Client-ship and Citizenship in Latin America

By Lucy Taylor

Read full article at Bulletin of Latin American Research

(…) Despite such critiques, many people in many ways are becoming more like citizens. They are more certain of their value as individuals in relation to others who are richer and more powerful, and they are better aware of their rights (because the struggle for democracy and the practice of democratisation has made them so) (Taylor, 2003). They are more likely to think in terms of rights, both because international organisations are promoting a discourse of rights, and because neo-liberalism sees the recourse to rights as being the chief protection mechanism for sovereign consumers. The biggest growth area in social organisation is consumer groups (closely followed by neighbourhood improvement schemes) and NGOs flourish in the privatised world of social policy (Jelin and Herschberg, 1996). Yet this trend towards a strengthening of citizenship has not resulted in the Latin American democracies, states and citizens becoming deeper, more coherent or more equal. Indeed, the key trend of the last 10 years has been the resurgence of populism and the return of the familiar political messiah. This seems to present a conundrum – how can people feel more like citizens but act more like clients?

Having considered the nature of the relationship between political leader and people, three key reasons why citizenship is failing strike me. Firstly, neo-liberalism has changed both abstract thinking and government policies regarding poverty. The concept of ‘privatisation’ is central to neo-liberal citizenship, whereby power (and indeed freedom) is equated with personal, individualised agency articulated through private, social and voluntary interactions (with friends, neighbours, charities for example) or through legal or economic transactions (exercising one’s civil rights or buying and selling in the market). Privatisation is a policy which seeks to shift tasks and power from the realm of the state into the ‘private’ realm of individual and market. Within this schema, both populist social justice and citizenship welfare rights are dismissed by the neo-liberal philosophy because their deliberate redistribution of wealth punishes those who (by dint of their talents) have accumulated wealth, as well as interfering with market forces. Social justice is misguided because it is determined by political considerations, not the market, and welfare rights are judged to be not rights at all because they require purposeful intervention, unlike negative rights (civil and political) which merely establish mechanisms. Of course, pure neo-liberalism has not been enacted in Latin America, but the consequences of freeing market forces and cutting public services have been impoverishment, unemployment, worse social indicators (malnutrition, infant deaths, disease) and insecurity. In tune with privatisation, NGOs – by definition private entities – have stepped into the social service breech but their assistance is based on specific projects which cover a certain time and place (Gideon, 1998). They do not contemplate universal coverage nor is their continuation guaranteed and so in no sense do they sustain social rights, despite their genuine commitment to improving people’s lives. Citizenship has changed dramatically, then, because it has lost welfare rights, a key component which sought to redress inequalities in the exercise of civil and political rights. With impoverishment and without welfare rights, people’s capacity to exercise their remaining rights has therefore been severely curbed.

Secondly, while it is undoubtedly preferable to operate under conditions of liberal democracy, the liberal historicist understanding of inequality, with its blindness to structures of discrimination and disdain, has been heightened by its more extreme characterisation as neo-liberalism. Public discourse sustains the myth of equal rights through recourse to privatisation which places responsiblity for social and class inequalities in the hands of the individual, in the private, social sphere and outside the realm of politics. Yet the ‘level playing field’ which exists on paper is distorted by the very uneven terrain of familiar assumptions about civilisation and degeneracy, about progress and backwardness, about rationality and perception, and about who should follow whom, who should adopt whose lifestyles, who is right and who must learn. The fact that this heightened inequality is part of lived experience also means that the sham of equal citizenship is similarly blatant and it makes a constant mockery of democratic ideals.

Thirdly, the primary vehicles of democratic political participation – parties – persist in maintaining intellectual hierarchies of disdain, whether they reflect biological or historicist explanations of inequality (Taylor, 2003). They continue to act as vanguards even though people have largely ceased to follow them and to take themselves, rather than citizens, very seriously. Parties generally discourage the kind of active participation which they achieved in the past by simultaneously misinterpreting, over-ruling and underestimating their potential supporters. There are some notable exceptions, including the Partido dos Trabalhadores in Brazil and the Partido por la Democracia in Chile, both of which have strong links to civil society and were formed during, not before, the transitions to democracy. Yet more generally, parties are no longer the sole means of political communication and action, and those people in society who wish to change the world or think new thoughts now join social organisations instead which often lead public debate and leave the parties to play catch-up behind. This leaves parties both outmoded and without the kind of internal dissent which challenges policy and holds dominant factions to account, which in turn undermines pluralism within these central
agencies of democratic life. The paradox is that despite their decreasing relevance to people’s lives and their lack of representativity, they continue to hold power in government and actually continue to wield immense power, despite globalisation. This presents a crisis of political citizenship because the official channels are both unresponsive and mistrusted, whilst the channels of civil society are ultimately very limited in their capacity to change macro-political projects such as structural adjustment or social policy.

One of the other reasons why conventional citizenship politics is in crisis is because such parties do not guarantee anything in return for the people’s vote – client-ship on the other hand, offers a great deal more and this perhaps explains why neo-populism has proved to be popular (for a time and in certain places). In particular, it proffers two comforts (familiarity and the hope of tangible improvement in one’s personal life) and one bonus (the possible pleasure of exercising a little power). Client-ship is one of the familiar pathways of Latin American political culture. It locks into a sense of belonging and identity which reaches deep into the struggles of daily life; it is about personalities and families, favours and favourites, admiration, emotion and a business deal (Auyero, 2001). As such, it treats people seriously and touches people’s emotional and material lives more closely and effectively than a more distanced, citizenship-style politics does. Secondly, support for a patronage-style party via its local representative increases the chance that some small improvement will occur in people’s lives – this, after all, is the nature of the political relationship which couples charisma with the votes-for-goods deal. Indeed, the poverty of structural adjustment and collapse of state services makes this mechanism even more vital as people seek protection in the ‘private’ world of NGOs, churches and political patronage (Gideon, 1998; Auyero, 2001). A party that does not operate patronage, in contrast, can more easily ignore its individual constituents because it gives no personal guarantees to citizens who have serious needs. Finally, just like citizenship, client-ship also appeals to people’s desire for agency because it encourages and even demands participation in the circus of mobilisations and fiestas that accompany elections. People recognise the limitations of the performance but they enjoy exercising their limited power and look forward to the possible rewards which this political ‘work’ might yield (Lazar, 2003). Political work in citizen-style politics is equally exciting, of course, but given that people are short on time and very short on money, only the most dedicated militantes will turn out to wave a flag in the plaza ‘for nothing’.

We should not rejoice in the flourishing of patronage politics and client-ship, though. Neo-populism is, of course, characterised by autocracy, corruption and violence. It cares little for the plight of the poor, merely throwing them scraps of hope – children’s milk, subsidised seeds, a clinic here, some school chairs there. It tramples over rights, ignores representation and makes arbitrary decisions, and it allows favoured cronies to become very rich by privatising and syphoning off what little the impoverished state has (O’Donnell, 1994). Neo-populism and its attendant client-ship is not a solution to problems of representation, participation and accountability, but for many people it appears to be a better short term strategy than voting for a ‘conventional’ politician who seems neither to understand nor to respect them but who performs a disingenuous pantomime six months before the election.

Unless and until citizenship can provide meaningful participation it will continue to be over-shadowed by client-ship, because the fact that inequality is built-into the patron/client relationship matters little in a social world where the equality of citizenship is a laughable myth.

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