Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Patron-client systems are organized by people of power, both men and women, who build and keep the loyalty of people of more humble position. Both patrons and clients regard the link between them as a personal attachment similar to the bond of affection holding members of a family or kin group together. However, unlike families, where the linkage is regarded as permanent and often is taken for granted, a patron-client relationship must be renewed constantly and renegotiated continuously. Throughout history, clients have provided the work, income, popular acclaim, votes, political allegiance, and military support that patrons need to maintain power and position. For their part, clients have gained protection, access to resources or information, group identity, and opportunities for advancement. Although no modern government would claim to operate according to the principles of patron-clientage, many nations throughout the world are guided by the logic of patron-client transactions. No government escapes the influence of patron-client considerations.
The strength, prominence, and persistence of patron-client arrangements suggest that, along with democracy and authoritarianism, patron-client systems represent a generic form of the way human beings organize their society and govern. Most people think of the modern world as being dominated either by liberal democratic or authoritarian systems. Liberal democracies are characterized by personal liberty and citizen participation. In a liberal democracy, principles such as freedom of assembly and movement, the right to hold property, the right to act without observation in one’s home, and the right to fair trials offer basic protections for all citizens. In addition, liberal democracies are marked by the unrestricted flow of information, multiple political parties, and free and fair elections that allow citizens to select their leaders. Authoritarian systems are characterized by clear lines of command and control emanating from the top. In authoritarian societies, an individual or small group of people direct political and perhaps economic affairs according to what they think is best. Obedience, order, and efficiency are the goals of authoritarianism, while liberal democracies seek to maximize freedom, a vigorous flow of ideas, and political equality.
In reality, in spite of the claims of their governments, many people in the modern world do not live in either democratic or authoritarian systems. Instead, they live in patron-client systems that operate with an entirely different logic. Patron-client systems focus on holding leaders and followers together through a regular exchange of personal favors, support, and protection. Unlike democracies, patron-client systems do not insist on elections, division of power, and the legal protection of individual or corporate rights. Unlike the subjects of authoritarian regimes, people living in patron-client systems make no ultimate concession of obedience to the state or a dominant leader. While both authoritarian and democratic governments generally conduct their affairs within the framework of codified legal structures and pre-set budgets, patron-client systems are not as constrained in their behavior. In patron-client systems an individual’s main preoccupation is building personalized attachments either to powerful superiors or to supportive inferiors. Every arrangement, benefit, penalty, law, and appointment is negotiable. Everything can be purchased and everything can change.
Patron-client systems are among the oldest political forms in the world. Before humans developed self-conscious political systems, people organized themselves around leaders of hunting and gathering bands that were generally composed of people related by blood or marriage. Ideally, the head of the band would have been the father or the oldest male relative. Because such leaders probably acted more as patriarchs, facilitators, and guides, and because society would have been relatively undifferentiated and unstratified, such leaders should not be considered political leaders. Rather, they were simply hereditary heads of families or informal heads of very small communities.
However, as society became more complex, as wealth became more pronounced, and as defense became more challenging, men, and at times women, emerged as leaders and defenders of families or regions. In many parts of the world, archeologists have discovered very early burial sites in which a small minority of the people were interred with symbols of wealth and political power. Presumably, those people were seen as big people, leaders charged with defending and guiding the community. People generally would have used the language of kinship to describe such leaders who would have been regarded as fathers or senior kin. But, in fact, the patron’s entourage was composed of people with varying degrees of genetic attachment and many people were connected to their patrons by bonds of choice rather than blood. This was the beginning of politics.
Ancient Patron-Client Systems
Patron-client systems were very common in ancient times. In the Old Testament, the entire Book of Judges is devoted to describing a patron-client system that functioned between 1200 and 1000 B.C. Although great monarchies dominated Egypt and the Tigris- Euphrates Valley, the area now known as Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon was ruled by warrior leaders who remained in power by standing up against neighboring big men and by nurturing the loyalty of their people. The Greek epic poet Homer’s Odyssey makes it clear that a remarkably similar political landscape existed in the lands bordering the north shores the Mediterranean Sea.
According to the Book of Judges, the times were turbulent as warrior-chiefs (patrons) mobilized followers (clients) to defend against, attack, and plunder their neighbors. A chief who was successful both in providing a secure defense and in taking booty from surrounding peoples was able to stay in office. From the stories in Judges, it is possible to identify the qualities required for a patron to gain and keep power. Military prowess was a requisite virtue. An ability to defend one’s own people, skill in plundering people of other ethnic groups, a willingness to act cruelly and treacherously against rivals and enemies, and an exceptional strategic competence were regarded as key attributes of leadership. While generous and protective toward supporters, patrons killed or extracted labor and material wealth from their enemies. Successful leaders were not bound by ordinary rules of law, but they resorted to trickery and cunning to gain and retain power. The ability to provide material rewards was essential in gaining the support of followers. Often such wealth came from the spoils of battle. “A girl or two for each man,” highly embroidered cloth, ornaments from camels, and golden earrings are some of the rewards that the Book of Judges says was distributed to clients. In addition, patron rulers in the Book of Judges gave their daughters to loyal and successful warriors. As bearers of children and workers, women were regarded as economic assets as much as companions or lovers.
A patron’s power was not measured only in terms of military force or the ability to distribute wealth. Dispute resolution may have been the main way patrons built up a following. For example, in the Book of Judges, the judge Deborah held court under a tree where people came for litigation. Presumably, their appearance was voluntary and was motivated by Deborah’s reputation as an effective mediator. Another source of a patron’s power was dispensing blessings and curses. This may seem inconsequential to modern secular readers, but in pre-modern times such blessings and curses were regarded as highly effective. Both, it was believed, could determine the destiny of an individual or group. In addition, great patrons were thought to be endowed with supernatural powers, such as the extraordinary strength of Samson, an Israelite judge.
A patron’s image
Not only the actions, but the public image of the patron was critically important. A big man or woman (patron) cultivated a persona of strength, generosity, shrewdness, ruthlessness, decisiveness, and courage. Praise singers glorified great patrons as evidenced by the Song of Deborah, one of the most ancient texts of the Old Testament. According to the song, before Deborah came as a defender, villages had been insecure and roads had been abandoned due to the insecurity that gripped the land (Judges 5). Other judge-patrons were lauded for their ability to slaughter enemies. Although exaggerated, the words of praise singers show what people valued in a patron leader. Predictably, one of the greatest dangers for a patron was to be regarded as weak; thus, a common taunt was to charge that a male leader was so inconsequential that he could be killed or subdued even by a female.
One judge-patron, Abimelech, illustrates the severity of being known as weak. Abimelech’s father was Jerub-Baal (also known as Gideon), one of the greatest warrior-patrons of ancient Israel. Living in the eleventh century B.C., Jerub-Baal accumulated many wives and concubines by whom he fathered more than 70 sons, but the large political following he built up during his life fell apart when he died. Abimelech, whose mother was a concubine from the town of Shechem, then mobilized his mother’s relatives who gave him money to “hire reckless adventurers.” With their support, he murdered all of his brothers except the youngest, Jotham, who escaped. In an accusatory speech to the people of Shechem, Jotham likened Abimelech to a dangerous thorn bush that offered refuge to friends and devastation to foes. Jotham’s prophecy proved to be accurate. Furious when the people of Shechem defied him by ambushing and robbing travelers (presumably their defiance was not sharing the loot), Abimelech laid siege against the city, killed its people, and destroyed its fortifications. According to the story, about 1,000 people died when Abimelech set fire to the strong tower where they had taken refuge. From Shechem, Abimelech went to punish another group of disobedient people living in the city of Thebez. Again he stormed the tower where all the people had fled, but as Abimelech prepared to set the tower ablaze, a woman dropped a millstone on his head, severely wounding him. Concerned about his reputation as a great warrior, Abimelech ordered his armor-bearer to end his life with a sword so that people would not remember him as the man killed by a mere woman (Judges 8 and 9).
The political landscape described by Homer’s Odyssey, written around 850 B.C., is similar to that of the Book of Judges. Crafty heroes, not systems, dominate human affairs. In Homer’s Greece, numerous petty kings ruled small groups of clients. Ordinary people were protected best not by bureaucrats or laws, but by the strength and shrewdness of a patron who could deal with a constant succession of novel and formidable challenges. On one level, Homer’s tale of Odysseus was the chronicle of a hero’s struggle against supernatural or superhuman foes and dangers. But, on another level, the story admonished listeners to trust their fate to an honorable and wily champion who would bring them safely through life’s journey. This is consistent with one of the central realities of patron-client systems: patrons are great men and women whose personal charisma, cunning, and strength enable them to emerge as leaders and defenders.
