Turning the Wheel of Fortune

Jellinek, Lea. (1991). The Wheel of Fortune: The History of a Poor Community in Jakarta. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. xxviii + 214 pp.

While it’s cliché to say that Jakarta has always been one of, if not the main reference points for urban problems, it is safe to say that in recent years Jakarta has garnered a lot of attention for its contentious issues, from the gubernatorial election all the way to the eviction of poor neighborhoods. All of this inevitably leads us to the question of lower-class agency in Jakarta: how do the urban poor navigate around the challenges of living in the city?

Lea Jellinek tries to tackle the said question in her book, The Wheel of Fortune. A classic on this topic, this work is an empirically rich account of the lives of the urban poor in Kebon Kacang, a kampung neighborhood in Central Jakarta. Drawing from her long relationship with the kampung residents, Jellinek details how the residents – construction workers, domestic helpers, ice cream makers, becak peddlers, food sellers, among others – tried to live their lives and survived the challenges to their livelihood posed by rapacious city development.

Jellinek’s account centers around Ibu Bud, a once successful cooked-food seller whose small business eventually went bankrupt, and her neighbors. She traces the early wave of rural-urban migration of the kampung dwellers, which dated back all the way from the late colonial period. It was a relatively stable period, until Japanese occupation and thereafter the early years of independence interrupted the tranquility of their lives. But it was during the New Order era that the dwellers experienced the most ups and downs in their lives. The economic growth spurred by the 1970s oil boom gave new opportunities for the lower-class to improve their livelihood – newly-arrived young village migrants gained employment as construction workers, Ibu Bud successfully expanded her food stall business, and her neighbors took up a variety of jobs, from peddling becak to sewing clothes. But it was also the force that threatened their very means of livelihood – as high rises and roads were built, transient jobs were disappearing, and eventually the dwellers had to be evicted, or, to use the New Order lexicon, “relocated.” In a nutshell, Jellinek is able to breeze through the major turning points of the lives of her local interlocutors without losing the details of their lives.

What is striking from this book is how it resonates with our contemporary urban experience especially in Jakarta’s context. The book’s main message – the resilience of the urban lower-classes in facing the intrusion of state and market forces in their lives – remains relevant for our time, especially with the rise of technocratic populism with classist bent in Indonesia’s urban centers. Embodied in the figures of so-called “reformist” local leaders such as Ahok, Ridwan Kamil, and Risma, this seemingly new trend of urban governance puts emphasis on what basically can be considered as developmentalist and high modernist buzzwords: transparency, efficiency, orderliness, cleanliness, and firmness, among others. The big, problematic question for this vision is who has to pay the price of this “progress.” Oftentimes, it is the urban poor, and not the gang of technocratic populists and their High Priests, who get sidelined in the name of “urban development.”

In light of this reading, we can see the parallels between Jakarta under the heydays of the New Order and its current situation. While it might be a bit anachronistic to compare the two eras, one could argue that there is a continuity of modernist-developmentalist vision of urban development. On a closer look, the precursor of the latest version of Jakarta’s “high modernism with steroid” is Ali Sadikin: hailed as the city’s modernizer, Sadikin was committed to the realization of both Sukarnoist and New Orderist vision of modern urban planning – at all costs (pp. 108-111). On one hand, he promoted the development of artistic and civil society initiatives, but on the other hand, he showed no hesitancy about bulldozing poor people’s houses for road construction. His rather draconian approach in ensuring the swift implementation of the Kampung Improvement Project in a way predated the current Jakarta administration’s technocratic-repressive method of evicting the urban poor in different places of the city.

The Wheel of Fortune provides a plethora of other parallels, but to discuss those examples more comprehensively we have to situate it into the larger literature and contemporary research on urban neighborhood in Indonesia. The one work that should be read in tandem with The Wheel of Fortune is Alison Murray’s (1991) No Money, No HoneyA Study of Street Traders and Prostitutes in Jakarta.[1] Murray’s focus is somewhat more specific: she looks at female street-sellers and prostitutes in Manggarai and Kebayoran Baru respectively from 1984-1989. Like Jellinek, Murray also provides a vivid description of the lives of the female urban poor and their strategies to survive in Jakarta. Though in many ways both works speak to and echo each other, Murray’s work decidedly focuses more on lower-class women’s agency and its limits. While her elaboration on prostitution in Kebayoran Baru is a bit scant, overall she manages to give a holistic and sympathetic account of how poor working women exert their agency despite the pressures from capitalist development and the New Order ideology of domesticity. This is a point which is slightly missing and could have been more elaborated in The Wheel of Fortune. 

There are also parallels between Jakarta and Surabaya[2], another important urban center in Java. Kampung dwellers in Surabaya also experienced the same stages of urban development: political turbulence, new land-use pattern, the rise and fall of jobs for the poor in the informal sector, and resistance, both open and subtle, of the residents against market and state penetration in their neighborhood. Interestingly, these parallels can also be found between urban centers and their not-so-distant brethren: provincial towns. Industrial and service-based towns in the provinces, such as Serang, Cilegon, Cirebon, Kupang, and Pontianak, among others, seem to encounter the same challenge of capital and state penetration in the daily lives of the town residents.[3] The key difference here is that urban centers are at the receiving end of the rural-urban migration, which is not always the case with provincial towns. Given this, one could argue that what happened in Jakarta was a part of the larger design of urban development in Indonesia.

