Politics of patronage and clientelism -- I

Politics of  patronage and clientelism -- I

Structural analysis of various polities of the world leads many scholars and analysts to consider politics of patronage as the seminal feature of their system(s) of governance. After the Cold War ended and the role of the ‘ideology’ ceased to be a defining feature in the wake of the Socialist debacle in 1989-90, the politics of patronage and clientelism took many polities hostage.

It is important to mention that politics of patronage existed in England as well as in America in the 19th century but they managed to wriggle out of it through systemic reforms. However, in some states the malaise had deep roots -- Greece and Italy being the prime examples in the European continent -- that stymied endeavours to embrace democratic norms and practices so that well-being of the masses was ensured.

This phenomenon has raised many questions on the validity of democracy and democratic norms as a recipe for attaining political stability and socio-economic viability. Political systems around the globe call for a new analysis and carefully worked-out reforms so that democratic dispensation can respond to the challenges which have sprung up in recent times. Meaningful reforms become critically important when a state is no longer impersonal and state institutions have been rendered toothless and devoid of autonomy. Thus, a system of checks and balances, a vital ingredient for a functional and efficiently-run democracy, is being deemed more of an obstacle than a necessity. Personality is holding precedence over the institution that has adversely affected the system of governance in prime contemporary democracies.

Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi, Tayyip Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu have come to represent the state and not vice versa. South Asian states (including India, of course) epitomize that trend in a rather glaring way.

To start with, let us try to understand what the politics of patronage and clientelism connotes.

Richard P Saller in his book, Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire traces the roots of the terms patronus and cliens in ancient Rome and states that they "referred to a highly formalised legal relationship between a superior and an inferior that was the basis of power for Roman elites…" The relationship was hierarchical but obligations were mutual. The patron was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client; the technical term for this protection was patrocinium.

Political modernism marked by the emergence of new institutions required a new sociability that provided incentives for behaviour preferring a qualified stranger over a genetic relative.

But the human impulse to exercise patronage and clientelism existed long before it was articulated by the Romans or formalised by the modern political theorists. A political theorist from the University of Stanford, Prof Francis Fukuyama, goes to the extent of locating it "in human biology". According to him, natural human sociability is woven around the phenomena of "kin selection" and "reciprocal altruism". Kin selection is "a recurring pattern whereby sexually reproducing animals behave altruistically towards each other in proportion to the number of genes they share." To put simply, they practise nepotism and favour their relatives. The exchange of favours or resources between individuals unrelated to each other but hailing from the same group of species is what Fukuyama calls "reciprocal altruism".

Thus, patronage is something quite innate or in other words "genetically coded" and not learnt and tend to "emerge spontaneously" as and when individuals interact. From Fukuyama’s assertion one may infer that the socio-political evolution among humans was in utter defiance of their nature, a point which will be discussed some other time.

The attitude of according patronage to family and friends reflects rather conspicuously on the state which Max Weber describes as "patrimonial" in which the state virtually becomes "the personal property of the ruler" and state administration is nothing but "an extension of the ruler’s household". The first signs of patrimonial state in several parts of the world around eight thousand years ago can be found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and Mexico. Natural forms of sociability, reliance on family and friends were quite evident in these states. The tribal, clannish and familial affinity was the primary social setting. This had profound bearing on the state apparatus.

With the advent of modernity as a result of enlightenment in Europe, rule of law and democratic accountability were adopted and the likelihood of a state assuming impersonal character increased. The French Revolution, formulation of Code Napoleon, particularly its implementation in various European states and the outbreak of Industrial Revolution were the historical factors which contributed to the emergence of the modern statehood.

Political modernism marked by the emergence of new institutions required a new sociability that provided incentives for behaviour, preferring a qualified stranger over a genetic relative. Thus came into being institutions that could rein in a ruler with autocratic tendencies; who had the propensity for doling out favours to his kin or friends. The most important of such institutions was bureaucracy.

Similarly, an independent judiciary was of paramount importance to restrain the politician. The 19th century England and USA were beset with patronage which had permeated quite deep in the structure of the state. But both these countries managed to carry out far reaching reforms. In England, one of the early efforts to curb patronage was by Edmund Burke in 1780. Sir Charles Trevelyan and Sir Stafford Northcote drafted a 20-page report in 1854 that ushered in an era of reform in England; the introduction of merit was its cornerstone. It is extremely important that we Pakistanis emulate this effort.

To be continued


Politics of patronage and clientelism -- I