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Clientelism: An Interview with Gabriel Vommaro

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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.

Gabriel Vommaro (photo by Laura Pasotti)

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”......