Another central feature of the ancient Greek was the importance of boundless generosity. A good patron was lavish in his display and distribution of wealth. Modern Americans would describe this practice as “pork barrel politics.” The central symbol of such generosity was the feast. For example, at the very beginning of the Odyssey before Odysseus returned home, his house was filled with men who not only were courting his wife (a woman everyone presumed must now be a widow) but also who were enjoying daily feasts at the expense of Odysseus’ son Telemakhos. Telemakhos complained about the constant economic drain caused by men who gathered at his house slaughtering the cattle, sheep, and goats; drinking the best wine; and squandering the family’s wealth. However, both Telemakhos and the many clients recognized that the political preeminence of Odysseus’ house was dependent upon a constant distribution of food and drink. At one point, one of the young men benefiting from the feasting told Telmakhos directly that he could never hope to become king if he failed to entertain the scores of supporters. The nature of the political bargain was made clear by the young man’s words: Telemakhos could not succeed his father if he refused to satisfy the material wants of his clients. Discontent meant that the clients would abandon the house and shift their loyalty and support to a more generous political patron.
The emergence of democracies, tyrannies, monarchies, and empires with their insistence for routinized systems of administration, predictable patterns of taxation and distribution, reliable methods of transferring power, and standardized legal procedures eventually superceded patron-clientage in the ancient world. In Greece, Athens adapted democracy while Sparta developed a highly structured state-centered authoritarianism. Both in Athens and Sparta, institutions and laws replaced the rule of individuals. Although patron-clientage continued to exist in many of the Greek city states, the system was no longer celebrated. This change was reflected in the philosophical writings of the day. For example, both Socrates (c. 469-c. 399 B.C.) and Plato (428-348 B.C.) condemned the characters in Homer’s Odyssey as immoral and unworthy of respect. According to Plato, good rulers were utterly selfless in their thinking and austere in their life.
One should not imagine, however, that patron- client practices ceased to exist in an increasingly institutionalized ancient world. Within the Roman Empire, a polity famed for its efficient bureaucracy and systemic legal code, patron-clientage remained a prominent feature of political life. Successful generals such as Julius Caesar (102-44 B.C.) were able to gain control of Rome by winning the support of their soldiers who benefited from the loot collected in war and by winning the favor of the ordinary people through conspicuous displays of generosity that included extravagant feasts and public entertainment. Successful Roman leaders also depended on the backing of political clients who hoped to advance by means of the money and influence of powerful patrons. With the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D., political control moved east to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium. Palace intrigue, ever-shifting alliances built on the dispensing of rewards or punishments, and the personalized exercise of power were hallmarks of Byzantine politics. In fact, the word Byzantine has come to mean intrigue and unfathomable complexity in the political realm. In any case, Byzantium was a classic example of patron-client politics. Although modern observers tend to criticize the Byzantine system as unworkable and unethical, Byzantium outlasted Rome by almost exactly 1,000 years.
The Middle Ages to the Twentieth Century
In Western Europe, Rome’s political successor was a patron-client system rather than the citizen- centered democracy practiced by the Greeks or the bureaucratic authoritarianism exercised by the Romans. Feudalism, a system that persisted to some degree until the French Revolution, was essentially a highly developed form of patron-clientage. Working within systems of ever-changing and highly personalized alliances, clients and patrons gave and sought contributions and spoils, obedience and loyalty, and deference and security. In the sometimes turbulent world of the Middle Ages (when people could not rely on city-states, empires, or nations for security) people could count on personalized relationships for support and protection. Such relationships could be established more quickly and firmly (essential in a time when old institutions were crumbling) than monarchies or democracies, which often took centuries or millenniums to mature.
The monarchies that eventually emerged to create the modern nation-state system in Europe incorporated many of the principles of the patron-client system. Italian statesman and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) The Prince outlined the methods used by rulers to build and retain a loyal group of clients. Although needing to maintain the appearance of following laws and ethical standards, Machiavelli argued that a successful ruler should be flexible, wily, and willing to punish or reward. Machiavelli did warn patrons of the pitfalls of excessive generosity; nevertheless, he recognized the importance of distributing largesse in order to build up a base of supporters. Monarchs such as Louis XIV of France and Elizabeth I of England were skilled practitioners of many of Machiavelli’s principles.
The modern era
In modern times, patron-client systems have lost the official respect of most politicians and theorists. In Great Britain, patron-client politics were curtailed in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1853, Chancellor of the Exchequer William Gladstone (1809-1898) requested that officials serving in India be selected on the basis of an open, competitive examination rather than through family or political connections. In addition, within Parliament itself, patronage came under fire. Between 1847 and 1866, about 100 newly elected members of Parliament (MPs) were unseated because of electoral corruption. In the United States, patron-clientage, known as the “spoils system” (to the victor go the spoils), reached its high point immediately after the Civil War. The administrations of Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893) were among the most notorious for dispensing favors—political and financial—to party loyalists who used their positions in Congress, in tax collection agencies, in custom houses, in city halls, and in departments such as the Post Office and Interior to amass fortunes and to build solid networks of supporters and sub-clients. In return, both great and small beneficiaries were required to make contributions to the party treasury and to use their offices and influence to promote the election and advancement of members of their party. So powerful was the patron-client system that the real movers and shakers of nineteenth-century American politics were often semi-obscure political bosses operating in “smoke- filled rooms.” The actions of these men were not subject to public scrutiny and many of them did not even hold elected office. Only after a disappointed patronage seeker shot and killed newly elected President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) did the United States pass legislation designed to put an end to patronage. The Pendleton Act (the Civil Service Reform Bill of 1883) mandated that government appointments be made on the basis of open and competitive examinations and that office holders could not be required to make monetary contributions to their party. Although at the time of its passage the Pendleton Act covered only 12 percent of federal government positions, throughout the years the number of positions protected by civil service rules increased. Later, in 1939 the Hatch Act was written to prohibit both federal and state government employees from active involvement in partisan politics. In spite of these efforts, patron-client politics continue to function in America at the local, state, and federal levels.
In other nations of the world, patron-client procedures influence, even dominate, political dealings. Although technically a democracy, Japan has long functioned as a patron-client system. In Latin America, patronage networks, not democratic or even authoritarian principles, guide politics in many countries. In China, the rules of patronage compete with the doctrines of the Communist Party. The same was true in the Soviet Union under communism. Following the fall of communism, Russia has been governed as much through patronage as through either authoritarianism or democracy.
The most prominent patron-client arrangements in modern times are in Africa. Before colonialism disrupted the normal flow of traditional African politics, most people in Africa organized their political affairs according to the principles of patron-client relations. One example would be that of the Salampasu people of the Congo. Although the Salampasu rejected the idea of organizing themselves into a centralized state—states can be both expensive and oppressive for citizens—they developed highly structured forms of political organization. The most prominent feature on the Salampasu political landscape was the big man or patron. Big men competed with each other to attract groups of young men as their followers. By joining a big man’s group, the young men received training and experience as hunters and warriors. They also stood to benefit from the spoils of battles waged by the big men; among the most important rewards given by a big man was access to women. Because the big man’s wealth and power enabled him to obtain numerous women, technically regarded as his wives, he alone could give or withhold permission to sleep with and eventually marry such women. By working and fighting for a big man, young men could obtain enough wealth to “purchase” a wife whose children and labor would now be theirs and not the big man’s. Because women and children were centrally important for farm work and food preparation, a Salampasu man’s wealth and status were determined by his ability to obtain wives and have children.
The task of the Salampasu big man was very challenging. He needed to maintain the appearance of strength, generosity, and fairness. People had to fear his power to punish effectively, depend on his capacity to reward generously, and trust his ability to resolve disputes equitably. These were the essential ingredients in the glue that held his community together. While clients needed a patron, a patron required clients. Without a strong group of clients or followers, a leader would be defeated in battle. Without the wealth he accumulated through his office and through the work of his children and wives, he would be unable to reward his followers and attract new clients. Without the political skill and cunning needed to please and calm his ambitious and contentious band of clients, his entire village could disintegrate.
