IN this world fighting Covid-19, in this chaotic life confronting epidemic, there is one place that has swiftly—and nervously—become hope: the State.
The State suddenly appears as a main actor, a compact structure, a bundle of annoying rules, a good savior. The world is changing. The State—which usually means government and all the bureaucracy that goes along with it—now causes no anxiety.
This is true even in America which is fearful of ‘Big Government’. These days, it is considered okay for the State to intervene in matters great and small: in Alabama people are not allowed to shake hands, in Washington DC President Trump—who is anti socialism—ordered General Motors to produce ventilators for hospitals. In Paris, people are forbidden to take morning jogs on the empty streets because of lockdown, and the French Minister of Finance has said they are prepared to nationalize large businesses if they go bankrupt. In Spain, private hospitals are being nationalized, and in England, the State is leaning towards taking over various means of transportation.
In countries where the role of the State has always been large—because of their politics and economy—Covid-19 has opened the door even wider to the reach of bureaucracy.
In Indonesia, even religious leaders are supporting the government’s prohibition against group religious service, as though—for a few months at least—religions are no longer connected to ‘the celebration of the community’ as Ernest Gellner described. Today the competition between God and world rulers in managing the epidemic is not like times past. In Prussia in the 1830s, when cholera killed thousands, the government circulated a leaflet ordering the populace to obey State authority and not merely trust in God. Today, such an appeal is unnecessary. In Wuhan, which has succeeded in combatting Covid-19, God is pushed aside. The State is the Commander.
In Indonesia there is an attitude of ambivalence, possibly instability. The State has different faces in collective memory. There is the one shaped through the trauma of oppression. There are the ones pertetrated through traditional stories, poems and performances about good rule. Most often, the State is imagined with the desire for order.
Or the State is experienced in another way entirely, if we follow Geertz’s depiction of old Balinese kingdoms. At that time, there was no systematic concentration of power, no ‘objective’ management. The trend was to present spectacle. Various ceremonies, a theater, was presented. “The kings and the princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew and audience,” Geertz wrote. “Power serves pomp, not pomp power.”
I do not know whether this was also the case with Sriwijaya and Majapahit. The Sultanates of Aceh, Demak, Goa, Makassar, Ternate, Tidore and others were probably different: The State was the ruler, the ulama, the army. Maybe that is why the State is remembered with the shadow of 18th century Mataram: kings and oppression, or—in a more elegant way—regal symbols and teachings of serving and being served.
It was only in the 19th century that there was radical change. Memory about that is more institutional: The East Indies was established, replacing the private Dutch East India Company or VOC. The State, in the traces of Indonesian collective memory, is imagined like that power. Its structure and actions bear modern features: The State is power with vaulting ambition, which tries to control and change the behavior of the populace with centralized systems of administration and bureaucracy.
Within certain limits, the East Indies, as the State, achieved its legitimacy because it built the order that came to be called ‘the normal age’. But colonial rule held within it the mood of mutual suspicion, even when it aimed to rescue the population. Including from pestilence.
It is said that over the first and second decades of the 19th century, there was plague in Java. The ‘government’ tried to control it by sending out recent graduates of the medical school STOVIA—including dr. Tjipto Mangunkusumo. Its students were also employed, because, the story goes, the government did not want to risk non-native doctors in areas of contagion. Colonialism had its own calculations. At that moment, the State was like Neitzsche’s description, ‘the coldest of monsters’.
In Kd. Ardiwinata’s book published in 1915 titled Pest di Tanah Djawa dan Daja Oepaja Akan Menolak Dia (The plague in Jawa and Efforts to Repel it), the writer tells how in efforts to control the spread of rats carrying the bacillus, houses had to be destroyed and people isolated within bamboo barracks. The feeling of being imprisoned, the loss of possessions and suspicion towards outsiders (also towards the Dutch rulers) made protest spread. This was the time when Haji Misbach, a communist who was also a leader of the Insulinde Surakarta movement, appeared at a public meeting delaring the constraint that people were feeling. The historian Takashi Sirahishi notes the arrival of ‘an age in motion’.
And the State was rejected—as happened in upheavals in a few places in Europe in the 19th century when there was an outbreak of cholera and thousands died. People did not always welcome what later came to be called the ‘medicalization of society’; authorities enforced quarantine and policies necessary for public health but which were directly sensed as a detriment to society.
Take St Petersbug in Russia in June 1831, for instance. People gathered in Sennaya Square. They were protesting against the Empire’s actions in combatting the cholera epidemic which forced them to stay locked in quarantine. The protest exploded into violence; the lower classes believed that the educated were choking them—they even accused doctors of poisoning public wells.
In the midst of social inequality, in the midst of loss of trust, it is not easy to consider the State as savior. Epidemics are more terrifying when there is no longer any hope. And we know that the lack of hope is not only because of the State. Hope does not exist without compassion, which is where justice-and-liberty spring from, and are strived for.