Indonesia contains about 200 provincial cities with populations between 50,000 and one million, yet they have attracted far less scholarly attention than the country's few million-plus cities. Recent democratization and decentralization have brought to light patterns of communal and local mobilization in these cities, centered on elections and other political events, that have not been seen in Indonesia since the 1950s and early 1960s. Provincial cities have talked back to the central state in ways that belie their supposed passivity as expressed in the term "urban involution." This study attempts to build a synthetic and historical explanation for those patterns by examining the social embeddedness of the state in the provincial city. Most of Indonesia's towns and cities, particularly beyond Java, became urban only through the formation of the modern colonial state from the mid- to late 19th century onward. After decolonization began in 1945, the expanding but chronically underfunded bureaucracy became an arena for contestation among the emerging middle classes in these urban centers, which lacked manufacturing. The new provincial classes were politically significant because of their numbers and their mobilizing skills rather than their wealth. They successfully seized the state at the local level. The central state, anxious to establish political stability, appeased them with substantial political transfer rents, particularly during the oil boom years of the early to middle New Order.