Although the Salampasu people never developed a centralized state, in many other parts of Africa, powerful and ambitious big men were able to establish institutions of government that continued beyond the patron’s death. While some chiefdoms contained only several thousand inhabitants, others became so large and powerful that they could properly be called kingdoms. But, in virtually every case, the polities operated as patron-client systems. Office holders were collectors of tribute and dispensers of largesse. Generally, such transactions were counted as gifts. For example, an office-seeker or local chief would visit a more powerful central chief and offer “gifts” such as meat, dried fish, cloth, live animals, metal, or women. Gift- giving was particularly active during times of political transition. People hoping to obtain an office would bring gifts to key decision-makers or to people who could give access to such policy makers. The individual bringing the largest gift had the best chance of gaining an appointment. The person or persons receiving the gifts might encourage greater gift-giving by telling each candidate that the choice would be made soon, that they were the most likely choice, and that their chances would be enhanced by an even more generous gift. Of course, the decision-maker could continue this only for so long. Eventually, he or she had to make a selection but, even then, the flow of gifts did not necessarily come to a halt. Now, each loser could be told that the individual who won the position would not likely remain for long and that they, the loser, would certainly be the next choice so long as they retained the favor of the top political players. Another source of tribute revenue came through legal procedures. People involved in court cases were often required to pay a fee. While some of this was to be given as restitution to the aggrieved party, a major portion went directly to the chief who was hearing and deciding the case. When people approached a chief to receive a legal ruling, they frequently came bearing gifts of tribute. People in the Western world consider gifts given in return for a political appointment or to obtain a favorable ruling in court as bribery. For people operating according to the rules of a patron-client system, such gifts are indications of seriousness and support. Someone able to mobilize substantial tribute is a person willing to make a real commitment to the cause. A person able to offer large amounts of money has the support and confidence of those who know him or her best. In addition to their value as measures of personal resolve and peer solidarity, such gifts might be considered user fees that pay for the costs of operating a government.
Someone who obtained a political office by offering tribute could then use that position to generate even more wealth. For example, someone appointed as a lower level chief, judge, tax collector, or ferry-crossing operator could then gather fees and tributes on an ongoing basis. Such an appointee would be expected to share a standard percentage with the patron who had made the appointment. Every office holder, except for the supreme chief, was both a patron and a client. Every person with the power to make a decision, offer access to a higher official, or provide important information had the right to collect tribute. In that sense, political offices became a source of ongoing revenue. Permission was not granted or advancement permitted because of merit or a legitimate claim. Rather, permission and advancement came when the proper amount of tribute had been paid and the proper degree of respect and deference had been offered.
While people of lesser rank often gave tribute to people with more power and status, leaders at the top gave gifts as demonstrations of their power and generosity. At times, such gift-giving was dramatic and lavish. In the nineteenth-century slave trading kingdom of Dahomey, which dominated the territory now known as Benin, the king gave gifts in a spectacular manner. Each year, when officials (the king’s clients) gathered at the capital, a large replica of a sailing ship was pulled into the main square. From the ship, the king’s servants threw out expensive trade goods to the assembled crowds. Such displays were tangible demonstrations that the king was the supreme patron whose strength, courage, and wisdom enabled him to dispense largesse to the entire nation. At these same ceremonies, the king executed slaves as a way to give gifts of tribute to the ancestors and gods who stood above even him.
When African countries became independent, many of them around 1960, most people involved in the transition assumed that the new leaders would establish liberal democratic regimes. Those that did not, it was thought, would pursue the path of communism and Marxism. In spite of these hopes and expectations, by the end of the twentieth century it had become clear that virtually every African country followed the rules of patron-clientism instead of either democracy or communism. Parliaments, elections, budgets, regularized administrative procedures, and official legal codes were all routinely subverted in order to accommodate the values of the patron-client system. Large portions of most African budgets were managed in a way that conformed to the logic of patronage. For example, African heads of state routinely announced that they were giving massive “personal” gifts to schools, churches, communities, individuals, and organizations. If the national football teams won an important international tournament, the president might choose to give each player a personal gift such as a car, house, or money. Or, a communication from the president’s office might tell people that a city’s electricity has been restored because the president generously had donated oil to fuel the municipal generators. Similarly, jailed journalists released from detention were said to have gained their freedom because of the magnanimity of the head of state, not because the constitution or the law protected their right to freedom of the press.
The current-day preoccupation with honoring African heads of state is further evidence of the patron-client system in operation. As chief patron of the nation, the chief executive’s picture hangs in every business, is imprinted on every piece of currency, and appears first on the evening television news. When the president travels around the capital, he is transported in an extensive motorcade that includes elaborately costumed motorcycle riders, numerous armed vehicles, many black curtained limousines, several chase vehicles, and the automobiles of various ministers and government officials. For important occasions, such as the return from a trip abroad, the President is greeted at the airport by the entire cabinet; prominent church, educational, and business leaders; cultural dancers; a sometimes reluctant foreign diplomatic corps; and the press. School children may be marshaled to stand along the road and “spontaneously” cheer the returned leader whose dealings or negotiations abroad are described in a laudatory fashion by the state-owned media.
The fact that so many officials and citizens of African countries accept these patterns as normal suggests that the practices should not be seen as immoral aberrations; rather, they should be seen as competing methods of conducting politics. Although Western politicians, journalists, and bankers condemn the African patron-client system as illegal and wrong, the system’s robust persistence shows that many Africans disagree. To some extent, modern Africans are torn between two worlds. On the one hand, most African states claim to be democratic, and most African legal codes condemn the practices of patronage. On the other hand, both leaders and followers engage in patron-client politics. Many would consider a leader who refuses to dispense patronage as mean or stingy, and many would regard ordinary people who avoid participating in the patronage system as naïve or weak.
Theory in Depth
In spite of their ancient pedigree and their extensive distribution even in modern times, patron-client systems are orphans in the world of political theory. When Francis Fukuyama (1952- ) wrote his 1992 essay The End of History and the Last Man, he argued that only one political system, democracy, had retained its legitimacy and attractiveness at the end of the twentieth century. He noted that fascism and nazism have long been discredited and that the fall of the Soviet Union effectively ended the prospects of communism persisting as a viable system. Fukuyama did not even mention patron-client governments. For Fukuyama, patron-clientism does not exist or is inconsequential. Fukuyama’s views reflect the perspective of the political science community. Unlike other philosophies or systems such as democracy, socialism, communism, or even anarchism, the patron-client system has no supporters, advocates, or theorists. Textbooks about comparative politics generally divide the world’s political systems into democratic or authoritarian arrangements. Such books give scant attention to patron-client systems. Democracies are categorized as parliamentary or presidential, while authoritarian governments are described as totalitarian, communist, fascist, theocratic, or monarchical. Books on comparative politics often assume that governments not fitting easily into one of those two groupings eventually will evolve to become either democratic or authoritarian. Or, it is thought, a few unstable systems, such as Nigeria’s, may continue to vacillate between the two. Implicitly, or even explicitly, such comparative politics books suggest that every nation eventually must choose between democracy and authoritarianism. Other comparative politics books sidestep the matter by placing governments that are neither democratic nor authoritarian into a non-political category. A large number of countries in Africa, Latin America, or Asia are not seen as responsive enough to be democratic or efficient enough to be authoritarian. These countries are then lumped into classifications that are more economic, social, chronological, or geographical than political. These states are often referred to as poor countries, developing nations (not modern), third-world countries, or southern-hemisphere countries. They are not labeled as patron-client regimes, which would place them in a formal political category.
When modern political scientists discuss patron-client systems, they do so in a negative or dismissive manner. Governments strongly influenced by the principles of patron-clientage are regarded as archaic, inefficient, corrupt, and even criminal. Often, patron-client systems are described as systems on the path to collapse. Nevertheless, their resilience, adaptability, extensive distribution, and weed-like ability to spring up almost instantly in a political void are all characteristics that make such systems worthy topics for description and study. In spite of powerful efforts to eradicate patron-client systems, their ability to persist suggests remarkable durability and success.
Criticism of the patron-client system did not begin just with modern political theory. In the Old Testament Book of I Samuel, the people began to complain about the system of judges or patrons. Soon after 1000 B.C., people asserted that their patrons, the judges, were unable to maintain law and order or provide effective defense against invaders. Furthermore, critics expressed their displeasure by saying that their system was obsolete. Neighboring peoples were being ruled by kings. Monarchy was a more prestigious method of governance, and the Hebrew people did not want to be left behind.
In Greece, people came to the similar conclusion that patron-client structures were antiquated and inadequate. Plato expressed this most pointedly when he rejected both Homer and Homer’s heroes. For Plato, the practice of politics was to be above economic and personal considerations. Plato recommended that rulers live with only the barest of material possessions. A good ruler, he said, is someone who owns little or nothing. Plato tried hard to prevent personal loyalty and regard for kinship from affecting political decisions. In order to avoid any conflict of interest between the personal and the public, Plato recommended that top political leaders live in a strict communist setting in which they own nothing and share everything. He even went so far as to suggest that leaders share a community of husbands and wives so that the bonds of marriage would not compromise a ruler’s impartiality and his or her ability to make judgments that were in the best interest of the entire community. Plato challenged the very heart of the patron-client system that celebrates personal loyalty and gives far more weight to relationships than to abstract and impersonal rules or procedures.
