Clientelism, Elections, and the Dialectic of Numerical People in Northeast Brazil
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This paper explores rural Brazilians’ interpretations of and ethical reflections on political clientelism. Brazilian elites often regard the people of the dry hinterland (sertanejos) as lazy, politically apathetic, and prone to corruptingdemocratic elections through the sale of their votes. Here I argue that the sertanejos living in the northeastern state of Piau런ractice a form of clientelism that entails an ethical distinction between degraded vote buying and morally upright electoral transactions with politicians. For the sertanejos of Piauí‘s interior, ethical electoral transactions do not corrupt democratic elections; they reverse the moral damage that elections themselves cause. Elections refigure socially embedded persons as numerical individuals destined to be added together as equal quanta of generic value. Ethical transactions reconstitute the voter’s socially embedded personhood after the election has passed. However, rather than vindicating clientelism, this analysis draws attention to the social inequalities that prevent some people from practicing the ethical forms of political exchange. It therefore builds toward a standpoint for critiquing political clientelism that does not reproduce liberal idealizations of democratic citizenship.