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Ben Anderson’s legacy for our modern communities

Benedict Anderson gives a lecture, his last, on anarchism and nationalism at University of Indonesia. Thor Kerr, Author provided

An old fellow in brown sandals, grey slacks and a worn orange shirt stumbled by me as he missed a step at a packed auditorium at University of Indonesia last Thursday. From my aisle seat, I looked up from a mobile phone to realise it was the legendary Benedict Anderson.

A group of activists and academics quickly gathered around to check that Pak Ben was OK. He nodded and smiled. In a whisper he asked for the toilet to get changed. A few minutes later he ascended the stage in a fresh black shirt bearing an infant’s expression of frustration, “NGEEE!!!”.

Anderson was ready to give his 35-minute bilingual lecture on anarchism and nationalism. His talk at the University of Indonesia, part of a tour to launch the Indonesian translation of his book, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination, became his last.

On a road trip across Java two days later, Ben Anderson died in bed in a hotel in Batu near Malang. At 79, Anderson left the world with a set of profound works on the formation and mobilisation of communities.

Much of his work focused on Indonesia, but he also learnt Thai and Spanish. He wrote about the nuances of community formation, stabilisation and disruption in Southeast Asia.

Anderson’s legacy

Imagined Communities. Verso

Anderson’s theoretical insights extend far beyond Indonesian and Southeast Asian studies. His works are drawn on by scholars around the world in fields such as cultural studies, media studies, politics, international relations and history.

Thanks to Anderson, we have a better chance of understanding the internal and external politics of any large modern community.

He has helped countless researchers to understand why people make apparently irrational sacrifices or tolerate abuses and hardships for their perceived communities.

Anderson demonstrated that while people mostly do not know each other as individuals in a nation or other large community, they conceive a deep comradeship with each other. They also believe in a boundary beyond which are other communities.

Anderson’s work supported the theorising in my book, To the Beach, published just a few months ago. My work on environmental politics, the public and media would be impoverished without Anderson. He has given us a language to analyse nationalism within complex internal and international negotiations, such as last fortnight’s climate summit in Paris.

Personal encounters

For me, encounters with Anderson began in 1992 while taking Indonesian studies at Melbourne University. I became fascinated by his texts on the history of the 1944-1946 revolution in Java.

In Jakarta a few years later, in the menacing shadow of President Suharto’s New Order regime, I would often hear people whisper about “Ben Anderson”. I saw bound photocopies of his books and essays on political cultures in Indonesia handed subversively around by activists in Indonesia’s NGO networks.

Almost two decades later, in Western Australia, for my research on the dynamics of community reaction to a coastal reclamation project in Fremantle, my PhD supervisor recommended I read Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

I asked my supervisor whether he meant the Indonesian studies researcher Ben Anderson? Rather, he replied, he was referring to the same Ben Anderson, also renowned for his work on the relationship between communities and media technologies.

On tolerating brutal leaders

Not everyone appreciates Anderson’s work. For 27 years, he was banned from Indonesia after co-writing a research paper known as the “Cornell Paper”.

This research challenged the New Order government’s version of events around the deadly 1965 coup in Indonesia. It shifted blame for the murder of senior army generals away from the Indonesian Communist Party towards an alleged conspiracy of the Indonesian Army and the United States to eliminate communism in Indonesia, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

On stage at the University of Indonesia last week, Anderson described Suharto as the “most brutal person ever” in Indonesia. While many Indonesian activists and scholars of Indonesia know this to be true, it was shocking to hear it said openly in the public lecture. Years of living on and off in Jakarta have conditioned me to hearing publicly that the most murderous leader in this part of the world was the Dutch East Indies governors Daendels or Coen.

But as Anderson pointed out on stage, there is less resistance to a member within a national community leading the massacre of fellow citizens than to an outsider leading the attack.

This lesson is an important legacy given to us by Anderson. It is precisely why we should be especially wary of abuse by leaders from our own communities. For this reason, anarchism remains an attractive movement in which people can be thought of organising respectfully and peacefully for whatever purpose they see fit at the time.

Anderson seemed to be saying that history demonstrates that nationalists will tolerate extraordinary abuse by their leaders while anarchists will not.

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