Pope Adrian IV
In the Middle Ages, patron-clientage was celebrated. Perhaps the best medieval defense of the patron-client system was made by Pope Adrian IV (1100-1159) who led the Catholic Church in the twelfth century. Adrian’s views were recorded by his friend and critic, the political thinker John of Salisbury (1115-1180). In the twelfth century, both religious and secular institutions were organized according to the principles of patron-client systems. People at the top collected revenue by taxation, by rendering favorable legal judgments, by assisting people seeking appointments to offices, and by confiscating land or money. This wealth was used to support a lavish lifestyle and to gain the support of followers who were loyal so long as they continued to benefit from gifts, appointments, and opportunities to extract wealth from others. Anyone wanting to win a court case, gain a church or state office, or obtain shelter from being preyed upon by more powerful people sought the protection of a reliable patron. Of course, there was a price to pay for that protection.
Adrian’s analysis and defense of the patron-client system came in response to a series of pointed criticisms raised by John of Salisbury. Questioning the very heart of the patron-client system, John asked how patrons could justify the enormous flow of resources into the hands of the political elite. Prudent and cautious, John said he was not speaking for himself but for the many people who regarded the practice of exchanging money for favors and offices as oppressive and immoral. John then listed a host of problems within the Church of Rome. Because the Church in the twelfth century functioned like a secular state, John’s critique would have been equally applicable to the patron-client governments that existed in the rest of Europe. In fact, with its army, extensive network of taxation, court system, and vast administrative structure, the Church had a patron-client type of government that surpassed that of many regions and territories ruled by medieval princes.
John of Salisbury’s message
John began by accusing the Vatican of having become an oppressive stepmother rather than a caring mother. The leaders in Rome, he charged, were vainglorious and proud lovers of money who lived in extravagant luxury. To maintain their opulent life in Rome, they extorted gifts and payments from subordinates throughout Europe. Furthermore, church judges did not decide cases on the basis of justice; rather, they bartered justice for a price. John noted that the only way to get any action from the church bureaucracy was to pay a bribe. In addition, he pointed out that church leaders stirred up strife among people of lesser power and influence in order to keep them from uniting and forcing meaningful change at the highest levels. Even the top leaders could not keep harmony among themselves. In their competition for power, position, and money, they preyed upon each other and their gains were short-lived. The Pope himself, John said sadly, was seen by many people as the worst offender of all. His avarice and duplicity had become an intolerable burden upon the faithful. The Church had become, John of Salisbury asserted, a wanderer in a trackless wilderness. The Church had strayed from the true way and had given itself over to duplicity and avarice. Where, John asked, was humility, self-restraint, and honesty?
Looking beyond the accusatory tone of John of Salisbury’s message, it is clear that he was describing an actively functioning patron-client system. Maintaining the flow of tributes (church taxes, bequests, offerings, bribes, and rents) into the coffers, or treasury, of Rome, the great bishoprics, and the powerful monastic orders was the main preoccupation of the church hierarchy. This money was used to support a lavish lifestyle and to provide political and military security for the top leaders. Although the ordinary people groaned under the weight of oppression, they were unable to unite against prominent leaders who used their money and influence to divide and weaken any potential opposition. In such a system, personal attachments and loyalties— not fair laws and courts, rational budgets, or predictable administrative procedures— determined how decisions were made and carried out. Decisions about church jobs and court cases were made on the basis of payment, not competence or justice. Leaders were far more concerned about building up strong groups of clients than they were with holding to principles and laws.
The Pope’s response
In his response, Pope Adrian IV offered both an explanation and a defense of the patron-client system as it operated in the Middle Ages. A practical politician and administrator, Pope Adrian answered John of Salisbury by using an analogy in which he compared church and state government to the human body. In using this image, Adrian was drawing on an old tradition. Classical Greek and Roman political thinkers had often compared the political community to the body. But, while philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle had always equated political leadership with the head or the brain, the seat of decision-making and thought, Adrian said the leaders should be compared to the stomach instead. Adrian told a fanciful story about how the other parts of the body once became critical of the stomach because it only consumed while they all did the work. They noted that while the eyes did the seeing, the ears the hearing, the feet the walking, and the tongue the talking, the stomach was idle. Yet, it consumed everything. From the perspective of the other body parts, it seemed that the stomach’s only action was to eat what came to the body through their efforts. As a result, those parts of the body decided to go on strike against the stomach. No longer, they agreed, would they put anything into the lazy stomach. The result, said Adrian, was nearly fatal because all the parts became too weak to function. After giving the matter some thought, they realized their plight had come about because of what they had done to their supposed idle enemy. They finally realized that the stomach was the most essential organ of the body for it served as a supplier for all the other parts. If the stomach went hungry, all went hungry. Newly enlightened, the other body parts then decided to “fill the stomach.” The result was the restoration of all the parts and the return of peace. The stomach, asserted Adrian, should not be regarded as evil. The stomach was not eating just for itself, but for the entire body.
Pope Adrian’s point was that the patronage in a political system should be respected and accepted, not condemned. Instead of begrudging the lavish rewards obtained by high church or political leaders, people should recognize the essential nature of their leaders’ work. Explicitly comparing the food entering the stomach to tribute demanded by temporal princes, Adrian reminded John of Salisbury that without very large inflows of wealth into the political system, nothing could flow back to government functionaries or to the people themselves. Like a paymaster in the army, a king, pope, or prince could distribute goods and services in the commonwealth only so long as resources were coming in constantly.
The Middle Ages
At the popular level, medieval ideas of government were even more supportive of patron-client concepts. The medieval lord or knight was portrayed as the beneficent embodiment of the big man, the central figure in a patron-client system. As can be seen in medieval mythology such as the stories of King Arthur, the big man was regarded as a defender of the peace who slew supernatural foes such as dragons and protected the people against temporal foes such as robbers and enemy warriors. The big man was also a defender of truth and morality. While Arthur’s knights searched for the Holy Grail, a symbolic way of saying that they sought the restoration of divine grace and perfection on earth, other medieval big men struggled to destroy Muslims and Turks, people thought to epitomize aggressive forms of chaos and evil. Finally, the big man was regarded as an individual of great strength, courage, and piety. Social order and good government did not come because of structured and institutionalized bureaucracies or systems. Rather, they depended upon the personal qualities and character of a big man at the center. Such leaders had more in common with the ancient heroes like Deborah or Odysseus than with modern monarchs or tyrants.
The Middle Ages marked both the high point of patron-client political systems and the beginning of modern authoritarian monarchies that can be seen as institutionalized and centralized adaptations of patron-client arrangements. Therefore, the medieval period was marked by thinkers making an intellectual transition to monarchy. The great medieval theologian and political thinker Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) saw patron-clientage as consistent with the very nature of the universe God had created. First, like the ancient Greeks, Aquinas observed that human beings, and even many animals, were intended to live in groups. Second, Aquinas believed that just as the universe required a divine creator and guide, the human community needed a political guide or head. Although Aquinas was speaking of monarchies, he noted that kings bore a certain resemblance to the father (pater or patron) of a household. Thus, Aquinas continued to think of the monarchy in terms of patron-client concepts. Very suspicious of democracy, he insisted that the best political system would be organized around a father-like figure. But, rejecting tyranny, he insisted that political rule must aim at the common good of the multitude rather than the private good of the ruler. The ruler, said Aquinas, must function as a shepherd whose task is too feed the flocks. Unlike Adrian IV, Aquinas was not willing to justify the most crass elements of the patron-client system. While Adrian defended the greedy patron, Aquinas said “woe to the shepherds that feed themselves,” and he condemned the tyrant who “seeks his own benefit.” Nevertheless, Aquinas did not reject the concept of a patron-client type of government. He only insisted that the sheep as well as the shepherd should be fed.
It is evident that for both Pope Adrian and Aquinas, the image of “eating” was central to the patron-client system. But, this concept was most fully developed in African political thought. In traditional Africa, political ideology was recorded not in books or letters, but in myths and legends passed down from one generation to another through oral recitation. By telling stories, many of them entirely imaginary, African people expressed their opinions about what worked, what was moral, and what had always existed. Often their deepest political and social values were articulated by describing a man or woman who supposedly was the original human being, the first settler in the land, the founding chief, or the initial farmer or hunter. That person and his or her actions were regarded as normative for all times. What they did was seen as ideal and a model for successive generations.
