass political activity, at least since the seventies.
From this specific vantage point – active versus passive – which is “modern” and which is “traditional”? Or is complacency a new form of modernity in the west?
These are questions for students to ponder and study for themselves. Especially in a first year course, the best advice to them in order that they can analyse these issues is to recommend to them that they: think critically and read widely