Monday, November 26, 2012

Social subsidiarity in Balinese society

As mentioned my son is learning about Bali in social studies.  The last post discussed the way that sacred space is woven into all aspects of the Balinese life-world.  This post will discuss social organization.

This gave me the chance to introduce my son to Aristotle's ideas of social structure, as well as to explain largely how the society works using subsidiarity as a principle, namely the idea of a larger order dependent on autonomous smaller orders for its existence.

In Bali, the two large orders are caste and town (Pura adat).  The castes follow standard Hindu rules, though due to sound shifts, V's are changed to W's (so Vishnu is called Wishnu, and the Vasya are the Weisya).

The costs and benefits of the Hindu caste system are too numerous to go into here.  Whole books could be written on the subject, but two points are worth noting.  First caste stands in the way of self-sufficiency.  Different kinds of labor are divided by caste such that one cannot achieve much without working with others of different castes.  Thus one important aspect is that the caste system trades independence for interdependence and thus ensures that society must always work together.  Instead of an undifferentiated mass of individuals as we are used to thinking of society in the West, Hindu society aggressively partitions society and apportions members of it with lots in life.  This may be explored in a future post.

However the major focus of this post will be the town.  As an economy that was up until very recently dependent on rice agriculture for survival, most Balinese come from an agricultural background.  Even today rice farming is a very important both economically and culturally to the island although tourism is the main industry on the island these days.  The primary form of farming is that of small rice paddies, periodically flooded based on water availability.  Water management is a central communal focus.

Family and Neighborhood

The fundamental unit in any society is the married household.  Married households are societies in miniature and they are the primary method of passing cultural expressions and values onto children.  As in most societies these are often multi-generational and there may be several generations living under one house.  However in general, only married child is allowed to stay in the home of the parents and inherit the living quarters.  Other sons must go out and build their own, while daughers move into their husbands houses upon marriage.

Each married household itself must belong to the banjar through the husband's membership.  The banjar is the smallest social/governmental unit in Balinese society, being similar to a neighborhood association but with a wider range of power and responsibilities than is seen in the West.  The Banjar is thus properly seen as an organ of government in Balinese society and a fundamentally democratic one (Bali is traditionally, like most Hindu societies, a monarchy but one with local democratic institutions).

The banjar thus constitutes the first of the fundamental public institutions of
Balinese society.

Farming Association and Water Management

The second fundamental institution is that of the Subak, or farming association.  The Subak is actually more akin to a water district, and the primary responsibility is to coordinate schedules for flooding the paddies so that there is enough water for every member.  Because there may be some distance between the paddy and dwelling, the subak and the banjar may not be coterminous.  A given banjar may consist of people in different subak2, while a given subak may consist of people in different banjar2.

One can see in this approach something akin to the guild system of Europe.   Here the various professional individuals work together to divide up scarce resources and ensure that everyone is productive.

The Subak and Banjar essentially form the warp and weft of village organization, and are woven into the municipal government.  These various villages would then form the kingdom of Bali which into historical times was a monarchy (and the royal family is still well respected and carries with them a great deal of moral authority, as far as I can tell).

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