The Legend of Kuaba
Legendary stories of political origins in Africa describe a patron-client system. The Kanyok people who live in the Congo tell one story about an original settler-chief named Kuaba. (The term kuaba means “to distribute”). According to the tale, Kuaba was a great hunter who came to a land where people did not know how to hunt. He killed a large animal and distributed the meat to the grateful locals. As a result, the local people made Kuaba (the distributor) their chief, and his descendants have continued to rule the area. Clearly, Kuaba is a big man in a patron-client system. Had he lived in modern America, his name would not have been “Kuaba” but instead would have been “Pork Barrel.” Furthermore, “Pork Barrel” would have been regarded as a title of honor, not of scorn. Other Kanyok stories affirm the central importance of patron-clientage to politics. Many stories talk of chiefs who fell from power because they became drunk and failed to hold a feast or distribute food. These stories should not be taken literally any more than the American cliché “he threw his hat into the ring” should be understood as a statement about headgear. The accusation of drunkenness was another way of saying a chief was inept or weak. The failure to hold a feast was a symbol for not sustaining the practice of redistribution, which was essential to the entire patron-client system. Kings and chiefs did not lose their office because they refused to follow the law, because they were dishonest, because they made unpopular appointments, or because they did not protect human rights. Rather, they fell from power because they were unable to redistribute political spoils to their supporters. As a result, their followers drifted away and transferred their allegiance to another chief or contender for office. The true test of a system was not whether it was law-abiding, democratic, or efficient in terms of achieving goals. The true test was its success in satisfying the people through the practice of pork barrel politics.
While in much of Africa patron-client values have remained the ideal even in modern times, in Western society patron-clientage has given way to more supposedly rational forms of politics and economics. In The Prince, Machiavelli rejected the idea of generous material liberality, the lynchpin of patron-clientage. Machiavelli noted that a ruler who spent his or her own resources on building up a base of supporters would eventually run out of wealth and lose the ability to retain people’s loyalty. A ruler who spent the resources of others would need to tax or plunder his subjects to obtain the means to maintain the patronage system. Such a policy would result in resentment and hostility leading to disloyalty and even revolt. Better, Machiavelli argued, to be seen as a miser than as rapacious.
Rousseau and Beyond
Later Western political thinkers unanimously agreed that the capricious and materialistic aspects of the patron-client system were both inefficient and immoral. Swiss-French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is but one example of such thinkers. To some extent, twentieth-century governments, whether democratic or authoritarian, follow in the wake of Rousseau. Like virtually all other modern thinkers, Rousseau vests complete authority in the state. While one may argue about whether he was a precursor of democracy or totalitarianism, it is clear that he left no place for individual challenges to the sovereignty of government. A legitimate government expressed the “general will” that superceded all expressions of parochial interests. There was no place for selfishness in Rousseau’s state. The rule of law, not the rule of individual patrons, was the only guarantee of human freedom.
In any case, with Rousseau and almost all thinkers since his time, political philosophers assumed that equality and impartiality were essential for a well-functioning government. One person-one vote, secret ballots, impartiality before the bar of justice, and equal access to all government services are key components of political systems that reject the principles of patron-clientage. Modern governments, whether democratic or authoritarian, claim to be fair, impersonal, and predictable. Systems not heroes, budgets not bribes, and courts not connections are supposed to govern political affairs in the modern state.
The thinker who did the most to challenge the moral and philosophical underpinnings of patron- client practices was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). A child prodigy, Bentham developed the intellectual foundations of modern utilitarianism. In his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), Bentham argued that the only legitimate basis for judging any political action was to measure the pleasure or pain that action produced. Reason tells us, he said, that no one can justify actions that result in more pain than pleasure. Even painful endeavors such as war or punishment of criminals are carried out in the expectation of reducing pain and increasing pleasure in the long run. Central to Bentham’s thought was the idea that pleasure and pain needed to be judged according to how extensively they were experienced. While criminal activity might conceivably bring pleasure to one individual, the sum total of the pain experienced by the many victims would far exceed the sum total of the pleasure experienced by the criminal. While a bribe might benefit both the giver and the taker, their gains would be more than offset by the totality of losses to society as a whole. Bentham’s reasoning led him to reject political actions or systems that rewarded individuals at the expense of the larger group. Predictably, he opposed all patron-client arrangements. One of Bentham’s central ideas was that all political appointments should be based on merit and that merit must be ascertained through open and competitive examinations. More than any other thinker, Jeremy Bentham has been credited with having affected the direction of modern British domestic politics. Many of his followers were elected to Parliament, where they put his principles into law. In the 1800s, Britain adapted a public health system, a national education system, open competition for civil service jobs, and more rational methods of organizing government departments. All of these reforms resulted in more equitable government systems that provided higher levels of service to every citizen regardless of social standing or personal connections. Now, people had a right to government assistance simply because they were English citizens, not because they managed to attach themselves to a powerful patron. Now, individuals were appointed to positions of leadership because of competence and intelligence rather than because of their family or wealth. While actual practices often fell short of these ideals, nineteenth-century England did make important progress in moving away from a patron-client system.
John Rawls (1921-), who speaks of the importance of a “veil of ignorance,” built an entire theory of justice on principles that challenge the deepest inclinations of people operating patron-client systems. His theory proposes that a person’s wealth or status should have no bearing on governmental policy. To make this happen, Rawls argues that every decision-maker should act as though he or she has no knowledge of whether they would benefit or lose from their decision, no knowledge of their social standing or economic position, and no knowledge of their strengths or weaknesses. Any expectation of personal gain or advantage should be put aside when public affairs are at stake. Thus, taxes should be assessed with the complete fairness and objectivity that could come only if the decision-maker could not know how he or she would be affected. Thus, legal penalties, zoning decisions, or constitutional changes should always be put into place by people acting as though they have no inkling of the consequences for themselves. In contrast to Rawls’ veil of ignorance, a patron-client system is based on the premise that every political decision is made in order to give special advantage to favored individuals.
Bentham and Rawls are but two of many modern political thinkers struggling with the issue of objectivity and fairness. For these thinkers, a concern for absolute even-handedness and impartiality represents one of the most critical tests of any good government policy. A second set of tests measures efficiency. Can a given policy or action be implemented with the lowest possible cost and effort for the greatest possible result? Political philosophers such as Rawls and Bentham are the ideological voices of modern government. Whether democratic or authoritarian, all modern governments have gained, or claim to have gained, a monopoly over the values and resources that had once been controlled by successful patrons for unequal distribution to their clients. Modern bureaucracies regularize everything so that favoritism is both difficult and illegal. Long-range budgets make it hard for political leaders to use government resources to cultivate privileged constituencies. Civil service examinations prevent leaders from making non-merit appointments to their favorites. The hope is that these measures will bring high levels of efficiency and fairness. All of the resources of the state will be used for the greatest common good and happiness. Nothing will be diverted for the private pleasure and power of a privileged elite supported by a cadre of followers purchased through political spoils. Most apologists for modern government regard patron-client systems as dangerous and immoral enemies that must be eliminated.
Goran Hyden, an academic who has also worked with development agencies in Africa, advances a more sympathetic analysis of patron-client systems. Labeling patron-client systems as “economies of affection,” Hyden notes that in many countries of the world, people make economic and political decisions with the expectation of solidifying personal relationships rather than with the hope of material profit. People who manage to acquire surplus resources invest their wealth in other people, not in impersonal operations. Thus, a man or woman with extra money will give the money either as a gift to a patron or a loan to a client. They are less likely to put the money in a bank or even plow it back into their own private business. Hyden argues that people investing in the “economy of affection” do so quite rationally. For many people, the most reasonable option is entrusting the wealth with a patron or client in hopes of reaping future favors or assistance. By accepting the gift, a patron obligates himself or herself to provide future protection, partiality, and aid. By taking a loan, a client enters into a relationship of personal and financial liability. Banks may collapse and businesses are risky. Investing money in patrons or clients who are friends and relatives is regarded as more secure. Just as people with material wealth invest in the economy of affection, people with political resources or needs do so as well. Someone with the power to appoint, to offer a contract, or to make a legal decision will do so in a way that strengthens a personal bond. Instead of offering an official job to a person who has no personal link to the giver, it is more logical to offer the job to someone who would need to and who would be able to return a favor.
Theory in Action
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, patron-client systems had no philosophical advocates nor were they embodied in any formal constitutional or legal structures. From the perspective of political theory or constitutional law, patron-client systems do not exist except as aberrations and illegalities. Nevertheless, when looking at how governments actually function, patron-client systems continue as active members of the modern political community.
