AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 149

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Session 149: Theories of Southeast Asian Politics: Colliding Ideologies or Parallel Universes?

Organizer: Richard Robison, Murdoch University, Australia

This panel will identify the contending theoretical and ideological approaches to understanding politics in Southeast Asia and ask how these are being intellectually transformed within parallel universes of enquiry. Following AAS suggestions, a ‘creative panel format’ is adopted that introduces at the outset a clash of perspectives and interpretations. It engages with liberal pluralist, public choice and critically-oriented political economy traditions and their contrasting ideas about the factors or relationships shaping or constraining political transformations: whether it is the construction of institutions; the relationship between political regimes and capitalist development; the political autonomy of civil society; and questions of efficiency and rational choices of individuals. In the process, the panel will incorporate a range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary insights extending across political science, sociology, economics and geography. The panel is built around a core 15-20-minute presentation that offers an argument about the nature of theoretical debate and its future trajectories. These propositions will be critically considered in short presentations of no more than ten minutes each by examining specific issues, including: changing forms of authoritarianism; the nature and significance of social movements and class for political regimes; the challenges for labor and the political Left. The themes and presentations of this panel are part of a larger collective project that will result in the publication of the Routledge Handbook of Southeast Asian Politics in 2011. Since the panel is dedicated to a systematic address of the propositions in the core theoretical paper by Robison, this will be made available in advance as the key point of reference for presenters and audience.

Theories of Politics in Southeast Asia: Debates in Parallel Universes
Richard Robison, Murdoch University, Australia

This paper will identify the contending approaches to understanding politics in Southeast Asia and ask how these are being intellectually transformed. It will examine the different ideological and political mainstreams, including liberal pluralist political science, public choice and critically-oriented political economy traditions as well as more recent sociological and cultural studies focused on social movements and civil society.Their contrasting explanations of the factors or relationships shaping or constraining political transformations will be examined: whether these are focused on the problem of constructing institutions; the seemingly paradoxical relationships between political regimes and capitalist development and economic crisis; the political autonomy of civil society;or questions of efficiency and rational choices of individuals. It will argue that the transformation of ideas has taken place in debates within these theoretical streams rather than across them for important ideological and political reasons. Finally, the paper will speculate on the future direction of theoretical schools and prospective new alliances between them in the study of Southeast Asian politics.

Power over Institutions: Labour Politics in Southeast Asia
Jane Hutchison, Murdoch University, Australia

A feature of Southeast Asian politics is the comparative weakness of organised labour. There are activist independent unions in all but the most tightly-controlled countries; however they are fragmented, with very low worker coverage and no links to major political parties. This matters because labour’s capacity for disruptive collective action makes it a critical social force in the long-term trajectory of national politics, especially with respect to democratisation. There are competing explanations for labour’s relative weakness. Liberal pluralist perspectives tend to emphasise the intersection of formal institutions and economic conditions, generally in terms of the industrial relations implications for economic competitiveness. Historical institutionalists also consider the legacies of formal institutions, but more often from the perspective of state incorporation and political controls. By contrast, critically-oriented political economy traditions set institutional developments against the wider social and political conflicts over established orders and proposed alternatives. Labour outcomes are thus not properly explained without reference to the processes, actors and alliances which fall outside the formal institutions governing collective action. Of note in the Philippines is the decisive impact of radical left organising on the shape of the labour movement, its divided political incorporation, and the consequent trajectory of post-authoritarian reforms.

The Limits of Civil Society: Social Movements and Political Parties in Southeast Asia
Meredith L. Weiss, State University of New York, Albany, USA

