Middling Urbanism and the Contradictory Space of the Kampung in Indonesian Capitalism

Middling Urbanism and the Contradictory Space of the Kampung in Indonesian Capitalism

The irregular settlements known as kampung in Indonesian cities have long been a subject of exploration by different disciplines. Deemed backwards and vulnerable by the powerful, kampungs have been the target of government interventions. Often, these so-called improvements include demolition. In response, kampungs have increasingly been defended by activists who argue, sometimes in a romantic way, for the kampung’s right to the city. But rather than view kampungs as a problem to be solved or a cause to be championed, it might be useful to pose a different question: how do they sustain the larger urban constitution? Looking at kampungs this way suggests they are neither simply a victim nor a survivor of capitalist modernization.

Figure 1. A view from a bridge across River Ciliwung at Kampung Pulo, 2015. In the kampungs, infrastructure is inadequate and buildings are constructed incrementally, not subject to building codes. This kampung was demolished in August 2015 to expand the capacity of the river. Photograph by Abidin Kusno.

Kampungs are urban neighborhoods occupied largely by middle- to lower-income communities with diverse values, who work together by appropriating space and negotiating with private, civil, and state sectors (figure 1). Kampung residents set up their own facilities and physical infrastructure, and build their dwellings incrementally to allow a home to grow into a shop, a food stall, a repair shop, an office, a storeroom, a space for rent, as well as a social hub. Marginalized but important, the kampungs are where an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the population of cities such as Jakarta live and work, with very little formal institutional or government support (figure 2). While legally and politically vulnerable, the kampung continues to thrive, and to contribute to the social and economic life of the city. At the same time, the kampung also plays a role in urban environmental degradation. It thus belongs to the city as a beneficially problematic entity. This contradiction has made the kampung a challenging subject of inquiry. In recent years, kampung studies have gained currency in local and global venues, especially in scholarly discourses around local heritage and urban resilience.

Figure 2. This map, which represents the location of every kampung in Jakarta, highlights the type’s ubiquity and proximity to the formalized city. Typically, kampungs, which accommodate much of the city’s workforce, including many shopkeepers and janitors, are “off the map.” Yet they cluster around important nodes, including high-rise office buildings and shopping malls. Map by Prakoso, Saputra and Dewangga, 2018, based on aerial image data from Google Earth 2017. Reprinted with permission from Rita Padawangi.

Here, I reject the binary of the kampung as a problem or solution to reframe it as an example of what I call middling urbanism. I propose this concept to explain the persistence of the kampung, its residual or sedimented practices, and its location and functionality in supporting the political culture of the state and the international capitalist division of labor and investment. This idea also better accounts for both the generality and the diversity of conditions, and the kampung’s larger struggles in the urban system.[1]

The kampung forms a mutually constitutive relation with the formalized city in the co-production of a distinctive urban condition that is “middle” in position. Middling here connotes a dynamic of connection, sharing, and transition. Spatially, the kampung is an intermediate zone around which recent migrants from the countryside first recognize themselves as urbanites, not just in a territorial sense, but also in terms of socio-cultural practices. Temporally (and occupationally), middling urbanism refers to the labor relations and class mobility of kampung dwellers that are imperfectly aligned with the formalized city. In their collective aspirations for upward mobility, the inhabitants of the kampung constitute semi-proletarian households, whose work cuts across formal and informal sectors. (figures 3 and 4).[2]

Figure 3. Kampung Pulo, 2015. This kampung, demolished shortly after this photograph was taken, played an important economic role as an income-pooling domain for workers. Like other kampungs in Jakarta, many of its households included one or two members who worked in the formal sector (such as in shopping malls, office buildings, or factories), while others earned a living as street vendors (such as the man at center) and maids, or in petty commodity production and retail, selling wares such as furniture. Photograph by Abidin Kusno.

Figure 4. A wall divides Kampung Kuningan from its upper-middle class neighbor, while a cut reveals how interconnected the two settlements in fact are, 2015. The tower’s developer built the wall in order to increase the value of the apartments. Yet, many residents of Kampung Kuningan work in the high-rise, as drivers, maids, gardeners, handymen, security personnel, and vendors, while other employees, who live further afield, may take advantage of Kuningan’s food stalls from work. Jakarta is filled with similar wall and cuts. Photograph by Abidin Kusno.

The indefinite character of middling urbanism also acknowledges that while the kampung and the formal city are deeply interdependent, the kampung has a number of distinctive features. The kampung constitutes a different type of land market, a unique urban form, and supports livelihoods and resources that are not accommodated within developer-driven housing estates and the formal land market. Thus the kampung—while considered to be socially peripheral, if not marginal—sits at the conceptual interstices of the nation-state and global capital. It grows in and through the contradictions of capitalist modes of exchange. It operates in the context of uneven capitalist modernization that paradoxically demands a continuous, simultaneous, construction and destruction of the kampung.

The kampung’s relationship with capital and the state marks its middle status in other ways. Its complex habitus engages economically, politically, and culturally with (rather than in opposition to) capitalism and the state. Neither opposed to nor outside formal urbanization, the kampung sustains—rather than challenges—the urban system. For instance, the kampung offers affordable housing for low-wage workers unable to survive elsewhere in the city. It absorbs the costs of infrastructure and housing that would otherwise have to be covered by formal mechanisms. And it facilitates the development of informal sectors that are necessary to accommodate migrations, prevent unemployment, and sustain the low-wage regime of economic growth. It is also politically important. It moderates conflicts between the urban and rural, the industrial and preindustrial, the modern and premodern. In this sense, the kampung’s existence as an intermediate space is essential to the stability of an increasingly polarized urban-rural system.

For too long, leaders in Indonesian cities have dismissed the kampung while benefitting from it. Reframing it as middling urbanism highlights its value, and suggests new templates for policy that supports, rather than destroys, these essential spaces.



[1] For an earlier version of this attempt, see Abidin Kusno, “Notes on Semi-urbanism” in Rita Padawangi, ed., Routledge Handbook of Urbanization in Southeast Asia (London: Routledge, 2018), chapter 6.

[2] I use the term “semi-proletarian” households to refer to a group of persons whose livelihood is sustained by way of pooling together multiple incomes from a variety of occupations such that they, due to their substantial reliance on informal sectors, are not fully wage-dependent “proletarians.” For an understanding of households as “income-pooling units,” see Joan Smith and Immanuel Wallerstein, eds., Creating and Transforming Households: The Constraints of the World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

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