Many governments in Asia follow the principles of patron-clientage. For example, the Suharto family of Indonesia and the Marcos family of the Philippines amassed enormous fortunes and great political power through a system of awarding favors to themselves and richly rewarding their political cronies. Although both countries held elections, people voted along the lines of patronage blocs. Both countries contained some of the marks of authoritarian systems, but bureaucrats, party officials, and regional constituencies acted according to the rules of patron-clientage; they followed presidential orders only if they believed they could extract substantial personal or group rewards by doing so. Additionally, people in those countries organized themselves into political parties, even though personal loyalty was far more important than ideologies or political principles. Both countries also had carefully crafted legal systems, but court cases were decided on the basis of friendship and client support rather than on judicial merit.
Decidedly more democratic than either Indonesia or the Philippines, India has also been ruled by a patron dynasty. In India, the Nehru family (Motilal Nehru, Motilal’s son Jawaharlal, Jawaharlal’s daughter Indira Gandhi, and Indira’s sons Rajiv and Sanjay) controlled a patronage network associated with the dominant Congress Party. Protection for Indian businesses, subsidies for workers and farmers, and bureaucratic jobs for party loyalists were important elements of patronage dispensed by the Congress Party and the Nehru dynasty. As in Indonesia and the Philippines, high-ranking people benefited personally from special financial arrangements that grew out of their political influence.
Japan offers an important example of the tension between the theoretical ideal of democracy and the day-to-day reality of patron-clientage. The Japanese constitution, written after World War II by the American occupation authorities, is highly democratic. However, the actual operations of the Japanese political system are conducted as much according to the rules of a patron-client system as they are according to the principles of liberal democracy. This is especially evident in the operations of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s dominant political party. The LDP name suggests both that it is liberal (open, free, and innovative) and democratic (a bottom-up organization giving great voice to the people). For almost all of the post World War II period, Japanese politics have been dominated by the Liberal Democratic Party. Although founded in 1955 to prevent the emergence of a socialist government, the party is not organized around a political ideology. Rather, the party is made up of groups of party factions whose main goal is to attract faithful clients and to obtain and distribute the spoils of patronage. The leaders of the factions stay in power by rewarding their supporters and making alliances with other faction leaders. No faction leader has a political platform or agenda that is much different from the platform or agendas of other leaders. The key qualification for becoming a faction leader is demonstrated success in accessing funds for the faction. Such funds might come from the central party treasury or from arrangements, often secret, with big business.
Ambitious party members make their way up through the ranks of the party, not by staking out a clear ideological position or even by appealing directly to the voters. Rather, they advance by attaching themselves (as clients) to powerful factions or faction leaders (patrons). A junior politician who is successful in gaining the support of a strong political patron can count on party sponsorship during a campaign. This sponsorship brings him or her money, assistance in organizing, and aid with publicity. The top faction leaders or patrons who extend this help then can count on the backing of their client colleagues when making a bid for a cabinet position or even for the posts of prime minister or LDP president. To a very large extent, the LDP is devoid of ideology or a clearly articulated political agenda. As a result, internal debates within the party do not deal with ideological differences but with personal loyalty and the distribution of political spoils. Personal popularity or great oratorical skills are not important ingredients for political advancement in the Japanese patron-client arrangement.
Because political advancement depends on successfully manipulating the patron system, Japanese politics tends to be dominated by older politicians who have had time to build up a base of clients. As a result, when a faction leader dies, another senior leader takes over and attempts to hold the faction together by using the same patron-client practices. These senior members of the LDP are involved in deals, intrigues, and maneuvers designed to maximize their power and influence. Money and promises are the main resources they use in a quest that is for personal political gain rather than for the public good. In a patron-client system, people with political power use their position or influence to dispense favors, open doors, or help others circumvent rules. In return, they receive money, loyalty, and support. Both in the 1970s and 1980s, Japanese prime ministers and other high officials were implicated in scandals involving bribes, expensive gifts, and stock. By accepting money from large corporations such as the Lockheed Corporation or Recruit Company, those politicians gained resources that they could use to maintain their hold over lower level politicians (clients) in their factions.
In its internal operations, the LDP functions as a network of political patrons and clients. Since the time of its founding in 1955, the LDP has protected its primary client base of business and farmers. Farmers are heavily subsidized and protected, while businesses are shielded from competition from abroad. In return, both groups have provided unwavering loyalty to party bosses. Even after Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (1918-1993) was convicted of taking bribes in 1983, his faction remained dominant because he was a master of patronage and protection. Tanaka’s group lost out to another faction only after he suffered a debilitating stroke.
Perhaps because patron-client structures are so pervasive internally, Japanese politicians accept an international political arrangement that is essentially patron-client in nature. After suffering defeat in World War II, Japan switched from being America’s enemy to becoming one of America’s friends. To a large extent, the relationship was a patron-client association. Not only did the United States act as demilitarized Japan’s main protector, the United States also served as Japan’s main export market. As Japan’s patron, the United States provided both military and economic security. In return, Japan as client offered friendship, loyalty, and deference.
To a large extent, the patron-client system that dominates Japanese politics reflects the type of arrangements the Japanese use in their families. Traditional Japanese families look to a patriarch, an individual sometimes referred to as the “main pole,” for leadership, protection, and guidance. In a family, personal attachment is far more significant than rules or abstract formulas. The family is governed by bonds of affection and trust. People within the family are given preference over people outside the family; no one would think it unfair or unethical if a family member received special treatment that gave him or her an advantage over non-family members. People find their personal security in the partiality offered to them in a family. An individual is protected, assisted, and honored because he or she is in the family. In Japan, the same kind of logic prevails within the larger political world. What outsiders see as corruption and chicanery is regarded by people in Japan as faithfulness or even patriotism. They find nothing wrong with awarding government contracts to political supporters, and they are willing to pay higher prices for products in order to protect Japanese businesses. Until the recession that plagued Japan throughout much of the 1990s, few Japanese people questioned the cozy patron-client relationships that dominated politics or that bound politics and business.
Argentina and Mexico provide examples of how patron-client systems have long dominated politics in Latin America. Juan Perón (1895-1974) and Eva (Evita) Perón (1919-1952) exemplified all the characteristics of successful patrons, including gift-giving and an image of being larger than life.
Mexico has also been governed according to the principles of patron-clientage. Until the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, throughout most of the twentieth century, Mexico was ruled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). PRI has claimed to be revolutionary, radical, Marxist, democratic, and nationalistic. None of these labels are entirely appropriate; Mexico could have been more accurately described as a patron-client system.
As in Japan, much of the patronage in Mexico has been exercised through a dominant political party. Until the year 2000, elections in Mexico did not reflect the principles of open democracy, even though the country had always claimed to hold competitive, multi-party elections. Throughout most of Mexican history, elections have not been authentic contests in which the ruling party risked losing its power. In fact, PRI’s dominance had been so great that the party sometimes secretly subsidized moderate opposition parties to maintain a façade of democracy, to make sure that the opposition remained moderate (feared biting the hand that fed it), and to weaken support for potentially more radical critical voices. In addition to supporting a non-threatening opposition, PRI leaders have actually disqualified some of their own candidates for parliament in order to make way for cooperative opposition leaders. In this way, even opposition parties benefited from the spoils of patronage.
In Mexico, the key figure in the patronage network has been the president, who traditionally served for one six-year term. As both head of the party and head of the government, the president was responsible for thousands of political appointments, which in turn provided numerous individuals with access to lucrative rewards. Party loyalists received positions in the cabinet, the bureaucracy, public corporations, and nationalized industries. Other faithful individuals were tapped to serve as regional governors. Historically, such people have benefited by an unwritten law that allowed them to participate in and overlook a certain level of corruption and/or political favoritism leading to personal enrichment.
Mexican society was structured into corporate associations that long have organized clients into manageable groups. For example, workers, farmers, professional people, businesses, and government employees were grouped together in associations that were expected to represent the interests of their constituents. In principle, that means the leaders of these groups could have an adversarial relationship with the government. In reality, the leaders of these groups were political clients approved by the PRI or the president. Such leaders do not count success in terms of legislation or regulations that benefit their constituents, especially if such benefits come at the expense of the ruling elite; rather, they measure success in terms of the personal benefits they themselves receive. For example, government-approved labor leaders receive substantial personal benefits in return for making sure that labor unions do not become overly critical of government, that they do not go on strike, or that they do not make wage demands that could harm big business.
In the past, patronage flowed not just to friends of the regime, but also to potential opponents. University graduates, men and women who may have been radical critics of the government and the party during their years in school, were appointed to important government positions or were given contracts to serve as highly paid consultants. Such co-opted individuals soon softened their criticism; however, opponents who refused to take advantage of the spoils they were offered found themselves in great difficulty, such as being put in jail. But, if they repented and expressed their loyalty to the system, they sometimes moved directly from jail to high-level jobs in the government.
