A book about roads might seem somewhat esoteric and perhaps, inevitably tedious except to a small number of aficionados. And to be honest, although it is well written, this highly detailed and meticulously researched book requires considerable stamina and commitment on the part of the reader. But this is more than a descriptive work and it is more than a study of roads. It provides incisive and concrete insights into the way wealth and power are accumulated and distributed in Indonesia.
Set within larger and ongoing debates about power and governance and how governments make decisions, the author distances himself from the more narrow technocratic explanations of economic rationalists and market fundamentalists, including those from the IMF and World Bank. And he also sees limits in the way New Institutional Economics and the varieties of institutional approaches might effectively explain his problem.
What is missing, he proposes, is a political sociology of power that identifies the coalitions, interests and ideas that shape the way resources and priorities are decided in infrastructure programmes. These, in his view, give life to a highly political process. So we find, rather than discussions about market distortions or weak institutions as the root cause of problems in the history of road building in Indonesia there are discussions of who the contending interests are, and how these decided the course of events.
Threading through his chapters we find a story of struggles between the managers of a still-powerful state sector, technocrats and market fundamentalists, private opportunists and capitalists with powerful political backing, foreign investors, Indonesian capitalists seeking protection and favour from the broader forces of a global market, land and property owners fighting expropriation, and local mayors and officials protecting their regional and private interests.
The different chapters are designed to show how these forces collide at different points in Indonesian history in bitter struggles over regulation and governance, private sector participation and the role of public authorities, and how land should be acquired.
As the established dominance of public road-building companies and the Ministry of Public Works was upset by the emergence of powerful political business families in the latter part of the Soeharto era (most notably the Soeharto children), the author shows how the hybrid of state leadership and private rent-seeking through capture of licences, concessions and state funding was to provide the central problem for post-Soeharto presidents in their attempts to resolve Indonesia's infrastructure chaos.
In an industry driven increasingly by the interests of private opportunists the author shows how the question of regulation became increasingly important for governments and investors alike. This was especially complicated by the demands of market ideologues within key ministries and in the IMF who pushed for private–public partnerships as the way forward.
It was the failure of regulators to win the battle over politicians and powerful oligarchs that is argued to be one of the main factors in Indonesia's poor performance in tackling the problem of infrastructure building. The author shows how some of the most powerful oligarchs, including Aburizal Bakrie and Jusuf Kalla, presided over poor performing companies who consistently failed to meet the requirements of their concessions, or sat on licences and resold them as market conditions or their private commercial fortunes fluctuated.
In Chapter 5 the author gives us an insight into the problems of regulating private investors when he asks who the owners are and how they have operated their businesses. Here he unravels in considerable detail the complicated and porous political and financial relationships that have undermined road planning and building. And he examines the complicated politics that surrounded the part-privatisation of the state-owned road builder, Jasa Marga.
Threading through the chapters the author also shows how the confused and piecemeal process of road building has been related to ongoing problems of land acquisition and the conflicting powers and interests of local officials and politicians who had the task of resuming land.
In his consideration of these questions the author briefly mentions the contrasting example of China where road building raced unchecked across the countryside. Key to this, he argues, were the ties between local officials, politicians and private investors.
I know that reviewers often make unfair observations about the things a book does not cover, especially where it is already extensive. Nevertheless, I can't help making the point that an extension of this observation in a comparative fashion might have been useful in drawing out exactly what it is about the architecture of Indonesia's political sociology that has driven its infrastructure development in such a different direction.
This leads to the question of political sociology. In his conclusion the author distinguishes his approach from technocratic and institutional approaches that offer technical solutions to political problems. Yet, in the list of lessons that his political sociology analysis might offer to policy-makers he suggests precisely those institutional fixes that might be achieved through better regulation and law making and by better sequencing of land acquisition and road building. These sound a lot like the conclusions a rational choice economist or public choice institutional economist might make. Surely a true political sociologist would see solutions in contestation at the political level, including the construction of powerful political coalitions. After all, that is what people like Kalla and Bakrie do to achieve their aims.
There is a final point about theory. There is a well-established literature where rational choice economics, new institutional economics and public choice political economy are explicitly rejected in favour of structural political economy and political sociology approaches to problems of social and political change, including in Indonesia. This includes the most cited works on contemporary Indonesian politics, not easily missed. For whatever reason, there is no reference to any of this debate in this book. Yet, the author needs to explain how his own ‘political sociology’ is different to those established political economy and political economy approaches that appear so similar. I suspect it is because his is pluralist in nature. This is why a reference to the recent debate between structural and pluralist political scientists and political economists published in the Cornell journal, Indonesia (96, Oct. 2013), might have been useful.