Southeast Asia is not a political arena where only oligarchs and capital have free rein, but where activists and organized masses can also periodically have real political agency and impact. However, social movement organization (SMO) activists themselves may chafe against limits to civil society as an arena of political struggle, gravitating instead toward political parties, electoral competition, and attempts to win state power. Moreover, it is to a large degree the features of civil societal organizations that conform with a liberal vision—their particularism, lobbying orientation and professionalism, and weak linkages to political parties and mass constituencies—which tend to limit their ability to bring about more thoroughgoing political change. Further, analyses have looked far more to SMOs’ potential as drivers of democracy rather than to their own internal democracy and equality, or to the modes in which they mediate between the rural/agrarian or urban/industrial grassroots, the middle classes, and elite decision-makers. It makes sense to view civil society not merely as a political agent that may transform the state, but also as an arena where ideas about political and social order are popularized and where bourgeois hegemony is achieved. In a similar vein, SMOs may be viewed not merely as counterweights to government but also as agents of governmentality: SMOs discipline citizens, especially subordinate groups, to accommodate themselves to emerging democratic, neoliberal orders. SMOs must hence be understood as embedded within structures of power and hierarchy that infuse society, and not just outside of, and counterposed to, the state.

Consultative Authoritarianism and Regime Change Analaysis: Implications of the Singapore Case
Garry Rodan, Murdoch University, Australia

Answering fundamental questions about where political regimes are headed and why has been sidetracked by a preoccupation with the prospects of liberal democratic transitions. The case of Singapore reveals significant institutional and ideological changes challenging transition theory assumptions of liberal democracy as the natural regime partner of advanced capitalism. Indeed, Singapore’s experience suggests the possibility that some authoritarian regimes may be able not just to survive advanced capitalism but be modified and strengthened in response to dynamics emanating from capitalism. Through new parliamentary and extra-parliamentary institutions, a consultative authoritarianism is evolving in Singapore to increasingly engage individuals and groups in public policy discussion or feedback. Yet this is limiting the boundaries and conduct of political conflict, a strategy partially informed by a technocratic view of politics as principally a problem-solving rather than normative exercise. Crucially, the social foundations of this sort of regime have been laid by the particular dynamics of state capitalism in Singapore that have consolidated and extended the power of state-based technocratic elites. Might emerging social and political forces accompanying capitalist development in other parts of Southeast Asia be potentially vulnerable to similar new forms of state-sponsored political participation? It is by examining the precise coalitions of interest associated with dynamic capitalist development in these countries that this question can be answered. Differences in the social foundations of political regimes necessarily influence the nature of political institutions likely to arouse support and opposition.

Babies and Bathwater: A Critical Assessment of the Structures, Ideology and Practice of Two Southeast Asia Labour Movements
Michele Ford, University of Sydney, Australia

Much of the literature on Southeast Asia’s transitional democracies and semi-authoritarian states focuses on ‘civil society’ rather than social movements. In some respects, this reflects scholars’ emphasis on studying the state ‘from above’. However, in other respects, it reflects the increasing visibility and influence in postcolonial contexts of a diffuse kind of social movement dominated organizationally by NGOs rather than mass organizations. Political economists in the British and European traditions have generally been suspicious of NGOs’ claims to the status of ‘social movement organization’ because of their limited membership, undemocratic structures, largely middle-class composition and degree of integration into global funding networks. It is indeed true that many NGOs are more readily identified as a tool of global governance than an oppositional force. However, just as it is too simple to argue that civil society is necessarily either virtuous or always in opposition to the state, it is too simple to argue that NGOs are puppets of capital, organized and controlled by the rich and powerful through the state or through global institutions or networks. This paper explores the rise of the NGO as an organizational form and its implications for the ideology and practice of the Indonesian and Malaysian labour movements. It suggests that the tendency to valorize mass organizations while condemning NGOs is unhelpful, since the differences in their approach and day-to-day operations are in practice unpredictable and not in any way predicated on mass membership.

Class and the Changing Disposition of Thai Politics
Jim Glassman, University of British Columbia, Canada

The majority of approaches to Thai politics — whether those of modernization theorists, historical institutionalists, political and cultural sociologists, or rational choice theorists — have marginalized class as an explanatory factor in political change. Yet current events in Thailand have made class such a painfully evident force that even mainstream journalists have begun to tread where conservative scholars refuse to go. If this invites Marxist theorization of Thai politics, it should acknowledge the complexity of Thailand’s class processes. Thailand’s political economic transformation does not simply follow the contours of earlier European transformations on which most Marxist class analyses of politics have historically been based. This paper attempts to contribute a nuanced and case sensitive class analysis by examining the character of Thailand’s transformation in the context of highly uneven development (geographically and socially) and the ways this is influencing contemporary political struggles.