In 1830 everybody talked about patronage politics

A very cool device for any language-related curiosity you might have is Google’s Ngram viewer. Using Google’s enormous digitized collection of books, this website shows you the relative incidence of words in their corpus over the last 200 years. This is great because the Ngram viewer reminds us how our concerns and preoccupations change over time (try ‘communism’ or ‘human rights’). And it is great because it shows how we change our ways of talking about things (compare ‘radicalism’ and ‘terrorism’).

So, as I am a little preoccupied with finding better language to talk about informal politics, i thought i turn to the Ngram viewer to see how the usage of two very similar words, ‘patronage’ and ‘clientelism’, changes over time. I put ‘inequality’ in there for a comparative measure. The results are quite striking. Up until the 1970’s, the readers of Google’s books were more likely to find something about patronage then about inequality. Apparently the 1830’s were the heyday of writing about patronage. This was back when the resistance against patronage-appointments (‘jobs for the boys’, i.e. giving government jobs to your supporters) in the civil service in the US and the UK (and the rest of Western Europe) was gathering some steam. This eventually led to bureaucratic reform measures adopted in the late 19th century.

Since then, the usage of the word patronage declined, together with the relative incidence of patronage appointments in the west. Such appointments are still very common in the ‘global south’, but that is not really reflected here. The graph might illustrate a certain western bias in Google’s books: perhaps this graph only illustrates that western writers have become gradually less preoccupied with patronage.

But it might also be that the word ‘patronage’ is slowly being replaced by ‘clientelism’. The latter indeed is (very) slowly gaining some traction since the 1980’s, and you can see this reflected in – at least in my perception – the considerable number of academic publications now preferring to talk about clientelism. The two terms are often used interchangeably, although lately people are starting to differentiate the two. To some, clientelism refers to a relationship involving an exchange of personal favors for support, while patronage refers to the use of only state resources (jobs, government contracts, etcetera) to reward supports. In this sense patronage refers to a particular subset of clientelistic exchanges.

But definitions aside, why is the ‘clientelism’ gaining ground at the expense of ‘patronage’? An explanation might be that clientelism has become a more preferred term in the context of contemporary mass-democracies. Patronage in 19th century Europe was used to describe exchanges within a limited class of politicians, bureaucrats and a small group of voters. The widening of the electoral franchise has massified such exchanges. While patronage has come be associated with the practice of giving jobs to party supporters, clientelism refers to a broader range of practices, including vote buying, handing out presents, and promising public services to villages who provide the votes. This corresponds to definitions that Fukuyama has been proposing: he sees clientelism basically as ‘massified patronage’. He sees the phenomenon of political clientelism as closely associated with mass democracies. In that sense the word ‘clientelism’ is likely to climb some more in the graph above: as democratization in the ‘global south’ is, so far, not really curtailing these personal exchanges of support for favours, the term ‘clientelism’ might gradually gain in popularity.




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