The past decade has witnessed a resurgence of patrimonial rule not only in the developing world but also, more surprisingly, in the developed West. This resurgence carries potentially dire consequences for responding to a range of pressing problems. Understanding the sources of contemporary patrimonialism is hindered by assimilating the phenomenon into the familiar democracy/autocracy typology or by assuming that it is a function of failed modernization.
This paper identifies the patrimonial phenomenon and explores the contemporary global diffusion of patrimonial rule from its origins in postcommunist Russia, which in the 1990s faced precisely the same social challenges—shrinking “blue collar” industries, sharply increasing economic inequality, and weak, unresponsive democratic institutions—that would bedevil developed countries around the world in the 21st century. From Russia, patrimonialism spread westward to the “near abroad,” the new EU member states, Israel, and ultimately to the erstwhile heartland of the rule of law: the UK and the US. Some signs indicate that reestablishing bureaucratic predictability and expertise may be much harder than demolishing it. In some respects, the task may be more daunting than the salvation of democracy itself.
Jeffrey Kopstein is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. In his research, Professor Kopstein focuses on interethnic violence, voting patterns of minority groups, and anti-liberal tendencies in civil society, paying special attention to cases within European and Russian Jewish history. These interests are central topics in his co-authored book, Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 2018) and his forthcoming edited volume: "Politics, Memory, Violence: The New Social Science of the Holocaust" (Cornell University Press 2023). His current book project is "The Good Deep State: How the Global Patrimonial Wave Endangers our Future."
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