The 5th Session of Liangxiang Forum | Poor People’s Politics: A 25 Year Retrospective

On the evening of May 27th, 2021, the fifth session of Liangxiang Forum organized by Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University (IIAS-THU) in Spring 2021 was held at Conference Room 205 of the Central Main Building, with the theme of “Poor People’s Politics: A 25 Year Retrospective”. The lecture was presented by Prof. Javier Auyero, the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor in Latin American Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and hosted by Yuan Mengqi, a doctorate candidate at IIAS. Other doctorate candidates and research professors at IIAS as well as external participants attended the event online and offline.

Prof. Auyero started the lecture by showing the place of his fieldwork back in 1996, a shantytown called “Villa Jardin” in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. Here he put forward his research question, that is, the real social problem of how the poor can survive in the context of extensive unemployment without the help of the state. He pointed out that 25 years ago, Argentina was negatively affected by neoliberal policies, resulting in severe unemployment and many making living in the informal economy. A lot of poor people had to rely on clientelism to survive. Even today, 25 years later, he found that the poor in Argentina still live under such clientelistic politics.

Prof. Auyero then explained the concept of “clientelism”, which refers to the exchange of goods or services provided by politicians for political support. For example, politicians distribute food to the public free of charge in order to obtain election support or provide welfare programs to the public in order to bring them into their sides. He also pointed out that the assumption that clientelism is a political product of the pre-industrial era and will gradually disappear with the development of western modernization is wrong. Clientelism still exists in new democracies, in Latin America, in post-communist Europe, in South and Southeast Asia, and in parts of Africa. This political phenomenon has not only remained, but also continued to grow and develop during the so-called left-wing government rule in Latin America.

Prof. Auyero explained that in his book Poor People’s Politics, he focuses on the micro-level of clientelism and the phenomenon of clientelism in daily life. He analyzed the internal interactions among clientelism providers, power brokers and clientelism receivers as well as the behaviors of the poor in obtaining food, medicine and other necessities of life, which is also the greatest concern of the poor. He pointed out that clientelism is interpreted as an exchange relationship in anthropology, and more as “buying votes” before elections in political science. Based on his participatory observation and in-depth interview with the above-mentioned shantytown, He found that the political brokers in Argentine are not only active in the pre-election or election period, but actually join the daily life of the poor, who provide them with job opportunities, clothing, food, medicines, materials for repairing houses, and even in some cases, illegal drugs. They are deeply involved in people’s day-to-day life, which is a pragmatic behavior or manner rather than a simple exchange relationship or election needs.

Finally, Prof. Auyero reviewed the efforts of power brokers in Argentine in maintaining community order, registering vaccination and distributing essential drugs in the context of current COVID-19 epidemic in Argentina. These brokers have closely combined their political nature with daily life, which is also the concrete manifestation of Argentine clientelism he wants to explain in the book.

After the lecture, Prof. Auyero had an active Q&A session with the audience and gave wonderful answers to a number of questions raised by the audience, including whether the convenience brought by Argentina’s emerging e-commerce economy to the lives of the poor will reduce the role of clientelism providers, whether clientelistic politics will damage the institutional development of democratic politics, and the poverty problems in Venezuela, Chile and other Latin American countries.

Javier Auyero is the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Professor in Latin American Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and Interim Director at LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, in addition to his previous role of Director of the Urban Ethnography Lab. He is the current series editor of the Global and Comparative Ethnography Series at Oxford University Press. His main areas of research, writing, and teaching are urban marginality, political ethnography, and collective violence. He is author of numerous books, including Poor People’s Politics: Peronist Survival Networks and the Legacy of Evita (Duke University Press, 2001), Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina (Duke University Press, 2012) and The Ambivalent State: Police-Criminal Collusion at the Urban Margins (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Text by: Wang Zijing
Typesetting by: Wang Zijing
Reviewed by: Yuan Mengqi & Xu Shuai