Propaganda and payoffs
Another important element of the Mexican patron-client system has been the skillful use of propaganda and indoctrination. Through the press, educational institutions, and party rallies, people are told that they benefit greatly from the generous patronage of the PRI. For example, during presidential campaigns, the PRI candidate would visit every region of the country dispensing gifts and political favors. Several times in history, the government nationalized foreign corporations or seized and redistributed land to the poor. These acts were portrayed as having provided substantial payoffs to ordinary people who were expected to vote loyally for the party. Although in actuality, well-placed individuals or organizations tended to be the ultimate beneficiaries of such nationalization and redistribution, the media and the government were successful in convincing people otherwise. Since the government sold newsprint paper to favored newspapers at highly subsidized prices, it could also punish or threaten to punish uncooperative editors and publishers. Furthermore, the government was not afraid to use violence and intimidation against students, politicians, or labor leaders who expressed opposition or discontent.
While many people have criticized the Mexican political system as corrupt and inefficient, the actual record has been quite positive. First, the Mexican patron-client system has proved to be extremely stable during most of the twentieth century. Mexico’s presidents have all served their full six-year terms. None have been ousted by a coup, and none have attempted to remain in power beyond their elected tenure. Second, Mexico’s military has been firmly under civilian control and makes no attempt to influence policy. Third, Mexico has experienced strong economic growth in the post-World War II period. Associated with this growth has been a substantial increase in personal income and a massive transformation of the population from rural to urban. Fourth, Mexico has managed to provide a reasonable level of social and educational services to a rapidly growing population. By the end of the twentieth century, Mexico had greatly reduced illiteracy. Finally, although not democratic itself, Mexico’s patron-client system provided the foundation for a transition to genuine democracy. Prior to the election of Vicente Fox (1942- ), President Ernesto Zedillo (1951- ), although an active participant in the patronage system, used his power and influence over the PRI to insist that the 2000 elections be free and fair. As a result, Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party (PAN) won the presidential election. While Mexico may continue to operate according to the logic of patron- clientage, the highest patrons will be subject to voter approval.
Of all the continents in the world, Africa has the most persistent and powerful patron-client political systems. Liberian Presidents William Tubman (held office from 1944 to 1971), William Tolbert (in office from 1971 to 1980), Samuel Doe (1980 to 1989) and Charles Taylor (elected in 1997) are examples of how chief executives function as chief patrons. These men used the resources of the state to channel funds and favors to loyal supporters. All relied on symbolic displays of largesse to show the people that they were generous patrons. At least one time, Doe reputedly drove around Monrovia tossing out $20 bills to people on the streets. All four presidents would attend important functions at schools, churches, neighborhoods, and villages where they “personally” donated large sums of money to grateful constituents. Like previous Liberian presidents, they maintained enormous farms clearly visible from busy roads. Critics of the presidents charge that the purpose of the farms—private operations heavily subsidized by public funds—was to satisfy the personal greed of the chief executives. However, since it would have been easier to pocket the state funds directly rather than channeling them through an agricultural enterprise, the true purpose of the farms was more complex. The farms were started as a high profile way of telling the Liberian population that as the country’s chief farmer, the president was the country’s chief provider. As important, but lesser patrons, government ministers also maintained farms, albeit on a somewhat more modest scale. In addition to portraying themselves as generous providers, Liberian presidents cultivated an image of power and strength that included cruelty and capriciousness. Like a strong father, the patron president either rewarded or punished depending upon the client’s degree of loyalty. The patron president’s image was carefully manipulated by the state-controlled media that presented him as strong and magnanimous. Media images of power, wealth, generosity, and harshness reinforced the perspective that all rewards and punishments ultimately originated from the nation’s chief patron who had both the resources and the will to reward and punish.
Generally seen as the champion of patron-clientage, President Mobutu Sese Seko (1930-1997) of Zaire presided over a vast patronage system that lasted from 1965 until 1997. Ruling through the army and his political party, Mobutu presented himself as the father of the nation, the founder of the political party, the head of state, and the dispenser of all benefits. Although he began his rule as a typical patron, not all that different from presidents such as those who ruled Liberia, by the end of his tenure, virtually 90 percent of all state resources were channeled through his hands. Revenues from giant state-owned or state-controlled mining companies went directly into his personal accounts. While some of the money was used to support an ostentatious lifestyle, much of it was redistributed to political clients within the government or party. At the top of the client heap were the Grosses Legumes (roughly translated as big enchiladas or big shots) who gained enormous wealth in return for their loyalty and protection. These Grosses Legumes built patronage networks of supporters who received kickbacks, lucrative positions on boards of directors, or opportunities to siphon off money from state controlled banks or corporations. As a result, Zaire’s economy spiraled downward into virtually a complete collapse. By the end of his life, Mobutu’s only preoccupation was maintaining the support of his key clients. Since the economic system was no longer able to supply him with enough resources to pay off his clients, Mobutu simply turned his clients loose to plunder at will. These men and women were allowed to run illegal diamond mining and smuggling operations, to launder money and transport drugs for international criminals, and to extort money from the remaining businesses and travelers in the country. As a staunch ally (client) of the United States and France, Mobutu benefited from foreign aid, especially during the cold war. Instead of being used for development—for example improving roads, hospitals, or schools—the money from foreign aid was rerouted to maintain the patron-client system.
In the end, Mobutu’s patronage system collapsed because the beneficiaries were unable or unwilling to make a positive contribution to the economic life of the nation. Because both patrons and clients acted as parasites on the nation’s economy, the economy suffered. Many businesses, forced to make payments to predatory political patrons, either operated with very narrow profit margins or became bankrupt. Some businesses withdrew into a shadowy underground world where the line between legal and illegal activities became blurred. In the end, some of Zaire’s most successful businesses were connected to international criminal transactions that became central pillars of Zaire’s economy by the 1990s.
Another example from Africa is the government of Kenya. In 1998 terrorists bombed the U.S. Embassies in Nairobi, killing about 200 people. Local TV and radio coverage of the event illustrated the importance of the patron-client system for Kenyans. Instead of focusing primarily on the number of dead and injured, the government’s progress in tracking down the terrorists, or the physical damage to downtown Nairobi, official media devoted the majority of their attention to stories praising President Daniel Arap Moi (1924- ). The media described Moi visiting the injured in hospitals, Moi promising to donate funds to assist families of the bereaved, Moi encouraging rescue workers, and Moi vowing not to rest until the “perpetrators were brought to book.” While the TV and radio did report on the dead and injured, on the destruction, and on the investigation, the main character in every story was the president. Some Kenyans and American observers saw this as a crass example of how Moi used a monumental tragedy for personal political advantage. But, many Kenyans were extremely grateful for the news coverage—it showed that in times of great adversity, the person at the very top of government took a personal interest in those who suffered. It also demonstrated that the patron was in charge and would work tirelessly for his people. At a time when the entire nation was in shock and mourning, the president responded to his clients’ deepest political concerns.
In most countries of the world where patron-client arrangements dominate politics, parastatal companies are critically important components of the system. A parastatal business is state-owned and managed, although it produces goods and services that would come from the private sector in a free-market economy. In countries such as the United States, the post office operates as a parastatal. But, in patron-client counties, energy, manufacturing, tourism, banking, telecommunications, and even agriculture might be dominated all or in part by parastatals. Because the state is either the sole or majority share-holder, the board of directors and the top management personnel are appointed by the government. As a result, such appointments often are made on the basis of ethnic, political, or personal loyalty rather than on the basis of competence or experience. Because the appointments are regarded as rewards, the patrons (those who make the appointments) expect the clients (those who are appointed) to continue expressing their fidelity by channeling money back to the patrons. This might be in the form of direct payments or it might be in the form of sweetheart contracts with companies owned by the patron. Also, because the appointments are seen as rewards, there is little effort on the part of the patron to insist on either competency or integrity on the part of the client. In turn, people appointed to high positions in parastatals function as patrons to friends and family members who receive jobs, below-market prices, or non-competitive contracts.
Often, parastatals are used by high government officials to strengthen their support among the citizenry. For example, a parastatal mill and bakery might produce bread at very low prices. Since, as the corporate owner, the government will underwrite any financial loss, the mill and bakery managers are not concerned if low prices take away any potential profits. Their main concern is pleasing their political and economic patrons at the top of government. For their part, the powerful political patrons running the government hope that low bread prices will win them favor in the hearts of the masses. Again, since operating losses are covered by government revenues and do not come out of the politicians’ own pockets, the high-positioned patrons are not concerned about profitability or efficiency. In the end, an important economic enterprise, in this example a mill and bakery, have been captured by the patron-client system. Patron-client loyalty, rather than sound economic practices, becomes the guiding managerial concerns.
