Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Impact of Neoliberalism on Religiosity

Another boring and tasteless title, you say?


It's what I think after reading the Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia, by Daromir Rudnyckyj in Cultural Anthropology, Vol 24, Issue 1, Jan 2009, pp 104-141.

Check this interesting ethnography work on how, or why, Krakatau Steel, a state owned enterprise on the verge of privatization due to current market reform, decides to hire ESQ. And according to the editor of that Journal:
"In Indonesia, religion is not a "refuge" from or resistance to neoliberalism, nor is it a retreat into "magic and mystery" in response to global capitalism. Instead, religion and capitalism are brought together to address the challenges of globalization. By enabling Islamic virtues of self-discipline, accountability and entrepreneurial action, one becomes both a more pious Muslim and a more productive employee. Rudnyckyj argues that "managers, state technocrats, and religious reformers sought to enact a set of neoliberal practices by creating a new type of subject, a worshipping worker, for whom labor was a matter of religious duty."
My first reaction: Marxian false consciousness at play. But Sisil, the one with real anthropology training, differs and thinks it more as Weberian ethics with Islam twist.

Nevertheless, if neoliberalism indeed brings greater religiosity, what you say, MUI? Or anti neoliberal?


  1. can you tell me whether budiono is a religious person or not? is he a muslim or christian or what? thanks

  2. Anonynous, who do you think I am? God?

  3. Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia, by Daromir Rudnyckyj in Cultural Anthropology, Vol 24, Issue 1, Jan 2009, pp 104-141.

    This reads like some kind of neo-colonial wet dream. I could hardly take the author seriously. But then again it might make sense that Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics (remember Friedman got the Nobel prize and Chile got Pinochet and Indonesia got Suharto)neo-liberal economist types might just see in religion the true puritan capitalist spirit. If you believe this I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you.

  4. Hey Rizal,

    Thanks for posting a link to my paper on Cafe Salemba. I am really pleased that you didn't find it boring! Sisil is right; when I did fieldwork at Krakatau Steel I found Weberian arguments about the relationship between ethics and practice more useful than false consciousness models, which seemed to diminish the practice and complicity of people in their own subjectification. My interpretation was based in part on the fact that most of the people who were exposed to ESQ seemed to actually be into it. It simply seemed to make a lot of sense for their lives and particular predicaments.

    I'd be interested in any further thoughtful reactions from Indonesia on ESQ or Islamic spiritual reform more broadly and its articulation with the ongoing economic reforms. On a side note, I've been interested to read about how "neoliberalism" has become such a hot campaign issue in Indonesia. When I was living there during the last campaign, the word was only uttered by activists. Any ideas on why or how this change has taken place?

  5. Daromir, to be honest, Sisil, my wife, knows much more about Islam and articulation in urban Indonesia as she had and would work on such research topic. I am just trying not to look too stupid before her.

    From the economics of religion perspective, for Indonesia case, maybe you want to look at Daniel Chen (forthcoming JPE) and Carvalho (2009).

    Chen argues that religion acts as credit insurance or channel. Carvalho looks at different perspective. Largely a formalization of Wickham (2002) for Egypt case, he sees the Islamic revival as a coping mechanism for envy and unfulfilled aspiration amongst the young educated class.

    I think, your work gives another perspective: religion as a labor adjustment mechanism to cope with economic uncertainty. The remaining question is, however, why "religious" ESQ, not another year in taking "secular" business school or empowering the labor union, for example.

    On why neoliberalism becomes new black campaign? I have no idea, apart from a branding strategy to differentiate the otherwise similar "political products".

  6. Hi again Rizal,

    Thanks for that response. The questions that you raise are good ones and you are right I didn't have space to adequately address them in the article that you read. Fortunately, I am currently finishing a chapter of my forthcoming book in which I try to address why ESQ was so popular at Krakatau Steel and why it seems to be so popular more broadly in contemporary Indonesia.

    In short, I identify three reasons. First, groups like ESQ reconcile Islam with the twin pillars of modernity: science and capitalism. This was an attractive message for people who had been educated in a secular educational system in mostly technical and scientific fields, but who identified as Muslims by family practice. Second, they offer a setting in which Indonesians who had benefitted from Suharto’s authoritarian regime, only to see the New Order collapse, could search for collective atonement for their complicity in what they later considered a corrupt and morally bankrupt system. Third, after the events of September 11, 2001, ESQ offers participants a means to proclaim a devout Muslim identity, but not one that was automatically positioned against “the west,” but rather one that was in a more nuanced dialogue with it.

    I doubt these are the only reasons though. Perhaps you have some further suggestions as to why ESQ and groups like it are so popular in contemporary Indonesia?