Jakarta: Force and Fraud at Home and Abroad. What’s Next?

I’m guessing that “Jakarta Is Coming” or “Plan Jakarta” won’t elicit immediate recognition from most of you and until very recently that was also true for me. But before defining it, here’s a bit of necessary background:

In 1965-66, the United States engineered a systematic mass murder in Indonesia that killed more than one million civilians and an additional one million were herded into concentration camps. I’ve been following this case for years but reliable information has been hard to come by. Recently, thanks to determined scholars and courageous Indonesian activists, previously classified documents Have become available in Washington, DC. The entire sordid tale is exposed in Vincent Bevins just released book, “The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murders That Shaped Our World.” (Public Affairs, 2020).

Bevins details how democracy in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world at 270 million, was snuffed out when the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), a totally legal, non-violent, mass-based party of the poor was decimated. The C.I.A. provided money, training, propaganda tools and arms to elements within the Indonesian military and most importantly, supplied “kill lists” of PKI members, ranging from the higher echelons of the party to local cadres in the smallest rural villages. The lists also included anyone thought to have the slightest leftist inklings and U.S. managers of Indonesian rubber plantations added the names of suspect union organizers. Those on the list were checked off as they were captured, tortured and killed.

President Sukarno, a highly vocal anti-imperialist who had led the struggle against the Dutch colonialists and founded the non-aligned movement, was deposed and replaced with the vicious right-wing dictator Maj. Gen. Suharto who had been an ally of the Japanese fascists in the Second World War. Previous reforms were rescinded, the capitalist model of development was fully adopted and foreign investors descended on Indonesia like vultures.

Inside the beltway liberals in the U.S. were either silent or, as James Reston, the NYT’s leading op-ed writer (an archetypical liberal) quipped, “This is a gleam of light in Asia.” Although claiming its actions were about preventing the spread of the “Red Menace,” Washington was solely motivated by the need to violently liquidate the “threat of a good example,” to offer a harsh lesson to anyone who might challenge the new U.S. world order by trying to obtain control of their country’s resources and use them for the general welfare.

Bevins tells us that “Jakarta” became a code word for “anti-communist mass murder and the state-organized extermination of civilians who opposed the construction of authoritarian regimes loyal to the United States.” Indeed, a compelling case can be made that “Indonesia 1965” was the crucial victory for Washington during the so-called Cold War. And whereas easily accessible material is available on U.S. covert operations to overthrow democratic regimes in places like Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973), the Indonesian case remains virtually unknown in the United States. I want to believe that Americans would not only be horrified to learn about it but willing to reconsider some of their deepest beliefs about American exceptionalism.

I’ve highlighted Bevin’s new book because it appears at a serendipitous moment. In the rush of current events we don’t always pause to connect some important dots, in this case the indivisible string of dots between American domestic and foreign policy. That is, the same class warfare practiced by highly class-conscious U.S. elites and their junior partners in Indonesia in 1965 is now playing out in response to Racism 2020 and COVID-19, albeit with different methods.

Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and someone for whom I have enormous respect, observes that “The mentality that crushes a brother’s neck — as in the case of George Floyd — is the same mentality that sends black, brown, poor and low-income workers of all colors into the lethal path of the COVID-19 pandemic without needed protections, health care and economic resources.” Barber doesn’t say so and I don’t know if he believes it, but it’s my sense that the same mentality and dynamic of predatory capitalism that rips off the labor and land of those around the empire also operates here.

Domestically, the U.S. oligarchy has never hesitated to deploy deadly force, periodic severe repression against perceived internal threats and to rely on mass incarceration but the clear preference is for what Noam Chomsky terms “fraud and deception.” Why? Because they’re more efficient and sustain the necessary illusion that we live in a self-governing, albeit sometimes flawed democracy. This method results in citizens policing themselves but only after absorbing a lifetime of capitalist ideology. In short, in a society like the United States, “control of thought is more important.” [1]

Workers and peasants in Indonesia and elsewhere throughout the American empire harbor no illusions about who rules. Based on first-hand experience, they know their masters demand absolute obedience under penalty of torture and death. People have internalized the expectation that even demands for mild reforms will be met with state terrorism. They’ve learned to keep their thoughts to themselves.

In the United States, the abysmally low level of working class consciousness permits our rulers a much wider latitude of options to insure, in Bertrand Russell’s phrase, “the habit of submission.” We, “the ignorant masses,” participate in formal mechanisms like political parties and voting but these only ratify decisions made by our “betters. The option of radically changing society will neither appear on the ballot nor even be imagined in the public mind. Put another way, “Democracy is permissible as long as the control of business is off-limits to popular deliberation or changes; i.e., so long as it isn’t democracy.” [2[

How does all this relate to our present situation? I don’t have definitive answers but I will suggest that the critical questions before us include: Has the official response to COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd and the pandemics of racism, greed, poverty, imperialism, inequality, ecocide and exploitation finally sundered the aforementioned “habit of submission?” Does a sizable, multicultural swath of our citizens now view the political and economic system as illegitimate? Do enough people now grasp that the two parties and their corporate sponsors have nothing to offer? Do enough people understand that those on top not only want more from us but want everything? Is the multiplying convergence of aggrieved people sufficient to move from righteous insurrection in the streets to a revolutionary project that can totally reconstruct our society? If not, how can we move more of our fellow citizens in that direction?Are we prepared for the inevitable future efforts to co-opt dissenters? Finally, if fascism is capitalism with the gloves off, is it hyperbolic to suggest that the capitalist state and its enablers will entertain Jakarta-like options in the near future?


[1] Noam Chomsky, “Force and Opinion,” Z Magazine, July-August, 1991.

[2] Robert W. McChesney, “Noam Chomsky on the Struggle Against Neoliberalism,” Monthly Review, April 1, 1999.