Social Movements and Patronage Politics: Processes of Demobilization and Dual Pressure


  • I would like to thank Javier Auyero, James Coverdill, Becca Hanson, Patricia Richards, David Smilde, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on previous versions of this article. I also benefitted from the suggestions of participants at several venues: the meeting of the Eastern Sociological Society in New York (especially Charlotte Ryan and Sebastián Guzmán), the Georgia Workshop on Culture, Power, and History at the University of Georgia, and the International Sociological Association Forum in Buenos Aires. I am grateful for the support of the Tinker Foundation, the Social Science Research Council (Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship), and the National Science Foundation (Award SES-0739217).


Why might social movements be highly contentious at one point in time and demobilize shortly after? Based on ethnographic fieldwork, this article examines the dynamics of demobilization of popular movements in a context of patronage politics. I argue that demobilization in these contexts results from relational processes creating a “dual pressure” stemming “from below” and “from above.” In social environments where patronage is pervasive, poor people develop survival strategies relying on clientelistic arrangements. They participate in a social movement organization (SMO) to voice their rights, but also to address pressing survival needs by gaining access to resources. These expectations of constituents create a pressure “from below” on leaders of an SMO, which respond by securing resources obtained through alliances with national political actors. In turn, these alliances create a pressure “from above,” because local leaders reciprocate this national support by eschewing the organization of collective actions. Drawing on data culled from 12 months of fieldwork on an Argentine peasant movement, this article inspects the interconnections between popular movements and patronage politics to refine our understanding of demobilization processes; contribute to discussions regarding the role of culture on contentious politics; and shed light on current demobilization trends in Latin America.