Many analyses of civil conflict like to refer to “neopatrimonialism” as explanation for collective violence, analyses of the Syrian conflict being no exception. Neopatrimonialism has not only been invoked for Syria but for every single African country that has experienced violent conflict and it has often been singled out as a causal factor, particularly in the literature that has linked civil war with state failure. And yet, there is no clear definition of what neopatrimonialism is nor by which mechanisms it creates violent conflict. There is some rather vague understanding that a neopatrimonial system is one based on close networks of power which control access to economic and political resources in a country. In some cases, neoopatrimonialism is used synomynous to nespotism, when kinship ties in government are denounced; in other cases, it is used as euphemism for mafia networks, indicating a criminal character of the economic activity that is at the origin of the network.
Most African and Asian countries are said to be neopatrimonial. In Africa particularly neopatrimonialism is the dominant form of politics, or so it is said since seminal works of anthropoligsts like Bedsloe or political scientists like Jeffrey Herbst and William Reno. According to them, politics in these countries are constructed on personal hierarchical ties and networks which are based on reciprocal obligation at the dispense of socialized, i.e. distant, legally based relations which Weber identified as characteristic of bureaucratized societies. It remains disputed up to which point and how this “traditional” form of governance was transformed by colonialism but Africanists like Patrick Chabal or political sociologists like Joel Migdal consistently argue that colonialism rather prevented the emergence of an administrative strong state and of a political culture of autonomous and powerful citizenship. It is the persistence and predominance of patron-client networks which seemingly structure African politics that makes the notion of neopatrimonialism so enduring.
Yet, as handy as the concept of neopatrimonialism appears, the nature of patron-client networks and of the politics these generate vary throughout the world as do the effects tehy have on conflict; hence, many Africanists, for instance here, dispute the utility of the concept altogether and prefer to differentiate various systems of hierarchical obligation and how they transform under economic, social and political pressures. Paul Richards and Jean-Pierre Chauveau demonstrate in their comparative analysis how different forms of neopatrimonialism in Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire has led to different forms of conflict. In Sierra Leone the commodification of dependent rural youth has led to the revolt of the RUF whereas in Cote d’Ivoire the same development has first disenfranchised youth to leave to the cities, and then, when these young people tried to reintegrate their village communities following the economic crisis, to a conflict with foreigners who had taken their places in village communities and agriculture upon the first wave of urban migration. Both authors agree with others that it is not patrimonialism per se that has created these explosive situations but its distortion and degeneration through various factors such as large-scale economic crises, migration, the intermeshing of new ideas and styles of social organization etc.
More importantly, patrimonialism is extremely difficult to nail down as an indicator of fragility, not only because of its vague definition but also because of the large variety of contradictory findings on the effects of patrimonial networks. A number of studies in economic sociology have argued that it is exactly neo-patrimonial structures of society that have allowed countries like Japan, Korean or China to shoulder the enormous burden of reconstructing a rapidly growing economy on the ruins of war and destruction, and that these same networks continue to assure the economic success of these countries. Contrary to the argument that neo-patrimonialism necessarily leads to violence because it is distorting resource allocation, many authors in area studies, anthropology, and comparative sociological economics argue that neo-patrimonial social structures can have stabilizing effects, facilitate communication and allocation of resources and enhance the efficiency of collective efforts by reducing coordination costs. The observation that a state-in-society form is neo-patrimonial does not in itself tell anything about the capacities of the state nor about the risks of civil wars.
All summed up, neopatrimonialism does not seem to be a very helpful concept to understand the political structures that are likely create situations of mass collective violence. In fact, it does not seem appropriate at all to capture a specific category of political structures. Its attractiveness is probably less due to its analytical sharpness than to its ideological contents. Neopatrimonialism is, from its resonance at least, clearly an opposite of liberalism and democracy which, both, per definition promote individual merit and perform on functional premises only, not on personalised networks and which both, are, of course, much more efficient than those other systems…that’s at last what convinced liberals argue, like a former British colleague who, in a public lecture, accused “guanxi” to be holding back Chinese economic development. That was in 2010, when the British economy had already started its deep dip-down and the China had become the second largest economy of the world. And that was just one hour after he had asked me in the uni corridor if I would not have a job for one of his friends’ sons ….