Saturday, October 30, 2004

Neopatrimonialism in America

What Karl Rove could not do, Osama bin Laden has done: he has thrown the election decisively to Bush.

Bush's posture as the tough guy who can protect America is the perfect judo tactic, using his opponents' weight to throw them. Every cock-up in the "war against terror" turns to his advantage: the worse things go (as a consequence of his incompetence) the more firmly the American people are convinced that they need a Strong Leader who will stay the course. I suppose the Kerry team is afraid to point this out to voters because they assume that most are too dumb to get it. Maybe they're right.

If they are, then it's unlikely that the disasters in store for the next four years will change their minds. If Iraq collapses into full-blown civil war, that will be all the more reason to support our Strong Leader; if Iraq is stabilized then the administration will claim that it was because we stayed the course. If working class Americans suffer economically they will be all the more convinced that they need more "tax relief" and can't afford to elect Democrats who, they believe, will sock them with more taxes and so further undermine their economic position; if they get a few scraps they will bless Bush for his largesse.

The forthcoming Republican victory will establish Neopatrimonialism in the US for the forseeable future. Under Neopatrimonialism--the Big Man patronage system--peasants support their patron, a Strong Leader, who in return protects their tribe and feeds them scraps. Big Men for their part stir up ethnic rivalries and tribal clashes to keep them afraid so that they will seek the protection of Strong Leaders and keeps the peasants poor and ignorant so that they will bless him for every miserable scrap they get.

Once Neopatrimonialism is established, even free, fair elections do no good because the peasants support it: their lives are lousy and, they reason, without their Big Man's patronage they will be even poorer than they are and vulnerable to attack. Apart from Mandala, anti-colonialist leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa set up as Big Men, established Neopatrimonialist systems that trashed their countries and, even within nominally democratic systems, stayed in power because the small, educated urban elites who opposed them could not muster enough votes to get them out.

That is the future of America. The lower classes will become poorer, more ignorant and more attached to Big Men who feed them scraps and promise to keep them safe from hostile tribes. If they become restless, Republican Big Men, like African dictators, will play the anti-colonialist card, cementing their alliance with the peasantry by denouncing the colonial powers of Old Europe and their collaborators at home--the educated, liberal, cosmopolitan upper middle class.

The US is anomalous amongst developed countries in having a conservative working class but the phenomenon isn't that surprising put in a wider context. When people distrust the government and rule of law they become attached to patronage systems. In Sub-Saharan Africa, colonial powers reinforced the patronage system by sub-contracting administrative tasks to local Big Men. In the US, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and 30 years of conservative propaganda about the dangers of big government, high taxes and effete snobs out to undermine family values and the American way of life, have done the job.


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