Comment by Duncan Kinder
One of the more exciting themes that we are going to encounter, IMHO, is when Latino groups begin to assert themselves not only in the sense of being some interest group in the traditional American sense but when they begin to import Latin America political themes, organizations, concepts, and the like and begin to mold things according to their own dynamic. I believe that salsa has already replaced ketchup and it seems to me that tortilla chips have replaced pretzels as the alternative to potato chips. Something like this is going to start happening to politics.
Fabius Maximus replies
We are already seeing this in the Southwest, as Latino groups introduce not only foods, but also their homelands’ politics: the client-patron system. I hope you enjoy it as much as you do salsa and tortillas.
This series consists of the following posts; this is the first in the series.
- Description of client-patron political systems
- Why immigration benefits America’s political elites
- The padrón system in America
1. Description of client-patron political systems
In this system, often called clientelistic, economic and political relationships become personalized to a degree far greater than typical in modern western societies. It is a difference in degree, not kind. Here is a brief description of what we can look forward to.
Hierarchical relationships in which one party feels dependent on the other have long been common in Latin American societies in a wide variety of situations. In agrarian sectors, for example, landowners often provided selective access to monopolized lands and water sources, thereby creating indebtedness and moral obligations while obtaining a steady supply of labor services or scarce skills. There, as in urban contexts with high rates of unemployment, employment opportunities are provided in exchange for loyalty and backing in elections.
- Politicians may secure a loan, a place in a secondary school, a hospital bed, or other special considerations for their employees, “friends of friends,” and followers in return for political loyalty; conversely, people may seek the political protection of a powerful man. In another setting, bureaucrats may provide preferential access to petitioners in return for future favors.
- Poor people may try to establish links with men of rank in order to share in their “social visibility,” while the latter use these links to consolidate their status.
- Market-stall holders may give special treatment to customers of high status to initiate a compadrazgo (ritual kinship) relationship.
- In provincial towns, middlemen may obtain the option to buy everything grown by the campesinos by lending them money during lean months and assisting them when they are in trouble with the law, as landowners of the past did with their serfs or tenants.
- Professional men may seek prestige and a following by offering their services to the rural and urban poor without demanding any immediate return.
- Union activists build the following necessary for them to gain high-level office and control of institutional resources.
… Although clientelistic relations encompass a wide variety of situations, all such relations can be shown to share a number of basic features. Foremost, they are “vertical” (i.e., hierarchical) bonds based on inequality and power differences. They arise in the framework of class inequalities and stratified, class societies in which benefits and resources are distributed selectively to only limited segments of the population. In such societies, patrons from among the dominant and well-off strata monopolize positions vitally important to would-be clients from among lower classes and strata; namely, access to the means of production, the major markets and centers of power and decision-making, and control over the distribution of public goods and community services.
… As these contradictions are built into the clientelistic relationship, they put clients in a dependent position from the start. … Nevertheless, the patron’s position is not as solid as it appears, nor is it guaranteed, for instance, by ascription, that is kinship, tribal, or territorial criteria. On the contrary, patrons invest much time and energy in gaining and regaining control over their clients. This control is never fully legitimated but is vulnerable to attack
- by social forces committed to formal, universalistic principles of social exchange,
- by the competition of other patrons, potential and actual, and
- by the social forces excluded from clientelistic relations.
… Hence, I could not agree more with those like Flynn ( 1974) and Rothstein ( 1979), who see in clientelism a mechanism of class control no less strong than that found in feudalism, and who advise analysts to refrain from exaggerating the voluntaristic aspect of clientelism since coercion is often built into the lack of alternatives faced by clients.
… Consequently, patron-client relations constitute a form of social bond (similar to kinship and friendship) that may become central to institution building under certain conditions, and that constitute a basic ground for regulating the flow of social resources as well as interpersonal and institutional exchange. In other words, clientelism can serve as an easily available metaphor of hierarchy that links specific interests to more long-term obligations and/or commitments. As such, it helps to cement some sort of moral order, be it Hobbessian-like or more generalized and benign.
— From Hierarchy and Trust in Modern Mexico and Brazil, Luis Roniger (1990)
To better understand what we can look forward to, one of the best descriptions is “The Class Basis of Patron-Client Relations”, Frances Rothstein, Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 6, No. 2, Views on Dependency (Spring, 1979). (I see no free copy online, available for purchase here).
This paper describes and analyzes patron-client relations in a rural community in Mexico. It shows that clientelism is determined not by cultural lag or precapitalist conditions but by the nature of dependent capitalism in contemporary Mexico and its particular class structure. … Clientelism or patron-client relations is a form of politics in which ties between leaders and followers are personal. The patron grants favors in return for political support, material goods, and/or other services.
History again repeats itself
Clientelism is a common pattern throughout history. From feudal Europe and Japan to American urban politics (e.g., Tammany Hall in NYC). Much of British and American history consists of attempts to move beyond this — to a system offering people greater opportunity and freedom. Our elites appear to be reversing that progress,
- Concentrated of wealth and income (aka material inequality), as see figure 8.2, page 213 in “Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries“, OECD, October 2008.
- Low opportunity for social mobility (solidification of a class structure)
- Large numbers of migrants from societies with a client-patron system (the catalyst around which the new system forms).
Part II in this series looks at developments in America.
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To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:
About the Constitution and our government:
- Forecast: Death of the American Constitution, 4 July 2006
- The Constitution: wonderful, if we can keep it, 15 February 2008
- Congress shows us how our new government works, 14 April 2008
- See the last glimmers of the Constitution’s life…, 27 June 2008
- Remembering what we have lost… thoughts while looking at the embers of the Constitution, 29 June 2008
- A report card for the Republic: are we still capable of self-government?, 3 July 2008
- Another step away from our Constitutional system, with applause, 19 September 2008