In light of Jellinek’s work, it is also important to see changes and continuities in the kind of agency, both economic and political, that Jakarta’s urban poor exert. Other than the more “traditional” types of occupations (petty traders, drivers, construction workers, and all sorts of service providers), nowadays the urban poor can pick newer kinds of employment, from cellphone voucher sellers and online marketing to go-jek drivers and hired protesters. Bear in mind, however, that the emergence of new niches of survival strategies is not the same as the expansion of opportunities. To couch this phenomenon in the language of “choice” – a rhetoric deployed by the technocratic corps of city administrators, businesses, and start-ups – overlooks the continuing socio-economic inequality and unequal power relations between the urban poor and the more affluent social forces.

On a less depressing note, a more significant change can be seen in the political realm. At the very least one could argue that now the urban poor have more avenues to channel their grievances and spaces for a more assertive political mobilization. Various issues of their concern – eviction, property seizures, repressive action by the state apparatuses, and most recently, land reclamation – have been taken up and advocated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements. At last, their voices can be heard. But this growing assertiveness does not necessarily translate into real policy changes since the kind of policy reforms promoted by the current Jakarta administration has been mainly catered to the needs of the middle class and big businesses. Therefore, the age-old question remains relevant for Jakarta’s context: whether urban planning in the era of political openness can pave the way for the expansion of choices for the poor and, eventually, social justice.

Ultimately, this is a question of the structural roots of urban poverty. What Jellinek does is to investigate and examine the response of the kampung dwellers to it. While her ethnographic description is first-rate, the theoretical abstraction that she made from her data is somewhat problematic. Her data, she argues, lend evidence to both culturalist and structuralist explanations of poverty (pp. 178-181). In doing this, Jellinek gives the impression that she wants to “strike a balance” between the two theories of urban poverty (p. 180). This theoretical stance however is untenable: many of the causes of rural-urban migration and continuing poverty in urban neighborhoods are part of the larger historical processes outside of the Kebon Kacang community, such as political conflicts and contradictions in capitalist development. While it is true that many livelihood strategies of the dwellers were unsustainable at best and short-term at worst, those are not inherent their inherent traits. Rather, it is a response to the predicaments in their lives caused by external forces beyond their control. In other words, the exercise of their agency, albeit real and to a degree emancipatory, is shaped and limited by structural forces. The so-called “poverty culture” is not given, but rather, made and habituated

What can we learn from the book, then? Are the descriptions and points that Jellinek raised still apt and relevant for our current conditions? While The Wheel of Fortune will remain as a classic reference point for future studies on urban neighborhood in Jakarta, some research agenda are due. First, there is a need to look again at the lives of the urban poor of Jakarta more closely, not only in Kebon Kacang, but also other communities in the city. The question that we should pose to them is how the living memory of the city has changed throughout their lives. To put it differently, we need to “update” Jellinek’s data by observing present-day kampung residents of Jakarta. Secondly, an analysis of “everyday politics” of Jakarta’s residents is more needed than ever. A more assertive exercise of political agency of the lower-class in Jakarta in recent years has shaped our perception regarding their political savviness.[4] What is important is to not conflate their open act of resistance and mobilization with the more subtle, everyday type of survival strategies. Without the latter, it would be difficult for the former to manifest. This is because more often that not the political action of the urban poor is often shaped by their prior experience and perceptions – of livelihood, space, land, residence, and social relations with their fellow community members, among others.[5] Using Jellinek’s work as a reference point, combined with a more updated study of the political views and actions of the urban poor, will give us a better and more thorough understanding about their political agency.

All in all, The Wheel of Fortune is an in-depth, lively, and sympathetic account of the lives of the urban poor in Kebon Kacang. It has been more than 20 years since it was published, but many of its findings remain relevant to understand contemporary Jakarta’s social landscape.

[1] A. J. Murray, No Money, No Honey: A Study of Street Traders and Prostitutes in Jakarta (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[2] For a key reference on poor urban neighborhood in Surabaya, see R. Peters, Surabaya, 1945-2010: Neighbourhood, State and Economy in Indonesia’s City of Struggle (Singapore: NUS Press, 2013).

[3] For a key reference on provincial towns in contemporary Indonesia, see Gerry van Klinken and Ward Berenschot, eds., In Search of Middle Indonesia: Middle Classes in Provincial Towns. (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2014).

[4] See for instance Rita Padawangi, “People’s Places: Protests and the Making of Urban Public Spaces in Jakarta” (PhD dissertation, Loyola University Chicago, 2008).

[5] One of the classical works on this subject is F. Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage House, 1979).

*Iqra Anugrah is a PhD candidate in Political Science and Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University. Everyday politics is one of his many research interests.

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