Analysis and Critical Response
Today, patron-client systems are universally condemned by political theorists. Joel Migdal’s classic book Strong Societies and Weak States has outlined a number of the problems that plague patronage systems. It is tempting to see the patron-client system as a calculated effort on the part of the political elite to maintain itself in power by purchasing the loyalty of its immediate entourage and of the masses of the people. Migdal, however, suggests that the leaders in a patron-client structure are actually captives of a web of never-ending obligations that originate from below. To maintain his or her system of clients, a leader must constantly reward these clients because dissatisfied followers will shift their loyalty to a more generous benefactor. In order to stay in power, a patron president must provide top officials with a steady stream of favors or opportunities to make money. Those officials, in turn, must do the same for their immediate subordinates. The main goal of people in the system becomes survival, not policy implementation. In fact, the politics of survival often undermines policy. For example, a government budget may allocate funds for much needed roads, roads whose construction would improve the economy and advance government priorities. However, in order to keep the loyalty of high officials or political bosses, a president might be obligated to overlook massive fraud that diverts money designated for transportation into the pockets of his “supporters.” For their part, the “supporters” need the money to satisfy the expectations of their own clients. Migdal also notes that in a patron-client system, the patron at the top must constantly be alert to the possibility that a political competitor might build up a more robust network of clients and make a bid to unseat the patron. To avoid that danger, a head of state will engage in something Migdal calls the “big shuffle.” With the big shuffle, a leader periodically rotates top officials in order to prevent them from building a firm base of client support. For example, a president may dismiss an entire cabinet and then reappoint all or most of the members to new posts. Thus, a former minister of transportation might become minister of finance. While this process results in great inefficiencies, it undermines a minister’s efforts to establish a clique of supporters within his or her own ministry. Similarly, in order to dilute the power of a potential rival, a president might create a duplicate agency or department. This has the added advantage of creating an entirely new group of loyal clients. The disadvantage, of course, is inefficiency and confusion.
Although most political analysts denounce patron-client systems, their pervasiveness and persistence suggests that they may offer benefits that must be acknowledged. First, patron-client systems are adaptable and flexible. Like weeds in a newly defoliated landscape, patron-client systems spring up to provide some sort of government where previously there was none. Nobles in the Middle Ages, warlords in collapsed modern states, and strongmen in the struggling regimes of the former Soviet Union all attempt to impose order, no matter how exploitative or corruptible, upon societies where formal government has ceased to function. In time, these nobles, warlords, and strongmen may succeed in establishing legitimate governments. Most of the monarchies of the world began from the seeds of patron-clientage. At a more mundane level, patron-clientage can step into a vacuum formal governments are unable to fill. For example, in the 1980s, the government of Nigeria expelled tens of thousands of guest workers because the Nigerian oil boom had faltered. These workers were forced to return to poor neighboring countries that had no formal resources or infrastructure to cope with a vast influx of unemployed people seeking housing and food. To the surprise of West African governments and international relief agencies, there was no crisis. The reason was that these thousands of people were able to access immediate help from patrons in their local communities. Coming home, they reattached themselves to a patron-client system that provided them with lodging, food, and other resources.
Second, patron-client systems have proved to be remarkably stable. Their endurance over many thousands of years and in all regions of the world is proof that they can work. A key reason for their stability is that they offer rewards for the patrons at the top and benefits for the clients at the bottom. The elite gain prestige, authority, and economic dividends. Their client subordinates receive security, a direct and personal link to someone with power, and economic assistance in times of need. This relationship, which benefits both parties, is maintained mainly through a series of voluntary exchanges. The fact that all parties believe they profit from the arrangement accounts for the system’s persistence.
Third, patron-client systems are compatible with the customs of many traditional societies. Most traditional societies value hierarchy and respect. Elders, people with wealth, and individuals with power are elevated above ordinary people. The patron-client system affirms that hierarchical arrangement. In traditional societies, people at the bottom and people at the top are linked together through personalized relationships of reciprocity. Humble people offer support and deference, while more exalted people provide physical and economic security. The exchange is not abstract and impersonal. Rather, it is an exchange between people who consider themselves as friends. The patron-client system operates in that manner. Furthermore, in traditional society, people at the top can bend the rules or make exceptions to help those of lesser stature. People are treated as individuals. Rather than being controlled or limited by abstract budgets, uncaring bureaucracies, or inflexible laws, people in a patron-client system are part of a political structure that is responsive and relational. Individuals and groups within a patron-client network can turn to a person who has the wealth, standing, and power to assist them. People who retain many traditional values may prefer a political system featuring a strong and reliable patron. For them, such a patron seems to be the best protection against the disorientation of modernization, the uncertainties of the global economy, the capriciousness of the weather, and the insecurity and harshness of poverty.
Fourth, patron-client systems offer a type of accountability and service that many regard as effective. For one thing, the responsible person is always clearly identifiable and accessible. With a patron-client system, everyone knows who is in charge and who can provide help. When machine politics dominated big American cities, an out-of-work individual could go into an alderman’s office and be given cash on the spot. The alderman also might use his connections to find a job for the petitioner. In Chicago, during the Richard J. Daley (1902-1976) era, construction contracts (many of them directly funded by government) provided work for thousands of city residents. For other people without the skill or strength to build highways, bridges, or skyscrapers, state and local government offered them work as elevator operators, doormen, security personnel, clerks, receptionists, janitors, and park workers. As part of the patron-client exchange, these workers were expected to kick back part of their paychecks as “voluntary donations” to the party machine. This money was then used to finance the political campaigns of elected officials. Another American example was the William Marcy Tweed era (1823-1878). Boss Tweed, as he was known, gained power in the New York City Democratic party, controlling party nominations and party patronage. He became a state senator in 1868, which extended his influence into state politics. Votes were openly bought and other dishonest vote-getting methods were employed. Through the control of New York City expenditures that defrauded the city to the extent of at least $30 million, he and his main supporters profited extravagantly. While today we see such things as corruption, many ordinary people regarded the system as their most secure form of protection.
Give and Take
In a study of post-Perón Argentina, sociologist Javier Auyero looks at the patron-client system from the perspective of those at the bottom of the socio- economic ladder. Rather than seeing themselves as being exploited by the people at the top, they regard themselves as beneficiaries of a system that helps them solve problems, links them to resources, and provides them with security. Although Juan Perón died in 1974, his political party continues to have strong support among Argentina’s poor. Many political scientists denounce the Perónist party as an organization crassly seeking to buy votes through helping people gain access to government resources and services to which people should be entitled by virtue of being citizens. Critics say the Perónists take advantage of the government social services agencies that distribute free food to the poor. Because the Perónists (acting as patrons) control the locations where food is distributed, their impoverished clients consider the food as a gift from patrons. Because the government welfare bureaucracy is too complicated for most people to understand, the assistance provided by the local Perónist officials is seen as a generous favor. By monopolizing information and resources, these local political patrons who dispense knowledge or things to the people come to be regarded as protectors and saviors. While academic critics take a negative view of this arrangement, the poor people living in Argentina’s slums have a much different perspective of their patrons. To the poor, the patrons are friends who care about their welfare. The patrons are seen as people who listen to the people’s needs, who toil and sacrifice to help people meet those needs, and who are always available to assist. In the eyes of the poor, the patrons truly care about the people. Furthermore, the low-level local patrons have connections linking them to more powerful figures in the party or government. Normally, those people would be too busy or distant to be of any use to the very poor. But, through the efforts of local patrons (who are the clients of the more distant politicians), poor people can sometimes benefit from what goes on at the higher levels of society. Especially during election time, a low-level patron may be able to gain the ear of an important politician who might provide extra milk, field trips for poor school children, or even a government job.
Auyero also suggests that the local political patrons also see themselves as helpers, not as exploiters. They think of themselves as people with access to a larger network of individuals and organizations that have the resources to assist those at the very bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Without the help of the local patron, the poor would never be able to be connected to that assistance. The local patrons see themselves as channels and problem-solvers. They see nothing wrong with receiving favors in return for their services. From the poor, they gain respect and admiration, and from the people higher up in the system they get political promotions or a cut of the resources that are distributed to the poor. Local patrons who do a good job are able to build up a solid client base that enables them to mobilize supporters for political rallies and to deliver votes during elections. Such patrons may themselves be able to run for office and advance even higher in the system.
The fact that so many people in the modern world continue to cling to the patron-client system proves that it is a robust political arrangement. Highly educated leaders and citizens, people who are well informed about both democracy and authoritarianism, continue to choose patron-client systems over their supposedly more effective modern counterparts. People do not retain patron-client structures because they are unaware of alternatives. They keep the system because they believe it offers them more security and the greater rewards than other political systems.