B.M Bresnahan catches up with sociologist Gabriel Vommaro to discuss clientelism in the 21st century, and also the rise of Mauricio Macri, a year after PRO took power.
In their recently released academic study entitled ‘El Clientelismo Político’, Gabriel Vommaro and his co-author Héléne Combes present the reader with a view of modern day clientelism. Looking to combat what they believe to be the commonly accepted and erroneously held opinions of the social sciences, the co-authors engage in a compelling and global comparative analysis. With their comprehensive review of Argentina, France, and Japan (among other countries), the co-authors demonstrate that clientelism goes far beyond the notion of a populist-driven Latin American phenomenon, and they succeed in highlighting the interpersonal, mutually beneficial, and socially driven doctrine that is clientelism.
Vommaro is also the author of ‘Mundo PRO’, an in-depth analysis of the rise of President Mauricio Macri’s party.
The Indy recently caught up with Vommaro in a quaint Chacarita cafe to discuss clientelism, his new book, and the general state of Argentine politics as the current government completes a year in power.
Looking at Latin America, there are many historians and specialists of note, Edwin Williamson in particular, who attribute the current existence of clientelism to the Spanish colonisation, and the long history of regional caudillismo that Latin America inherited. How does this historical perspective relate to the modern view of the social sciences?
In any case, I would tell you that our book tries to look at the “clientelism” question within a worldwide framework. There are chapters on European cases, Italy and France, and there are other Latin American cases, such as Argentina and Mexico. There is another case on the United States, on the old electoral machines, and there is another part focusing on the electoral machines in Japan. There is also a brief glance at the political work of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So, as you can see, we tried to make a fairly broad bibliographic balance.
The interesting thing here is that our review of various countries around the world forced us to have an unbiased look at the Latin American cases, because, as you say, there is a current of historical thought which says:
“Ok the colonised countries of Spain have a colonial inheritance associated with caudillismo.”
While it is true that the Spanish colonial legacy left its imprint on Creole politics, especially during independence, and that it is deeply rooted within the political culture of Latin America, I believe that such descriptions prevent us from understanding why in Japan, for example, the machines of clientelism developed at the same time and within a completely distinct political system. Why, in cultures as diverse as the United States, or in countries that are very different from Latin America and Spain, do we find the same bonds and developmental impact of clientelism?
I do not mean to say that long-term cultural structures do not have influence on clientelism, but I think that there are other variables to take into account as well.
Do you believe clientelism to be an inherent part of modern liberal democracy? Or is it an anomaly that is simply perpetuated by power structures?
That is a great question. When one looks at the subject from the last six decades, from around 1950 till now, one finds are two positions. I believe that in the social sciences there has always been a constant tension between the more normative positions, and the positions of sociology and anthropology. First, there are those who consider patronage to be a product of archaic societies. For example, both the Mediterranean and southern European societies were studied as archaic remnants of societies that were then modernised, where patronage was used as a refuge for archaic cultural practices. What then followed was the notion of domination and class subordination, which has always been presented as an oppressive anomaly from the critical theories of the left and liberal conservatives.
Political scientists typically take this path, while sociologists and anthropologists are more concerned with understanding the phenomenon of clientelism, and the complexity of interpersonal relationships. It is this latter view of the sociologists and anthropologists that produced the densest investigations into the links of clientelism, and that demonstrated the different reasons for why links of patronage are not anomalies or deviations, nor even synonymous with backwardness, archaism, or State weakness, but in fact serve a latent function for the social citizen.
Where is the line drawn between what is clientelism and what is corruption? For example right now in the United States, it is normal for politicians to trade positions of power and influence in return for political support (as evidenced by President-Elect Trump), and yet, they are in theory prohibited from trading monetary compensation for votes.
Your question raises two important points.
The first is that client relationships generally involve the exchange of different types of goods, especially when looking at different countries and cultures. There are works on West Africa which demonstrate that politicians have to carry cash when visiting villages in the countryside as a way of returning villagers to the electoral bases of State wealth. In that example money is distributed openly. There are other cases in which public offices, public works, and public contracts with the State are distributed internally. In Latin America, in general, the concern for corruption has to do with the social policies that are linked to the popular classes, and it is this concern that has given the last decades a special intensity regarding clientelism.
Another issue you just mentioned is the very important idea of public and political debate over what is clientelism and what is not clientelism, including public accusations of being “clientelistic”. You also mention the appointment of ministers and secretaries. It is clear that whatever the president-elect does, it will be in favour of his loyalists, as we know that every political leader will put his entourage in key positions to the extent that they can.
Depending on the view, it can be patronage or corruption. That is why I say, when we study this phenomenon, we must also review how actors themselves justify the way in which they divide goods, attribute charges, detach themselves from criticisms, and return these criticisms, because in doing so we distance ourselves from the idea of clientelism as something obscure, secret, and reflexive.
Is it possible for clientelism to exist and function within an oppressive and authoritarian regime?
Remember, interpersonal links are not the links that we associate with clientelism, nor are they the links that we associate with any kind of political regime in particular either. Yet, there are in fact clientelistic interpersonal links in both democratic and authoritarian regimes. It is not an inherent property of one type of regime or another. I would say that in democratic regimes with an intense political life, and with a heavy emphasis on parties and social movements, the bonds between people can be more important than in those authoritarian governments that control politics, mobilisation, and participation. Yet, we must understand that the important thing is the notion of the clientelistic relationship.
When we talk about clientelism, what are we talking about?
We are talking about interpersonal links between people, mediators, brokers, local neighbourhoods, citizens, members of a group, etc. These are political ties, and within these ties there are mobilisations with political tensions, in which there are collective interests at stake. Understanding this, we can see that there is an intense political life behind that concept of clientelism, even where there appears to exist an authoritarian regime that is controlled by two or three people.
That is to say, clientelism isn’t solely based on the distribution of public resources and class interests?
In general terms, contemporary clientelism is closely linked to public goods and class interests, but since class links are personalised links, there may also exist a distributive pledge within the same class. That is to say, clientelism is not limited to inter-class engagements, but intra-class as well. One can say that clientelism does in fact exist between employers who are looking for contracts within the State, and within this setting business class disputes arise over who will have access to State resources.
Returning to Latin America, do you see any connection between the modern manifestation of clientelism, the 30 or so years of Latin American neo-liberal industrial development, and the ensuing debt crisis of the 1980s?
What has appeared in the last 30 years is a crisis of the industrial model of Latin America, and with it the development of the idea that social inclusion is no longer a State responsibility. As a result, there now exists more opportunities to create clientelistic and personal bonds, and more opportunities for political mediators to resolve conflicts between the State and ordinary citizens. For example, in Argentina, we can look at the unions. They have traditionally defended the interests of workers and their affiliates, and they have traditionally demanded social action by the State, with whom there has always been tension. Yet, it is very interesting that recently, the Government, the CGT, and the CETEP all signed a social emergency agreement. It is a perfect example of formal and informal actors working together with the State on behalf of the population. While there is definitely a connection between all of the things you mention, it is a connection with many intermediaries, and it is neither mechanical nor direct.
With the Macri just completing one year in office, and as the author of the highly acclaimed book ‘Mundo PRO‘, what relationship exists, if any, between the rise of Mauricio Macri and clientelism?
I think that all of the political parties in Argentina, some more than others, produce local intermediaries in the middle, upper, and lower classes. These are sectoral intermediaries, and can be seen as a form of patronage. I do not think that this Government differentiates from other governments, nor does it appear to have the traits of the Kirchner Administration that were much criticised. Again, I do not think that clientelism is a trait of governments. I insist that this relationship is a form in which people solve, through personalised links, two problems. On the one hand how to mobilise the population and build strong relationships, and on the other hand, how to gain access to State resources. With these two problems, you find links to clientelism with the PRO, with Kirchnerism, with Radicalism, with whatever. I do not think that it is a “privatisation” of this Government.
What I do find interesting, as I just said, is that this Government has accepted the law of social emergency. It was not in their plans or calculations, but it has accepted the fact that without a policy of welfare or distribution of resources towards the more informal popular sectors, it is not possible to maintain social governance and the social pact of Argentina. It is a pragmatic approach, but it is also a novelty. Lets see how it evolves. Above all else, we do not know what will happen to the economy, nor what will be the social impact with the great recession of this year. Global inflation is up 40%, and food prices are high. There is also economic stagnation, and the fall of consumption. If all of this gets worse, we do not know what will happen.
I do not want to say “long live clientelism”, nor that it is the best thing in the world, but I do want to say that we should not rely on either simplistic nor quick definitions as to the effects that it has.
‘El Clientelismo Político desde 1950 hasta nuestros días’ by Gabriel Vommaro and Héléne Combes is published by Siglo XXI Edtiores and available in most major bookstores.